Deus Ex: Human Revolution was one of my favourite games of the past decade, a combination of stealth, adventuring and some incredible art design. Yet when its sequel Deus Ex: Mankind Divided hit five years later, I only spent a few hours with it before writing it off and getting on with my life.
And it wasn’t just me. I get the impression among the masses that this game has simply been forgotten, Jensen’s second outing seen as a disappointing sequel to a more revered original, and thus written off entirely. Nobody seems to ever talk about it.
At the time, I guess I had reasons to give up on it? I’ll try and dredge some of them up below, but really, I’m not here to go over my mistakes, I’m here today to say I’m sorry.
I remember only the vaguest outlines of my indifference. I thought the setup, where my role had gone from shady half-robot corporate security guard (very cyberpunk!) to Interpol cop (no thank you) was dumb. The opening level in a ruined Dubai resort was dull. Prague was a poor man’s City 17. I recall getting halfway through breaking into a bank and just walking away from the game, seemingly never to return.
Time heals all wounds, though, and my reacquaintance with Deus Ex came at the expense of Cyberpunk 2077, which hadn’t just put me off with its technical hiccups and dull AI; as someone who was keen to get lost in its world it had let me down most with its theme park vision of the genre. I’d been so excited for it, then so let down that one afternoon just after Christmas I found myself scrolling through my Steam library, looking for something to fill the void.
If Cyberpunk 2077 wasn’t going to scratch my cyberpunk itch, then damn it, something else was.
It didn’t take long before I landed on Deus Ex. I had fond memories of the first game, and a nagging sense that I maybe hadn’t given this one a fair chance since I’d bailed on it so quickly, so with a cyberpunk-shaped hole in my heart, I decided to reinstall it. I’ve been chipping away at it in my spare time ever since.
I realise the game has problems! Some that I knew about back in 2016, others that have appeared (or grown worse) since. I think Adam Jensen sucks, looking and sounding increasingly like someone who would tweet directly at Elon Musk and talk to dates about cryptocurrency. The game’s casserole of conspiracy theories, police brutality and media monopolies is very under-baked, and its attempts to draw parallels between the augmented humans of the future and marginalised people today were bad even at the time, and just very bad now.
The entire experience, especially the story holding your international adventures together, felt cobbled together from makeshift parts and ideas. Human Revolution had such a clear vision and took a very direct path to get there. Mankind Divided — maybe because of developmental pressures, maybe because it’s the second game in a planned trilogy — has no such clarity.
And yet, second time around, there’s still a lot to love here, loads of stuff that I just straight up missed in 2016 or simply failed to appreciate at the time. For starters, now that I’ve got a PC that can run the game at 4K and full settings, it looks fantastic. Partly for technical reasons, sure, but also because the art design here still looks incredible, with the architecture and police outfits worthy of particular praise. Even five years after release, this still looks like a game that could come out today and look new.
I’ve also done a complete 180 on Prague as well. It’s not a City 17 clone at all. Rather, it’s a fantastic depiction of a “realistic” cyberpunk setting, one that looks truly lived in, a place where the 19th century meets the 21st, an architectural embodiment of the game’s conflict between space-age metal legs and ancient human bones.
Another thing I appreciate is actually something Kirk was mildly critical of in his original review, when he felt that Jensen was massively overpowered, and that the only way to play through the game non-violently was to make your own restraints. That’s fine! I really like the fact I can sneak around to my heart’s content, and then when my heart has had enough, just tranquilize an entire level of bad guys. The best sandbox stealth games should leave that kind of freestyling up to me.
Speaking of the best sandbox stealth games, my recent obsession with Hitman has also brought me around to enjoying Deus Ex’s sneaking more than I did originally. I remember being very aggressive in my Human Revolution playthrough, shooting first then asking questions about my shooting later with more shooting. Now in 2021 (distressingly close to the game’s 2029 setting) I’m really digging the amount of tricks I have at my disposal, some of which I could only dream of in Hitman, while I’m also having a blast with stuff like the balancing act of juggling Jensen’s new OP powers at the expense of having to shut down other ones to be able to use them.
Oh, and hello to Jensen’s very expensive-looking Acronym jacket too, worn years before Death Stranding went and made things a little more obvious.
I haven’t finished the game yet, but I’ve heard from people that it doesn’t really end, seeing as it was supposed to be the second part in a trilogy we’ll likely never see concluded after publishers Square Enix set unrealistic sales targets for this game then put the series into storage. That sucks! This vision of the future, this wonderful stealth sandbox deserved so much more, a chance for Jensen to end his story and give us all one more play in his wonderful stealth sandbox.
Human Revolution was so good that we judged this game in its shadow. Weird how Cyberpunk, an almost completely unrelated game, helped me realise that a little shade can be fine.