With so many transmedia spin-offs, how does the main Deus Ex game play?
"There’s a lot going on for the Deus Ex team. All of which will really hinge on whether promises of more meaningful choices - for the story and gameplay - are delivered on after five years."
Transhumanism is about as new a concept as bad-ass robot cyborgs, it just has a few added moral concerns. I suppose that’s how things evolve - we imagine the best case, then start worrying about how things like ‘humanity’ and ‘society’, and ‘games’ will fit into it.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (MD) has taken this shoehorning of morality into bad-ass cyborgs to the logical extreme. It asks (through a syrupy live-action teaser thing) at what point do ‘normal’ humans get a bit skittish around their augmented counterparts. Well, it’s when they all get hacked (by whom or for what reason isn’t important, apparently) and flip out. Then, the fleshy half of society rounds up their counterparts and boom - mechanical apartheid.
“The underlying theme of everything is transhumanism. Using that as a starting point, everything we build in-universe is a subset of that, always asking - what can we learn, how can we take it further?” says Mary DeMarle, executive narrative designer at Eidos. However, despite two in-universe years having passed between Deus Ex: Human Revolution (HR) and MD, five have passed IRL - so is there a danger of the tech of Adam Jensen’s world feeling weirdly retro-future-retro?
“When we worked on Deus Ex: Human Revolution we did so much research into where technology is going. By the time it came out we started to see the things we predicted happening - team members were sending around all these new articles saying “we were right, we were right!” Pushing the tech for MD wasn’t a priority - it was more, 'let’s add new abilities, can we add other scientific themes, can we bring it all into the story line?'”
Speaking of the story, there’s something more important to it than shiny new post-human arms: “The whole franchise is based on choice and consequence - meaningful choices.”
Based on the two levels I went hands on with, it was difficult to tell how true that will ring. The first mission that doubles as an optional tutorial (you’re prompted at points whether you’d like pointers or to just crack on) was fairly unassuming. Jensen was tasked with sneaking through a half built/abandoned Dubai hotel to take out a few targets as part of a crack NATO team. I snuck through vents and took down some bad guys - when my battery allowed it, and in a pre-scripted animation that needed two seconds of cut-to-black to queue up. It all felt a bit last gen.
The other level we played, set in a pro-augmentation group’s HQ was more promising and diverse. Jensen had upgraded tools, including a multi-target, lock-on stun-dart upgrade for his arm and concussive blasts. The heavily guarded environment was dense with detail and verticality. We were also shown a hands-off demo of a more open-world segment on the streets of a heavily segregated Prague, that hinted at greater flexibility than HR’s cities. Aside from choosing a vent or a front door though, it was really difficult to tell from any of it what significant impact player choice could have on the story or missions.
“We wanted to push [choice] further this time,” DeMarle assured me. “We had moments before in which something on a critical path - as with hostage situation [early on in HR), how you dealt with leader, might end up coming back somehow, but it didn’t affect the critical path. This time we wanted to allow more branching - decisions you make early on could close later paths completely, or open new missions. Sometimes as a player you want a good idea of where something is going to head, but we also want to be able to surprise you.”
Nowhere, apparently, is this new approach more visible than in MD’s approach to side-missions. They were few and far between in the previous game, often consigned to simple requests from forgettable NPCs. We saw a glimpse of the system in the hands-off demo, where a guard implied they could be bribed, but Jensen decided to take a cheaper, sneakier route to his objective. “We’re leaving it up to player as to how involved they want to get with the quest - so you could have one that’s a ten minute experience that’s satisfying, or if you go a different route, you might discover there’s more to it, that leads you into other areas that introduce new characters to you.” It sounds like a good balance, allowing dedicated players to ferret out more backstory.
The same goes for the environmental storytelling. It’s a much maligned phrase these days (aka the ‘skeleton and note scrawled on the wall’ syndrome) but done well it can add a lot of colour. In the hands-off demo, Jensen skirted around, up and over some police through an open window, finding a body on the floor. “We have people devoted to it now,” DeMarle says, “with Human Revolution you could go into a few apartments but they were bland. Now, the apartments tell stories, you get a sense that real people live here. There are stories that are just within the world itself - interconnected stuff, maybe a story you’ll never find, or a piece of that connects to another area. The new tech has allowed that as we’ve been able to put so much more detail into the environments.”
"Arcade mode Breach is an agonisingly clichéd cyberspace fever-dream based around the worst part of Deus Ex."
One thing Deus Ex fans will most definitely have choice over is in which form to get their fix. That’s because Mankind Divided will be accompanied by Deus Ex GO on mobiles, a graphic novel/comics series, a novel, some VR environments/rooms to look around, a time-attack, low-poly arcade style mode called Breach, a surprisingly natty line of clothes and a mechanical backscratcher. Only one of those is an exaggeration. “The transmedia for me is all about the story, the gameplay and branching out - and how we can fuse those together. Ultimately we’re setting up for going all the way to 2052 [in-game timeline] and beyond.”
Each of the supporting elements take a thread from the main story and runs with it: the comics (in collaboration with Titan) tell of Jensen’s early missions with NATO, the novel helps bridge the timeline between games, the clothes line bridges the gap between Shoreditch art student and Camden Cyberdog employee. The GO series, popularised by Hitman and continued by Tomb Raider, is a weirdly effective format that I’d be quite happy to see every single franchise adapted into. Or replaced by. Deus Ex GO incorporates a few of Jensen’s abilities and bases plenty of puzzles around hacking and turrets, and the five levels I played were really enjoyable. Breach doesn’t fare as well. It felt like an agonisingly clichéd cyberspace fever-dream based around the worst part of Deus, i.e going in guns blazing. It does tie into the main game though at least, sharing rewards and other angles to the plot.
“We wanted to create a story that interesting, self-contained, and that lays the groundwork for what’s coming.” DeMarle continues. There’s a lot going on for the Deus team. All of “what’s coming”, main game or otherwise, will really hinge on whether promises of more meaningful choices - for the story and gameplay - are delivered on after five years and on a new console. Let’s hope that what we didn’t get to play - the branching storylines, dialogue, etc - is the trump card held back in the sleeve of that really wonderful, wearable jacket.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is due for release August 23.