Friday, August 4, 2017

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Similarly to Eidos Montreal's previous game, Thief (2014), was Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, too, accompanied by little controversies. While critics' consensus of the game seems to have been quite positive, players' opinions are far more mixed as is apparent from the Steam user review score. I reckon the big reason for that is how egregious many people find the ways the publisher, Square Enix, has tried to make more money off the game.

Deus Ex: Content Divided

Their 'Augment Your Pre-Order' promotion received such a backlash that they had to tune it down to standard pre-order bonuses. And some months post release, the pre-order content was bundled together with the base game.

Square Enix also thought it would be a good idea to continue including a real money micro transaction system in the franchise -- this time in a mainline title. I believe I read the developers claiming the store is completely optional but you just cannot ever be certain. After playing through the game however, I can say that you might not even notice it is a thing unless you specifically try to find the button to buy stuff from.

One big problem with the store, in addition to its mere existence, is that the praxis kits and credits bought from it -- and the consumables included in the Assault and Tactical Packs DLC -- can be claimed only once. They are not added to your inventory at the start of your every playthrough or something similar. To work around this, you need to start a new game on the difficulty setting you see yourself playing, add all the single-use items into your inventory, make a save, and then start all your playthroughs from that save.

Like Thief, DXMD also got a big voice actor change. Luckily it was not the protagonist -- Elias Toufexis returned to give Adam Jensen his rather unique voice, which at random times sounded bit too much like Toufexis's jovial self instead of grumpy Jensen. Maybe he had trouble getting back into the role after all these years?

Anyway, the character who got to sound different in this game is David Sarif -- Jensen's ex-boss. Why Stephen Shellen did not reprise his role is unclear. He was available according to him but was not rehired. Whatever the actual, undisclosed reason, I found the lack of Shellen disappointing. He and his character had been so great in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The new voice actor just does not have the charm.

Lukewarm story

To me it felt like MD started in media res, in the middle of things. HR ended with Jensen pushing a button in Panchaea and now he is suddenly an employee of an agency called Task Force 29, about to drop from a VTOL into Dubai to catch a weapon smuggler. What happened between the games? And after the tutorial-prologue mission you find out that Jensen is sort of undercover too, working with a woman called Alex Vega of Juggernaut Collective. To find out who is pulling the strings of the world and stop some terrorist attacks while at it, I guess?

The main plot is indubitably one of the weakest parts of MD. There is no personal involvement like HR had with Megan Reed. With the character cast being almost completely new (and not as strong), the story does not feel very connected to the previous game either. Sarif is only in a little side quest that explains how Jensen got his new augments and Pritchard appears just in the System Rift DLC mission. Vega was apparently in Deus Ex: The Fall but her appearance was drastically different. I probably would not have recalled her even if she had looked the same, though.

I think Eidos struggled to fit a story in the time period leading to Deus Ex. I would say there still was a fairly clear arc and a conclusion that was not abrupt yet left room for a sequel. I suppose what made some people upset is how you never get to the actual bad guys behind the scenes -- Viktor Marchenko, the final boss, is merely a minion in the grand scheme of things. Like if Human Revolution had ended after the Namir fight in Singapore and you had never gotten to confront Darrow, Zhao, and everyone else in Panchaea.

I presume the puppet masters will be met in the next game -- if there will ever be one, that is. Jensen also wants to meet the hacker known as Janus. Who will then turn out to be the Daedalus AI. Or am I completely misremembering things from DX1?

In addition to the shortcomings of the plot, writing in dialogues is often boring. HR had the same issue but I feel in MD I more often could have continued playing the game without ever having clicked some extra dialogue option.

It is not all bad -- I think the crazy cat lady neighbor thing turned out pretty interesting, for instance. And verbal debates against important NPCs are again all really neat. Lip-syncing could have used some improvement though, even if the out-of-sync animations did stop bothering me after a while.

I do not recall if HR had a similar problem. If it did not, engine change might have been the cause for it. Mankind Divided runs on Dawn Engine, which is based on Glacier 2 used in another Square Enix title, Hitman: Absolution.

Improved looks

The new engine is definitely more demanding than the Crystal Engine used in HR. I could not run the game at maximum settings and even after lowering them slightly to get 60 FPS, busier places still caused frame drops. I recall PC optimization was one of the topics of discussion closer to the release.

The DirectX 12 version had better performance for me but it appeared to have issues with NPC textures occasionally stretching into infinity, and so I downgraded to 11. Apparently disabling cloth physics will solve that issues, as I learned after I had beaten the game.

Loading times are also pretty painful. Especially first-time load into a map will take a while. But at least consecutive loads into the same map are shorter. Of course, they could also be faster for a stealth perfectionist like me who likes to constantly utilize quicksaves and -loads. I wonder if Denuvo DRM has something to do with it. It seems every game with it I have played spends an awful lot of time in loading screens.

Regardless, Mankind Divided does look good. Environments are detailed and grainy skyboxes are not too common. The yellow filter is gone too but I miss the clear outlines from interactive objects. MD's white outlines are much subtler and I felt that, unlike in HR, the Smart Vision augmentation was a must-have to not miss stuff. Using it so much reminded me of Thief's focus mode, although Jensen's Smart Vision is unfortunately not usable when out of energy.

Controlled exploration

I got Thief flashbacks also during the third Prague visit when hostile police patrols guard the streets. It got really tiresome to navigate around the city to complete main and side missions without alerting them. But this engine definitely would have been a better fit for Thief. There are no annoying, "seamless" loading screens in MD when entering apartments and whatnots.

There is a lot to explore but I do not like how the game rewards you more if you do the exploring after you have been told to go somewhere. Many side missions start from a point of interest given to you by someone or something but you can also stumble upon them on your own. However, doing so will not reward you the experience from visiting the POI.

This is definitely a change to worse from HR. Even right at the start of the first Prague visit you can find a drug lab in the sewers beneath Jensen's apartment building and clear it out. But doing so will skip many steps in that mission and miss you out on a lot of exp.

Prague's two maps are quite extensive but I -- and many others -- would have probably been fine with a smaller city hub if there had been another one. Not only does MD have only one hub, it also does less globetrotting than what you would expect from a full-size Deus Ex game.

Familiar stealth action

But at least the gameplay is as good as in HR. It is largely the same but with a handful of little changes. I found some of them unnecessary like dashing from cover and enemy detection chevrons.

Enemies seem to sometimes notice things that are off -- like an open vent grate -- and go into search mode. They are not yet on the level of Dishonored or Styx: Master of Shadows, though. At least Eidos bothered making some of them female.

Special cover takedowns were very welcome, however. In addition putting you back in the cover, the target's body gets also pulled behind it. In tight places the body often clips into a wall, though, which is risky if you do not want the enemy to die from physics. Couple times I had a taken-down body bounce so hard after the cutscene ended that a non-lethal attack turned into a lethal one.

The new Icarus Dash augmentation works like Garrett's Swoop and upgraded it becomes like Corvo's Blink. It is unfortunately clunkier as the jump feature requires you to hold down a button to charge it. You will not get as fast paced action with it like in Dishonored. I did, however, like how in one mission you get to skip the whole level with it if you so desire.

The hacking mini-game returned expanded as well. They added hidden alarms between nodes, fogged hacks, new software, etc. Even with maxed hacking, I found the mini-game considerably harder this time around. You cannot get below 15% detection chance for a node again either so you sometimes end up screwing even the easiest of hacks.

And for some reason they added a small 5 exp reward for succeeding on first attempt. That just encourages quick-loading. They really have a problem with the experience system in general. Using a password you have found now grants experience -- which is good -- but there seems to be no logic how much. Sometimes you get nearly 300 and sometimes just 25 so you might still want to hack the system if you want the maximum reward. New Remote Hacking augmentation adds another, similar to BioShock 2's mini-game that also gives exp. A power-gamer will spend a considerable amount of time hacking all the car alarms, window shutters, televisions, radios, lasers alarms, and expandable ladders.

The old Looking Glass Studios door code, 0451, that appears in the games of the company's ex-developers is always a cool throwback but I think they went bit too far with it in MD. It is the passcode for the first door in the game, there is some mysterious Flight 451 story, and it is the number of the facility Jensen woke up after Panchaea. Way to put too much meaning into some random number, though I guess it fits the conspiracy theme.

More support for blazing guns approach

Ghost reward got dropped from 500 to 200 exp, and different types of kills give experience to make straight up combat as viable option as stealth. Some of the new augmentations, like all attacks momentarily blocking Titan Shield, also make running and gunning easier than in HR.

At first I was going to go through the game without a particular playstyle. Non-lethal takedowns and staying undetected still seemed to grant the most experience, however, and I ended up in a pacifist ghost run. Checking every square inch of the maps and being a stealth perfectionist, it took me 63 hours to beat the main game. For my efforts I was rewarded with Pacifist and Foxiest of the Hounds achievements popping up at the end of the game.

Taking the non-lethal route of course made me miss out on many guns. I guess I need to do another playthrough. But I did carry a fully upgraded pistol through the game to occasionally have a little bit of fun before reloading after something went bonkers. It is refreshing to have a shooter without bullet-spongy enemies.

I liked that there was a kill switch for the final boss fight, just like in Deus Ex for Gunther Hermann and Anna Navarre. Eidos had learned at least something since Human Revolution. The kill switch was very well hidden too. Even with Smart Vision I almost missed it.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is one of those games I would consider unlocking all achievements for. It might not happen this time, however, as quite a few of the achievements are tied to the alternative game mode. Breach (also released as a standalone title on Steam) features the "virtual reality hacking" from the main game. The gameplay is similar first person stealth action but more arcadey -- you collect data nodes and then try to get out as quickly as possible. It is like the Dunwall City Trials DLC in Dishonored. It feels pointless. Who asked for it?

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