Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is one of the major titles coming this summer, and Square Enix showed off another preview of the game to mark the progress it has made since this spring. I got a good look at the early levels of the game, which now have more cinematic elements that add more emotion and context to the story.
The story is what will carry this action-stealth role-playing game. The game takes place in 2029, two years after the events of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which closed with an “aug” incident where augmented human beings lost control and attacked and killed millions of people. Now there’s a state of “mechanical apartheid,” where augmented humans are discriminated against. It is a tale that will remind you of other sci-fi media, such as the Blade Runner film; the I, Robot novels; and the Battlestar Galactica reboot.
This game features the return of augmented hero Adam Jensen, in the aftermath of the “aug incident.” The ugly aftermath of that event reminds me of the parallels to politics in the world today, such as the racism in the U.S. presidential campaign and terror incidents around the world. I replayed the Dubai tutorial mission that kicks off the game and went right into an expanded version of the Prague mission hub. In that part of the game, playing as Jensen, I had a lot more choices about how to break into a besieged bookstore and rescue the “aug” repair expert.
After the play session, I talked to Olivier Proulx, producer at Eidos Montreal, about the different styles of gameplay. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What are you looking to convey in your preview of the campaign with this latest build?
Olivier Proulx: With this one, you can go into the Prague hub. That’s where you find a lot of the social aspects of the game. You can talk to a lot of people. The previous demo was very infiltration focused — get to that objective in Dubai, either with combat or stealth. This one, you have the narrative and the social end coming through. That’s the big part of the Deus Ex experience. As well as the exploration aspects — the multi-pathing, the big city hub, finding the side missions, reading emails, getting a bit more of the narrative. Now you have the complete experience in front of you. Plus, we have Breach available. It’s the full package.
GamesBeat: I wasn’t sure how to interpret the end of the Dubai mission, where you have to go into action there. You can’t end that mission in a stealthy way or can you?
Proulx: You can. You can also trade. That’s one part of the game where it’s a bit trickier if you’re a stealth player. But we have those peaks and valleys in terms of challenge. We want to make sure that if you’re a combat player, some maps will be a bit easier for you, and some will be more difficult. Same thing for stealth. In that way, we can balance the game. For a player that has a more mixed style, it flows really well.
Using Dubai as an example, when you get to the end, it’s pretty intense, but if you want to be persistent and get that ghost playthrough, it’s definitely feasible.
GamesBeat: I accidentally turned more stealthy at the end, I think. I was covered by the sandstorm, so I could just walk up to the helicopter.
Proulx: That can happen. Maybe if you play a second time, different things will trigger. It’s a very systemic game. We want to make sure it’s not a scripted event at the end.
GamesBeat: So there isn’t really a bottleneck point where you have to do one thing or another?
Proulx: No, never. … We were asked tons of times about the boss fight aspect of Human Revolution. That was the main criticism. If I’m a stealth player, I struggle there. I’m funneled into playing aggressively when I don’t want to do that. Now everything in the game can be approached with your own play style. Some areas are more challenging than others, depending on how you play, but everything is there to be played consistently with your personal style and augmentations and so on.
GamesBeat: I sat through the long introduction as well, the cinematic recap. It seems like that’s for people who didn’t play the previous game.
Proulx: Even if you played, it’s been five years now. It was a dense game, a lot of characters. It was important for us to put that out there and give people a refresher if they want to get into the story a bit more.
GamesBeat: I’m halfway through the book store now. Is there another level beyond the one I’m at?
Proulx: You’re in Prague. Once you’ve done that mission, you’ll be able to unlock your augmentations and customize Adam. Then, you have another main mission to go meet your boss, Jim Miller. From there, you’ll do a few things. … That’s the main path. Along the way, if you explore, you can find a lot. There are lots of side missions and options for unlocking some secrets and loot and all these other things in the game. You’re into the core aspects of the game now.
GamesBeat: During the action parts, what would you say is more tuned or different now compared to the previous game?
Proulx: The combat aspect in general. You have more augmentations for the player to trigger. We have passive augmentations and aggressive augmentations you can use. Even if you play stealth, you can be more predatory. You have takedown options. You have elements on your arm that you can use. It’s much more involving. It flows very smoothly with your weapons.
Some augmentations we design such that they’re primarily aggressive or not, but you can also use them in another way. The cloak is a good example. It’s a pretty stealthy augmentation, but you can use it in combat for flanking. We try to make the augmentations systemic.
The combat aspect, though, the action aspect is taken up a notch. Jensen is a much more fluid character to control now. The cover system used to be pretty basic. In Human Revolution, you could only move side to side. Now you can move forward in the environment, move from cover to cover, go over cover. It changes the whole dynamic in combat.
If you play with the Mankind Divided control scheme, it’s been thought through to enable a lot of new things. Moving, using weapons. … It’s very dynamic, very visceral.
GamesBeat: The energy — how do you look at that and how it affects gameplay? I noticed that I have to manage it closely. If I take one guy out with a takedown, I lose a lot of energy and have to wait for that to come back.
Proulx: Definitely. It’s a balance. We tried to make the system a bit more forgiving to the player compared to what we had in Human Revolution, the battery aspect. Now it’s a much more consistent line. The takedowns are going to be a bit aggressive with your energy supply. If you do a lot of takedowns, you can’t stay cloaked all the time.
GamesBeat: You’d be invincible if you could take down everybody like that all the time.
Proulx: Exactly. When we put the features together one by one, they were all pretty powerful. We had to nerf a lot of things as we were designing and testing and looking at the different metrics in the game. Right now, we’re in a place where it’s pretty well balanced. You feel powerful, but you still have to play and manage and think about your choices and consequences.
GamesBeat: I’m noticing a few more cinematics in this build than in the pre-E3 versions. I don’t remember the kid in the train station.
Proulx: That’s new, I think, that you’re seeing today. In the E3 2015 demo, we had the walk and talk, but we cut right before the kid cutscene. That’s something new.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about adding things like that? It’s more emotional. You remember why this is so draining.
Proulx: It puts things more in context. Sometimes, the player has to think, “OK, I did a challenge. Now I’m going to step back a bit and absorb what’s happening.” It’s a good storytelling method. Our narrative comes through the environment, the things you read, the conversations, but the cutscenes are part of it as well.
Once you get past this point, you wake up in Adam’s apartment. It’s a slower moment. But we want to make sure the player gets to know the character a bit better. We have some small cutscenes where he’s going to the shower and watching TV. They’re optional scenes, but if you want to explore, you get to meet the character a bit. You can read his emails. If you want skip past it straight to the action, you can do that, but a lot of Deus Ex players are really into the RPG and character-building aspects. It’s a good addition.
GamesBeat: Collecting things is another opportunity in those slow moments.
Proulx: For sure. We added the crafting mechanic. It’s simple, but it’s driven by — you can find parts hidden in different apartments and places like that. They reward exploration. When you have those elements, you can improve your weapons or build bio-cells to manage your energy. There’s a lot of things to do with the crafting pieces. It helps you build a better character. It’s another aspect of rewards we’re adding.
GamesBeat: It seems like a lot of changes are geared toward just engaging the player more. Having them play longer or replay multiple times.
Proulx: Absolutely. There’s a lot of replay value, a lot of exploration. We often have fans telling us that they finished Human Revolution seven times or something like that. It’s great to hear. People compare their stories. Now people go on Twitch and YouTube and do “let’s play” videos. It’s great to see people all showing their own experiences. It puts the game out there with all its complexity. We’ve tried to embrace that.
For us, this is an action-RPG. It has to be a solid RPG. That’s what makes developing a game like this complicated. It has to be a solid RPG. It has to be a good stealth game. It has to be a good action game. It has to have a strong narrative. There’s a bit of everything. As a producer, sometimes it’s a bit scary. Our job is to make sure everything gets done on time and on budget, and that’s tough. Sometimes, we have to make hard choices. But that’s the beauty of the franchise, this balance of mixing everything so well together.
GamesBeat: If you go back in your development history, what’s been the hardest part? Mankind Divided has taken a while.
Proulx: The early part of production was very challenging, building the engine and the tool set. That whole technical aspect isn’t super sexy when you’re talking about it, but that’s what allows the rest of the team to do their work. It’s like building a house. If you don’t have a shovel, you’re not ready.
As far as things you can directly experience, we mentioned the cover system earlier. It’s very complex as far as applying the level design and mechanics of it, how it feels with the controller, and all the animations that need to be developed for Adam. It was a while before it started to feel good, and it completely changed the experience.
The choices and consequences are always challenging. The narrative has to keep track of everything. Suddenly, we’ll need to change something because if you find this bit of information at a certain time, it’ll affect that part of the story later on. There’s this huge Excel file our narrative director has. We call it the Tree of Life. It’s all the possibilities.
GamesBeat: Can you talk more about the open-ended versus open-world distinction, and the way the story ends?
Proulx: The story is what it is. We have some strong beats. The player has a lot of agency as far as what can be said in those beats. But the ending is very organic. We have different things that can happen at the end. It depends on what you choose at the very end of the game, but what you build up as you go through the whole adventure will also be tallied. You can have different objects that may or may not help you at the end. We have many endings, but you’re not in a situation where you just choose A, B, or C. That was one of the big aspects of development.
We didn’t want to go fully open world. There are games out there that do open worlds very well, but it was important to us that our world was very dense. That’s not always possible with an open world. In Prague, you can go into any apartment, and it’s going to tell you a different story. It’s hand-crafted in every detail. We put a lot of love and energy into that.
Walking around the city, it’s not like there’s a big crowd system with hundreds of characters. We might have fewer characters, but every one you can go up and have at least a short conversation with them, where they talk back to you. There are always little snippets of story and world building in there. Other games do other stuff, but that’s the flavor we wanted to put into this game.
GamesBeat: In the end, what sort of identity would you like the game to have? It’s very different from some things we’ve seen in this year, like Uncharted or Call of Duty or Tom Clancy.
Proulx: Deus Ex lives in a pretty interesting place. The setting is unique, the very serious themes and storyline. The art direction sets it apart. The element of player freedom is very strong. That mix of the RPG element with very precise game mechanics makes it unique.
GamesBeat: It’s not a happy story. It’s kind of appropriate to the events of 2016 so far.
Proulx: We’ve mentioned earlier that we didn’t try to change the story to fit real-world events. The themes we chose just resonate. Cyberpunk helps with that kind of interpretation. Unfortunately, some themes are a bit more prominent today when we started designing the game.