Playing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided I often crawl through an air-vent and emerge at the other end having no idea in hell where I am. And that’s not just down to my abysmal sense of direction – it’s because, when I entered that vent, I was on the second story of an apartment complex, and now I’m in a section of the sewers filled with noxious gas.
Since the dawn of time, whenever developers show off their games they can’t help talking about how big their world is; about how it takes ‘X number of minutes’ to walk across the whole thing, and how you can totally climb those mountains you see on the horizon. Rarely, however, are these worlds actually populated with that many interesting things to do.
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided certainly isn’t the biggest game, but it is definitely one of the most densely packed. It accomplishes this by actually using vertical space in its level design. Instead of just building out, the developers instead built up and down as well. In the game’s hub of Prague there is a highrise building that extends eight or nine levels into the sky, with multiple levels underground too. You can traverse all of this using vents, stairways and lifts. If that building was simply a sprawling warehouse all on one level it would make for a far less interesting environment.
It’s a shame that the last game that I can think of that did this was Mankind Divided’s direct predecessor, Human Revolution. Although that game was a bit more limited in its scope, due mainly to the technology available at the time, it still managed to have areas where there could be something interesting to find just above & below you.
The main benefit of the verticality is in allowing the player to approach a situation in multiple ways. For example: to get into this building you could just talk your way past the guard, or knock him out, but you could also jump on top of a neighbouring roof and climb through a second story window, or maybe you found a code earlier which allows you to open a basement door in the sewers.
Playing this game also got me thinking about the Assassin’s Creed franchise. For a series built around climbing, the verticality really doesn’t offer much in the way of choice. For the most part, climbing onto a roof just means that you’ll perform an aerial assassination later-on rather than simply stabbing your target in the gut. How much more rewarding would it be if exploring an environment like a good assassin actually payed dividends in the form of an easier, stealthier route to your target, and not just a slightly different entrance into the same room as the front door?
Of course the same could be said for any number of games, not just the Assassin’s Creed franchise. I don’t want every game to be designed the same way as Mankind Divided. I’m just a bit disappointed that level design in games is seemingly stagnant, and developers are only focusing on one thing. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better.