There’s a fair chance that A Criminal Past is the last we’ll see of Adam Jensen for a while. Not because it’s sending him to prison (although it does do that), but because this second piece of narrative DLC concludes Eidos Montreal’s work on Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. Despite the fact that Mankind Divided was clearly intended to set up at least one more substantial Deus Ex title, the series is now “on hold” with further installments in the series looking questionable.
This is a dramatic fall from 2013 when Square Enix and Eidos were talking about the Deus Ex Universe as a long-term, media-spanning project. A dreadful shame, because the series is one of the few left holding the torch for Looking Glass Studios-inspired ‘immersive sims’, without which we’re only really left with Arkane’s Dishonored.
A Criminal Past was clearly never intended to represent any kind of Deus Ex swan-song, but if it does turn out to book-end the entire series it’s with neither a huge creative bang, nor a dispirited whimper. What it does leave is a compact, 4-5 hour reminder of the mechanical freedom afforded to the player by this series.
As mentioned, the DLC sends Jensen to a high security prison for the augmented. This undercover operation took place prior to the events of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, but, thanks to a framing device that sees Jensen retelling the details to Psychologist Delara Auzenne, it also hooks itself into the game’s contemporary timeline.
Auzenne and Jensen interject throughout the DLC, narrating key moments, questioning decisions (“You were so close to your objective, why turn around?” Auzenne will ask, as you wander off on another exploratory tangent), and accounting for inconsistencies (“You didn’t die Adam, tell me what really happened”). It’s a neat way of adding a little more character to the proceedings, and I wish there had been a few more lines reserved for when you/Jensen do some particularly absurd or horrible things. “So Adam, I’m curious, why did you toss an unconscious prison guard into those explosive mines?”
Jensen’s primary objective in A Criminal Past is to locate a fellow undercover operative and pump him for information which may help prevent a future terror attack. Predictably, this doesn’t go according to plan and you wind up having to tread your way through a prison riot. Throughout, the DLC presents some choices that appear as if they will make the expansion quite replayable, but I’m hesitant to emphasise this too much. After taking the opposite course in a sequence which made Jensen’s actions seem integral to the success of the riot, it still happened anyway.
Where A Criminal Past does just fine is in creating yet another sandbox of tunnel networks, security hubs, and office politics for Jensen to negotiate his way through. Inevitably, the prison environment also provides a handy excuse for (once again) stripping Adam of all his augmentations. Early in the DLC it asks whether you wish to use the full, experimental ‘suite’ of augs (even though Jensen wouldn’t actually have them yet) or the original set, which is a welcome compromise between timeline accuracy and fun.
The prison itself is awash with internal conspiracy, and only a thorough exploration of the facility will enable you to figure out all of the agendas and motivations at play. Prison Warden Stenger, the plush-fox-loving ‘Fixer’ (who looks like he’s partly modeled on Steve Buscemi), and the agent you’ve been sent to retrieve are all working their own angle. As usual in Deus Ex, everybody’s hiding something; even most of the ordinary prison staff, who, according to their emails, seem to be having doubts about their job, their boss, or are embroiled in extramarital affairs.
That density of detail is reflected in the level design, which is centered around three main areas (effectively corresponding to the three Acts of the DLC): a pair of cell blocks, a separate building consisting of the infirmary, processing, and solitary confinement, then a further admin and security building. Connecting those places are prison yards and lesser travelled maintenance routes. Plenty of options for a resourceful prisoner who’s out of his cell and eager not to be seen.
Early on, just getting hold of a weapon or two and some decent gear feels rewarding. Though that feeling doesn’t last as the latter stages find you swimming in inventory items. In my dream scenario this DLC would’ve gone all-in for a Deus Ex version of The Escapists (initial instructions to “lay low and follow prison protocols” hint at it, but it doesn’t really develop that way), though that’s perhaps beyond the scope of the game’s mechanics; and may not have worked with the story they’re trying to tell here.
Instead, A Criminal Past is a solid, self-contained Deus Ex: Mankind Divided mission that’s a little on the expensive side at $12. It doesn’t offer too many surprises or any radical changes to the style of play found in the main game (barring a few shenanigans with malfunctioning augs and The Fixer’s dodgy pills), instead concentrating on a well designed prison space for Jensen to sneak his way around. If this is truly Adam Jensen’s last hurrah then recounting an old mission to a psychologist is a rather strange way to bow out; but as the DLC serves as a compact design overview of the Eidos Montreal Deus Ex tenure, it’s also oddly appropriate.