In order to liaise with a Task Force 29 agent currently residing in a high-tech prison, one-man killing machine and Chris Rea impersonator Adam Jensen is forced undercover as a criminal. His mission: find Agent Guerrero, an operative with information that could stop a terrorist attack. Tracking him down is the least of Jensenís concerns, given that the prisonís entry procedure nullifies his augmentations, leaving him as vulnerable as every other enhanced perp in the joint - which is all of them.
Itís a solid opening in A Criminal Past, the second DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, not least because it offers a challenge above and beyond both the main game and the previous DLC: System Rift. The narrative is delivered as a long flashback, interspersed with Jensenís present day meeting with psychiatrist Delara Auzenne, an excellent vehicle for expository talk given the reveal at the end of Mankind Dividedís end credits. When you die, she chides you for the obvious lie. As you uncover more of the plot, a conversation will kick in - part explanation, part hint as to what to do next. It isnít utilised as much as it should be though, leaving you to feel like it was an attempt at dabbling with storytelling without straying too far from a comfort zone.
The episode is set before Mankind Divided, so youíre given the option of either respecting the gameís canon and using only the original augmentations, or ignoring it and getting access to all of them - including the experimental add-ons. However, the Pent House (a cute name for the Penley T. Housefather holding facility) is not an ideal location for a run-and-gun operation. If you didnít like playing it stealthy in the original game, youíll need to adapt here since youíre funnelled between prison wings with limited hiding places to wait until the intruder alert sirens end.
While it is certainly a step up from System Rift (a significant reduction in email-as-plot-device for one thing), there are still big problems with both the gameplay and the overall experience. The mechanics are more of the same: sneak around vents and take out enemies, drones, robots and lasers while avoiding cameras, collecting items, and not straying into the wrong area for fear of getting a bullet in the face from a guard or a drone. But as with every instalment since Human Revolution, itís a facade of a system which lets you hang around out of sight for a while until theyíve forgotten about you entirely. Stripping Jensen of his powers is also nothing new, since The Missing Link DLC from Human Revolution did basically the same thing. In a more confined environment, a weaker Jensen equates to a frustrating game of camera avoidance which soon becomes repetitive, especially once youíve died for the twentieth time. You will save, and save often.
This could be overlooked if the story was engaging, but Eidos Montreal have squandered a potentially interesting setting by layering it with a drab exercise in information retrieval. Even though itís replete with scenery chewing wardens and crazed inmates, the plot twists arenít nearly as clever as they seem to think they are, and by the time you reach the conclusion of the three-hour running time youíll be wondering exactly what youíve just experienced. Side missions - including a murder investigation into who has been bumping off certain inmates - provide a little insight into the fundamental wrongdoing that has taken place at the facility, but it serves as mere window dressing to a more straightforward A-to-B-to-C main quest.
Window dressing is an apt description of the episode as a whole. A smaller environment could have been utilised in far more unique ways, had the studio decided to go all out in exploring the Deus Ex universe. Given that the series is going on a hiatus of unknown length - thanks in part due to poor sales of the last game - A Criminal Past had the chance to end on a high. But setting the mission before the events of the main game was a huge mistake, bringing with it the baggage of foresight and knowing that Jensen would emerge from the mission unscathed. Even the potentially juicy plot involving Auzenne might have been capitalised on, or at least tied up, but even that thread is left dangling - potentially with no resolution at all.
What remains is a staid tale which pulls you along by virtue of its over-the-top characters, but which ultimately leaves you unsatisfied. When youíre done navigating the same archaic hacking mini-game, remote hacking the same turrets and cameras, and tranquilising the same guards over multiple levels of a prison complex that gets duller the further in you delve, youíre left wondering what the entire point of the mission was. When a throwaway line delivered at the end resonates in ways that it really shouldnít have, thereís simply no other way to describe the experience as a missed opportunity. And since we may never play as Adam Jensen again, thatís possibly the most criminal thing of all.