2016 is the year I got sequels to the two most visually-inspiring games I’ve ever played — Mirror’s Edge and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Both of those games had a major impact on how I looked at the world. It sounds silly, but when I played Mirror’s Edge, I started seeking out more red clothing and accessories. Any time I saw bright architecture punctuated with saturated colors, I’d think of parkour. I’ve got a small red decal on my car’s back windshield from the game’s logo, too.
When I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I was enamored with its cohesive art style. Everything looked as if one person presided over its base city of Detroit and specifically coordinated everything in it to satisfy a single taste. However unrealistic it is, I adored the vision, and the black and gold, polygonal aesthetic made a major impression me.
So what happens when these strong artistic visions are tasked to bring it for sequels?
I played (and reviewed) Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst earlier this year, and was ecstatic to see the overall visual design didn’t stray far from the original. Much of the environment is still washed-out whites punctuated by splashes of bright solid colors. The city (named Glass) is what I suspect a city created by Apple would look like.
Copying its predecessor’s design is a double-edged sword, though. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted Catalyst to be dark, dreary and gritty, but given that I was already exposed to this type of design before, it no longer wielded the weight of a fresh first impression to wow me.
That said, I can’t complain. I took tons of screenshots as I played, and The Mirror’s Edge titles offer visual design I can’t find anywhere else. They’re a refuge in a sea of brown and grey shooters.
I recently played Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, as well. Instead of carrying forward the same visual design as its predecessor, it strives for a more realistic, livable setting than Human Revolution.
Mankind Divided’s Prague is beautiful because it represents what a real, contemporary city looks like. Both old and new architecture flourish simultaneously in its streets. A drab stone storefront sits next to a building covered in eye-catching LED panels. A run-down stone courtyard leads up to a futuristic, solid grey bank building. Prague looks as if it’s been evolving as time goes on, whereas Human Revolution’s Detroit and Hengsha looked like they were built all at once under a single architect. Both design styles carry pros and cons.
I appreciate Mankind Divided’s artistic direction, but it rarely made me want to stop and inspect small details. It also fails to slowly build in beauty the way its predecessor does. Because it’s less extravagantly designed, much of it isn’t memorable, which both surprises and disappoints me.
Executive Art Director Jonathan Jacques-Belletete has said before that if he’s given a stereotypical videogame location, such as a hangar, he strives to design it in with extravagance and panache so that it won’t look like every other videogame hangar. Maybe that design philosophy changed from 2011 to 2016? Or maybe it’s because he went from Art Director in Human Revolution (with no subordinates) to Executive Art Director in Mankind Divided (with Martin Dubeau serving as actual Art Director). Or maybe the concept artists changed?
Deus Ex: Human Revolution had several areas I was wowed by and remember vividly — David Sarif’s office full of giant black and gold orb lamps, FEMA’s basement hall lined to the ceiling with disengaged box guards, Namir’s boss lair with moving human sculptures and Megan Reed’s completely white research suite. I didn’t find a single area in Mankind Divided I liked as much as any of those. Perhaps Eidos-Montreal should’ve held a couple of those designs over for the sequel?
Call it the visual sophomore slump maybe, but unless a completely new artistic vision (and one as appealing) is present, it’d be hard to be as blown away with Catalyst and Mankind Divided’s design as I was with their earlier installments.
Both games are lucky in part because of the large gap between sequels. The repetition of environmental design in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst might have bothered me if I didn’t wait 8 years for it. Catalyst is also lucky no game I’ve played in those 8 years has come close to copying its design.
Mankind Divided came five years after Human Revolution. I respect its insistence to use its predecessor as a jumping-off point rather than concept to emulate even if the results left me underwhelmed.
At this point I’d bank on Eidos-Montreal producing another Deus Ex, but a third Mirror’s Edge from DICE might be … dare I say … DICE-y. It’s impossible to know where each series will evolve its visual design if more should come — I just hope I don’t have to wait another five (or more!) years to find out.