Say what you want about David Cage and his team at Quantic Dream, but it’s hard to deny the impact their games have had on the adventure genre. Older titles such as Omikron: The Nomad Soul and Fahrenheit still garner mention and discussion on gaming forums, and Heavy Rain remains a much-beloved PlayStation 3 classic, so much so that it got a second life in the form of a re-release on current-gen hardware. Fans of Quantic Dream (myself included) will waste no time expressing their love for the studio’s catalogue of work, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore the issues that have plagued their titles in the past decade. Uneven writing, unexplained plot holes, and the occasional awkward performance don’t exactly ruin a game, but they leave an indelible mark that stains even the fondest of memories. I still have friends who are quick to bring up the “Press X To Jason” meme, despite them never having played the game for more than 10 minutes.
You can imagine my surprise (and delight) then when the credits rolled on Detroit: Become Human, and I found myself with few complaints and issues. Aside from a few gripes with the game’s setting and story, David Cage and company have not only reached a new level of interactive storytelling, but they’ve set the bar high for what can be accomplished on Sony’s hardware.
Not unlike their past few titles, Detroit: Become Human favors the use of gesture-based controls, which are meant to parallel whatever action the playable character is performing. With the move to the PlayStation 4, that also means that the DualShock 4’s touchpad and gyro are put to good use. As a result, any motion-controlled input feels more accurate when compared to their last-gen counterparts. Accompanying the game’s unique control scheme is the emphasis on the player’s decisions. In some way, every dialogue choice or quick-time event has an influence on the overall story, even if the impact isn’t readily apparent.
This time around, Quantic Dream flips this tried-and-true mechanic on its head by (finally) providing you with feedback, to help illustrate exactly how your actions impacted the story. At the end of each ‘sequence’, Detroit presents an intricate flowchart, highlighting the decisions you made and how the plot unfolded as a result. You also get a glimpse at all the branching paths you missed, which provides a more concrete way to replay each section to see every possible story beat for yourself. Every dialogue option and major story decision is laid bare for you to examine and dissect, and if you’re connected to the internet, you can also see what choices other players made.
But don’t be fooled, some of the choices you make will have lasting and far-reaching consequences. Unlike most games, Detroit: Become Human doesn’t rely on game over screens when something goes awry. Major and minor characters alike can be killed by a few naive choices or after missing too many button prompts, and while I was able to keep the main players alive, I can’t say the same for some of the supporting cast. That being said, if you’re having trouble with (or are intimidated by) the game’s default “experienced” mode, you can always give the “casual” difficulty a try.
Regardless of which mode you pick, you’ll still see the same skeleton story unfold, which follows the journeys of three separate androids. Maybe we should start with a little background info first. Detroit: Become Human takes place in 2038, where advanced androids have become part of modern society, co-existing alongside humans. As a result of their reliability and relatively low cost, androids have become popular in the workplace, replacing humans when it comes to repetitive or physically-demanding tasks. They’ve also become popular among households, where specialized android models excel at basic housework, such as cooking, cleaning, and household repair.
As much as I enjoyed Detroit’s story, I found myself equally engaged by the game’s setting. The script has its fingers in a lot of pies, so to speak, as it touches upon social and political issues including racism (there are plenty of comparisons to be made between the treatment of androids and the treatment of African-Americans leading up to the Civil Rights Movement), automation in the workplace, geopolitical relations, and the ethics of artificial intelligence (which, as you may have surmised from promotional material, is the central theme of the story). In fact, as much as I loved the parallels between the in-game world and our own, I found myself slightly disappointed in how some of the aforementioned issues are handled in game. Many are not brought up in the minute-to-minute gameplay but are relegated to news broadcasts and magazine articles that can be found off the beaten path. I highly doubt that we will see a sequel in the future, as Quantic Dream seems to prefer new IP, but I wouldn’t mind the opportunity to dive back into the world of Detroit, especially if its themes were presented more directly.
Getting back to the main story; you’ll take control of three androids as they struggle to find their place in a world where some androids are turning ‘deviant’, which is just code for gaining artificial consciousness. The first, Kara, is a housekeeper android who returns to her owner’s home after undergoing some repairs from a prior accident. It’s not too long before she turns deviant and tries to stop her owner from harming his innocent daughter, Alice. Markus, the second character, is a caretaker android who also gains consciousness while defending his owner, and soon finds himself freeing other androids from captivity. Finally, there’s Connor, a prototype detective android who follows orders from CyberLife, and is tasked with helping the Detroit Police Department with handling a growing number of cases involving deviant androids.
With hundreds of branching paths, it’s unlikely that you’ll have the exact same experience as mine, but you’re bound to run into the same types of situations as most players. Detroit: Become Human doesn’t make use of complicated gameplay mechanics, but rather allows the player to define their characters by their actions, which is where the game sets itself apart from its contemporaries. For example, when interrogating suspects as Connor, you can choose to comfort and reassure them, or provoke them through threats of torture and violence. When taking care of Alice, Kara can choose to remain optimistic in an effort to cheer her up, or level with her at the expense of her happiness. As Markus takes on the responsibility of advocating for android rights, he can opt for a pacifist approach, or choose to fight violence with violence. Detroit is filled with difficult decisions to make, and does a great job of ratcheting up the tension when it needs to. On a dime, a crime scene investigation might suddenly shift into a rooftop pursuit on foot, while a mistimed button press might turn a stealth sequence into a deadly cat-and-mouse chase.
All of this is tied together by fantastic visuals, which are easily a contender for some of the best graphics on the PlayStation 4 to date. Like other AAA titles as of late, Detroit: Become Human makes use of physically based rendering, which lends a realistic look and feel to different materials. City streets and stores are packed with detail, and night scenes in particular look stunning, thanks in part to the game’s lighting system. As you might have come to expect by now, animation and motion capture work is top-notch; even when the action ramps up. The sense of fluidity is never lost, and this time around, fight scenes are plentiful. To be honest, they are amazingly choreographed, and eclipse the work seen in some blockbuster films. The user interface is equally stylish and slick; playing as androids, the designers make great use of augmented reality interfaces, not unlike those seen in Minority Report. Unfortunately, if there’s one downside, it’s the dialogue menu. Not unlike other games (here’s looking at you Fallout 4), the dialogue choices are sometimes too vague, and can often lead to you picking an unintended response. My playthrough was never ruined as a result, but it did cause some frustrations every now and then. The same can be said for the actions icons: most of the time, it’s pretty clear what you need to press, but I occasionally failed an important quick-time event from mixing up when a button needed to be held down as opposed to pressed.
Still, even with these minor issues, it’s hard to ignore the accomplishments on display here. Detroit: Become Human proves that Quantic Dream’s unique brand of storytelling can stay relevant in 2018, and if anything, it stands as their best work to date. Chock full of gut-wrenching decisions and serious themes and social issues, it’s stylish and slick from start to finish; the kind of game that you’ll want to binge for hours on end.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game. A copy was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment of America.
Despite a few storytelling shortfalls, Detroit: Become Human is stylish and slick from start to finish, and is easily Quantic Dream's best work to date.