Detroit: Become Human Review—Boring or Brilliant?

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19 June 2018

At times, Detroit: Become Human felt like a truly brilliant showcase of not only what the now 5-year-old PlayStation 4 is capable of but the potential of interactive adventure games as a genre. At other times, Quantic Dream’s latest effort felt like an encapsulation of all the things they have been ridiculed for in the past: bad writing, boring gameplay, and shoddy attempts at depth.

Ultimately, whether Detroit: Become Human is an engrossing or chore-like endeavour will depend on your ability to keep an open mind and look past certain flaws.

Unlike some other critics who have reviewed the game, I don’t hold any negative opinions of Quantic Dream or their director, David Cage. I loved Heavy Rain; it was great. Beyond: Two Souls was garbage. So I’d say that I went into this latest game with a pretty balanced mindset.

In many ways, Detroit: Become Human is much like its PS3 predecessors. The game is essentially an interactive melodrama, with a branching narrative that adapts to player decisions, dialogue choices, and actions. Unlike the contemporary settings of Heavy Rain and Beyond, however, Detroit takes place in, yes, Detroit, but also in a futuristic world that is dominated by a totally non-evil corporation called CyberLife. Their claim to power is control over the production of androids, human-like robots who comprise the game’s three main characters.

There’s Connor, a detective intent on hunting down the deviants of his kind; Kara, a housemaid with dreams of motherhood; and Markus, a servant turned leader of the android uprising.

The presentation of these characters is absolutely on point, as their appearances and performances are captured in-game without a hitch. It’s a testament to the technology the studio has pioneered and employed over the years, with this being their most true-to-life visual experience yet.

It’s no surprise that Quantic Dream has delivered another title of impeccable audio and visual fidelity. What is a surprise is that the world here feels remarkably deserving of that technical quality. Even without the fancy graphics, Detroit stands alone as an interesting interpretation of a future where androids are as prevalent as smartphones. Touches here and there help breathe life into this setting, from the segregated public property to the collectable magazines which foretell a world on the cusp of war and climate disaster.

Although the game’s various environments are engaging, the way you get through them is far less so. Characters move like four-limbed tanks and the camera can become a nuisance in densely packed, tight areas. The consistently slow walking pace of these androids also leaves a lot to be desired—mainly a sprint button.

Even near the end of the game, after hours of playing, I was still grappling with the controls. This problem is bolstered by the inconsistent nature of the game’s quick-time-events and cutscenes. Sometimes, player input is required to fire a gun or climb a ledge. Other times, the game does it for you. This can leave you unsure whether to sit back and watch or remain guarded.

A lack of clarity extends to the dialogue options that are given. More than once I chose an option that had my character acting in a way that the one-word prompt didn’t have me expecting.

It’s difficult to decide whether or not Detroit: Become Human is a linear game. On one hand, the gameplay doesn’t change based on individual players and their choices. You can’t decide how you want to approach a situation unless an explicit choice is given. It’s less of a sandbox and more of a series of intricate hallways which the player navigates through.

On the other hand, Detroit is the most narratively fluid game I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Nowhere is this more evident than the flowcharts which end each chapter, cluing the player in to all the decisions and events that were foregone in their run.

With some of the denser chapters toward the end of the game, these flowcharts can become a delightfully chaotic spider web. They also serve to add a completionist element, rewarding trophy hunters with extra slices of story for their efforts.

What’s truly impressive about the game’s structure is that its narrative holds up any way you choose to tackle it. In essence, everyone will play Detroit the same way—juggling their way through QTEs. But we’ll all be playing different iterations. Your final mission may be earlier or later than another player’s. Your Connor may be the villain rather than the hero of the story.

This kind of non-linearity may leave some unfulfilled, yearning for the ‘best’ ending. But to do so would be to ignore everything that makes this game remotely unique, which is that everyone’s experience will be different. You don’t fail the game as much as you do fail yourself and what you wanted for these characters. 

It’s rare that a video game achieves this effect on the player. Unfortunately, however, the immersion is far too often broken by amateurish writing. Cliches abound in Detroit: Become Human. You’ll be constantly reminded of movies and T.V shows, and not particularly good ones. I was definitely rolling my eyes when the FBI showed up to take over the investigation from local enforcement.

It also doesn’t help that David Cage handles subtlety and symbolism with the grace of the blockbuster movie directors he seemingly imitates. The portrayal of domestic abuse and drug addiction is surface-level. Every character who uses ‘red ice’ falls into the tropes you’d usually associate with addicts.

Although I never found it disrespectful, allusions to slavery, the American civil rights movement and the Holocaust are flatly obvious and often told rather than shown. Furthermore, there’s a certain level of dissonance that permeates the androids’ goal to ‘become human.’

Under Markus, the player fights for android rights and the idea that they are ‘alive.’ Yet in scenes that exist regardless of whether you choose to be a pacifist or hawk, you’re forced to kill endless droves of faceless bad guys with no remorse and no comment given by the characters. These human soldiers are oddly dehumanised with zero awareness on the game’s part.

At almost every turn, the narrative’s attempts to achieve deeper meaning is undercut by its own action movie tropes, comically evil antagonists, and obtuse messaging.

Does all of this detract from the overall experience? It depends.

What’s on offer here is the best interactive story in the current video game space. Taken as a whole, the story can be an entertaining romp that simply fails to reach its lofty thematic ambitions. Detroit amplifies the gameplay and techniques of previous Quantic Dream titles. But if you couldn’t stand those mechanics to begin with, this won’t be the game that changes your mind.

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