Detroit: Become Human Review: No fate but what we manage to screw up in a QTE
Detroit: Become Human represents a great choose-your-own-adventure book that keeps on giving and can't be put down.
You won't need to study a decision chart to track Quantic Dream's intentions over the years – this French developer has doggedly carved out its own gameplay niche for story-based interactive-dramas. Its first effort on PS2, 2005's Fahrenheit, was a great warm-up effort. That then precipitated into Heavy Rain for the PS3 in 2010. Three years later Quantic took things further with Beyond: Two Souls.
I wish I could tell you the studio has been steadily going from strength to strength with its games, but that's not how this story goes. Fans of Quantic Dream have slowly been woken up by a harsh truth: auteur writer/director David Cage is in need of an editor.
What went wrong with Beyond varies with who you talk to. Players who value narrative above all things felt that the many plot threads in that ghost-game become too muddy, unfocused or simply requiring too much suspension of disbelief. Problems also arise when the butterfly effect of these stories result in disappointing dead ends, or actors making uncharacteristic emotional shifts to satisfy one behind-the-scenes narrative track shift or another.
Cage's games also weave in action-adventure elements that need to walk the tightrope of being accessible for casual gamers while also having just enough depth to sate more competent gamers. In the PS3 era that requirement was handled with quick-time events (QTEs) doing most of the heavy lifting. Unfortunately, QTE became a dirty acronym by the end of the last console generation – more or less reviled as micro-transactions are today. I think that time has served to cool that burning hatred a bit.
Obviously, this still poses a challenge for Cage who's still seeking to serve both ends of the skill spectrum. In his own words, he's pursuing “a middle way” with “games that try to tell a story, to carry meaning, and where violence isn't the core activity”. If you understand that intention going in, Terry Triggerfinger, I guarantee you'll appreciate this game more.
Because Detroit: Become Human is the same template as always. You're handed three vastly different characters, one after another, and you're given just enough rope to interact with their worlds and define some life-changing dialogue decisions (all of which are on a short timer). Each of these chapters can go from 10 to 30 minutes in length and there's some George R.R. Martin going on here – the continuing survival of you and key supporting cast members isn't guaranteed.
Getting [Kara] across the border into Canada isn't going to be easy
Our first android protagonist is Kara and her story arc is anchored to being a mother to a child named Alice. Hers is easily the darkest tale of this piece, what with it concerning emotional and physical abuse in the family home. Being a fugitive who's nowhere near a combat model android, the bulk of Kara's gameplay is stealth heavy. Getting her across the border into Canada isn't going to be easy.
Something to note: the early moments of her tale was widely previewed by games media, myself included, and I'm happy to report that this particular section wasn't indicative of the level of acting throughout. I remember coming away from my own preview session wholly unimpressed by the unconvincing script and subpar acting of the guy playing Alice's dad. He's an early low-point that isn't repeated.
Hot on the trail of Kara, and the increasing number of deviant androids in general, is Connor. He's a goody-two-shoes prototype android partnered to Lieutenant Hank Anderson (Clancy Brown) a grizzled and alcoholic detective who hates robots. Yep, you guessed it, this is the deliberately-paced police procedural part of the experience. Casing crime scenes is interrupted by the occasional Starsky and Hutch chase moment, and you must spin the plates of sticking to the prime directives of Connor's mission, ingratiating him with Hank and not being a race-traitor to his people.
Because revolution is very much the inescapable main thread of Detroit and the primary arc of our final protagonist, Markus. Unusually contemplative and artistic, he starts out life as a carer to Carl Manfred (Lance Henriksen) a rich retiree who nurtures his gifts like a father (while ignoring his own actual screw-up of a son). Without giving too much away, Markus must make his way from here to becoming the leader of a secret android underground. Whether this growing army of deviants becomes a positive force for good or a bunch of pissed off Terminators, is all up to you and your decisions.
Make no mistake: Detroit is a game you'll need to replay many, many multiple times
In order to arm yourself with the maximum multiple choice options, you'll need to ignore your main objectives in any given scenario. Holding L2 effectively freezes time and turns on a detective mode of sorts. Interactive points in the world suddenly light up like a Christmas tree and side-snooping will reward you with new clues or unique lines of inquiry. QTEs are very much back and snappy reflexes can also be the difference between an opportunity seized or a cock up that'll haunt you for the duration of the game. But that, of course, is assuming you're playing by traditionalist rules...
One of my favourite additions to the formula is an enhanced post-chapter flowchart. In clear terms, it lays out the play-by-play of what you just did and suggests areas where you could have branched off to arrive at a completely different result. Personally, my first playthrough was an 8-hour affair that arrived at an ending that sounded nothing like the results achieved by four critic mates of mine.
Sure enough, after digging through the flowchart, it was revealed that there was a huge amount of story content I'd come nowhere near close to experiencing. Make no mistake: Detroit is a game you'll need to replay many, many multiple times to fully experience. I'd estimate there are about 25-30 hours in it total.
And the good news is you'll be happy to play it all over again. Detroit isn't perfect: I spotted a plot-hole or two, it can often be derivative of superior cyberpunk media, and some chapter branches don't dovetail into a perfectly cohesive whole. (Also, while I'm here, two major characters cannot get it straight on how to pronounce Kara's name – one goes with “car-ah” the other “carer”.
All that bitching aside, I couldn't put the controller down with Detroit. The characters effortlessly burrowed their way into my heart and I was moved more consistently than Heavy Rain or Beyond: Two Souls. I've followed Cage's work from Fahrenheit to now and I can say without a doubt that this is his best work.
Being able to dial back an hour of awful decisions and shit hand-eye coordination is a superpower I need in real-life
In my mind, there are only niggling things holding this game back from greatness. Along with all of the aforementioned, I was hamstrung by vague decision labels that didn't play out the way I assumed. For example: a character was angry with a recent decision we'd made and was questioning it. One of my responses was “No Doubt”. But what the hell does that mean? “I have no doubt about what I chose” or “I have no doubt you're right”. To be fair, this only happened a handful of times and the problem is mitigated by the ability to quit to main menu and easily take-two on any chapter you want at any place in the timeline. Man, being able to dial back an hour of awful decisions and shit hand-eye coordination is a superpower I need in real-life.
Detroit: Become Human isn't hugely deviant from Quantic Dream's regular programming. It just does a helluva lot more right than it does wrong, thanks to its tight visuals, top-notch digital performances and addictive triple-narratives. Unlike the misstep that was Beyond: Two Souls, this game takes the promise that was Heavy Rain and .exe's it with very little error.
We reviewed Detroit: Become Human on PlayStation 4 Pro with a copy provided by the publisher.
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