In a future dominated by technology, how much choice will we really have?
Ever since Ridley Scott's Deckard had us asking whether androids dream of electric sheep we've found the concepts around sentience and man-made life to be among the most enthralling of sci-fi themes. Quantic Dream, building on the foundations laid down over many years but most recently in the form of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, has in 2018 presented us with Detroit: Become Human, a cinematic interactive experience that takes us twenty years into the future to a world teetering on the precipice, where mankind has mastered technology to the extent that we can build convincingly human-looking machines to do our bidding.
The studio's vision of the future is pitched just close enough to our own modern reality to feel entirely plausible. Events unravel across a trio of stories starring three androids from different backgrounds, each of them coming to terms with their growing self-awareness. As they grapple with existential questions the world around them is threatening to ignite and the wider narrative is slowly revealed through environmental storytelling; news reports and electronic magazines paint a grim picture.
The compelling setting and Quantic Dream's excellent world building contribute to a stellar opening half and, for a few hours at least, we wonder whether we've got yet another first-party classic on our hands, but then Detroit starts to move through the gears a touch too quickly and some of that early groundwork is left behind as we get into the meat of the story, where player choice - or the illusion of choice - threatens to derail the excellent early pacing of the narrative. Luckily that didn't happen, even if there are a handful of scenes that feel just a little undercooked. Before too long one of our android characters, Markus, is delivering rousing speeches to his synthetic allies and preparing to storm the proverbial Bastille; we helped plants the seeds of rebellion, but perhaps they weren't given enough time for their roots to take a firmer hold and truly justify our call to arms.
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Detractors are always going to point to quick time events (QTEs) in games like Detroit and, for some people at least, there's simply no getting around the fact that these kinds of experiences offer very little in the way of genuine player autonomy. Quantic Dream's latest adventure is unashamedly cinematic and the skill here isn't in taking down epic bosses or lining up a succession of headshots (although there are some frenetic moments where the action comes thick and fast), rather the reward comes from executing the inputs accurately and in a way that further enhances the cinematic qualities of the game. When you get into the groove and that translates into fluid action on the screen, it's actually very satisfying.
Detroit isn't all QTEs though, and Quantic Dream has mixed things up nicely throughout the campaign. There are interrogation scenes, chase sequences, combat scenarios, and lots and lots of dialogue options. Beyond that the studio has added texture to the world and you'll regularly be called to interact with things via a swipe of a touchpad here or a flick of an analog stick there. Some people are going to find some of the more trivial actions in the game superfluous, but we never felt like there was too much busy work to attend to and most of our interactions felt like they connected us better to the story.
There are a couple of interesting mechanics at work, and they suit the setting brilliantly. Building on the AR tech that saw Norman Jayden scanning crime scenes in Heavy Rain, the androids in Detroit can switch to a secondary visual filter where time pauses and certain points of interest are flagged. Deviant hunter Connor benefits most from this trick and analysing the things he discovers can yield clues to further the story. More interesting is the mechanic that lets him simulate events based on the evidence he uncovers, letting him visualise events as they likely played out. The rebellious Markus has another trick whereby he can simulate environmental traversal and by planning his moves you can plot a course through tricky terrain and then have him execute that plan to perfection while you watch. It's slick and intuitive and turns a light puzzle into a cinematic moment to savour.
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Detroit is all about emotions and these are often expressed via mechanics that define the relationships between the characters you meet. As soon as you jump into the shoes of one of the three protagonists - Connor, Markus, and Kara - you're told how the people around you feel about you, which is useful information when trying to decide a certain course of action. Each of the three narrative strands is thematically linked with occasional intersections, but they're independent of each other for the most part. Connor, for example, is a top-of-the-range model programmed to hunt down deviant androids and this objective leads him to crossing paths with both Kara and Markus. Kara, on the other hand, is a housekeeper on the run from a violent owner, while Markus becomes self-aware and then works to inspire revolution and rebellion among his synthetic brethren.
Several characters have the potential to make a big impact as the story progresses but Quantic Dream is also quite prepared to let bad things happen to them, which keeps the action tense at times. There's always the fear lurking that one wrong move might spell disaster, although you'd have to actively try to fail to see the most disastrous of outcomes. We managed to keep everyone alive (kinda) during our first run, but during our second we were happier playing things fast and loose and we lost a couple of key characters along the way. One of them, an NPC with a fairly major role to play, died rather unexpectedly during a sequence we'll not spoil, and another series of events saw one of our main characters retired early. When we delved even deeper we discovered that even main characters can be cut out of the story very early on, although you'd have to really screw things up for such a catastrophic outcome.
We predict that a lot of players will follow similarish paths during their first play-throughs, executing the key story moments that Quantic Dream has set up for them. However, there's still enough potential variation within a relatively straightforward path through the story for two people to have quite different experiences without going to extreme lengths. You only have to miss one big clue and similar stories will start to diverge, and we discovered whole sequences of action on our second pass that we accidentally skipped on our first. Easier to miss are the little details that open up additional dialogue options and there's a lot of subtle clues hidden away for players to discover. Finding these little clues will potentially open new conversations and allow you get to know other characters better. Kara can talk to new friends met on her journey to escape her past, while Markus has an entourage of characters who'll like him better if he follows their desired path to freedom.
It's Connor's sparring partner, Lieutenant Hank Anderson, who perhaps best characterises this approach to subtle detail and deepening dialogue options. The better you get to know him the more he'll open up over time, and the relationship between this hardened cop and his android partner is one of the highlights of the game. Perhaps that's also because of the quality of the performances, which so much of this experience hinges on. Bryan Dechart does a great job as Connor, but Clancy Brown delivers an exceptional performance as the grizzled police lieutenant working outside his comfort zone while trying to crack the case of a lifetime. The contrast between Data-esque android cool and emotional loud-mouthed detective works a treat, and both actors do a fine job. In fact, that's a compliment you can extend to the entire cast with Jesse Williams, Lance Henriksen and Valorie Curry all delivering decent performances.
The acting was also good in Beyond: Two Souls and that being the case it's the quality of the story and setting that elevates Detroit above its predecessor. The more powerful themes explored in the three-pronged narrative - slavery being the most obvious alongside the questions raised about our collective relationship with technology, but there are challenging scenes including domestic violence too - are dealt with carefully and we had no complaints with how they were handled (and we hope nobody else does either, but these are hard-hitting themes). Quantic Dream doesn't pull its punches and this results in a mature game made for grownups that doesn't shy away from exploring the questions that it asks, even when the answers are violent. This intensity is present from the start of the story and it veins through the narrative until the very end, although come the credits you'll probably have seen events wrapped up more or less to your satisfaction.
If that's not the case you can always go back and replay the game with a different mindset. Perhaps your first Markus was a peaceful protestor and your second is a violent revolutionary. If your first Connor wrestles with his place in the police department, perhaps your second is going to be a cold-hearted android hunting machine. Perhaps you'd rather play your second Kara as a thief prepared to do anything to survive, while your first hid timidly in the shadows. There's plenty of depth to each character for players to explore and you'll get a decent second play-through out of Detroit at the very least. Certain sections with multiple outcomes can even be revisited as standalone scenes, so you can really push the game to its limits if you're the kind of player who has to see absolutely every conceivable outcome.
Overall we enjoyed several quality evenings playing through Detroit: Become Human, and a couple more exploring what could have been if we'd played things differently. It doesn't offer a perfect user experience and once again Quantic Dream hasn't quite nailed the camera angles which leads to some frustrating moments here and there. The pacing of the story isn't flawless either, but given the structure of the game and the variety on offer that's something we're prepared to live with. This is a fascinating game with a strong setting, a decent story, and some stellar performances, all brought to life with stunning visuals and crammed full of interesting things to discover. It's the studio's finest game to date and another great first-party exclusive for Sony and PlayStation 4, and if you're at all interested in narrative adventures and interactive storytelling then we'd certainly recommend that you take a closer look.
9 / 10
Great setting and compelling story, interesting characters, looks great, lots to discover, plenty of alternative outcomes to explore.