5:00am PT by Patrick Shanley
'Detroit: Become Human': Game Review
"This is not just a story. This is our future."
That simple, somewhat-foreboding declaration begins Quantic Dream's Detroit: Become Human, an explorative, interactive action game set in the urban sprawl of Detroit in the year 2038, where extremely advanced androids are owned and utilized by the majority of Americans.
The game opens with an introduction to Connor, a prim, by-the-books homicide investigator, who happens to be one of the aforementioned androids, as he arrives on a crime scene at a posh penthouse apartment. There has been a murder and Connor — and, by extension, the player controlling him — must investigate the clues to reconstruct the events in an effort to negotiate a renegade android, referred to as deviants in the game, from off a ledge as he holds an innocent girl in his grasp.
The scene is a startling, invigorating opening to the narrative, which has the player bouncing back and forth between three playable characters in wholly separate, tonally diverse settings. In addition to Connor, the player also is given control over Kara, a home-service droid owned by a drug-abusing derelict living in a disheveled track unit outside the metropolitan area with his young daughter, and Markus, another service droid employed by a caring, disabled elderly man living in an elegant manse who happens to be one of the most famous painters in the country.
The narrative threads begin as disparate parallel lines, echoing each other only in muted terms as Markus runs afoul of anti-android protestors while buying paint for his owner (as it turns out, the advent of a machine future has left many in blue-collar Detroit jobless), Kara deals first-hand with her abusive owner, and Connor arrives to scenes of android-on-human violence after the fact in an attempt to discover what is causing deviant behavior to spike.
The gameplay places exploration and discovery paramount, as navigating an environment and searching for clues and points of action make up the bulk of the experience. If this sounds mundane, it must be stressed that it is not. The environments and set pieces crafted in this game are staggeringly detailed and an absolute joy to travel through.
Indeed, the amount of care put into the meticulous design of each tableau is obvious, as is that put into the world-building of a not-so-distant future of one of America's great working-class cities. In nearly every new chapter in the game there are news reports to be watched on televisions, heard on the radio, or read in very well-made e-zines that flesh out a world on the brink of war and technological revolution. This level of detail, and the decision to let it be optionally explored and digested by the player at their leisure, is impressive and contributes to crafting one of the most believable representations of a futuristic setting in recent memory.
As the game progresses, the naratives of Connor, Markus and Kara begin to converge through a series of truly unexpected plot machinations that raise serious ethical questions about freedom, slavery, ownership, technology, class and the nature of humanity. The story is bolstered all the more by the uncannily realistic depictions of the central performers. Stars such as Jesse Williams, Minka Kelly and Clancy Brown all lend not just their voices, but their likenesses to the game, and they are so well-crafted that at times it's hard to believe they are graphic reconstructions of the actors and not live-action shots.
This realistic animation is not only impressive from a technical standpoint, but also allows the game to intimately, sometimes even cruelly, probe at the player's morality. While there are two difficulty choices in the game (Casual and Experienced, which are differentiated mostly by the amount of time given to the player to input quick-time event controls during action sequences), the greatest challenge that the game presents is internal: the philosophical conundrum of sacrifice and perseverance of cause. In many ways, the game plays the player as much as the player plays the game.
As a revolution accelerates and more deviants become self-aware and long for freedom, a central conflict unsurprisingly arises between humans and their android counterparts. Players are presented with moral dilemmas of stealing to eat, leading a nonviolent or aggressive revolution, and choosing between duty and empathy. Each choice made echoes throughout the rest of the game, a not entirely new concept in gaming (Quantic Dream has explored this theme in past titles such as 2010's Heavy Rain), but until Detroit, it had not been realized to such a degree.
At the end of each chapter a flowchart is displayed showing the various narrative branches that the player's decisions led to. One choice can lead to multiple permutations later on in the narrative and influences other characters and dialogue options. These flowcharts, which can also be referred to from the pause menu during gameplay, act as a roadmap for where, how and what the player has done in a particular chapter, and they also boast the ingenious addition of viewing the rest of the world's statistics in how other players chose to navigate a particular mission.
Naturally, such an abundance of choices begs for repeat playthroughs, and once the game is completed it allows the player to choose from any of the various chapters in the narrative, and even particular checkpoints in each chapter, to replay and make different choices. These choices, of course, also lead to various endings for the game, and as it follows three separate characters, there are many divergent outcomes for the climax of the narrative.
While at times the navigation controls feel a bit sticky, the issue never arises during critical moments and is only vaguely noticeable when leisurely exploring a new area. The game offers many different scenarios influenced by character decisions, but certain key plot points remain static to form a cohesive narrative, and one particular late-game plot twist sticks out as a contrived poor choice. However, the game is so deep and beautifully crafted in its characterization and world-building, such issues are merely minor concerns in what is, ultimately, a masterful piece of game design.
What writer and director David Cage has created in Detroit: Become Human is an experience that stands apart from other games. It is mature, thought-provoking and incendiary in scope, design and plot and is yet another crown jewel in the PlayStation 4's roster of exclusive titles.
Detroit: Become Human is exclusively available for PlayStation 4 on May 25.