Detroit: Become Human Review: Shiny But Shallow
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Detroit: Become Human is the latest game from love-him-or-hate-him auteur David Cage and his studio Quantic Dream, a PS4-exclusive that hopes to build on the potential of his previous games, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, and apply it to a sweeping sci-fi allegory about artificial intelligence and android rights.
Cage’s past games have had faultless ambition, bogged down by clunky controls and clunkier dialogue, and Detroit: Become Human is… well, more of the same, with flaws that frequently threaten to overwhelm everything that makes the game stand out. Find out why in our Detroit review.
Detroit: Become Human price and availability
Detroit: Become Human is out now, after releasing on 25 May 2018. Like the (much better) other recent exclusive God of War, the game is only playable on the PlayStation 4 though, and since it was actually published by Sony it’s definitely going to stay that way – don’t hold your breath for a port to the Xbox One, PC, or Switch any time soon.
You can buy a digital copy direct from the PlayStation store, or head to the usual places for physical copies: Amazon or Game in the UK, and Amazon or GameStop in the US.
The only special edition version of the game is the Digital Deluxe Edition, which includes a PS4 copy of Heavy Rain (one of studio Quantic Dream’s previous games), along with a digital art book, digital soundtrack, and some Detroit PS4 themes and avatars.
Detroit: Become Human review
In case you couldn’t guess already, Detroit: Beyond Human is set in the titular Michigan city. Except the year is 2038, and the economically ravaged town has undergone a resurgence as the hub of America’s new mega-industry: androids.
Manufactured by CyberLife (‘the world’s first trillion-dollar company’) these lifelike automatons are ubiquitous in service jobs, industrial work, the military, and even people’s homes, taking over tasks like cooking and childcare for their owners.
Naturally the rise of androids has massive ramifications on the world, from societal issues like unemployment out to global politics, and across the 10-ish-hour story Detroit tackles all of these, with mixed results, through the eyes of the game’s three playable android characters.
They’re Kara (Valorie Curry), a domestic android bought for childcare who has to decide whether or not to break her programming and rescue her charge from an abusive father; Markus (Jesse Williams), a carer for an elderly artist who finds his way into the burgeoning android rights movement; and Connor (Bryan Dechart), an advanced prototype sent to assist the police investigating cases of ‘deviant’ androids.
Each of their stories starts out separately, but they dovetail at points, with Connor’s investigation proving the lynchpin, eventually leading him onto the trail of the other two characters as he tries to understand why his fellow ‘bots seem to be developing free will.
In terms of actual gameplay, Detroit will feel familiar if you’ve played studio Quantic Dream’s previous recent games, Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. It’s a narrative-first design that replaces traditional controls with contextual prompts. To turn a door handle you might have to rotate the control stick, while reading an article might ask you to flick your finger across the DualShock 4 touchpad to change the pages.
It’s a format supposedly intended to improve immersion, but its bigger role is really to mask the fact that, outside of a handful of time sensitive action sequences, most of the game could be reduced to wandering around and pressing one ‘interact’ button over and over again until the next multiple-choice dialogue prompts pop up.
That wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing, but it’s harder to hide in a narrative game whose narrative is frequently so dull. That’s partly by design, as in early sections intended to enforce the mundanity of android life – the game literally sends you on missions to buy some paint or clean a house – but it crops up throughout the game, every time it leaves you to explore mostly empty environments, frequent pixel hunts for interaction prompts.
Auteur creator David Cage has never been shy about hyping up his own work, and along Detroit’s long road to release he’s frequently discussed the game’s sprawlingly interactive narrative, in which every choice has consequences and each player’s story is unique.
That is, unsurprisingly, over-egging it a bit, but the game does leave you a lot of wiggle room. Your choices not only impact who your characters are, along with who survives to the finale, but shape the future of the game’s world, and comparisons with other players will no doubt reveal a host of different ways for the story to end.
Interactive narrative designers often talk about the mess of flowcharts they have to use to plot their stories out, and Detroit goes one step further and hands this information to players, giving you access to a visualisation of all the paths not taken. Options you didn’t take remain greyed out, so it doesn’t give the game away, but together with a percentage completion marker and a chapter select, it’s a very overt attempt to incentivise replays to chase down every narrative path.
Unfortunately for a game built and marketed around narrative interactivity, Cage is all too often guilty of railroading: forcing players down a pre-determined path to fit his story. The first time Connor’s story seemed about to present me with a serious, character-defining moral quandary that I was genuinely unsure what to do with, it in fact turned out to just be part of a cutscene: I didn’t get any say in it whatsoever. All too often, Cage saves the biggest character choices for himself, leaving the player to simply decide which door to open, or whether or not to put the laundry on.
Much like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls before it, Detroit: Become Human is a game that nakedly, openly aspires to be cinematic. It’s there in the cast, which includes cult icon Lance Henriksen and cable TV staple Clancy Brown; it’s there in the motion capture technology used to bring those performances to almost-lifelike digital simulacra; and it’s there in the game’s propensity to yank the camera around for some (admittedly striking) long shots of the vividly rendered world.
It’s also there in the story, which wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve. At its worst, the game feels like little more than a grab-bag of elements from earlier, better explorations of its themes – mostly from the cinema. Blade Runner is the obvious reference point for its rain-sodden dystopia, but Detroit borrows from Alien, Westworld, Ex Machina, and more though only occasionally offers anything to rival its inspirations.
The game’s core allegory is undoubtedly with the American civil rights movement, but it’s handled with all the subtlety of a punch in the face. ‘No Androids Allowed’ signs litter storefronts and restaurants, there are separate android compartments at the back of buses, and – most toe-curlingly of all – in one section an African-American woman offers to help some androids cross the border into Canada, in a chapter called Midnight Train, while making numerous references to what it was like for ‘her people’.
Cage is equally tactful when he tackles domestic abuse, alcoholism, suicide, drug addiction, and more. Even the game’s attempts to dig into the nature of artificial intelligence and consciousness are frustratingly skin-deep. We know the androids are real, conscious people because the game repeatedly tells us they are, and every character in the game who questions this is quickly branded a bigot.
Naturally, this is borne out by the androids’ behaviour in the game – but of course they act like humans, because there are human players controlling them, urging them to make human decisions. It’s a conceit that means machine intelligence has to be taken as given, robbing Detroit of the chance to ask interesting questions about consciousness or personhood, leaving it only with tepid commentary about how slavery is bad and racists usually aren’t very nice people.
The world around this is also thinly sketched, and disappointingly unimaginative. It’s 20 years in the future, but people still watch news on the TV, read articles on tablets, and carry phones and smartwatches. Russia and the US are the centre of international tensions, and Brazil and India are still referred to as ‘developing countries’.
We’re told that androids have changed life as we know it, but what we see of that life simply doesn’t bear it out. The few nods to real cultural change – like a throwaway article about live music being replaced entirely by VR concerts – feel implausible and half-baked.
It’s not all bad. Judging by the flowcharts, the game’s narrative genuinely does allow for a fair amount of variation as the story progresses, and if you can get past the hackneyed writing then some of the twists and turns do pack a bit of punch.
It’s also worth noting that this is an undeniably pretty game. Its Detroit isn’t memorable or distinct enough to go down alongside Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, but the characters themselves will longer longer. Combined with detailed character models, the mo-cap is consistently impressive, and if you like your games to look realistic, this is probably the best they’ve ever been.
It also allows some surprisingly nuanced performances to come through. Clancy Brown is the clear standout, breaking his misanthropic detective out of the confines of stereotype to find something new. Of the main trio, Bryan Dechart’s Connor proves unexpectedly compelling: the least ‘human’ of the playable characters, he treads a much more delicate line than his counterparts, in turn allowing players to explore one of the game’s few ambiguous elements.