After playing Detroit: Become Human for around an hour I paused the game, walked to my kitchen, and spent the next ten minutes having a very loud, and very hearty cry. I don’t particularly want to admit that, because I’m not usually one to burst into tears, but it illustrates what Quantic Dream have achieved. This isn’t just a video game; Detroit: Become Human is a box set of your new favourite drama set in a believable world packed full of characters you will care for.
Set twenty years in the future, the story – which lasts in excess of fifteen hours depending on your choices – follows three androids. Kara, who we met all those years ago in the Quantic Dream tech demo, is a maid, Markus assists a disabled artist played by Lance Henriksen, and Connor is an advance prototype assigned to help grizzled detective Hank Andersen discover why androids are breaking their programming and becoming Deviants.
It’s a complex story with a number of plot twists that acts as an allegory for many of the troubles in the world today. Slavery and the oppression of people of colour is the most obvious one, but child abuse, immigration, drugs, freedom of speech, ethnic cleansing, and homophobia are all part of the story. Some of you might have guessed, but it’s the latter of those that made me go and have a good bawl in my kitchen.
It wasn’t even part of the main story, but in Markus’ first scene, as I went to pick up some paint, I was accosted by a hate preacher screaming that all androids are evil, they are the work of the devil and need to be destroyed. Replace the ‘android’ with ‘gay’ and it’s word for word what some religious organisations say today about the LGBTQ+ community.
Following the three leads, the choices you make impact the plot in meaningful ways. Their paths do cross at certain points, but for most of the game the protagonists remain apart, giving you three very different views on the unfolding drama. Your actions also dictate how other characters react to you; do something they approve of and they become friendlier and may unlock different story paths for you to follow, but the reverse is just as true. There are a number of plot twists to be uncovered, but again it depends on your actions, and you may not discover them all on your first play through.
A story about an android uprising is hardly new, but Detroit brings fresh perspective to a familiar tale. One sequence featuring Markus is very reminiscent of a scene from the film A.I., but the ingenious lighting and sound turns what could have been facsimile into a full-blown horror movie. It’s by the far the best sequence in the game and one I will remember for a very long time.
As will be familiar from Quantic Dream games, there’s a mixture of just watching scenes unfold and choosing dialogue, and exploring and interacting with the world. The androids can all freeze time with their Mind Palace and look around for potential actions, a trick most often used by Connor to investigate a scene and conjure up virtual reconstructions. You’ll be twirling analogue sticks and holding button combos to pick things up or open doors, but thankfully there’s none of the thumb acrobatics as found in previous games, even when things ramp up in intensity for the quick time action sequences.
One thing that’s rarely mentioned in video games are camera angles, but they are exceptionally good in Detroit, zooming and sweeping to give a sense of scale or hovering close to a character’s face for more intimate moments. It’s been directed like a film or TV show, with smooth pans during quiet moments and a handheld camera feel during action scenes. You occasionally switch to a first person view, which can be very impactful, such as when Kara is waiting in a shop to be collected, unable to move or speak, just look around as humans decide if they want to buy you.
The facial animation is by far the best there’s been in a video game, as every twitch, smile and blink has been captured perfectly to show a character’s emotions to you. Some of the close-ups of faces, particularly a character called Amanda, are nigh on perfect and look like a video rather than something that a PlayStation console could render. This carries on outside the game, as you can unlock a truly astonishing video of Luther singing that is full of emotion and minute details like his lips quivering as he hits his notes.
The acting is superb throughout and even the minor characters such as Luther and Kamski are entirely believable. Valorie Curry’s Kara is the stand out performance, perhaps because she is the most human, but Bryan Dechart’s Connor is a close second with a deliberately less emotional performance. Hollywood star Clancy Brown is also excellent as grizzled cop Hank.
Thankfully the clunky moments of scripting found in previous Quantic Dream titles are mostly absent, although there’s still the odd clanger in there, like when a reporter points out the camps for androids are much like the ones used by the Nazis in World War II. You know, just in case you didn’t get that reference.
Fans of Quantic Dream will be well aware of David Cage’s fetish for depicting mundane everyday life, from opening fridges to doing the washing up. There’s a merry-go-round, which was a key plot point in Heavy Rain, and an obligatory trip to an android sex club. Thankfully we’re not subjected to any badly animated sex scenes. I did feel that the pacing of the story does slow in the third quarter and perhaps a couple of scenes could have been cut.
The locations are also extremely well detailed, which is astonishing when so many of them are used just once in the game. It’s obvious that a huge amount of thought has gone into creating a near future world, from automated vehicles to police drones, the use of tablets and the way that supermarkets are now just windows where you log in and place an order. There’s neat touches like humans just throwing rubbish on the floor, knowing it will be picked up by an android moments later, and an obvious pastiche of Fox News on the TV.
The game looks so good that the handful of flaws can take you right out of the moment. Some objects just don’t look quite right, such as a low quality headlight flare effect when driving through the snow, and Hank’s hair looks crude compared to other characters. They’re nit-picks, but they remind you that this is a game on PlayStation 4 and not a sci-fi thriller on Netflix. A couple of performance hiccups can also crop up, and that’s while reviewing on PS4 Pro.
Three composers worked on the game giving Kara, Markus, and Connor their own soundtracks, and they are all excellent. Kara’s warmer and more emotional, Connor’s has electronic bleeps and squelches emphasizing his android nature, and Markus’ has the lion’s share of action sequences and therefore requires a more bombastic score.
Though there are reasons to return and replay the game, jumping in at any chapter or save point and progressing from there, the story you create on your first play through is personal to you. Though you can see the flowchart of each scene and check off each ending, going against your initial judgement reduces the impact. The story still moves towards the same finale no matter what your choices are, but how you get there and how the conclusion unfurls can be quite different; the three protagonists can even die if you’re not careful.
It’s a story that will resonate with different people in different ways as it tackles so many big subjects. If you are a minority you’re going to get a lot more out of this than if you’re a straight white guy, but as long as you have an ounce of humanity in your body you’re going to empathise with some of the characters. Kara’s story in particular will affect those of you who are parents.
As well as being an emotional wreck within the first hour, I felt many different emotions through the game. Sadness, empathy, quite a few more tears, shock, even the odd bout of happiness. That didn’t last too long; the story is pretty grim, “It’s like being waterboarded by a video game,” was a semi-accurate description from my partner who watched my first play through sat beside me on the couch. You’ll probably need a hug at the end.
Detroit: Become Human really is like sitting down and playing a TV box set. It’s a technical masterpiece on PS4 with movie quality sound, lighting and camera work, which is backed up by some top quality action and a wonderfully evocative score. Detroit really worked for me; I was gripped by the story and connected with the characters, but I think some players may have a hard time relating to Kara, Markus, and Connor. That’s to be expected. After all, we’re only human.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4 Pro