When is a game not a game? Some might say, when it’s a David Cage game.
Although his studio Quantic Dream is known for its adventures, it can be argued that it is more a film studio than game developer. It has a reputation for creating big budget stories with high production values and basic interactivity. But, in gameplay terms, previous titles have more given the illusion that you are in control rather than actually handing you the reins.
Don’t get us wrong, we loved Heavy Rain – adored it even. But it and Beyond: Two Souls had largely linear narratives only occasionally allowing the player to stray from a path to an inevitable conclusion.
They were pretty, but also, in the words of the Sex Pistols, pretty vacant.
Detroit: Become Human is different. The PS4 exclusive is similarly an adventure game in which you are given just enough control and tools to choose your way through a predetermined plot, but the branches of the tree are far more plentiful. There are many more ways you can arrive at one of the game’s multiple endings. And lead characters can even die, changing the progression greatly. It’s more ambitious, more involving and, dare we say it, more playable.
Like a half decent Robert Altman film or Cage’s own Heavy Rain, the action throughout Detroit: Become Human jumps from character to character and scene to scene – unless you’ve lost one along the way, of course.
They are each androids, robots in lifelike human form, with different agendas and plot lines that occasionally intertwine. The most recognisable of the trio is Kara, thanks to her appearance in a 2012 tech demo Quantic Dream developed to show what the PlayStation 3 was capable of at the time.
It was never designed as a trailer for a full game, just a real-time graphics demo but, thanks to public pressure and questioning, she was a great fit to be the subject for Cage’s first dedicated game for the platform. Even though she’s not actually the first playable character you encounter.
The game starts, in fact, with you in control of Connor, an android that has been designed to be smarter and more advanced than the general models available to the general public. And while Kara and the third playable character, Markus, end up breaking out of their programming (for reasons you discover in the first couple of hours play), Connor is an authoritarian figure - a cop who is tasked with seeking out and arresting or eliminating malfunctioning counterparts. So he’s a different kind of beast entirely – one that actually provides some of the best moments in the game.
Blade Runner is clearly an inspiration, as are the works of Asimov, but Quantic Dream has also added its own twist to the genre tropes. Connor can decide which is the best action to take in a given situation, even at the cost of his own life and this often presents many choices of gameplay style to the player. We suggest you try not to, but you can even kill him off in the prologue before the titles have rolled - and then he'll not appear in the rest of the game.
Markus can also die at key moments in the story, which is a shame because he’s possibly the most interesting in style. He is an android tasked with looking after an aged, disabled artist and hasn't a bad circuit in his head until an alarming incident sees him break out of his strict programming and become an integral member of the Deviants resistance movement Connor was designed to destroy.
Finally, of course, there is Kara, the android who started the entire ball rolling. She is a domestic servant in a troubled household, who also breaks her programming but for a very different reason to Markus.
We don't want to give away too many spoilers, but act one shifts between them in quick bursts to give you a general idea of the plot going forward. It also sets the tone well, making it clear that, while humankind built the machines in the first place to perform menial tasks, it resents their presence for the self-same reasons - hence the need for rebellion.
Another star of the game is Detroit itself. Set in 2038, the design team has gone to town on making a near-future version of the city as believable as possible. The story is clearly sci-fi but the technology is based on things that exist now or are soon to come.
Autonomous vehicles drive around the streets, drones zip around the skies and the androids themselves have been inspired by voice assistants, such as Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant. A lot of thought has been given to how the existence of non-human workers and helpers would affect society too.
Our own, current society has already changed greatly by putting a powerful computer in everybody’s hands in the form of smartphones. It is changing further by lending them voices. Imagine if you gave them faces, arms and legs too?
Employment rates would soar, for example, as humans are replaced by more efficient synthetic counterparts. And that underlying worry is essentially what drives Detroit: Become Human. While they embrace the idea of artificial aid, they equally resent it. Some violently.
And, thanks to a software glitch, that provokes several models of android to fight back.
Get with the flow
Cage’s latest epic is beautifully presented, perhaps even more so than Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Not just because it is designed on more powerful hardware, but because it adopts more cinematic camera techniques and, what feels to be, a tighter, better realised script.
It looks superb in 4K HDR on a PS4 Pro, and is still a visual delight on a standard PS4 without the Ultra HD resolution.
But no matter how pleasant it is to watch, most will be drawn or put off by the level of interactivity. We’ve already touched upon the fact that it gives you a far greater array of outcomes and consequences to actions, but in general gameplay terms you’ll find a familiar tale to other interactive adventures.
Most of the game moments are defined by simple button presses, sweeps of the right thumbstick or swipes of the touchpad at the top of a DualShock 4. This might not be enough for some, but they might find the investigation scenes more up their alley.
When Connor investigates a crime, the gameplay is far more involving. It feels similar to the crime scene mechanics of Heavy Rain or the Batman: Arkham Knight trilogy. You scan your surrounds and interact with clues dotted around each location.
Those clues often yield reconstruction animations you can playback using your controller. At points in the reconstruction, you might see another clue and so on and so forth.
It makes total sense in this context, giving you a very analytical view of a murder, for example - the sort that would suit a computer-led mind. And it gives you, what feels like, complete control at that time.
Of course, you will still likely be plunged into a sequence of rapid fire, rhythm game-style button presses when you come to your conclusion, but you feel it is earned rather than simply thrust upon you at that point.
The other main gameplay mechanic actually comes after each scene. Once completed, each segment presents you with a flow chart of your actions, detailing your decisions along the way. Sometimes they are simple and linear, other times you can see many other branches and possible endings to that situation.
The ones you didn’t take remain locked and unseen but – and this is something we applaud – you can subsequently go back to specific checkpoints in each scene and replay the game from there. You are also given the option to either replay them simply to unlock them, but without impacting on your progress, or literally wipe everything from that moment to continue the story from there.
This is an interesting way to encourage replayability, as you don’t have to start from the very beginning again if you don’t want to. And, considering the game time runs for many hours, you can try to unlock all the different outcomes without having to sit through large chunks of barely interactive sections again.
Quantic Dream has almost invented a brand new game style in that option alone.
How you get on with Detroit: Become Human is entirely how you feel about the level of control you are offered.
It is, easily, the developer’s biggest, most impressive choose-you-own-adventure yet, with multiple plot strands and conclusions. But still feels like a story you participate in rather than determine. That will not sit right with some but is absolutely fine for us.
Gaming is an entertainment medium and variety is key. Detroit is a relaxing, sometimes thought-provoking ride that we’re very happy to have taken. It is not Fortnite, nor Call of Duty and we’re comfortable with that. We don’t want it to be either.
It is an enjoyable and intriguing cinematic experience, and while not particularly intuitive and a little derivative at times, the game offers a great alternative to being repeatedly hit by a shovel in a battle royale by a teenager from Wisconsin.
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And you can put that on the poster.