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Game Review: Detroit — Become Human

Posted in video game, video game design by commorancy on May 27, 2018

Chloe from Detroit Becoming HumanI’m usually a big fan of Quantic Dream video games. However, this one tries a little too hard and fails in many ways. Let’s explore.

SPOILER ALERT

If you’re interested in playing this game, this review may contain spoilers. You should stop reading now and play first. I encourage you to come back to this review once you have played it.

Story

This is a story of android emancipation. The world has androids as servants which are being sold in retail stores. They are used as personal assistants, house maids and so on. However, something has happened and androids have awoken from their blissful subservience into thinking and feeling entities. Herein lies the opening of this story and the game.

Stories vs Gameplay

Let’s take a step back just a little from this game and analyze its broader genre within the game industry. The story versus gameplay war has been waged in earnest for the last 10 years, particularly when Quantic Dream released Heavy Rain on the PS3 in 2010. Note that there have been a semblance of these kinds of cinematic games going all the way back to the Amiga days with Rocket Ranger and Defender of the Crown. But, these full blown episodic TV games arrived with Heavy Rain. With the release of Heavy Rain came a game where you effectively watched a TV show unfold with periodic button choices thrown in to change the flow of the narrative.

Well, that’s exactly Detroit: Become Human. In fact, the story that’s being told in Detroit seems like a failed TV series turned into a video game. In reality, that’s what it is. That’s not to say there’s not actual button-press game play in this game, but these segments are so infrequent as to feel less like a game and more like watching a TV show with an interactive narrative component.

Note that there have been a number of episodic style games released very similar to Detroit. In addition to Heavy Rain, these include The Last Of Us, Quantum Break, L.A. Noire, Beyond Two Souls and the Alan Wake series. Note that Quantum Break took this whole idea one step further by including 20 minute (or longer) live actor-filmed episodic TV segments as part of your reward for finishing a game segment. That game was truly like watching episodic TV. Detroit doesn’t make this leap, but does the next best thing by trying to make its rendering as photo realistic as possible on the PS4.

Choices

As with all Quantic Dream games, the game is reasonably chock full of gamer choices. That is, choices that you make that affect whether a character lives or dies or whether you uncover an important detail or not. Though, even Quantic Dream’s stories are not unlimited and must follow a certain limited path to the end. Yes, there may be two or three outcomes, but ultimately the outcomes don’t drastically affect the next segment or, indeed, the entire plot. In fact, the choices may not affect much at all.

Chapters

The game breaks each ‘episode’ into chapters. Each chapter focuses on a specific character and their role in that particular story segment. Occasionally, the chapter switches between two or three different characters… and even less frequently, sometimes the characters meet.

What is the story?

The story is much like I, Robot. It’s about androids that become self-aware and, instead of simply being a utilitarian “thing” now wish all of the equality that humans have. Effectively, it’s a modern day slave story… where humans enslave androids for utilitarian purposes, yet they wake up and become aware that they no longer want this and wish to live free.

As a result, Markus (an android hero of this story) rises up to revolt against humans and bring the android freedom cause front and center. How you make that cause unfold is up to the gamer. You can effectively go pacifist or violent. If you go violent, the story unfolds a certain way. If you go the pacifist way, then the story takes a different turn. It’s left up to the gamer to choose the path.

Story Inconsistencies and Contrivances

Unfortunately, Quantic Dream’s writers failed in a number of important ways. For one, the story establishes that androids have direct contact memory probe capabilities. One android can probe another android’s “mind” simply through touch. Yet in one segment of the game, there’s a 1.5 minute timer that counts down after an android is revived and before it expires again. In this segment, you’re playing as Connor (an android enlisted to work with the cops to solve ‘Deviant’ murders). A deviant is an android that is no longer obeying its central programming and has become self-aware and can make choices for itself.

In this 1.5 minute countdown timer, an android needs to impart crucial information for Connor’s and Hank’s investigation. It would have been simple for Connor to touch and extract that data he needed in less than a second without saying a word to the android. This would have made the countdown timer pointless, yes. Instead, the game forces you to waste time using speech to try to talk to the android via interrogation. If it had been Hank (Connor’s human partner) forced to do perform this investigation segment, this section would have made sense. But, since it was Connor performing this interrogation, it made no sense at all. It’s these stupid little story details that are a pet peeve and that get in the way of telling the story. It doesn’t matter whether the story is in a game or in a novel, logic must be followed in full. If the story’s details aren’t logically presented, then the story fails.

A second one of these writer failures was after Connor is shot and dies in a previous segment. I won’t say exactly how, when or by whom, but it happens. Yet, in the next chapter, Connor is very much alive, undamaged, dressed in his normal Connor android garb. He looks the same and meets up with Amanda in the garden yet again. Is it the same Connor? *shrug* A tombstone in Amanda’s garden says not, but who erects tombstones for androids and when and why would it have been erected? How would Amanda have even known? There was no story detail to state that Amanda had even known of Connor’s demise. However, the title to the upper right of this segment says ‘Betrayed’ with a down red pointer. Amanda completely ignores this betrayal. Without any explanation, Amanda talks with Connor and inexplicably gives him yet one more chance to quash the android rebellion. If this were a replaced Connor as the tombstone suggests, this replacement would have some significant drawbacks… particularly the rapport that he had built with Hank along with all of the knowledge Connor had built up about the deviants’ hide out. Though, later, another story contrivance shows that androids can somehow transfer their entire memory consciousness in the 2 seconds it takes to fall off of a several story building. If this is the case, then why would Connor be afraid of dying in one section of the game?

A third contrivance is the rA9 moniker that’s found written all over walls and posters during the beginning of the game. In fact, Connor makes a point of stating that rA9 had been written on a wall over 1000 times. Yet, halfway through this game, the thread is dropped never to be heard from again. What the hell, guys? If you’re going to bring it up as an important discussion point, at least close it out at the end of the story! Was Markus the rA9 or not? And, what is an rA9? This one deserves an eye roll.

Unfortunately, much of this game is chock full of such story contrivances… this is why I call this premise a failed TV series. Perhaps it’s time for video game studios to actually hire some seasoned TV writers to write these video game stories, particularly when they are so cinematic in nature. These video game stories need to hold up to logical scrutiny in just the same way as any story arc does. Quantic Dream, you need to hire better writers and you need your games to follow through with every story detail.

Gameplay

Combat is where the game really fails the hardest. For some die-hard Mortal Kombat fans, the combat part of the game might be considered fun. For us casual gamers, where random button presses don’t make sense, this section of the game is not only no fun, it entirely detracts from the game and story being told.

This game intentionally plays mostly like one very long cinematic with only small and brief interruptions for you to control a specific character to accomplish a task, get from point A to B or to make a decision. These small interruptions in the narrative only serve to force the gamer to lead the story down a specific path. However, the majority of the game is like watching episodic TV. Unfortunately, Quantic Dream made the entirely wrong control choice for the combat portions.

Much of the game choices are a casual X press or a motion of the controller or some simple untimed action. These casual selections are perfectly acceptable. However, when it gets into full on combat, this is where the Mortal Kombat style combos take over. A style, I might add, that is entirely no fun and detracts heavily from the story at hand. Not only is the gamer presented with sometimes 15-20 different button presses, six-axis motion, multi-button presses, shoulder button presses or any number of other combo choices, they’re presented with such randomness and in such quick timed succession that unless you have the reflexes of an android, you’re not likely to succeed pressing most of them on time. Frustrating.

In these combat sections, the timers are incredibly short, sometimes less than half a second. The button or movement choice also doesn’t make sense with the action requested. You could press the left arrow joystick to kick then press R1 the next action to kick then press X the third time to kick. There’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to why an action ends up on a specific button.

The only saving grace is that these actions are the same in each play through. If you want, you can map them out and then follow them like a script. However, the easier method is to keep pressing pause. This gives you enough time to decipher which button it is, prepare, take it out of pause, press it, then pause again. Whether or not you use pause, this combat system heavily detracts from the story action, so much so you can’t even keep up with what’s going on.

It’s entirely one thing for a developer to assign a specific combat action to a specific button. For example, many games assign X to a sword press or some other melee attack. The left shoulder button button might be block or parry. The triangle button might be kick or jump. When they’re hard mapped, you know what they do. It’s entirely another thing to free form map actions with random abandon. In this game, there is no mapping. The buttons being pressed or the actions being performed have no logical sense to whatever the character is doing. The button or action appears randomly and the gamer is expected to decipher that, process it and press that button all in less than a second. Some gamers are very good at this, many are not. This means that, by choice, Quantic Dream has automatically alienated a lot of gamers who are not good with this style of combat. A style of combat, I might add, that is perfectly placed in Mortal Kombat, but makes zero sense in a narrative driven story like Detroit: Become Human. Who at Quantic Dream thought this was a good idea? The question then is… Do you want your game accessible to all types of gamers or just those who are good at this style of combat? This is QD’s biggest fail in this game.

As gamers, we want predictability in our combat button mapping. We want to know that X is mapped to melee attack. It’s simple to understand why. When we get into combat, we press X naturally. It then becomes second nature pressing X. Most of us don’t want to second guess what’s about to appear on the screen, then try to reach for the button in time. It works fine with Guitar Hero, but it sucks hard in a game like Detroit.

Additionally, the failure with this random combat style is that you don’t know when the next press will appear on the screen. It could come immediately after a previous press or it could be 5 to 10 seconds later. Sometimes you need to wait 1 minute for a bunch of screen action to play out before the next is presented. Sometimes they appear in rapid succession. It’s the combination of this full randomness that is what I consider not only a horrible combat system, but one of the worst I’ve ever encountered in any game. It is also entirely out of place here.

For the gamer who’s trying to remain focused on the story, this gameplay style completely detracts from watching the unfolding story. Not only can you not focus on the story action at hand, you’re so focused on that next button press that that’s all you’re looking for. There’s also no warning when combat starts. It starts without warning and ends without warning. Most recent games have begun adding musical queues to know when you’re going into combat and when you’ve left it. Not here. Worse, there’s no way to succeed in this gameplay section without tunnel vision focus on the button presses. Even then, you’re likely to miss a few. The game doesn’t even let you know if you’ve ‘won’ or ‘lost’ this action scene after missing one or more than one of these moves. In fact, ‘won’ or ‘loss’ is randomly part of the story whether or not you succeed in hitting every move. In this game, these actions are, in fact, entirely pointless.

This, Quantic Dream, is your greatest failure in this narrative. Not only does this combat style entirely detract from the cinematic / TV episodic nature of the story, it forces the gamer to become so tunnel vision focused to avoid missing a button press, the story is lost. You simply cannot watch what the characters are doing AND play the combo button game. Even more than this, when the combat is all over, the character may die anyway because, you know, story. When designing a combat segment, make that combat actually mean something… especially when the gamer has to jump through hoops to get there. Else, just let the combat play out based on previous dialog choices.

To me, this style of combat is on par with fetch quests. They’re a means to an end, yes, but the techniques are forced, contrived and unnecessary… particularly in a game that relies on this level of cinematic storytelling.

Characters battling other Characters — Confusion

Latching onto the previous combat issue presented, this issue extends that problem even further. There are at least two times in the game when two of your characters end up fighting each other. The already convoluted combat system becomes even more convoluted and confusing. I didn’t think that was possible. Yet, on top of the random button presses and actions, now you can’t even decipher to which character the action is attached. Was that last move for Connor or Hank? *shrug* Sometimes you can tell when they’re far enough apart. Most times, they’re struggling with each other, when the button or action appears, you don’t know to which character the action applies. This system is completely detestable.

Seriously, how did this game even get out of beta testing with this level of combat confusion?

Unexpected Choices and Restarting

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to predict the story outcomes from choices you make. The dialog choices which seem the most innocent and the least problematic can turn out the most deadly for your characters. This is frustrating on so many levels. Because of this unpredictability of story, it’s almost impossible to read into a specific dialog choice and assume you know what it might accomplish. This is particularly problematic when dialog choices are strung together one right after the other, but then the outcome playback isn’t seen until after all choices have been made. This is an incredibly poor design choice. Instead, the dialog choices should unfold one at a time immediately after each choice.

Many actions I would have deemed to be the ‘safe’ choice end up getting a character killed or taking the story in the wrong direction. This unpredictability, while good in one way, is a horrible idea in the long run. You do want some character predictability. Characters should act in specific ways, or more specifically, show a certain type of moral bent. If I want to keep that character on that same moral path, that shouldn’t lead to death for other characters. I shouldn’t have to compromise my character’s morals to keep some other character alive. The AI should understand this ideal and uphold it for each character. Should you decide to take a character down a path that’s nefarious intentionally, then the consequences should be problematic.

I find the storytelling problems disturbing on so many levels with Detroit. If taking a specific action leads to certain death for a character, or at least a high probability for danger, that choice should be called out in the dialog by flagging it with a red color. At least let me know that the choice that I’m about to make won’t necessarily end well. In reality, the game should offer at least some level of foreshadowing in the choices. For example, if you drink too much then choose to drive, the dangers of this outcome are quite apparent. Let’s offer at least this level of forewarning in game choices.

This also leads to a broader problem with this game. If you make a choice during a long episodic segment, there is no way way to save your game, reload and remake that choice a different way. Instead, you have to cancel out of the entire segment back to the title screen and start the whole segment over. Or, alternatively, you need to wait for the chapter to play out in full, then exit to the title screen and redo whatever checkpoint is available forward to the end. The game makes you jump through unnecessary hoops to start levels over. This is a horrible design choice.

This game mechanic is also quite stupid. If you’re designing your game to enforce an unpredictable choice mechanism, then damn well give me an easy way to restart and remake those choices. Don’t force me to wait up to 15 minutes through an unexpected choice only to spend even more minutes and play through again. This is my time you are wasting. It’s a game, give me the option to abort where I am and start over at some recent checkpoint. I know that the game designers intended you to play it through in one long stretch, but that’s not how I want spend loads of my time (backtracking and starting over)… especially when the obviously ‘safest’ choice isn’t. If you can’t offer reasonable dialog choices that offer some semblance of sane outcome, then you need to offer a compensating control to allow restarting the segment quick and painless. Without one or the other game mechanism, it actually turns this game into a chore to play.

And no, I’m not going to listen to the title screen character telling me to give it a play through in some random way the first time. I’m going to play this game in the way I approach all games… I play it in the way that gives me the most satisfaction. If the game intentionally gets in my way of doing that, then the design is crap.

Making Development Choices

Quantic Dream needs to take a drastic change to its play style choice in its next game title. You have a decision to make. Is this to be a TV show or a game? Trying to marry both concepts into a single whole doesn’t work in many ways. You need to rethink the current combat button play style. In this game, you’d already added the computational component to the game. This component, like VATS, allows the player to pre-calculate the odds of success to a particular string of movements. This play style allows the player to play the scenario out to see the success or failure outcome before commencing the real movements.

This would have been the ideal combat method for this game. Get rid of the quick succession button presses and let Markus (or whomever) calculate the odds of success in advance with a particular combat strategy. Then, unleash the action and let it play out just as it did in other sections of the game. This way, the gamer gets to watch the entire action unfold with his/her strategy choices without unnecessary constant button press distractions. You already had this system in the game, it simply needed to be added to the combat.

After all, these are androids. Let them do what they do best… calculate. Again, this goes back to narrative logic failure. The writers simply did not impress story logic enough upon the game developers … and enforce the significance of the android in this gaming narrative. This, in fact, would have not only shown more of what the androids are capable (cold calculated combat), it would have decidedly ensured a terrifying outcome of exactly how dangerous the androids are. Quantic Dream entirely missed this incredibly important story point.

Title Screen Taunting

This is an issue that’s been progressing at a rapid pace in the video game industry and this title is no exception. When you reach the title screen, an android’s face appears (Chloe) and begins prompting you to do things and even goes so far as to tell you how you should play the game. To her I say, “shut the hell up”. I don’t want to hear what you have to say. If you want to be there and fidget or blink or do whatever, that’s fine. But, don’t intrude on my game and try to tell me how to play it or that I missed a crucial element or that one of my story’s characters died. I already know this. You don’t need to further “rub it in” by telling me this again. Keep in mind that part of the reason a character may have died was due to a stupid decision by the story designer to turn an innocuous dialog choice into a massacre.

This is my game and it’s my choice how I play it. Give me those tools to play the game in the way that I choose. If I want to quit out of the middle of a segment and restart it, that’s my choice. I don’t want to hear taunts from the title screen character telling me in no uncertain terms just how I eff’d up. I’m there trying to work through the story again to correct that mistake. A mistake, I might add, that had nothing to do with me, but had to do with the story designers who chose to turn a dialog choice or action deadly. To me, that’s both poor story design and poor game design.

Skipping Cinematics

Any game that offers long cinematics (by long, I define that as longer than 1 minute) needs to offer a way to skip them. This game does not offer that. There is no button to skip watching very long and, after you’ve seen them once, unnecessary cinematics. Once is most definitely enough in this game. This is, again, a waste of time.

One of the first things a game designer needs to learn is not to waste the gamer’s time. If we want to skip past a long unnecessary segment, give us the option to do so. Quantic Dream has not yet figured this out. By this game, they should have.

Characters and Guns

Here’s yet another thing that chaps me. A character finds a gun on the ground and we are given the choice to pick it up. Yet, the character is never given the opportunity to use the weapon at all… not via dialog choices, not via actions and not via any other means. Why have a character find a weapon then not be given the choice to use it? I shake my head here because this is one of the weakest designs I’ve yet seen in a game. If it’s important enough to have a character do something, then it’s important enough to bring it back into the game later.

Graphics and Sound

This is the single brightest point of Detroit: Become Human. The rendering engine is probably one of the most realistic I’ve yet seen on a console. The models, unfortunately, are a bit stilted in places (hands and mouths), but that only adds to the androidiness of the whole thing. If they were entirely realistic to the point you couldn’t tell them apart from the humans, that might make for a more compelling story, but at the same time, it’s kind of already been done in various TV series including Westworld.

Detroit: Become Human™_20180527171319

Keeping the game a bit less than real only serves to enhance the android idea and to allow buy-in for this world. That’s not to say that the graphics couldn’t be better. Of course, they can always be better. Where this game falls down is mouth movements for speech. I’ve seen so much better mouth movement in video games, it’s surprising this part is so stilted and poorly done. It’s long past time for a developer to produce a mouth phoneme movement kit for the industry as a whole. With rendering engines that look as realistic as Quantic Dream’s games, you’d think they would have spent the little bit extra time to develop a better mouth movement toolkit? Nope. The mouth movement is particularly bad on the main screen android because her mouth is front-and-center. It’s really the only thing you can look at. In-game mouth movement is allowed to be a little off because most times we’re not seeing it. Quantic Dream, spend a little more time when you’re building title screen animations.

The sound quality is very cinematic, particularly the music which ebbs and flows perfectly with the scenes. Unfortunately, the musical themes don’t end properly at times. The music ends abruptly when the task is done. At least get your composers to write an outro for the segment that seamlessly flows with the music already playing… or, at least fade it out. Do something a little more professional than just abruptly stopping the music in the middle.

Movie Replay

I was expecting that by the time we reached the end of creating our narrative that we would be able to replay the full movie without interruption. Alas, no. Quantic Dream doesn’t offer that level of game foresight. When you get to the end of your narrative, it’s over. There’s nothing else to do but replay parts of it again. Again, I shake my head.

Overall

I give Detroit: Become Human 6 out of 10 stars. It’s not game of the year in my book. But, with a few patches, they could fix up some of the deficiencies. Though, it’s doubtful they can patch the story problems or the failed combat system. Though, they might be able to introduce the playback system as an extra.

My recommendation is to rent this. You can get through the entire narrative in about a day. It’s very, very short and definitely not worth $60. The ending isn’t really an ending. It’s more of a cliffhanger. There are also story elements simply left unclosed. Also, Quantic Dream is not known for offering up sequels. I wouldn’t expect one here.

If you liked Quantic Dream’s other games like Heavy Rain and Beyond Two Souls, you’ll probably like Detroit: Become Human. But, don’t expect perfection. If you like heavy story driven games (to the point of almost being episodic TV replete with monologues and touching scenes), then you’ll probably like this game. However, don’t set your hopes high for the game play elements.

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Sound: 9 out of 10
Gameplay: 7 out of 10
Combat System: 1.5 out of 10
Story: 8 out of 10
Fun Factor: 6 out of 10
Stability: 9.5 out of 10
Length: 3 out of 10 (main story takes no more than a day to get through)

Overall: 6 out of 10 (It’s way too short, rent it).

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