Release Date: April 5, 2016Platform: XBO (reviewed), PCDeveloper: Remedy EntertainmentPublisher: Microsoft StudiosGenre: Action-Adventure
There’s a part of me that really, really likes Quantum Break. The story is intriguing, with enough callbacks to classic sci-fi tropes to keep a nerd like me invested for an entire playthrough, and the gameplay is inoffensive. Nothing in Quantum Break is quite innovative, mind you, but not everything has to be in order to be entertaining. That said, Remedy’s follow-up to Alan Wake, a game I love very much, never quite delivers on the promise of its extended development time.
Quantum Break tells the story of Jack Joyce (played by Shawn Ashmore), who has gained the ability to stop time after a time travel experiment goes terribly wrong and fractures time itself. In the wake of this disaster, Jack must face off against the evil Monarch Corporation, headed by Paul Serene (Aidan Gillen), who can see the future and plans to use that to his advantage. Lots of shooting, crazy feats of time manipulation, and science experiments proceed, and the story offers up plenty of twists and turns to keep things interesting.
At first glance, Quantum Break seems like a bold move for Remedy, which made a name for itself in the early 2000s with the gritty Max Payne games before releasing the more recent Alan Wake in 2010. Unlike the other two games, Quantum Break is decidely brighter and more speculative, straying away from the darker tones of its noir and horror predecessors, but once you really get your hands dirty, it’s impossible not to notice that Quantum Break is right on formula.
THIS IS NO ORDINARY GAME
Like Max Payne and Alan Wake, Quantum Break is not allowed to just be a game. Remedy has always been known to play with the narrative structure of its stories. Max Payne told much of its story through comic book panels and Alan Wake was structured like a TV mystery show, with each section of the game playing out like an individual episode. The TV show structure returns for Quantum Break, but Remedy has kicked it up a notch by including AN ACTUAL TV SHOW in between each act of the game, which is singlehandedly the most frustrating thing about the entire experience.
The digital series episodes play in between each act of the game and tell the story of the villains in an unspired way. Nothing really vital is learned from these live-action sections except that having to buffer a 20-minute video for an hour is the most painful thing you could force an intrigued gamer to do, especially one who must compulsively know every bit of story. But so unnecessary are the episodes to the enjoyment of the actual game, which again is very solid in the “entertainment” category, that you have the option the skip them. And I wish I’d had the willpower to do so. To go back to my comment about the terrible streaming quality of the episodes, yes, you CAN just download them instead of waiting for them to buffer, but then they would just take up precious space in your hard drive.
The digital series’ biggest crime is that it doesn’t contribute anything that couldn’t simply be delivered in an in-game cinematic. Alan Wake managed to deliver this same sort of game-TV hybrid without the inflated budget this digital series obviously demanded, using cinematics that did a good job of fleshing out supporting characters without pulling you out of the experience after every level. But Quantum Break draws way too much attention to its gimmick, and after having to sit through the third episode, I wondered if Remedy actually saw this as some kind of reward for beating a level. Because it isn’t.
The digital series is meant to be interactive, too. After the end of each act of the game, the story switches to the villain’s point of view. And these little epilogue sections, called “Junctions” in the game, you get to decide how the Monarch Corporation will handle the latest Jack Joyce-induced setback. The Junctions aren’t all that interesting, though, and mainly serve to decide which episode to play next. You are only given two choices in each Junction and the outcome plays out in the digital series. This is meant to lend a bit of replayability to the story. But that would mean having to watch more 20-minute videos than I have to…
In Remedy’s defense, there’s no lack of ambition here. The studio most certainly spent its big budget in the way it thought would best deliver its vision, including casting big name actors like Ashmore, Gillen, and Lance Reddick (Agent Broyles from Fringe!) — who is admittedly fantastic as the calculating Martin Hatch. But in doing things this way, Remedy gets its priorities a little mixed up. Remedy could have easily used its budget to make its game truly stand out from other cover-based shooters.
TAKE COVER, SHOOT, TIME POWERS
As I was saying before, Quantum Break never really strays away from what Remedy has done in the past — a mix of shooting down your foes while utilizing some kind of special ability. In Max Payne, it was bullet time. In Alan Wake, you used light to fight back against enemies that thrived in darkness. And Quantum Break introduces the ability to manipulate time, which comes in pretty handy when surrounded by loads of enemies — and by loads, I mean not that many at a time. You’ll never really feel overwhelmed by the odds in Quantum Break, but you don’t get the sense that you’re overpowered either, although you certainly have the edge over most of the bad guys.
The powers themselves aren’t all that remarkable. I got the sense while stopping enemies in their tracks with my Time Stop ability that I’d played something like this before, although I couldn’t remember what. The same happened when I used Time Dodge, which is essentially bullet time but more timey wimey. Time Shield is basically a bubble shield that slows down time in a limited radius around you.
Quantum Break does find a few interesting things to do with the powers, especially in the platforming sections — of which there are many — where Jack can identify certain little hiccups in time and rewind collapsed catwalks in order to progress to the next area. So there’s a bit of puzzle-solving, but nothing too crazy.
As you make your way through the game and acquire more chronons — this game’s version of currency…but, you know, more timey wimey — firefights become just a tad less interesting, especially when you’re up against simple guards or armored soldiers. Special units equipped with “time harnesses” offer a more entertaining challenge, and they look cool, too. They’re basically dudes in hazmat suits with these big, grotesque apparatuses on their backs. (You can see one above.) There’s deliciously weird science in this game and it’s impossible not to love.
The gameplay is only really weakened by its predictable action beats. After a while, you can sort of tell when a firefight is coming — there’s usually an overlong platforming section beforehand and then a blue backpack full of ammo next to the entrance to the next area — so you’re never really surprised by anything. Once in a while, the game will throw a new enemy at you — some of which are pretty cool — but there’s nothing that really surprises.
One thing Quantum Break does really well during its action sequences is that it often forces you to improvise. While there are plenty of opportunities to restock on ammo, you can’t really carry all that many bullets, except when it comes to pistols, which have infinite ammo. (I found the infinite ammo thing kind of dated. No pun intended.) More often than not, you’ll run out of ammo and be forced to switch to another tactic, like Time Rushing up to bad guys and punching them in the face or using your Time Shield to blast approaching enemies away from you. You’ll find that you’ll have to use all of your abilities throughout the game, and not just in scripted moments, like the aforementioned puzzle sections. The way you use your abilities feels organic.
Controls take a little bit of getting used to, especially when it comes to taking cover. Jack’s a bit stiff when approaching cover. There’s no button command for making him stick to a wall or behind a barrier, so you’ll kind of just have to learn to measure how close you have to get to a flat surface to take cover from a barrage of bullets. There’s no crouch button either, and sometimes Jack likes to pop his head out of cover in the most inconvenient times. Quantum Break‘s cover-based shooting could use some tweaks, but it isn’t a dealbreaker.
Quantum Break‘s story is what really holds everything together, scripted like a TV series that never stops surprising through every twist and turn. (Which is why it’s so frustrating that there’s AN ACTUAL TV SHOW stacked on top of it.) Remedy has always been a studio that’s strived to tell great stories in innovative ways. And while I can’t really call Quantum Break‘s storytelling method innovative (unless you like waiting for videos to buffer), I can appreciate that it tells an engaging story.
The game has a lot of fun with time travel, whether its a character who’s seemingly displaced in time or the weird machines that make it possible to travel back or forwards in the first place. Remedy even developed fake schematics for the time machines to obsess over.
Most importantly, Quantum Break never takes itself too seriously, offering up a lot of lighthearted action despite the fact that the fabric of time is ripping itself apart. The story raises questions about the consequences of time travel and having a power at your fingertips not unlike a god’s, but there’s never much brooding. Because there’s always another mission, another objective, and plenty of quips.
For a specific kind of player, one that enjoys story over a challenge, Quantum Break is a godsend, a fast-paced adventure with a great story to tell and some memorable moments. The fabric of Quantum Break only begins to fracture when it tries to be more than just a really fun game.