Time travel is a difficult concept to write a convincing story around because we just don’t know what really happens, or what theoretic laws rules apply.
Quantum Break, the Xbox One’s newest exclusive third person shooter by Remedy Entertainment, is absolutely about time travel. However, it stays away from the hows and whys and just assumes that time travel can happen. And while it’s not as dumb as Superman spinning the Earth the wrong way really fast, you do still go around in a circle.
You play as Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore aka Iceman in the 2nd Xmen movie), a rugged 30-something traveler, adventurer, and… um… I’m not quite sure what he does, although there are hints in the early part of the game that he’s had firearm training. Mercenary? Private Eye? Serial Killer? You’ll never know, nor care…
Jack is invited to take part in a secret lab experiment by his childhood friend, Paul Serene (played by Aiden Gillen, Littlefinger from GoT), a smooth talking entrepreneur and ‘money man’ who’s affiliated with the local university. Using a time machine developed by Jack’s estranged brother Will (Dominic Monaghan, Charlie from Lost), they run an unsanctioned after-hours test of its time traveling capabilities before it’s official reveal to stakeholders.
On cue, shit hits the temporal fan, and you find yourself possessing scientifically dubious “time powers”. Hunted by the big, bad Monarch Corporation, a time power-imbued Paul Serene, and his lackey Martin Hatch (Lance Reddick, The Wire’s Lt. Daniels), Jack finds himself in a race against time, to ensure the survival of time itself.
Quantum Break is a third person action shooter that almost does away with the cover mechanic. Instead, Jack contextually takes cover when he’s behind objects in a fire fight – run next to a sofa and he’ll duck, or run up to a column and he’ll hide behind it. It all feels rather flimsy, janky and floaty, lacking the “snap to cover” feeling that most games in the genre have.
This will bother player who expect to hunker down behind conveniently-placed cover, but if you plan on doing that, then you’re playing this game wrong.
From the time bullets start to fly, you’re given time-related powers, and it’s obvious that you’re supposed to constantly use them in conjunction with your weapons. Each power recharges on its own timer, and doesn’t require any sort of energy or mana. The movement and powers makes the game feel like Alan Wake and Max Payne meets Infamous, with some Vanquish thrown in. Yes, cover exists to give you a breather when you’re surrounded by enemies, but the game is best played on the move.
A general encounter might involve you activating Time Vision – which briefly highlights enemies on screen. Knowing where the next enemy is located, you’ll Time Dodge from cover, boosting you a short distance while granting a brief moment of slow-motion bullet-time to take aim. You can then fire a Time Stop bubble at an enemy, freezing him in a bubble of suspended time, which you’ll then pump a bunch of bullets at, causing the bullets to become suspended in time until the bubble bursts, exploding and killing anyone nearby.
Once you become more adept at stringing your powers together, the game opens up. Throughout the world, you’ll also find “chronon sources” that allow you to upgrade your powers, but the powers generally don’t change, they just become stronger or you can use them more frequently.
The time powers are one of the features that gives the game its much-needed variety, but it’s also what makes the experience a repetitive one. Couple that with limited enemy types who operate on fairly basic AI and you’ll find yourself repeating the same tactics as you vanquish wave after wave of Monarch soldiers. There are also tons of red barrels and “chronon” barrels around in case you feel the need to blow shit up.
From time to time, there are temporal “stutters” where everything is suspended in a “zero state” of timelessness. Basically, things are suspended in mid air while you are free to walk around, explore the environment and steal people’s weapons. It’s a cool concept that leads to some nice visuals, but it’s an empty experience and a missed opportunity to throw in some more powerful enemy types.
One thing I really appreciated about Quantum Break, and it held true for Alan Wake as well, is the environment. Remedy does a superb job at creating a world that feels “lived-in”, giving the feeling that the city exists in the real world – and it shows. It’s a nice touch that helps ground a game with such a fantastical premise.
The graphics drew some controversy thanks to a Digital Foundry article that was published recently. Yes, I noticed some muddy textures and some weird ghosting in the early parts of the game, but it wasn’t terrible enough to pull me out of the world of Quantum Break. My gaming experiences aren’t defined by graphical fidelity, and unless there are egregious inconsistencies or huge, game-breaking framerate drops, I can easily forgive lower resolution presentations if the gameplay and story are compelling.
To put it another way, I’d rather play Quantum Break over The Order: 1884.
Quantum Break’s wisely avoids over-complicating the story with too many technical explanations of how time travel works. It exists, there are a set of pre-defined rules on how it works, and it eventually breaks, which throws our hero into action. It feels like Remedy just wanted to get straight to the point, throw time powers in, and let the player loose.
But don’t mistake the light exposition with a lack of story, because it’s definitely in the game – just not presented through dialogue or traditional cutscenes. In the environment you’ll find narrative “collectibles” (for lack of a better word). These may be whiteboard drawings, charts, journals, notes, cellphone messages or emails that expose more about the story, people’s relationships, and the inner workings of Monarch. Make no mistake, if you choose to go down this path, you will be reading a lot. And they let you know how many collectibles are too, so don’t be surprised when you pick up 1 of 15 different collectibles in a level.
The game is separated into acts, which are further separated into chapters; its episodic nature gives it a similar feel to Alan Wake. After each act, the game hands you control of the main antagonist, Paul Serene, forcing you to make a binary choice. It’s a great change of pace, and making important decisions as Paul adds depth to his character. Suddenly he’s not just a megalomaniacal supervillain, but a conflicted victim of circumstance who is misguided in trying to do the right thing the only way he can. The decisions you make as Paul affect the game’s story in small ways, and also lightly impacts the events of the TV show.
Oh, did I mention the TV show?
Aside from the various narrative collectibles strewn throughout the levels, each act is book-ended by an honest-to-goodness television series, with each episode running about 22-25 minutes. The TV series gives you a break from Jack Joyce, and follows side characters who are essential to advancing the story. The show also gives you more insight into Monarch corporation, and the power struggle that manifests there.
Production values on the show are uneven, but I liken them to a lower budget Sci-Fi show on FOX that ends up getting cancelled earlier than expected. Being Human, I’m looking at you, but I guess that also applies to most of their Science Fiction lineup. Outside of casting Lance Reddick, Quantum Break even has elements of Fringe in it that some might appreciate, namely, competent female leads like Beth, and I would’ve wanted to see more done with the side characters.
An unintended consequence of the TV show is that it made me sympathetic towards peripheral characters more than with Jack, who is pretty much just a killing machine. You come to realize that Monarch’s employees are people who might have their own families and lives; they just happen to work for this large corporation that doesn’t seem explicitly evil. Taken from this point of view, it’s easy to see how Jack can be painted as the terrorist targeting Monarch and its employees.
Playing a game that’s interspersed with full length TV episodes offers a unique experience, but also presents an interesting conundrum. The forced stop in gameplay is a bit jarring, and pulls the player out of their gaming groove. I don’t know if this is an intentional, artificial way to extend the gameplay, but I suspect it’ll annoy those who just want to play a video game without interruption. As a new father, I actually welcomed the stoppages in gameplay, allowing me to play discrete sections of the game without neglecting my own child or drawing the ire of my wife. 🙂
I also have to applaud Remedy and Microsoft for experiment with a mixed-media approach that goes beyond novelizations or extended universe narratives. We’ve seen similar TV-meets-gaming experiments before, notably the cancelled TV show Defiance, and they were less than stellar. Quantum Break does it as seamlessly as it could, given the content and source material.
Ultimately, the story is there simply to spur you forward, but it feels too convoluted, jumping early and often between time periods, and relying too much on collectibles for clarity. It also ends up leaving a few unanswered questions and unsatisfied promises at the end of it all.
Parallels can be drawn between this game and time travel. Time is essentially linear, and while there might be a way to go back and re-do things, generally the end result will be the same – and this game is no different. You can go back, re-play segments, choose different junctions, and while you’ll get a slightly different experience, it culminates in generally the same place. Is this enough replayability for people? I suspect not, although I fully intend to play through some of the junctions again to discover the differences.
It’s really difficult to review a game like Quantum Break while also thinking of the value proposition it offers. I pre-ordered it because I enjoyed Alan Wake, but for many, $75+tax in Canada is a steep price to ask for a linear single player gameplay experience with no multiplayer modes.
To slightly offset this, the game comes with downloadable, backwards compatible copies of Alan Wake and both DLCs. Those who preorder will also receive the Xbox Live Arcade title Alan Wake: American Nightmare. If you’ve never played these games, this makes purchasing a new copy a better deal, considering that you receive two great games and over 20 hours of gameplay. It’s definitely an easier pill to swallow.
Time will tell whether Quantum Break does well enough commercially to become a viable ongoing IP. But regardless of sales figures or the shortfalls in narrative or gameplay, this is a game owners of Xbox One should experience at least once.
- Time powers are fun to use, and there’s no artificial power gating. You have access to most of them from the start
- Great use of collectibles to further the narrative – if you’re patient enough to find them
- Awesome integration with the TV show to flesh out side characters. Decent production value on the TV show
- Voice acting is good, and most characters are likeable to some degree
- Choose your own adventure style junctions allow for a customized experience and minor story tweaks
- A bunch of Alan Wake easter eggs will put a smile on the faces of fans
- Need more variety in enemy types and encounters – they missed the boat on some potential enemies
- Short game by current standards
- Limited replayability
- Lack of more inventive weapon types or functions
- The sheer number of collectibles can bog down the gameplay