Lauded as the next big thing at the Xbox One launch way back in May 2013, Remedy’s twice delayed wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey sci-fi game/TV show hybrid, Quantum Break, is finally here.
I’m a huge fan of Remedy, going all the way back to the original Max Payne. Their Alan Wake is a one of my favourite games, dripping with the kind of immersive storytelling that is the Finnish developer’s hallmark.
With Remedy being no strangers to including live-action footage and TV-style episodic structures in their games, I wasn’t surprised way back in 2013 when Microsoft announced that the Windows 10 and Xbox One exclusive, Quantum Break, would merge an interactive game with a live-action TV show.
The game follows Jack Joyce, estranged brother of physicist William Joyce, and friend of entrepreneur and university director, Paul Serene, who happens to be in possession of a time machine. When an accident during an unauthorised time travel demonstration grants him the ability to manipulate time, Jack Joyce is forced into a decade-old chain of events, and into the crosshairs of the clandestine technology corporation, Monarch Solutions.
The game’s linear narrative makes it difficult to go into too much detail without spoiling the story. Personally, I enjoyed the plot – even if the main McGuffin is pretty obvious from the start. The game has some interesting characters and a rather believable take on time manipulation and its ramifications. Remedy have also deftly negotiated their way through the time paradox conundrum that often leads to clunky resolutions that break the suspension of disbelief.
Whilst the narrative structure and the game’s whole TV show stylings reminded me a lot of Alan Wake, the combat took me all the way back to the first Max Payne. The game’s explosions and hails of bullets, frozen in time, takes Remedy’s Max Payne bullet-time effect and turns it all the way up to eleven.
At its heart, Quantum Break is a first-person shooter very much in the same veil and Remedy’s other games. The gunplay and automatic cover system are competent, but it is the time effects that make the game unique and rather good fun.
Jacks abilities to manipulate time make for some pretty exhilarating combat situations. Opponents can be frozen in a bubble, allowing you to stack up a hail of bullets that, when the effect passes, tears up the luckless attacker. Jack can also, in short bursts, move quickly, allowing unsuspecting enemies to be taken down with melee attacks or focused gunfire. A variation of the same ability has Jack dodging attacks, whilst a charged version of the time blast can take down multiple attackers.
Jacks abilities can be ungraded using chronon sources- glowing collectables tucked out of the way, detected by Jack’s “Time Vision” ability. Yes, all the abilities are prefixed with “time”, giving us “Time Vision”, “Time Stop”, “Time Dodge”, “Time Shield”, “Time Blast” and “Time Rush”. They all do pretty much what is written on the tin and increase in intensity/duration as you progress and upgrade them in the game.
Stringing the abilities together in the most creative ways during combat is great fun. The levels are full of explosive barrels and gas bottles which can be carefully engineered to blow up on cue using Jack’s time-warping abilities.
At regular points in the game time stops. During these stutters the player can still move Jack about, but everyone else is frozen. Some enemies wear contraptions enabling them to move about like Jack, resulting in some interesting gameplay that ultimately leaves the antagonists locked motionless in their dead throws and explosions suspended in time.
Combat segments are punctuated by short puzzle sections that involve climbing (the increasingly common yellow-means-climb identifier is used in the game) and set pieces that involve manipulating time.
Often, during the stutters Jack can adjust events with time triggers, for instance, momentarily reversing the destruction of a walkway just long enough to cross it. Time often freezes right in the middle of catastrophic events and the player tasked with making their way through some scenes of epic destruction, locked in a moment. It all looks pretty amazing as explosions and debris just hang there suspended.
Remedy have always been at the forefront of graphical fidelity, all the way back to their 3D Mark demos. In Quantum Break, whilst Xbox One owners are suffering a reduced resolution, the visuals are detailed enough for this to not be a real issue.
The game is pushing a lot of pixels with multiple enemies and all sorts of explosions and time manipulation effects going on. The physics simulation is excellent if a little over the top. The rag-dolling has bodies sliding along the floor like hockey pucks with just the slightest nudge. But, for the most part watching all the destruction is an absolute joy.
The game also plays a decent bit of fan-service. I discovered a nice hint at a possible Alan Wake Sequel “Return”- what lies beneath the surface, indeed. There’s also a copy of an Alan Wake book clearly visible in one of the TV episodes, suggesting a shared universe. Incidently, a full copy of Alan Wake, it’s DLC and the American Nightmare spin-off is included with Quantum Break.
The game and TV episodes feature an impressive and very genre-friendly cast. Shawn Ashmore (X-Men’s Iceman) plays Jack Joyce, Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones’ Littlefinger) is Paul Serene, Lance Reddick (Fringe) is the enigmatic Martin Hatch and Dominic Monaghan (Lord of the Rings’ Merry Brandybuck) plays Jack’s physicist brother, William Joyce.
Whilst it’s an intriguing idea – the game’s mixed-media presentation – the reality of it is, however, slightly more muted. Whist Microsoft says otherwise; I can’t help but think that the scope of the project was effected by the premature shuttering of Xbox Entertainment Studios. Instead of the promised TV series we get four half-hour episodes barely related to the action in the game that actually feels more like the full motion video segments from games gone by.
The party line is that the TV show focuses on the bad guys whilst the game focuses on the good guys. The TV show, for the most part concentrates on the secondary characters of conflicted Monarch enforcer Liam Burke, cowardly IT guy Charlie Wincott and inside women Fiona Millar and Beth Wilder.
The TV show acting seems a little forced, but a lot more polished than Microsoft’s other attempts at live-action tie-ins, namely the iffy Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn and the excruciating Halo: Nightfall. There’s a lot more action and effects in the Quantum Break TV episodes, but it still lacks the class of SyFy’s short-lived videogame tie-in, Defiance.
The TV episodes are NOT included on the disk or in the digital download package. The show is streamed, a la Netflix. During my review the TV show was pretty much continuously interrupted by a “content buffering” message. Even with my 36mbps cable internet speed, it would seem that Microsoft has much to learn from Netflix. Maybe this will be fixed at launch with content streaming from more localised locations. In any case, players with less than stellar internet streaming capabilities can download all the TV show content in an optional whopping-great 75GB download.
Considering how much of a big deal Microsoft Studios have made about Quantum Break being a Game/TV show hybrid, you’d have thought that they’d have had the streaming sorted out. Some of my buffering issues could, however, have been attributed by the dynamic nature of the show- which is edited to reflect decisions and outcomes from the game sections.
Finding optional collectable emails and other information alters some of the content in the TV show. At the end of each act and before each TV episode there are short sequences called Junctions, featuring Paul Serene. These give the player a choice of two options which also influence the direction of the TV show as well as the events in the game. Remedy actively encourages players replay the game to experience all these different outcomes.
Whilst videogames, movies and TV show share many of the same attributes, they are not the same and don’t really mix. Going from an interactive participant in the Quantum Break story to a TV show viewer was a bit jarring. Whist I like the idea of a game splitting itself up if it was a TV show (like Remedy did with Alan Wake) or a separate tie-in like Defiance, directly combining the two kind of defeats the point of playing a game.
Thankfully for Quantum Break the same compelling story that propels the very capable, if not exactly original, gameplay also serves keeps the TV episodes interesting. Viewed as a whole the Quantum Break is a very worthwhile experience and one that I’d certainly recommend to Xbox One fans that enjoy intelligent and interesting science fiction.