Microsoft’s Xbox One unveil was overshadowed by one word. Television. Yet an intriguing title stuck out in the middle of it, in the form of Remedy Entertainment’s new game. Almost 3 years (and multiple course corrections) later, how does the finished article blend the two formats, and more importantly, is it any good?
“Time is broken”. This is the fundamental idea behind Quantum Break. An experiment in a lab dedicated to researching time travel has gone horrendously wrong, causing a fracture in time. The very idea that time, as a concept, can break is an intriguing prospect for a game, and one that’s rarely explored well in the medium. Fortunately, Remedy have taken everything they’ve learned from the bullet-time mechanics from Max Payne and elaborated on them to a huge extent to provide a really enjoyable game crafted around a somewhat unique storytelling method.
Let’s focus on the game first and foremost. Quantum Break is essentially a fairly standard third person cover shooter, polished to within an inch of its life. These bones, however, are fleshed out by some fantastic mechanics and some simply breathtaking visuals that push Quantum Break far beyond the mediocrity that it could have so very easily fallen into. These mechanics come in the form of time manipulation that Jack Joyce, the game’s protagonist, obtains through an unfortunate incident toward the start of the game. A time travel demonstration has (almost literally) backfired, causing both Joyce and Paul Serene, a friend of Jack’s since adolescence, to inherit some abilities that allow time to be manipulated, in addition to causing “The Fracture” and essentially causing more chronological chaos than Daylight Savings Time.
It’s during the initial scenes in the lab where the visuals first strike you. Everything has a very soft, almost fuzzy feel to it, but it’s not to say that this looks bad. Far from it, in fact, as Quantum Break’s art direction is nothing short of superb. Slightly muted colours aside, the game has a distinctly cinematic quality to it, enhanced with film grain effects and more lighting effects than your average Muse gig. It’s clear that Remedy have put a huge amount of work into it, and made a very conscious decision to take this direction with the game rather than have everything look pin-sharp. To be honest, it’s a choice I really rather like. After the initial “bedding in” period, the graphical style meshes with the environment design in the perfect way, and allows the environmental effects from Joyce’s time-foolery to refract, reflect and distort in some ways that are simpy beautiful. A lot has been made about the resolution of Quantum Break in the pre-launch run up, but forget those numbers, just LOOK at it. From the “Time Freeze” effect that suspends the recipient in a bubble as you fire round after round into it, to the trails of enemies as they dash around in one of the many “stutters” that occur as a result of the fracture, this game is simply gorgeous. Firefights in the latter chapters are simply a joy to watch, as the environment design is intricately woven with the mechanics in such a way that it feels as great to play as it looks.
Gameplay is, for the most part, a very polished set of third person action mechanics, with plenty of cover thrown in for good measure. You automatically snap to cover, and the animations flow together nicely, with the odd exception of points where you have to be in a strangely specific spot in order to grab onto a ledge to progress, but these points are few and far between. Difficulty starts off relatively low, but increases as more advanced enemies are introduced throughout the game’s X chapters. I briefly mentioned the “stutters” above, so allow me to explain. A stutter is a point where time stops. Nobody who is affected by it will notice it, but the likes of Jack, Serene and anyone with access to tech produced by Monarch (the game’s token shady corporation) will be able to move freely around in them. It’s an idea that has been expertly crafted by Remedy, allowing for objects suspended in mid-air to be moved, only to have them snap back to their original place shortly afterward with a cool “glitching” effect. Jack’s time powers are upgradeable (Hey, this is a video game, right?) and allow for a number of cool tricks, including dashing between enemies and landing a crucial melee blow, casting a giant shield around you to prevent getting shot, and possibly my favourite, the Time Freeze. This bubble that pops up around a certain radius will freeze an enemy in place, allowing you to fire tens of rounds at them without reply. What makes it interesting, however, is the fact that as soon as the bullets hit the bubble, they too are affected by the freeze. Meaning that the instant the bubble disappears, a huge volley of bullets is immediately hurled into the unsuspecting victim that lies within. It’s a great mechanic that just leaves you feeling very cool indeed.
Let’s talk, then, about the elephant in the room. Television. Quantum Break was clearly a key player in Microsoft’s plans for the TV and Game experience that Xbox One was meant to provide. Whilst MS’s grand vision of “The One” that did everything has taken a bit of a back seat, Remedy have ploughed on with the TV elements of Quantum Break. And for the most part, it works. At the end of each chapter, you (playing briefly as Paul Serene) get to make quite a drastic choice in which way the story will go. For instance, after “The university incident”, do you kill any witnesses that were present, or do you initiate a PR campaign and try to blame things on Jack Joyce? Whichever choice you make, the show will play out in a similar way, but with very noticeable differences. Companion characters differ, dialogue and environmental details change, but ultimately, the story leads to a single conclusion. It’s very much like the Telltale games, except with an engine that doesn’t seem to be held together with sellotape. The show has lofty ambitions, and whilst they’re not met consistently, they do a good enough job to mix up some characters who will certainly have an effect on the game as you progress. Each episode is around 25/30 minutes long, and will have extra segments thrown in if you unlock the “Quantum Ripples” throughout the level. I did have some issues when streaming, to the point I had to stop a live stream at one point due to the issues. You can download the episodes, but they clock in at a whopping 75GB. Overall, it’s probably not the kind of show I’d watch on its own, and it definitely feels like the budget was strained in places, but in the context of the game? It’s pretty damn good. The cast is of a surprisingly high calibre, and there is a knowing nod and a wink to the show’s self serious nature, with a few scenery-gnawing performances from the actors who can get away with it.
Ultimately, this is a Remedy game through and through. There are hat-tips to previous games in the studio’s history littered throughout, including some fantastic Alan Wake references (all I’ll say is keep an eye out for some of the books), and the unique sense of humour is rooted in the world that Remedy have created for this game, and it’s all the better for it. The story is paced almost perfectly, and for all its flaws the show does a bang up job of holding the narrative together. I shan’t get too deep into it for fear of spoilers, but Remedy’s knack for storytelling hasn’t gone anywhere, ultimately leading to a borderline philosophical discussion about the predetermined nature of time and fate that probably could have an entire article written on it alone.
A beautifully crafted and hugely enjoyable experience, Quantum Break is a fantastic addition to anyone’s library. The lighting effects alone make any arguments about resolution dissipate, with a solid set of unique mechanics and breathtaking set-pieces that keep the game fresh and exciting. Whilst I had some issues streaming the show, the content within is in such good keeping with the game, that it’s a minor blip on the radar when all is said and done. Microsoft’s flirtation with the world of TV proved to be a bit of a flop, but for the most part, Remedy have somehow managed to nail it.