Tales of time travel have always been full of plot holes, clichés and paradoxes. And you can bet Remedy has hungrily consumed them all. The Finnish studio first made its name with hard-boiled detective noir Max Payne in 2001, and took on the supernatural thriller with 2010’s Alan Wake.
Now, five years since its announcement as an Xbox One/Windows 10 exclusive, Quantum Break is its chance to tackle the sci-fi techno-thriller at last. So is it worth the wait?
Iceman meets Game of Thrones
Quantum Break's narrative is easily the studio’s most ambitious and tightly-plotted to date. Events kick off with everyman Jack Joyce, played by Shawn Ashmore of X-Men fame, visiting his childhood friend Paul Serene, recognisable instantly as Aiden Gillen aka Game of Thrones' Littlefinger.
Serene is the charismatic big shot CEO of a tech-corporation named Monarch, and he’s made a working time-machine. He ropes you into helping test it (obviously) but something goes wrong (inevitably). Jack is exposed (predictably) to the resultant ‘timesplosion’ and gains some nifty superpowers (thankfully).
There are more little reveals and twists than you can shake a slow-mo stick at, and we’re not going to risk spoiling anything.
It is safe to say however, that this is a very human story. Quantum Break does a brilliant job of making both the employees of Monarch and Jack’s posse feel three-dimensional and charismatic. That said, Remedy also worked closely with a theoretical physicist to ground the science in reality, which is both awesome and slightly terrifying.
Turn back time, save the world
The gameplay underpinning the story will feel very comfortable to anyone that’s played a big-budget game in the past 10 years.
It’s a fast-paced, third person action-shooter that's broken up with environmental exploration. Quantum Break doesn’t reinvent the clock, but Jack’s Chronon-powers and the gun-play make every encounter worth your time. These abilities fit nicely into the fiction – Jack is able to freeze a small area in a singularity, ‘blink’ a short distance, and bend time around him into a shield.
There is a cover system, but thankfully this is not a game about playing it safe. Far better to weave between enemies, chaining your abilities together and wreaking havoc before they know what’s hit ‘em. Though progression is linear, encounters usually give you a nice open space to experiment in.
Enemy AI is aggressive and responsive. Jack has awesome powers and decent hardware, but he’s still human - so there’s just enough risk to force you to think creatively.
Quantum Break presents you with a host of time-manipulating powers and abilities which turn would-be vanilla firefights into graceful dances of death and destruction.
The five main abilities are Time Vision, Time Stop, Time Dodge, Time Shield, and Time Blast. The first of these highlights enemies and useful items such as ammo supplies, helping you plan routes and strategies in advance before rushing into a room of bad guys.
Time Stop is a more offensive ability that sees you trap enemies in a bubble of broken time, freezing them to the spot while you casually pepper them with bullets before watching them implode in a cloud of hot lead once real time catches up. Time Dodge lets you zip across rooms in the blink of an eye, before giving you a few seconds of slow-motion bullet time and thus letting you line up your next shot without getting disorientated. Time Shield is a handy bubble of protection which essentially freezes bullets in mid-air, saving you from any damage, Matrix-style. And then finally there's Time Blast, which lets you shoot a concentrated ball of messed-up time at enemies before causing them to explode, scattering their bodies to the heavens.
All of these skills can be upgraded by collecting ‘chronon sources’. I’d love to explain what these are, but all I know is that they’re glowing orb-like things which probably have something to do with time and space and… stuff. Either way, you definitely want to find and gather up as much of this chronon shizzle as you can, as it’ll let you increase the duration and effects of your abilities, levelling you up and making you more powerful in the process.
These abilities will let any two people play through the same levels completely differently.
Personally, I found myself having the most fun by teleporting towards enemies and introducing their faces to the business end of my shotgun, but you might prefer to freeze enemies and pick them off from afar.
The real joy in the gameplay comes when everything clicks and the controls become second nature. When you’re in this zen-like state you can begin to chain together your abilities, dashing in and out of enemies, freezing time, causing explosions and stopping bullets, like some sort of death-bringing Speedy Gonzales.
It’s incredibly fun and opens the game up to a level of replay-ability that it would otherwise lack.
The action looks great, full of dense particle effects and complex lighting with no noticeable framerate hiccups. Nuts and bolts like volumetric shaders and whatnot are important, but real-world settings still need imagination.
Quantum Break delivers these moments of surprising style and beauty, thanks to its conceit of time being out of control. For example, one area in which time is violently stuttering has a super-rapid day/night cycle, a crumbling skeleton of a huge ship glitching around you, and almost hallucinatory flashbacks. These moments might not be hugely interactive but they look great while also adding to the story.
Environment aside, from the opening shots of protagonist Jack Joyce it’s clear that the tech has finally caught up with Remedy’s vision. This is a cinematic game in every sense, and it’s a huge relief to report that Quantum Break leaves uncanny valley in the dust. Remedy’s knack for a glossy TV aesthetic, coupled with amazing motion capture of professional performances, is instantly immersive.
Up the junction
These performances blur a line, but Quantum Break goes another step further. For some it will be a curious side-show, but for other it could redefine what they come to expect from story-led games.
After an Act’s worth of gameplay, you’ll suddenly find your control shift to Paul Serene for sequences known as ‘Junctions’. Paul will face a dilemma, and brilliantly, whatever choice he/you makes will then affect the twenty-minute live-action episode, filling in gaps and pushing forward the overall narrative, all from the perspective of the ‘bad’ guys.
It’s a bold move, and although these segments are skippable, Quantum Break essentially asks you to pop your controller down, put your feet up, and watch the equivalent of a short TV series throughout the course of the game. The episodes are highly polished, surprisingly amusing, and it’s very refreshing to feel that the protagonist, and actual gameplay, is really taking place in a ‘real’ world. The difference the Junction choices make won’t warrant a full second playthrough for most, but despite the moral binary, they still have a bigger impact than in most games.
Sadly, for all its innovation, Quantum Break still can’t shake the cynical trappings of other recent mainstream games.
There are collectibles, but at least they usually contribute to the narrative or add genuinely funny background context such as one Monarch employee’s hilariously bad screenplay idea inspired by the in-game events. There’s also a perfunctory upgrade system that just leaves you wondering why, in such a story-driven game, Jack’s powers couldn’t have improved naturally.
The worst offender is ‘cheat-vision’, the inescapable AAA idea that players would rather blank out the gorgeous scenery at the touch of a button to see a giant orange arrow tell them exactly where to go next. Oh, and red barrels, in this day and age.
Quantum Break Verdict
Despite these small setbacks, Quantum Break dares to succeed at pushing the boundaries of interactive storytelling.
The relationship between games and films and TV is stronger than ever of course (for better or worse), but Quantum Break’s gamble of putting everything in the same box really pays off. It almost always functions as an actual game too, ticking along with the satisfying precision of a Swiss watch.
It’s really the characters and the messed up ‘real world’ they inhabit that stand out though, even if it’s frustrating there’s not more of it, or them, to explore in-depth. Just like Max Payne, Quantum Break isn’t perfect, but that’s the price you pay for being ahead of your time. Trust me, I’ve been there.