I’ve been intrigued by Quantum Break for a while now, and its premise – coupled with its mixture of gameplay and live action “TV” – always suggested that it would be an interesting and unique proposition. Thomas Puha (Head Dude in charge of PR shenanigans at Remedy Entertainment, to use, like, his official title) was at the Brazil Game Show last year, and Quantum Break was understandably a big part of Microsoft’s presence at the event. Shortly thereafter I gone done spent a chunk of my future kid’s College Fund on the Xbox One (and consequently endured a few uncomfortable nights on the couch), so it’s fair to say there was a high degree of personal expectation when I finally got my hands on the game last weekend.
From a less subjective point of view, Quantum Break certainly is an ambitious, perhaps even risky project, and whilst there was a chance everybody would be all like, ‘Holy shitballs this is amazing, why aren’t all games doing this?’ there was an equal chance it could further highlight why games are, and perhaps even always should be, a separate and distinct narrative medium. I’ve always said I’m willing to give a bit of leeway(/a shitload of bonus points) to things that try something different, but – equally – I’m not going to just accept any old crap because it’s iconoclastic, and a good game, however different or unique, still needs to be a good game!
From the get-go, I think it’s fair to say Quantum Break’s most definitely not ‘any old crap’, and for the vast majority of the time, it is a good game. Sometimes it’s a truly fantastic “experience” too, and when all the facets of the Quantum Break experiment are working in tandem – mutually benefiting and reinforcing each other – it provides plenty of ‘wow, why aren’t all games doing this shit!?’ moments. For the most part, the mixed-media punt is a risk that pays off but, as you’d possibly expect for a game that’s going where few games have gone before, there are times when things don’t quite hit the spots they’re aiming for. I’ll cover the specifics of those, obviously, but for now, let’s start at the beginning. Of the story. Like how you’re supposed to.
Because the first thing that strikes you about QB is that it is, first and foremost, a narrative experience – as you’d probably expect from the folks behind Alan Wake – and it is, to use the gaming lingo, a story-heavy game from the outset. It’s also a heavy-story game too, involving the kind of theoretical physics that can reduce all but the brightest minds to a quivering wreck in less time than it takes to write a set of incomprehensible squiggles on a blackboard. I’m happy to report, however, that you don’t have to be a scientist-ey type to follow what’s going on in Quantum Break. I’m not the sharpest spoon in the deck of cards, by any means, but I just about managed to follow the general gist of all the Quantum-ey stuff without…..wait for it…..Breaking. BOOM! I’m here all week folks! No? Wow….tough crowd!
Anyways, where was I? Ah yes, the narrative. In Quantum Break, you’ll find yourself on a quest to stop time itself from breaking, and in order to do that, you’ll need to bend it a bit (and the rules too, obviously). Playing as Jack Joyce, you’ll find yourself betrayed by your oldest friend, caught up in an End Times scenario (quite literally), and will have to battle the forces of a shadowy organisation in your quest to put things right. There are the usual clichés thrown in for good measure too – a need for vengeance, double-crossings, unlikely alliances, twists and turns, redemption – but, in my opinion, Quantum Break just about manages to avoid becoming hackneyed given the strength (and originality) of the core narrative. Whilst Time Travel/Time Bending/Generally Faffing About With Time aren’t entirely new concepts in Video Games, the way it features here just feels slightly less fantastical – more grounded in reality if you like – than it does in out-and-out Sci Fi games.
I appreciate that might sound daft (‘yeah James, the game where you can pause time feels super realistic, ya feckin’ eejit….’) but, actually, the ideas in Quantum Break aren’t entirely Science Fiction, and Remedy even got a former CERN boffin in to consult on the key narrative aspects of the game. Whilst I’m not in a position to verify the “working out” as such, I did get a sense that Remedy had done their due diligence, that the game was all the better for it, and as of right now, I’ve had no real ‘hang on a minute…..that doesn’t work out’ type moments. Obviously, I’m not going to go into great detail (Because, Spoilers) but I found the overall Narrative arc of Quantum Break to be absorbing, complex, and ultimately very rewarding.
What I did have a few issues with, however, was the PACING of the game, and not necessarily because of the Live Action episodes that come at the end of each in-game act. I’ll cover those in more detail later, but for now, I’ll just say they weren’t as jarring/illusion-breaking as I’d thought they might be. What did mess with the pacing though, was the volume of collectibles, and quite often, the sheer fucking size of them. See, I love collectibles me, and I love collectibles that are distinctly more important than just ‘gather x doodahs’, but in Quantum Break, I actually found them to be too damn distracting.
Whilst they’re (mostly) interesting in their own right, and allow the cutscenes (and live action bits) to avoid unwieldy levels of exposition (by providing a degree of context and backstory), a) there were loads of them, b) some of them were ridiculously long, and c) given the structure of the levels/acts, they’d often be bunched together. There’s one bit of an Act, for example, where you’re supposed to be infiltrating the enemy’s Base of Operations, and your route takes you through an area of offices. Each office contains at least one collectible, and most of these are long strings of email exchanges, which even speed reading take fucking ages to get through. I appreciate I’m lobbing rocks in a greenhouse here, but honestly guys, chill out with the word count. It took me what felt like years to work my way through that corridor, and the sense of urgency the game had been working hard to build had all but vanished by the time I’d wearily read the last conversation between two of the game’s protagonists.
You do have the option to read (or listen) to this stuff later (or even ignore them entirely) – but, in my opinion, they’re either important or they’re not. If they are important, and you’re making an effort to flesh out the story with them, you need to factor them into the pacing of the game – which I really don’t think Remedy did, at least not sufficiently. That oversight is further compounded by the fact that often you’ve literally got loads of shit going on at the exact same time, and to be honest, things just get messy. You’ll start reading one of the huge email exchanges, and then one of the characters will start talking about some shit-or-other, then that’ll trigger a little soliloquy from Jack, and that’ll then trigger one of the other NPCs to start banging on about something else relating to that, and then Jack’ll also offer a bit of the ‘interview at some point in the future’ device that’s used throughout the game to explain what’s going on. I frequently found myself screaming ‘wait…what was that?’, or even ‘Seriously guys, just shut the fuck up for one second, I’m trying to read a 15 000 word dissertation here!’. In short, it often ended up feeling like a chore – and a really frustrating and often quite confusing chore at that.
The one mitigating factor here is that Quantum Break is very much intended to be a repeatable and repayable experience, and it’s built into the fabric of the GAMEPLAY. See, QB is a curious combination of linear action, branching stories, collectibles and mixed perspectives – and as such, you’re encouraged to explore it more than once.
The action sequences of the game are reasonably well done, and I didn’t have too many real complaints about the mechanics – but they’re certainly not the best ones I’ve ever come across. It might just be that I came to QB immediately after playing The Division, but cover and shooting did feel a bit clunky, dated even. The Time Powers Jack has at his disposal mostly make up for that though, and you’ll be able to do all kinds of cool stuff, from creating “time freeze-y bullet shields”, to matrix-esque bullet dodging, as well as rewinding time in order to progress through seemingly impassable areas. These powers can be upgraded (a lá InFamous) by finding Chrono orb thingumyjigs, making them an indispensable part of your arsenal. It’s all executed reasonably well, and once you master all your powers, and figure out how they work together, you can indulge in some quite pleasing (and kick-ass) combat. This stuff is Quantum Break’s signature shizzle, and it’s very, very cool (and really quite visually stunning) – and it’s likely to be the thing you’ll remember waaaay more than the average cover and gunplay mechanics.
The branching story aspects come in the form of the decisions you’ll have to make, not as your hero but as the Villain of the piece. At certain points you’ll have to make choices that you’ll (possibly) agonise over for a fair while – and may even second guess if the game then tells you that you were in a minority taking that path. Obviously this is where the replayability stuff comes into play (and why this is a “First Review”), and I’m genuinely itching to get back into the game and see what happens when I take a different path. This feeling is further strengthened by a desire to see if doing things differently dramatically alters the experience or whether it’s mostly illusory. Remedy have been keen to stress that what you do in-game has actual implications on both the later Gameplay and Live Action segments, and if that is the case, it would certainly be pretty cool.
Now, about that Live Action stuff. Immediately after making one of the aforementioned choices, you’ll get to sit back and watch it unfold in the form of a short episode of the Quantum Break TV show. Honestly, it’s really quite hard to cover this aspect of the QB experience – not least because I’m not entirely sure how I even go about evaluating it. I mean, should I make allowances for the ‘part of a game’ thing, or should I be judging the TV show in the same way I would if I were writing a review for IMDb? If it’s the former, do I let a great (or crappy) ‘extra’ fundamentally alter my perception of the game-y bit, and if it’s the latter, is it fair to judge an ‘extra’ in a video game by the same standards as, say, The Wire, or Game of Thrones??
And it is kind of an important point, because it does fundamentally change how I viewed the show and the game – and weirdly, both positively and negatively. Sometimes the show elevated the game, sometimes it dragged it down, and conversely sometimes the game elevated the show, and sometimes it just made it seem worse than if the show were a stand alone TV series.
What I can say categorically though, is that I had absolutely no issue going from being an active participant to being a passive one. Perhaps I’m getting old, but I even quite liked having a wee break now and then (and I especially liked not having to read anything for a bit!). For the most part, the transition from Graphical Representation of people to those actual people wasn’t too jarring either – although it’s fair to say it was a thing. See, Remedy made a rod for their own back here, and it did highlight some ‘Uncanny Valley’ issues (had the TV show not been present, I’d have been banging on about the über-realistic face-capture stuff, for example) but the Graphics are pretty good, so it’s not a huge deal – and certainly not to the point that I fixated on it. The transition was certainly aided by the performances of the main actors too, and in both the gameplay, and Live Action bits, I never felt they were just going through the motions for a bit of extra cash-money.
However, perhaps surprisingly, sometimes the TV stuff appeared a bit shonky in comparison to the game, most notably in The Special Effects department. See, a few occasional frame-rate type issues aside, the Time Bending stuff in particular is visually spectacular in-game, but decidedly ordinary in the TV show. Whilst it never looks (low budget) Syfy Channel bad, it’s never really Hollywood Blockbuster good either. This, it has to be said, isn’t helped by the fact that you’re likely to be streaming the TV show, so there are distinct drops in visual quality (particularly if you’ve got a shitty, lying ISP like I have). You can download the episodes, but if you’re struggling with streaming, it’s likely that’ll take days, as well as use up a chunk of your hard drive.
Similarly, sometimes the TV show highlighted certain weaknesses of the game – from its pacing issues, to its clunky mechanics, and in particular, its often formulaic approach to level design. See, in The TV show, and particularly in the bits featuring Liam Burke, we see a lot of varied and ad hoc kick-assery, with plenty of MacGyvering/Chuck Norrising it when it comes to unexpected confrontation, and that, to me, just highlighted the fact that each in-game level is basically look at some stuff, fight a wave of enemies, look at some more stuff, fight another wave, etc, etc. Yes, there’s the time-bendy stuff in there to add a bit of variety, but it left me with the distinct impression that Liam Burke was having a shitload more fun than I was.
That said though, taken as a whole and on average, the two elements do work well together, and it was an interesting – and mostly rewarding – experience. There was certainly a mahoosive chance that everything could go wrong, and that they didn’t, and that they do actually work well together, is testement to Remedy’s skill and vision. And, in a way, I think it sums up the whole Quantum Break experience for me in that sometimes the execution doesn’t quite match the vision, but it’s a solid and worthy attempt.
The game has its moments of brilliance, and it has its bits that don’t quite work, but they’re never catastrophically bad or misjudged. Remedy’s primary aim here was to tell a story, and in an interesting and unique way, and they absolutely achieved that aim, and as a narrative experience, Quantum Break is up there with the best of them. There’s some great ideas at the heart of Quantum Break, a lot of skill in how they’re delivered, and even some genuinely poignant moments in both the Live Action and Gameplay elements. If, going back in, those same ideas change because I take a different path, or if there’s a genuine shift in the way the story plans out, I’ll be even more impressed with the experience.
Quantum Break is very much the perfect match for the Xbox One, given the console’s own mixed/multimedia aspirations, and I think it provides an exciting and intriguing snapshot of what could happen if and when stuff like this is done well in the future. In that sense, it lays down a marker to other developers by showing that it is possible to try something slightly different, and with a lot of care and thought (mostly) pull it off with style and aplomb.