If you were to poll a large group of gamers regarding which developers they consider to have the best overall track record, you’d likely get a lot of repeated answers. Many would look to Rockstar and its studios, or Naughty Dog, which is another incredibly talented team. Neither would be wrong, nor would an assortment of other answers. That said, one developer that would make the top of my list, and maybe wouldn’t receive the recognition it deserves, is Finland’s Remedy Entertainment. They’re the folks who brought us such great interactive experiences as Max Payne, Alan Wake and Alan Wake’s American Nightmare.
Remedy is back this month with a new and very ambitious project. Of course, I’m talking about Quantum Break, which is a game that was first shown all the way back at the Xbox One’s reveal event. It captivated our attention then, thanks to beautiful-looking visuals, an ambitious idea and interest-piquing footage. And, while the wait was certainly long, it was most definitely worthwhile, as Finland’s own have done it once again.
What you need to know about Quantum Break is that it’s a narrative focused game; so much so that it actually has four, twenty-two minute-long live action episodes in-between four of its five acts. In some ways (and in true Remedy form), it’s also more of a movie than it is a game, which is something that some will find bothersome. At the end of the day, however, it’s a very ambitious, interesting and unique experience that you won’t soon forget.
The story begins just outside of Riverport University, a fictional American learning institution with a lot of history. It’s there where we meet our protagonist, Jack Joyce, who’s been summoned to the school’s science lab at four in the morning on a chilly October day. The leaves are colourful, and as per usual, the campus is still stirring, partly because of a rally against a company that is threatening to destroy its decades old library.
When Jack enters the science building, he’s greeted by the man who summoned him from half a world away; that being his old friend, Paul Serene. A talented, incredibly intelligent and world changing scientist, he’s gotten in touch with his former chum for a rather illegal reason. A rather ill-advised reason, as well, because what results is a time fracture that threatens to stop time as we know it.
There are so many layers to Quantum Break that saying much more would threaten to spoil things for you. After all, this is a story that is best experienced without knowing a whole lot about it. Time, itself, plays a huge role, as does travel within it. That’s all I’ll say, though.
As Jack Joyce — whose brother Will is also a gifted scientist — players will walk, run, shoot and duck their way through this involved narrative, while trying to uncover information about the event and what can be done about it. Of course, the aforementioned conglomerate that threatens the school’s library also comes into play in a major way, and there are actually times where you’ll get to play as their head honcho, who must make decisions that will determine how he and his company will move forward during important situations.
If this is at all confusing, then think of Quantum Break as a five act play. Each act contains hours of gameplay, and those are bookended by the live action episodes I mentioned above. Most of this gameplay centres upon Jack Joyce and his plight, but after every one of Jack’s acts there’s an extra chapter, wherein you take control of Monarch’s leader.
These are mostly short sequences, but they’re quite important in the grand scheme of things, because the decisions you make help shape the future of the game and its inhabitants. For example, choosing to kill someone instead of making them your puppet may have negative consequences, but you need to weigh the options for yourself.
The choices you make in Quantum Break the game will also have an effect on what happens in its live action episodes. This promotes replayability, and is the reason why most gamers will choose to simply let the game stream the videos to their consoles, instead of downloading their massive install file. Even with my meagre Internet, I was able to stream without much of an issue, and found that the video quality was very good.
Now, for the gameplay, which you’re surely curious about.
As mentioned above, this is a very narrative-heavy title. It’s true, and is something that may turn some people off. However, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be in control of Jack very much, or that there won’t be any action to attend to. There’s no need to fear those things, although I will say that I expected there to be more gameplay than there ended up being.
A good portion of your time spent as Jack will involve entering and exploring different environments. This is done by examining your local area and using it to your advantage, via climbing and platforming. There’s a twist, though, because Jack becomes infused with time powers early on and must use these to manipulate the environment.
This could mean freezing a platform in place, so that it won’t move before he can jump on it, or rewinding time to make sure that a crate is in a specific area. I know that this sounds boring on paper, and while it’s not the most interesting part of this game, it’s not as sleep inducing as it may sound. In fact, the platforming is actually rather mechanically solid and has some exciting moments, such as when a bridge comes crashing down and Jack must use his time powers to escape the wreckage.
When you’re in exploration mode — which includes times where you’re walking alongside an ally and can freely explore your surroundings — you’ll want to keep an eye out for yellow indicators. These identify environmental items that can be examined for additional story content, such as emails, videos, tape recordings and diagrams. If you do look for these, and try to find them all, then you can expect to spend a lot of time reading. You see, although Quantum Break looks beautiful and is very cinematic, it also involves a lot of (mostly skippable) text.
I’m all for learning about the world I’m exploring, but I’d be lying if I said that all of the reading didn’t get to me after a while. There’s so much of it that it’s hard not to burn out well before the credits roll. However, as an Obsessive-Compulsive who doesn’t like to miss anything, I felt compelled to read everything that I could find. I certainly learned a lot by doing so, but it came at the expense of pace and flow, because it slowed the experience down quite a bit.
Where Quantum Break really excels is in its other form of gameplay, which is its action-packed gunfights. These have you using cover to your advantage, as you engage in shootouts against different types of enemies. Early on they’re just grunts, but as the game progresses it starts to introduce foes who can warp from one point to another (using a form of time travel), as well as hulking behemoths who can take and deal out a lot of damage.
Guns are plentiful, and there are quite a few to choose from, including three different types of pistols, a light machine gun, a shotgun, an assault rifle and multiple variations on the SMG. The third-person gunplay that utilizes them is also impressively tight, and the time powers that accompany it are amazingly fun to use. Simply put, Jack is a badass, and he’s one of the most fun shooter characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of controlling.
Since Jack was exposed to chronons, he’s gained the ability to manipulate time to his advantage. Sometimes the world will freeze or slow down around him (which is something that certain enemies can take advantage of, while their peers become frozen), but he’s also able to harness it in some pretty neat ways.
First, there’s a shot that can basically freeze an enemy in its tracks for a short period of time. It works well when coupled with Jack’s time shield, which allows you to absorb bullets without taking damage, as you shoot away at the frozen enemy in front of you. Those are two of the basic ones, although they’re very helpful regardless of that fact. Still, they’re not as flashy as the dodge, which pays homage to Max Payne with a bit of bullet time, or a rush attack that allows you to speed through the environment and perform a melee finisher on at least one enemy.
All of Jack’s powers can be upgraded by finding chronons, but they’re rather well hidden. I’m the type who tries to explore every nook and cranny, but I believe I only ended up with four upgrades during my playthrough. Thankfully, I didn’t really need any more, and found the game to be pretty easy on normal. That is, until the end, when it started sending a plethora of enemies at me during each firefight. When that started happening, things became more challenging.
When it comes to the presentation found in Quantum Break, there’s a lot to get excited about. For starters, it’s a very visceral and stunning game, which looks a lot like an interactive film. That’s aided by its inclusion of real-life actors like Shawn Ashmore (X-Men, The Following), Dominic Monaghan (The Lord of the Rings, LOST), and Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones). They’re all beautifully crafted as in-game models, who look and act like their real-life counterparts, which makes transitions from cutscenes to gameplay quite stunning.
For the most part, the acting is quite strong, although there are times where certain performances aren’t up to par. Shawn Ashmore does a very good job as Jack Joyce, though, and most of the other main players also put in impressive performances. Things aren’t perfect in terms of the game’s presentation, though, as it does have some visual stuttering and other hiccups.
To conclude, Quantum Break is yet another impressive effort from one of gaming’s strongest and most interesting studios. While it’s not perfect, due to an overemphasis on narrative elements and a lesser amount of gameplay than one would expect, it’s a very ambitious effort that keeps you invested throughout its eight-or-so hour-long runtime. And, while I still prefer Alan Wake when all is said and done, I find it easy to recommend this time-bending follow-up to all mature gamers who are looking for something thought provoking and creative; not to mention those who love seeing how far gaming has come over the years.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with. Please note that we played through the game prior to its pre-launch patch becoming available.