Quantum Break (Reviewed on the Xbox One)
Manipulating time has long been a staple of science fiction, from the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine to the Terminator movies. And the one thing we can take from the various stories over the years is that messing with time is generally not a good idea, however noble the cause may be. Too often we’re shown how fooling with the time line is fraught with dangers, and yet we damn well know that if someone ever figures out how to make a time machine, someone will use it regardless of all the warnings we’ve gotten from fiction.
Adding to that long list of cautionary tales now is developer Remedy, the folks behind Alan Wake, as they bring their story telling prowess to the time traveling genre. And their new game/TV show hybrid, Quantum Break, tells a very fine tale, one worthy of the genre, and it’s that story that is the strong point of the game. There’s some decent gameplay in there as well, and while it doesn’t quite reach masterpiece status, it still proves to be worth your time, offering a great cast of characters and some great production values.
The game centers around Jack Joyce (played by Iceman from the X-Men movies, Shawn Ashmore) who returns home to Riverport at the request of old friend Paul Serene (Littlefinger from Game of Thrones, Aidan Gillen). Jack arrives at the local university which is embroiled in a protest against Monarch, a powerful corporation that has slowly been taking over the town. Jack finds that Paul is conducting experiments with a machine that allows him to travel through time.
Just as they’re about to start their test, Jack’s brother, William (Dominic Monaghan, Lord of the Rings) bursts in to stop them. Naturally, bad things happen, and Paul and Jack are imbued with special abilities that allow them to manipulate time. Monarch’s forces swarm in, and Jack makes his escape, only to find out that Paul has done this before. Paul is the head of Monarch, and suffering from what is called Chronon sickness.
Time has been fractured, and Jack seeks to repair it while Paul feels it can’t be done, so of course the two end at odds over the course of the game. The game is played out over five acts interspersed with four episodes of a TV show. The show is very well produced by Lifeboat Productions and Microsoft, with a top notch cast that also includes Lance Reddick (The Wire, Fringe), Courtney Hope (Allegiant), Jacqueline Pinol (The Call), Patrick Heusinger (Frances Ha), Marshall Allman (Prison Break), Mimi Michaels (Gamer), and Brooke Nevin (The Comebacks).
The episodes each run at a brisk 20 minutes or so, and each have two versions, determined by the choice you make at one of the game’s four Junctions. Your choices also influence the game to an extent, though the ending will be the same. But there are enough differences that making two playthroughs is well worth your while. Each playthrough will take you around 9-10 hours, depending on how much you explore.
And exploring is a good idea, as there are plenty of collectibles to find, ranging from notes to e-mails to videos.
And while reading all of this material can slow up the game’s pacing (you can always read them from the menu instead if you prefer to keep moving in game), the material written by the game’s writers Sam Lake, Tyler Burton Smith, and Mikko Rautalahti is for the most part worth reading, as it offers much more to the story and gives you some great background and extra information that gives the characters greater depth. These pieces are sometimes the source of humor as well as some Easter eggs referencing other games (on both my playthroughs I found at least three referring to Alan Wake).
In addition to collectibles exploring will enable you to find Chronon, which can be collected and then used to upgrade your abilities. The abilities are doled out fairly early in the game, enabling you to freeze time around an object or person, speed across a room, or even throw a powerful time bomb into the middle of your enemies. Each ability has a cooldown meter which is displayed on the right hand of your screen.
Knowing which ability is which and not losing track in the heat of battle can be a bit confusing at first, since eventually you’ll have six meters to monitor. Thankfully, none of your abilities are extraneous, and you’ll need to use them all, both in combat and during the couple of platforming sections found in the game. Getting into a good flow between gunplay and using your powers is a lot of fun and helps you feel badass, even against the tougher enemies that require a bit more thought than charging straight on.
The gunplay is your fairly standard third person cover shooter, and it works well enough, though other games have done it better. You get a decent variety of guns to use, as all the usual suspects are here (machine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, and pistols). Ammo tends to be plentiful, and sidearms have infinite ammo. Reloading can take a little longer than you may like (especially when you’re under fire), though you can switch guns using the directional pad, making reloading a bit quicker. Jack will stick to most cover but you can’t blind fire or shoot from cover, as he will always stand up. Staying on the move is key, and with time stutters distorting the screen keeping track of the action can be challenging in spots. You can always press Y on the Xbox One controller to briefly highlight enemies.
Also in every level there are plenty of explosive items to shoot to make bad guys go boom. It’s an action game trope, and it makes little sense in spots, but it does make for some fun and exciting gameplay. Some guns can get floaty, and aiming can be imprecise at times, but it’s nothing that overall dampens the experience.
The platforming is also fairly standard, made more challenging by the time stutters and Jack’s imprecise movements, Again, it’s nothing that ruins the experience, but it can lead to some cheap deaths and portions that require patience as you get through them by trial and error. This is especially true of the final battle, and long load times don’t help things when you fail a section and need to retry a combat section or a platforming segment.
Visually the game looks terrific. Character models look like the actors portraying them, and for the most part in game environments match up exactly with the counterparts in the TV show. It’s neat to see an environment in the show reflect the damage caused in gameplay. The characters are all well voiced with some great performances, especially by the two leads Ashmore and Gillen. It also helps that the characters are all well written and likeable, and even the villains Paul and his right hand man Martin Hatch (Lance Reddick) have some depth to them.
Reading those collectibles also gives some necessary background making the characters ore believable and also offering some insight into the game’s mysteries. Skipping the reading, cut scenes, and the show’s episodes is actually detrimental and will lessen your overall experience with the game. Plus it may make the game’s conclusion a bit more confusing, especially the post credits scene. Remedy has always been good with story, and it shows here.
In all, Quantum Break offers a unique experience among current gen console games, and the hybrid game/TV show works quite well. The time powers, though all doled out early, are a lot of fun to use. The gunplay is decent but could have been tighter. The same goes with the platforming segments, as well as the game hampering Jack’s movement when it seems he should be able to jump somewhere but the game doesn’t want you to go there.
While most levels aren’t super linear, this does cut down on making as full a use of the environment as there could have been. But where this game really shines is in its storytelling and its characters, both benefiting by giving players the chance to explore to their hearts content (there are only a couple of occasions where another character can get annoying by constantly reminding you of what they want you to do next). The Junctions offer meaningful choices, and while the game’s ending won’t see a change, the journey there gets altered enough to warrant at least two playthroughs.
For those wondering, with two playthrough getting you around 20 hours (that includes gameplay and watching the TV show) may not justify paying full price, so doing so would be an individual decision. And while the game’s length may keep me from recommending this as a must buy, I would still call it a must play, even with its flaws.
Remedy has offered us a familiar yet different experience, one that is fun and entertaining and intelligently written. And so in short, this game about time manipulation is well worth your time. And that’s just what you want from your gaming experiences.
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