Review: Quantum Break
Quantum Break is the future of interactive entertainment, and could quite possibly end up as one of the best games of the eighth generation.
Those are some bold words, and no one is as surprised by them as I am. When Microsoft first announced their intention to move into the realm of live-action TV, and that a new game from developer Remedy Entertainment would be one of their first experiments blending video games with other mediums, I was very skeptical. Yes, Remedy found success with the episodic structure in Alan Wake, but that was just a video game – not a video game and TV show. Bringing in real actors, film directors and an entire production crew would be a logistical nightmare, not to mention how different the two mediums are in practice.
Microsoft learned this lesson too, and plans shifted for Quantum Break – now, all the episodes would be included in the game, almost as extended cut-scenes, and the entire thing would release in one package. This is the version that has landed in stores, and in this state, Quantum Break is a masterpiece – it’s more than a proof of concept, it’s a great video game and a solid TV show, and they blend together perfectly. I’ve never played anything quite like Quantum Break before, but now I can’t stop thinking about it, and I want more.
So … What Exactly is a Quantum Break?
Despite its 10-hour playtime, Quantum Break throws a lot at the player, from crazy, over-the-top action scenes to a novel’s worth of background information. The title is story-driven, and gamers experience events from the viewpoint of multiple characters. By the time it’s over, this relatively short game feels like a 30 hour epic, but in the best way possible.
Quantum Break is a sci-fi story all about time travel. The game opens with Jack Joyce (played by Shawn Ashmore) returning to the United States after traveling around Asia for the past six years. He’s returned because he’s received an email from his childhood friend, Paul Serene (played by Aidan Gille), who desperately needs his help. Paul is the lead for the mysterious Project Promenade, which recently came under fire from William Joyce (played by Dominic Monaghan), Jack’s older brother and a brilliant scientist who years earlier discovered a scientific phenomenon called the Meyer-Joyce field. This discovery proved the existence of Chronon fields, which make up the fabric of time and, in theory, can be manipulated, allowing for time travel. William was brought in as a consultant to Project Promenade, but when he discovered what Paul had built, he panicked and scared investors. Desperate to see the project through, Paul reached out to Jack for help, in the hopes that a successful demonstration would convince investors that the project is still worth funding.
Project Promenade is revealed to be a working time machine, one that can send subjects through time in either direction. Paul asks Jack to help him prove it works, by doing something that’s not necessarily legal or ethical – by sending Paul into the machine. Jack obliges, and before Paul can test it out, William shows up and tries to stop them. Of course, it’s too late, and there’s a malfunction with the machine that sends Paul into the future and blasts Jack with a powerful dose of Chronon particles. The rest of the game centers around this event, labeled “the fracture” – the moment that time became fractured and will eventually collapse. Jack escapes the fracture, and is now able to manipulate time, a power that he relies on as he tries to prevent time from ending.
There is a lot more to the story of course, but as is often the case with time travel, the narrative only gets more complex from here on out. This is what makes Quantum Break the perfect project to test a multi-media approach – there are a lot of characters to introduce, and plenty of backstory to help explain events. Although it may be possible to accomplish all of this within a video game, there are certain elements that are better suited to other mediums. Quantum Break succeeds because it places an equal emphasis on three pillars – the video game, the TV show and the canon. Each piece plays a vital role in telling this story, and they all tie together to create a truly unique experience.
Fun With Time Travel
Quantum Break is a game full of surprises, and one of those is that the protagonist of the video game, Jack, gains superpowers. This is unlike previous Remedy titles, where the hero just happens to be good with a gun (or in the case of Alan Wake a flashlight). Jack has a wide-range of abilities that he learns throughout the first three acts. He can freeze enemies in place, trapping them in a sphere that is void of time, and can unload a barrage of bullets into that sphere, so when time is restored the enemy is greeted by a wall of lethal projectiles. There’s a dash ability, but in keeping with the time travel foundation, the dash ability allows Jack to move out of time, meaning that enemies will lose sight of him if he dashes into cover. Jack can even manipulate time around him to create a shield, so bullets and other weapons can’t hit him, and he can safely recover lost health.
Not only was I caught off-guard by the range of these powers, but each one of them feels natural. The combat in Quantum Break is stellar – chaining attacks together is easy, and no matter the challenge the game throws at the player, there is always a solution that makes the player feel like a powerful, time-bending superhero. Enemies will do their best to flank the player to force them out of cover, so they can never just hang back and tear apart enemies from a distance. This means getting comfortable with all of the moves available, but since they work so well it also means experiencing some awesome set-pieces. In one instance, I had to take out four enemies who were hiding behind cover. As I went to duck into cover, a grenade fell to my feet. I used the dash ability, which I had just upgraded, to move up the battlefield. The new upgrade allowed me to press the left trigger button at the end of the dash, which would slow down time. As I did this I was able to take out the first two enemies before they even realized I had moved from my position. As soon as the slow-mo effect wore off, I dashed again, this time flanking the final two enemies, and taking them out in slow-mo as well. Four enemies, all hiding behind cover, eliminated in a matter of seconds.
Remedy didn’t let the unique elements of Quantum Break’s plot go to waste, either. Once the fracture occurs, time will randomly come to a stop. This is known in the game as a stutter, and only Jack, Paul and those equipped with special harnesses can move during a stutter. But as time continues to go from normal to freezing and back again, it begins to behave erratically, which has some interesting consequences. In one scene that takes place at a shipping yard, a large crane has become detached, and tears a boat in half that Jack happens to be standing on. However, a stutter hits, and Jack has to escape the boat, which is easier said than done. The stutter is manipulating the boat so that it collapses in on itself, but then time rewinds for a few seconds, and this repeats in a loop until Jack is able to clear the wreckage. It’s the type of big action set piece that’s common in games such as Call of Duty, but with an interesting sci-fi twist that puts the player directly in the action, as opposed to observing from a distance. Moments like these (which happen a few more times, thankfully) are exhilarating and refreshing, a reminder of what video games are capable of.
But as great as the gameplay is, some of the best moments in the video game portion of Quantum Break are when there is no combat. One of the biggest hurdles the video game industry has yet to solve is how to make a game based on combat interesting when the story calls for no combat. This problem is very noticeable in games like Uncharted, where the player enters a long forgotten tomb, watches an expository cutscene, and then suddenly is swarmed by bad guys, who just happened to show up in the middle of nowhere mere moments after the heroes. The combat may be great, but forcing it into every situation can often feel tiresome.
Remedy knows that this can be an issue, and thankfully they didn’t force a shoot-out into every scene. Quantum Break is broken into five acts, and each act is broken into parts (anywhere from two to four). When a part of an act needs to focus on story, it does just that – it’s only story and no combat. To abandon what may be considered traditional gameplay for an entire section is a move that shows Remedy has confidence that the story and world can carry this game, and they’re right.
Watching Time Go By
That said, the video game portion is only one part of the formula – Quantum Break includes four episodes of a live-action TV show that breaks up the video game sequences. Initially I was skeptical of this – why not just put everything into the video game? But as soon as I realized the purpose of the TV show, the pieces began to fall into place.
Quantum Break features a large cast of characters, and this is where the TV show comes into play. The majority of the characters, although important to the story, do not have super powers and are not responsible for the creation of a time machine that threatens to end the world as we know it. But they’re still important to the story, and it’s great to see what’s going on while Jack and Paul are fighting with their time powers. The TV show focuses on a company called Monarch Solutions, who is the big, shadowy corporation behind many of the events in the game. They are Jack’s primary enemy, so when the TV show focuses on them, it offers viewers a look into what’s going on with the bad guys. This is another risky move, because unveiling too much information about the villain is a common way of taking away any tension or drama. It’s why the slasher in slasher films is always a mysterious, masked, lumbering giant – the more we know about who is behind the mask, the less threatening they become.
But the TV show doesn’t defang the villain, because the villains and the heroes are all working toward the same goal – preventing the end of time. Their methods may be drastically different, which is where the tension in the video game arises from, and the TV show is the perfect way to show viewers what’s going on at Monarch Solutions, and how they try to justify their actions.
However, this is still a TV show that exists in a video game, and Remedy tried to provide players with some form of control over how the events in the show would unfold, but the results are mixed. In the video game portion, players can find items that, when discovered, initiate a quantum ripple. When one of these is discovered, it unlocks a scene in the next episode. However, those scenes are almost all inconsequential, and while I appreciate the sentiment behind them, they add nothing of value to the show.
The other mechanic is far more interesting – at the end of each act (and before each episode), there is something called a junction point. Playing as the villain Paul Serene, players are forced to make a choice about a situation, and that choice will alter many important events going forward. It’s always a binary choice, and the main plot points will happen regardless, but the consequences of these choices are still felt throughout the entire experience. Certain characters who stuck with Jack for the entirety of one playthrough will die early on in a second playthrough if the right (or wrong) choice is made, and Jack may have a tougher challenge in front of him than he would if other choices are made. Not only does this give players some control over the show, but it also means that Quantum Break is a game that needs to be played multiple times for the full experience. That replayability is very welcomed, because the world of Quantum Break is dense, rich and filled with more stories than one TV show can properly convey.
Catching Up on the Past
There is a lot to read in Quantum Break. Emails, posters, pamphlets, lab reports and even a screenplay. Each part of each act has plenty of documents to pour over, and surprisingly each document contains crucial information to help understand the world and the motivations behind each of the characters. In short, the third pillar of Quantum Break, the canon, is practically a novel.
It’s yet another interesting and risky decision on the part of Remedy. Many times players will find an email that will take a few minutes to read, which means that there will be a pause in the action, possibly interfering with the flow of the combat. However, these moments are properly spaced out, and provide a welcomed break from the action. Players find themselves having to escape from collapsing highways or secret Monarch bases, and instead of being thrown right into another action set piece, the game slows down, allowing the player to catch their breath, and Remedy uses these moments to provide even more insight into what’s going on behind the scenes.
The value of these written collectibles cannot be overstated (some major plot points are only ever discussed via email), but Remedy should also be applauded for doing something few developers have actually been able to achieve – giving a purpose to all of these collectibles. Even in Alan Wake, players needed to mindless run around collecting coffee thermoses, which served no narrative or gameplay purpose. However, every collectible in Quantum Break plays a role. Even the quantum ripples, which have little impact on the TV show, add flavor to the game. At any point, players can pause the game and view the timeline, which lists out every item the player has collected. When players go to the timeline and access the quantum ripples, they see a report written by two scientists whose job is to study these ripples, and they can see how their one seemingly inconsequential act actually set into motion a chain of events that reach far beyond the story told here. The banter between the two scientists is amusing, and adds some levity to what is, admittedly, an already weird scenario (time travel should never be taken too seriously). That Remedy was able to fill their game with a list of collectibles, and that each one of them is crucial to understanding the overall experience, is an achievement that should be praised, and hopefully a lesson to other developers that collectibles do not need to be mindless tasks to pad a game’s length.
A Closed Loop
These three pillars are not only what makes Quantum Break work as a story, but they’re what make it such a unique experience, and one that I hope to see built upon by other developers going forward. Remedy has done something special here, and their work has the potential to change the way we view video games and their relation to other mediums. In the span of 10 hours, I felt like I had watched an entire run of a TV show, a feature-length film and read a whole novel tacked on for good measure. Each one of those mediums was used to the best of their abilities, seamlessly flowing together, offering me an experience I didn’t even know I wanted.
Quantum Break is the first game of its kind, and hopefully not the last. There may be better examples of this mixed-medium format going forward, but those games have a big burden on their shoulders already, because the bar has been set high.