Quantum Break Review
Gaming meets television in this time travel adventure
Finnish studio Remedy Entertainment first broke into the gaming mainstream in 2001 with their classic Max Payne. A sequel followed relatively quickly, but their next project Alan Wake got stuck in a lengthy development cycle. When it was finally released in 2010, the game didn't quite meet expectations that have mounted over the years. Now, the studio is back with Quantum Break, an Xbox One and Windows 10 exclusive that features notable TV actors, time travel, and slow motion explosions. There is a worthwhile and well-delivered story here, but most of the other elements feel uninspired.
Quantum Break sees players assume the role of Jack Joyce, an ordinary man who just happens to be a brother of Will Joyce, a key scientist that dedicated his life to the research of quantum physics. One night after being away for several years, Jack is invited to the Riverport University to help test an unknown experiment created by Paul Serene. Paul shares a long history with the brothers, and is now the head of the university research program. He is convinced to be on the verge of a time-travelling breakthrough, but knows that his research partner Will would never allow such trials because they could be dangerous. As one might suspect, things go wrong and time itself is broken, and not long after Will is killed. Jack then becomes determined to find out the secrets behind Monarch (Paul's multinational corporation), and attempt to undo Will’s death.
Whatever happened during the experiment also grants Paul and Jack mysterious powers that let them manipulate time. This ties directly into the gameplay mechanics, but it also sets up a number of moments when time stops - called time fractures - and only Jack and certain others can still exist in the otherwise frozen world. It's a decently creative way to make players feel that they are not in control, as the story gets closer to the absolute "end of time"—a fracture that never ends. While Jack is simply trying to undo the past, Paul and other characters from Monarch Solutions are rather interesting. Everyone has their own motivations, and while they are often personal, nobody is trying to take over the world or control time for selfish reasons. The relationships between the main characters are often intriguing to observe, and help the game’s story feel more involving. Though the overarching narrative in Quantum Break doesn't offer anything overly original, the game takes itself seriously and manages to pull it off, with moments of tension and potential character deaths that are unflinching in their delivery. As time travelling tales go, it is fairly straightforward - dealing with the concepts of cause and effect, time as a loop, and trying to change the past. Having said that, thanks to a strong cast, good writing and polished execution, it's a story well worth experiencing; it makes for an entertaining ride that players will want to see to the end.
However, it isn’t without faults. The first misstep comes in the form of the shotgun exposition in the opening moments, revealing many important aspects about the story (albeit without details). Attentive players will spot many characters and important scenes that will have less impact when they actually occur. This happens because the narrative is told in retrospect, similar for example to the first season of True Detective. The method in itself isn’t a terrible choice, and it allows players to often hear additional background information from Jack himself as he recounts the events. The problem, and the second misstep, is that for a story to have any real tension, it must eventually return to the present and continue in real time (again, as True Detective did). But this does not happen. Lastly, after wrapping up fairly neatly, the developers decide to throw in a post-credits cliffhanger.
In a move that might make someone like Hideo Kojima a bit envious, QB utilizes real video as part of the narrative. These TV-like episodes are usually 20-30 minutes in length and follow a cast of Monarch characters as they all try to deal with the ongoing events. While it feels jarring at first, the game manages to successfully integrate these episodes into the presentation thanks to the fact that many locations and all characters reprise their roles in the live-action videos. It also helps that the show has rather high quality production qualities, and features mostly solid acting so that it could be easily mistaken for traditional live TV. The work by Aidan Gillen (Paul Serene), Lance Reddick (Martin Hatch) and Marshall Allman (Charlie) leads the way thanks to both solid acting and engaging dialogue. Shawn Ashmore doesn't get much to do as Jack Joyce during the live episodes, but his voice acting is serviceable. Courtney Hope (Beth Wilder) and Patrick Heusinger (Liam Burke) also do OK, though Liam's action sequences get a bit unrealistic towards the end. On the other hand, a few other actors simply follow the script and fall into character stereotypes. The video content takes up maybe a fifth of the total 10 hour playthrough time, but it feels worthwhile. In fact, it's integrated so well that it's kind of disappointing not to have an episode at the game's finale.
From a gameplay standpoint, players can find Quantum Ripples - objects in the game that will then briefly appear in the TV show. But more notably, there are Junctions, points in the story where players will need to make one of two choices, which will impact the events to follow. Interestingly, players make the story choices from Paul's perspective, as he gained the ability to foresee the future during the accident. These Junctions will affect the fates of characters and how things will play out both in the game and in the show. And while the results are diverse enough to warrant a second playthrough, alternate means still lead to the same ends.
Developers Remedy have always attempted to use a different gameplay mechanic with each of their titles. In Max Payne, it was bullet time; in Alan Wake it was the power of light. Consequently, Quantum Break offers a new central theme – time manipulation. Jack has a number of skills at his disposal that helps in both combat and environment traversal. Time Vision is the equivalent of x-ray view from other modern games, and while its main purpose is to highlight items and enemies, there is a nice twist – the vision only works when you are standing still. Using the vision is also the only way to notice and collect Chronon Sources, which are used as skillpoints to upgrade your powers, with the typical assortment of effectiveness and duration increases, as well as cooldown reduction.
The powers at Jack’s disposal include Time Stop, which traps enemies in a bubble and gives Jack a chance to pump it full of bullets; the damage to the enemy inside is applied once the bubble bursts. The alternative is Time Burst which emits a powerful explosion at your target location. Time Dodge lets you quickly teleport through the environment and stun the enemy at the end of your move; its expanded version is Time Rush which is a slow motion run with more finesse to control the destination, as well as the ability to do an instant melee takedown. In a bit of good design, using these traversal time powers will confuse foes and they will continue to attack your old location until you are revealed elsewhere. As Time Dodge and Rush might leave you exposed, Jack can use Time Shield to temporarily deflect enemy fire and recover some health.
While the time powers are varied and well designed, the game doesn’t really take full advantage of them. You’ll often explore time fractures when the world is standing still, but some enemies can enter this zero state as well, and utilize time powers; though their only notable skill is quick movement. Highly armored or time power-resistant foes appear infrequently and don’t require any clever mechanics to defeat; you simply need to shoot them in the back for maximum impact. There is rarely a reason to fully flex your abilities or creativity, and most combat encounters could be solved by using the same one or two powers. QB is not very challenging on normal difficulty – regular enemies go down quickly from gunfire or a single melee takedown attack. A couple of sections that attempt to introduce a twist by disabling your abilities altogether, are easily bested as well. Most of your deaths will come from being too aggressive and not timing the skill cooldowns.
Jack can carry a pistol and two firearms at a time, and the gunplay is decent. Your aim feels a bit imprecise and the recoil patterns are erratic. The cover system is automatic and basic, as Jack will crouch near objects but not much else. Ammo is plentiful; picking up weapons from the ground is inconveniently bound to the same button as reloading. Jack’s movement feels sluggish, not unlike Alan Wake, and this is negatively highlighted by the game’s dedication to include environment traversal sections. The environment is partially destructible, often forcing you to change cover, though it’s not overly detailed. The last foe in each area is defeated in slow motion, as a reference to Max Payne.
The time manipulation doesn't only exist during combat however. During half of the game, you'll be exploring the environments and on occasion doing simple puzzles that involve manipulating time. Is a gate closing too fast, or is the path is blocked? Chances are you just need to use Time Rush to get through, or Time Vision to rewind to the past. It's very standard and simple stuff that you've seen many times in other games that involve time manipulation. Aside from searching for Chronon Sources, you'll be able to collect various pieces of intel and documents in each area, which reveal more details about the current events and also unlock additional videos and dairies that add depth to the story. Some collectibles only appear in the alternate timelines, so you'll need to play through again with different choices to grab them.
Quantum Break is a divisive game when it comes to presentation. As mentioned earlier, the videos are well acted and produced, and fit very well into the game. Similarly, the cutscenes look excellent, with a highly impressive level of detail, accurate lip-sync and great lightning and scene composition. The voice acting and TV-acting is often on point, and the broken techno style music during action will remind players of Remember Me's soundtrack.
Unfortunately, the in-game visuals paint a wholly different picture. QB looks very soft, likely attempting to create a cinematic effect, but it is taken too far. The graphics have noticeable blur, creating trails and ghosting behind moving objects. Characters and the environment have a drastically lower level of detail compared to the cutscenes. Tons of texture streaming problems exist; it can take a minute sometimes to load an object you’ve approached. Animations look very basic, with weapon interactions (such as no clip removal during reload) and cover-interaction transitions seemingly unfinished. Lighting and shadows are wildly inconsistent in quality. The cool time-altering and distortion effects look good, as do the explosions and slow-motion moments, but they hardly make up for the disappointing in-game visuals. Loading times can be rather long.
Another technical hiccup worth mentioning is the video content itself. All of the in-game TV episodes are actually streamed, meaning you should have a decent enough connection to enjoy them in HD and hope that Microsoft's video delivery servers are stable. In a way, it makes this single player game require an online connection. If you aren't online or your stream is interrupted, you get the option to try again, or skip the video. To be fair however, there is an option to download all of the videos to your Xbox One - to the tune of 75GB. It's a bit jarring that this content couldn't be included in the actual game files, especially considering the game's relatively small and linear environments, and the abovementioned troubled visual fidelity.
Whether it’s TV, movies, or video games, the concept of time travel is hard to do successfully. But thanks to a strong cast, well written dialogue and a mostly solid story with decent replay value, Quantum Break manages to pull it off. Developers Remedy Entertainment even manage to merge two different mediums effectively, by including live action TV right into the game. The quality of the presentation shines – outside of the actual gameplay, that is. The mechanics are serviceable, providing players with multiple time shifting tools but no real challenge or reason to utilize them all. There are many references to Alan Wake, if you’re into that sort of thing. In the end, Quantum Break is a successful experiment of merging a show with a game, with a good story but average gameplay and uneven presentation quality.