Platforms PC, XBO (reviewed)
Developer Remedy Entertainment
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Release Date April 5, 2016

Quantum Break is a story-driven, 3rd person shooter about the end of the world. The game centers around protagonist Jack Joyce, a man who finds himself with the ability to manipulate time after a time travel experiment goes horribly wrong. The world begins falling apart as time fractures – time freezes sporadically, objects move around erratically throughout their own timeline, and basically the whole world goes to crap fairly quickly as it hurtles towards the end of time.

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Quantum Break is definitely a game it feels like only Remedy could make. It’s easily one of the most story-driven action games I can think of playing, and that’s without taking into account the four 22-minute TV show episodes that come with the package. It manages to tell a high minded, science-fiction story without disappearing up its own arse, grounding its Fringe-esque narrative in its cast of relatable characters, whom you actually care about (again, like Fringe). Everything about the narrative in Quantum Break clicks.

The game is split into five acts, and the story is told with exceptional pacing – Remedy show a high level of confidence in their storytelling and characterisation. Where a lesser game would feel the need to turn every new area you explore into a shooting gallery, in the hope of keeping the player from getting bored, Quantum Break has plenty of combat-free sections that allow players to explore the world. You can scour the environments for the huge amount of documents, videos, Alan Wake easter eggs, and other background material that are fascinating, doing a great deal to flesh out everything that’s going on in the game.

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The fact that the games collectibles are actually worth finding in their own right, separate from the associated completion percentage or achievements, puts Quantum Break into a very small minority. Most of the collectibles add an enormous amount of backstory and context to the events happening around Jack Joyce. And while none of them are truly essential to the enjoyment of the story, everything you need to know you will find out in due course, they’re all so well written that it was a genuine pleasure to find them all. Also, Time Knife. Plus by spacing out the combat sections, Remedy have ensured that combat never has a chance to get dull by overwhelming you with shootout after shootout, a trap that so many action games fall into.

Not that Quantum Break’s combat is dull to begin with, thanks to Jack Joyce’s time manipulation powers. Without these powers Quantum Break would probably have been a standard, if slightly dull, cover-based shooter. With these powers Quantum Break becomes a truly engaging, fantastically fun cover-based shooter. In fact, this game might be the first cover-based shooter where the chest high cover might actually be completely irrelevant. Sure it exists, and if you maneuver Jack to approach it he will dutifully take cover. But thanks to the way the gameplay has been moulded around Jack’s powers and the enemies he faces, using cover is a counter-productive way to go about shooting people. In fact, thanks to how easily cover breaks, it’s probably more of a hindrance than anything else.

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Thanks to his exposure to chronons, Jack is able to make use of several abilities to turn the tables on the bad guys coming to kill him. You can zip around the battlefield using Time Dodge or Time Rush to get the drop on enemies, use Time Vision to spot enemies, collectibles or weapons scattered throughout the environment. Time Shield allows you to create a bubble to stop bullets for a short spell, and Time Blast lets you create a time explosion that can neutralise even some of the tougher enemies in the game. My personal favourite, however, is Time Stop – an ability that freezes time in bubble, allowing you to trap an enemy in stasis and fire an entire clip into this frozen bubble, and then watch the resulting pyrotechnics as all the bullets unfreeze at the same time.

While that might not seem like a lot, it’s plenty enough. All of these powers combined give you an impressive array of tactical options for taking down the Monarch goons you’ll encounter in your journey. They turn the traditional whack-a-mole style gameplay of the cover-based shooter on its head, empowering you to go on the offensive. Best of all, you’ll be comfortable with using them in no time at all, thanks to an incredibly well designed and super intuitive control scheme. There’s a certain rush to using and combining all of Jack’s powers into a big glorious ballet of death that’s hard to deny. You can upgrade all of these abilities by finding Chronon Sources hidden around the games various levels, for even more fun.

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You’ll feel a bit like a superhero after only a couple of hours with the game, though you’ll rarely be overpowered thanks to well designed combat encounters, an enemy AI that genuinely feels like a threat, and special enemies called Strikers, who have some of those same abilities. There aren’t a great deal of guns to choose from in the game, but these play second fiddle to the time manipulation powers. Truth be told it doesn’t really matter what gun you’re holding, as long as you have something that fires bullets you’ll be all set to wreak some badass havoc.

When you’re not utilising your powers to mow through waves of bad men, you’ll be utilising them to make your way through environmental puzzles, with a dash of platforming thrown in for good measure. These sections are fairly light on challenge, usually just requiring you to use the right power to get past whatever is blocking your path at that particular moment. They’re fine for what they are. Some of them take place during some pretty interesting set pieces (like the aftermath of the boat incident from the very first reveal trailer), and  they’re excellent concepts thanks to the wibbly-wobbly-ness of it all.

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And while the gameplay is generally excellent, it’s the story where Quantum Break truly shines. The writing is great – Quantum Break is a fun sci-fi thriller that has a genuinely enjoyable story and even manages to tug on the heartstrings from time to time. But what the writing benefits most is the cast of characters. They’re genuinely interesting individuals, played by a series of great actors doing impressive work, backed up by incredible motion capture and facial animation techniques that add an impressive amount of detail to the characters, and really help the outstanding performances stand out.

Gaming finally seems to be at a point where we can capture those small and subtle, but crucial, details that can make or break an actors performance – facial expressions, body language and more are all captured and translated into the gameplay and cutscenes, and it really helps the performances stand out all the more. Shawn Ashmore deserves a lot of credit for a terrific turn as protagonist Jack Joyce, but the entire cast, which includes the likes of Aiden Gillen, Brooke Nevin, Dominic Monaghan and Lance Reddick, are all outstanding.

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And then we come to the transmedia of it all – back in 2013 when Microsoft was unveiling the Xbox One for the very first time, Quantum Break was one of the first reveals for the new console. It was an unprecedented mix of game and TV show, rather than one being the companion to the other, the two would intertwine – events in the game would have effects on the show, and vice versa. This now seems like it was largely overplayed. Your actions and choices do have an effect on the series as it goes on, but that effect is generally minimal.

Those expecting sweeping changes to the story based on their actions will be largely disappointed, as any choices you make mostly affect how the world reacts to the events of the story. Don’t get me wrong, there are choices and consequences, and you can certainly have an impact on the story and the characters, but it’s not as sweeping as you might have imagined going in. Most of these choices come at Junction Points, which occur at the end of each act and transition us into the next episode of the TV show. You’re given control of antagonist Paul Serene and offered a choice of two paths.

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And then the show starts. There’s an episode at the end of each Act of Quantum Break, save for the last one. Quantum Break’s transmedia ambitions have always been a fascinating prospect, and this show has definitely surpassed any expectations I had for it going in. While there are some fairly dodgy special effects employed, it’s quality is that of a Netflix Original series. Again the show is bolstered by its impressive cast who are all on good form. Much like the game it’s a great sci-fi thriller, although probably completely unwatchable without the accompanying game. What makes the Quantum Break TV portions truly spectacular, however, is the effect it has on the overall narrative.

Take Liam Burke (played very well by Patrick Heusinger). In the game, you’ll meet Burke very briefly at the beginning of the story, and then once near the end. In the series he is one of the main characters. He’s a senior member of the Monarch security division, a “fixer” whose morality is fluid, and is generally called upon by his employers to deal with unsavory jobs. His arc in the TV show is pretty great – the way his story plays out really helps viewers empathise with his character, understand his motivations and generally root for him.

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In any other game, Burke would be a generic villain – you’d trade barbs with him a couple of times and then fight him in an early boss fight. And this is the success of Quantum Break’s transmedia experiment. Thanks to the game taking 22 minutes at the end of each of its Acts, we’re given a window into characters that would ordinarily be fairly one-dimensional. Quantum Break takes the time to make us give a damn about its supporting cast. Here, characters like Liam are allowed to be multi-faceted and have their own stories. Quantum Break is the only game that gives me the opportunity to become emotionally invested in characters that would otherwise have been given precious little screen time. That might be its greatest achievement, and something I hope other game developers are paying attention to.

Summary

Quantum Break is a culmination of Remedy’s entire history – every lesson learned has been employed to create something exceptional. The transmedia experiment is a complete success, changing the way you would ordinarily expect a video game to be able to tell its story, and humanising its side characters in the process. That’s not to say the game doesn’t have a great story to tell in its own right. It does, bolstered by excellent characterisation and some brilliant performances from its talented cast. The story is supported by some truly inspired gameplay. What could have been a standard cover-based shooter takes on a whole new dimension thanks to the addition of Jack Joyce’s time manipulation abilities.  Quantum Break is easily Remedy’s best game to date.

10


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