Looking to the future, holding on to the past
PC, Xbox One
Developer Remedy Entertainment
Format PC, Xbox One
Release April 5
The game quickly begins to throw ten or more opponents at you simultaneously
The problem with shifting a paradigm is that it can be hard for people to get a handle on what you might be shifting it to. Since its announcement in 2013, Quantum
Break has existed as an intangible promise of reinvention, a bold mix of popular culture’s currently most vital and effervescent forms – the longtail, uncompromising storytelling of television crushed between the seams of gaming’s ability for moment-to-moment malleability. All very exciting, of course, but it begged the question: what would (or could)
Quantum Break actually be in practice? In playing through the first act of the game it soon becomes apparent that this attempt at audiovisual alchemy has resulted in something that could quite comfortably be described as an action-adventure hybrid with some very long FMV cutscenes. Each act is solidly, verging on stolidly, built – three parts action gameplay, one part 20-minute live- action episode and, connecting the two, a Junction section (see ‘Divergence point’), in which you make decisions on behalf of the game’s antagonists that will go on to affect the narrative of both sides of the experience. It’s certainly lovingly constructed, stylish and seamless (with the prerequisite that your broadband keeps up with the streamed TV sections), but, crucially, it feels like Remedy’s chosen media haven’t meshed, but rather been jammed into sequence. Even if the packaging is fresh, the products inside are nothing we haven’t seen before.
Not that that’s necessarily a problem, nor even the point. “It is a big, explosive, triple-A, cinematic story-driven action game, first and foremost,” creative director Sam Lake explains. “The show is there, it’s a really important part, but at the end of the day I do think that it’s a feature of this experience. Ultimately, Quantum Break is a game.”
While much has been made of the game’s peculiar form, that’s perhaps been to the detriment of what feels like Remedy’s best work with Quantum Break. The Finnish studio has almost exclusively made thirdperson shooters of various stripes during its 20-year lifespan, and the game at Quantum Break’s core is testament to that vast experience. We may be disappointed to find those promises of reinvention fall short, but making our way there is a joy. On the evidence of our hands-on time, this is Remedy’s most primally satisfying shooter to date.
“Alan Wake certainly has a special place in my heart,” Lake says, “but part of the criticism that it got was that the action side of it, the combat side, got repetitive quite fast. So part of [developing Quantum Break] was to make sure we put a big effort into action, into different powers that the player gets, into different enemy classes. So there’s depth. You go through the game and there’s always new stuff coming at you. It keeps evolving.”
This focus is clear from the outset. By the end of Act One, protagonist Jack Joyce already has four-fifths of his time-altering combat abilities – granted by a blast of Chronon energy from the experimental time machine that acts as the springboard for this soft-sci-fi superhero origin story. The player already has a comprehensive grounding in the frenetic cover combat that makes up the majority of their interactions with the game. It’s gratifyingly quick to get to the point, and even faster to start throwing genuine challenges at the player, forcing them to adapt.
Joyce can more than hold his own against a couple of enemies, using the kind of dynamic cover familiar to players of Crystal Dynamics’ recent Tomb Raider games to protect himself and outflank them. But the game quickly begins to throw ten or more opponents at you simultaneously and cranks up the AI’s aggression, requiring you to deal with grenade blasts and close-quarters assaults. It’s a bombardment that demands the kind of tactics that proved effective in Max Payne, but where the 2001 game used time manipulation for room-clearance theatrics, Quantum Break more often asks you to use your powers to control a fight, rather than dominate it.
Time Vision marks enemies and interactive elements, letting you take stock of a situation. Time Shield turns incoming
missiles into gently glowing, always inaccurate tracer lines around you. Time Dodge sees Joyce thundercrack his way several metres across empty ground, ending with either a devastating melee attack or, borrowing from
Bayonetta, a short burst of chewy slowmotion to take out nearby threats at leisure. Best of all is Time Stop, which freezes a targeted bubble of space. This lets you put a particular threat on hold, stop incoming fire as you escape, create time-delayed traps by freezing and firing on scattered gas canisters, or empty whole clips towards frozen enemies, which resolve like enormous shotgun blasts when the bubble collapses.
Knowing how and when to use these powers becomes as important to surviving combat as discharging your weapon, but Remedy promises that this is far from the extent of the game’s demands. Once you’re comfortable with your powers, the designers begin to find ways to undermine you. At the opening of Act Two, the game introduces Striker enemies who can Time Dash like Joyce, forcing you to abandon cover altogether and play the game at a constant sprint. Remedy also talks about power-sapping grenades, enemies who can’t be Time Stopped, and more. If the pace keeps up, it promises to make the violent journey through the game’s five acts a changeable and fascinating action experience.
While we’ve seen only brief demonstrations so far, the game’s Stutter set-pieces are intended to offer another facet of play. Stutters are moments in which time has “broken down”, leaving the majority of the world frozen, with certain elements resolving like three-dimensional GIF animations, endlessly looping through an action – a ship collapsing and rebuilding itself, for example. They’re used both as dangerous combat spaces (barrels and interactive level elements can be destroyed) and for a measure of puzzle-platforming. By way of an introduction to the idea, our hands-on demo features a stack of crates that have to be raced across before they’re crushed, but it’s not hard to imagine more taxing concepts being scattered throughout as shootout interludes.
Lake calls Quantum Break the “ultimate Remedy game”, and it seems like a fair label. The studio’s preoccupation with the satisfying thud of a pistol slide, with turning visual film conventions into interactive game mechanics, and with uncanny digital recreations of actors’ faces (this game’s mesmerising, painstaking animations can be traced directly back to Lake’s own frozen gurn in Max Payne) are all at their most ambitious and well-practised even in this early section. Equally, there’s also evidence of Remedy’s recurring problems with rote, featureless outof-combat gameplay, and dialogue that sits somewhere between homage and accidental parody – memorably, an attempt to explain the fractured chronology by way of a food simile leads to Dominic Monaghan’s character shouting, “The time egg is fucked!”
Among all of this familiarity, the TV show sections do stand out, although not for the right reasons – outsourced LA studio Lightbulb Productions has made something more befitting of Syfy than HBO. Act One’s episode is equal parts glossy and empty, an attempt to instil believable humanity in the supporting characters while not losing the pace of the preceding gameplay that manages neither feat. That the CGI effects look distinctly worse than the gameplay sections’ own versions is the greatest indictment.
As for the show’s ability to reflect your actions, that’s revealed to be something of a smokescreen. While the Act One Junction choice does swap out whole scenes of the first episode (indicating that this is a branching moment with a popup icon in the corner of the screen), that amounts to, at most, around a quarter of the running time, while the endpoint is practically identical.
Quantum Break’s attempt to change our expectations of games, and indeed entertainment overall, comes up a little short; it’s unlikely that this project will turn out to be the successful media-meld that Remedy once envisaged. But it’s certainly a fascinating experiment, and by no means a failure outright. That fantastic core combat sticks in the memory, serving as a continual reminder of the team’s considerable talent and experience. Despite some rough edges, this might well be the game that fans of the studio wanted Remedy to make all along.
Killing enemies in a Stutter leaves them hanging in time, turning them into suspended ragdolls. Enterprising players can even use them as makeshift cover
Sam Lake, creative director at Remedy