Time travel is confusing business, and there’s a reason no one has cracked this particular egg just yet. What happens when we go back and try and change something? Does the future change? Does it remain intact? Is the action of trying to change something the reason it occurred in the first place? Does that mean we have no control over the future? Does it mean we do?
Quantum Break, the intellectually stimulating time-travelling third person shooter tackles these questions head on in a powerful narrative adventure, that manages to rank in the upper echelons of gaming experiences this generation.
Remedy Entertainment are no strangers to telling engaging, captivating stories that manage to subvert your expectations of them, and Quantum Break starts out no differently. In no time at all you’re introduced to both Jack Joyce and Paul Serene, played by brilliantly motion-captured actors Shawn Ashmore and Aiden Gillen respectively. Jack, the brother to one of the world’s leading scientists in the fictional field of Joyce particles, unwittingly becomes a major player in an event known as the Fracture – an avalanche of misbehaving chronon particles that will eventually bring about the end of time.
It’s this accident that imbues Jack with most of his time-bending powers, but one that accelerates the often scientifically intriguing narrative forward at a blisteringly fast pace. It might not seem that way after a campy first Act and a bit, where Quantum Break is so desperately trying to establishes it universe rules, character motives and direction before really diving in, but Quantum Break picks up these pieces in intriguing ways from then on.
What seems like exposition heavy sequences at the start slowly reveal themselves as pivotal moments in the games narrative, as Remedy reigns in the temptation to hop from time period to time period and instead uses (in my opinion) a far more grounded, reasonable approach to how time and its flow works. It leads to some incredibly powerful moments dealing with hope and despair in equal measure, with the entire cast of captured actors doing a fine job of bringing their characters to life in astonishing detail.
Detail here being an operative word, because Remedy have painstakingly created a world within which Quantum Break exists that feels so real, so engrossing that it’s hard not to get lost within it. Curious placements of classified emails aside, there’s a wealth of knowledge to rummage through and examine that I spent a lot of my time searching for open PC terminals, discarded smartphones and sometimes just lonely television sets.
Everything that Quantum Break wants you to know is thrown at you, but it’s borderline criminal to race through it all and ignore the phenomenal (and often narratively important) writing that is scattered throughout its world.
And it would be equally criminal to not talk about Quantum Break’s narrative without touching on its most peculiar piece: the inclusion of a dynamic live-action series that splits up each act. While each segment of gameplay should take you roughly two hours to complete, they’re halted by 30 minute long live-action episodes which draw the camera back and focus on a wider set of characters in the narrative. Many of the pivotal characters in the series don’t manifest in the game, although Aidan Gillen’s Paul Serene makes an impact on both digital and live fronts.
The series itself is influenced by pivotal decisions you make during Junctions – short little segments of gameplay before each episode where you’re forced to make a forking decision from the view of antagonist Serene. It’s a nice twist to decide on the way the story progresses from the view of the man you’re ultimately hunting to take down, and presents an interesting conflict of interest in the process. Do you choose to make Jack’s life easier, or go full role-play and decided on the route that best suits Serene’s character.
It’s an interesting dynamic that doesn’t have as far-reaching consequences as what might have been in the past, but it’s still an engaging mechanic nonetheless. Choices you make could mean certain characters die in the accompanying series, or a sequence of events unravels in a very different manner. Eventually Quantum Break steers the story to an (ultimately) phenomenal ending, incorporating your choices in a tale that you can’t drastically change. Whether contextual to the plot or not, it works, and the series itself is a inescapable part of what makes Quantum Break’s tale so compelling.
So compelling in fact that as soon as I had managed my first playthrough of about 12 or so hours, I immediately wanted to jump back in. Like any good time-travelling tale, the proof of its ingenuity comes with a second take, analysing the small hints and details that you missed the first time around ultimately foreshadowing events to come. Quantum Break is no different, actually feeling like an even better game the second time around. Which, it has to be said, is partly thanks to excellent gameplay pacing. A second playthrough though – one without the searching and the exposition, highlight a game that’s not especially long when its stripped to its core.
When you’re not wandering around listen to characters fill you in with narrative or flipping switches to make really hastily put together machines do incredible things, you’re mostly going to be shooting a small array of different bad guys. Quantum Break sticks to Remedy’s comfortable third-person shooting formula, and brings with it a new set of game changing mechanics to make it feel fresh. The staples are all intact though. Jack takes cover automatically when you approach, actual shooting with the handful of weapons is punchy and satisfying and the well thought-out pacing of narrative and gunplay doesn’t allow the action to overstay its welcome.
But while it might be easy to call Quantum Break a cover shooter, the more you play the less of this it becomes. That’s thanks to Jack’s chronon powers, which let him manipulate time in some entertaining ways. One let me fire off a bubble that froze time in a specific area, letting me stack bullets in the suspended field for them to explode in a massive burst of damage. Another let me dash and dip in and out of cover, while my favourite let me suspend time entirely and sprint towards new cover under the guise of frozen time. Experimenting with the ways these powers work sequentially is a fun exercise, especially because of the way they inherently link, and need to be strung together.
Quantum Break doesn’t waste time either, throwing most of these powers at you within the first of the five acts the game takes place over. Instead of introducing them slowly, Quantum Break instead thoughtfully introduces new enemy types to test your mastery of the powers. Some of which are able to strip you of them momentarily, or feature backpacks that make them immune to time freezes or attacks. When the game starts mixing these together in numbers it’s surprisingly challenging, and consistently engaging at the same time.
I only wish that these types of thought-provoking uses of your abilities stretched further than just combat. In amongst shooting Quantum Break features some light segments of platforming, most of which happen within Stutters – moments of the game where time is no longer moving. They offer up some opportunities to use your abilities to solve movement puzzles, but the answers are so unashamedly thrown at your that their solutions don’t feel rewarding. It’s nowhere near enough to make the segments throwaway, but I do wonder about what could’ve been instead.
There is no such disappointment in the way Quantum Break is presented however, and it’s easy to say that Remedy have delivered on the visual marvel that they promised all those years ago. Some of the technicalities aside, Quantum Break is simply breath-taking all the time, easily cementing itself as the best looking game on the Xbox One right now. I’d even wager to say it’s one of the best this generation, with Remedy pulling no punches.
The way light reacts to frozen time is spellbinding, and seeing objects in suspended motion and the trail they’ve left behind makes for some clever environmental storytelling. That’s on top of the effects heavy combat and set-pieces, which bring the game alive in a way that no other has quite yet managed to on Xbox. This works hand in hand with the phenomenal character animations and gorgeous in-game cutscenes, which the game effortlessly switches between while maintaining crisp visual fidelity.
The same could be said of the accompanying sound design, which does a great job of capturing the sheer enormity of time collapsing on itself. The sharp pitches of the world grinding to a halt around you are hard to forget, as is the suitably power punch of a rifle’s bullets rippling through air that is essentially standing still.
Remedy have maintained their level of attention to detail in every facet of Quantum Break’s design, and it’s an experience they can be proud of. The captivating tale takes a beat or two to really kick in, but when it does it’s hard not to want to keep pressing forward through Quantum Break’s campaign without rest. Every time it feels like Remedy has reached their peak they create another IP of impeccable quality. Quantum Break is just the most recent example of this, and another strong addition to a now plentifully packed Microsoft exclusive library.
Last Updated: April 1, 2016