Fitting for its subject matter, Quantum Break feels like a game from a time that never was.
Remedy Entertainment, of Max Payne 1 & 2 and Alan Wake fame, have created something that feels like a paradox. At once, Quantum Break is beholden to old school tenets of action game design, new school ideas of character progression, ancient ways of telling stories in games, inclusion of innovations in game narrative from recent history, and whole elements that feel lifted from a future of games that never came to pass – executed in such a way that feels like they are a sign of things to come.
As described above, Quantum Break would sound like a mash of the ideas of others. Yet, it feels singular to Remedy Entertainment, a wildly ambitious blast of their unique strangeness that feels very much like a synthesis and extension of all their previous work. While not all of Quantum Break’s gambits pay off, when they do they amount to one of the most entertaining action experiences of recent memory, a real winner of an exclusive for the Xbox One.
In October 2016, Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore), the adventurous and occasionally troublemaking brother of reclusive acclaimed physicist William Joyce (Dominic Monaghan), returns to the United States to visit his childhood friend – adventurer and fellow troublemaker physicist Paul Serene (Aiden Gillan). Jack hasn’t seen either of them for a rather long time, so when he turns up at Riverport University to see Serene’s latest project – top secret in the basement of the university science building – it is supposed to be a grand meeting of old friends and reconciliation.
In that basement, however, is the opposite. The science experiment goes horribly wrong. Time itself begins to break down, causing all sorts of bizarre occurrences that escalate into disaster. In the process, Jack Joyce gains mysterious time controlling superpowers, making him the most wanted man in Riverport – by Paul Serene, somehow the leader of the city-controlling Monarch Corporation, with superpowers far beyond Jack’s own and a mission that calls into question much of what Jack understands of his friends, family, and the world.
I remain convinced after heading through two different 10 hour playthroughs that Quantum Break was originally conceived by Remedy as an excuse to play around with bullet time in an action game again. They invented it, and it’s easy to forget with time how functionally incredible their Max Payne games were in terms of game design. How fast they moved, how challenging they were, how the bullet time was both effortlessly cool and essential to survival – it’s an old school sensibility that has been mostly lost in the modern world of corridor-corridor-box room-corridor shooting. Quantum Break revitalizes this, and to put it frankly, there are moments in which Remedy’s return to time-stopping action puts the rest of modern shooters to shame.
Jack Joyce’s time-altering gameplay powers are the backbone of this experience. A time bubble ability allows Jack to stop time in a specific area, locking an enemy in place for a short time – from here, you can fire a weapon repeatedly into the bubble as a way of stacking damage on an enemy or use to it flank around them to target weak points. A time shield ability stops bullets in place, rather than just blocking them, forcing you to think on your feet before the shield wears out. You can blitz through time too with a quick dash (if done into an enemy, this turns into a bash, throwing them across the room) or a controlled sprint, allowing you to weave between frozen enemies or pounce on one with a deliriously brutal melee attack. And, if you decide to snap into aiming a weapon at the end of the sprint, you go into classic bullet time – with as satisfying results as you would hope.
Combining these abilities together turns an otherwise solid shooter base into something wonderful, only enhanced by some truly wonderful level design. Remedy chooses to turn most conflicts into a small open world playground, with lots of open ground for maneuvering and just the right amount of cover, encouraging creative use of space before hunkering down behind a box. Such maneuvering is necessary – the Monarch security forces being sic’d onto you are intelligent, and some even match you with minor time altering powers of their own, making gun battles even more dynamic. And in case you forgot this was a Remedy game, the levels are littered with minor environmental puzzles involving time and speed, most standing as effective ways to break up the action.
If anything threatens to undermine Remedy’s potent action game cocktail, it’s what happens with you combine Jack’s time powers with tight, controlled areas. The physics engine isn’t quite on par with your time altering antics, and more than once I found myself using time powers that inadvertently glitched environment objects and killed me, or time-sprinted into an enemy only for Jack to become awkwardly uncontrollable for brief moments as time came back to normal speed. Constriction doesn’t suit the base gunplay either, which feels perfectly floaty during open area segments but slightly breaks down in tight spaces, not enough to ruin the experience but enough to notice things have become less fun. Also unsuitable is the lightweight power upgrading system, requiring you to find “Chronon Sources” in the environment (Chronon is Quantum Break’s science-magic particle that controls time). This system only extends or enlarges your time powers, rather than properly adding new ones, and neither does enough in combat to be justified or is minor enough to be ignored, and doesn’t tie into the erratic nature of Chronon in the rest of the game.
The growing erraticism of time and Chronon Particles in Quantum Break does, however, lead to one of the game’s strongest elements – the art design. In Alan Wake, Remedy’s vision of terror was a jittering mass of darkness that flicked and flittered in ever-so-slightly unnatural ways, and such artistic design makes its way here in Remedy’s depiction of time breaking down. Throughout the story, there are prolonged “stutters” where time stops and starts mid event (including mid massive disaster) for everyone except you, and these stutters are technologically marvelous and frankly should be experienced for yourself. Rendered with such detail, the stutters in time are surreal and otherworldly in nature, a vision of time distortion that feels genuinely unique – from big scale event to the minor details of power use.
They are aided by some great visual design in the regular world as well. The opening sequence, on a college campus, is wonderfully detailed and realistic, with just a hint of stylization – as follows for the rest of Riverport, which feels somewhere between Boston and Seattle in style. The halls of the Monarch facilities, white as per usual for evil corporations, are aided by visually interesting layouts and background details – they feel less like levels and more like places you happen to walk into, which does wonders for selling the violence of the stutters.
That the stutters completely halt the action is worth noting, encouraging you to wander an environment to discover details and speak to characters. Such a thing in a big budget action game signals an incredible display of confidence – not just in your action, but in your pacing, your characters, and your story. Remedy has reason to be confident.
Quantum Break’s secret is its lack of fear in taking their time to develop the characters and world around you. Alongside William and Paul, Jack’s journey brings him into contact with a litany of multifaceted individuals. Monarch agent Beth Wilder (Courtney Hope), student activist Amy Ferraro (Amelia Rose Blaire), Monarch scientist Sofia Amaral (Jacqueline Pinol), and Monarch’s number two Martin Hatch (Lance Reddick) are principally involved, and all of them are backed by some truly fantastic writing. That is so rare in games, the sense that these are real people, and these events are actually happening to them. Remedy nails this, both in these exploring moments, the phenomenal text logs littered throughout the world (that are really worth reading, for once), and in cinematics, where the performances shine.
Shawn Ashmore plays Jack Joyce wonderfully as a confident man finding his confidence shaken, but is also a bit of a dork with sincerity and drive just as much a part of him as fear. Dominic Monaghan plays a fine introverted scientist on the edge of possible madness, but chooses to play a lot of his torment as internal, which works wonders in his extended live-action sequences. Of them all, however, it is Courtney Hope’s Beth Wilder that is the most impressive. To detail her role is to spoil many of Quantum Break’s best surprises, but she is asked to run an emotional gauntlet and display a depth rarely afforded to characters in games in general, let alone women, and she delivers in spades. If anyone gets the short stick, its Reddick’s Hatch. Not for his performance, but because the game never really gives him as much room to breathe as the implications of his character need.
A lot of those implications come from the other part of Quantum Break. The television show – the most Remedy decision ever.
Quantum Break’s live action series is divvied up into four episodes, one at the end of each of the first four acts, and follows those on the Monarch side of the story. Here, Serene and Hatch (Gillen and Reddick, reprising) are joined by I.T. man Charlie (Marshall Allman), Fiona (Mimi Michaels), and field operator Liam Burke (Patrick Heusinger, the most compelling), alongside cameos from the game’s principal cast.
While it would be easy to assume the show is ancillary to the game, it is not. The events that transpire in game and in the show overlap, and to skip the show is to skip critical events in Quantum Break’s story, and while the show isn’t bad (in fact, it is consistently engaging), it doesn’t feel substantial enough as a production. The cast is all game and the writing is green across the board, but the production can’t quite shake the low-budget web series atmosphere. The direction feels uninspired, the visual effects range from just barely par to atrocious, and the locations don’t match the grandiose ambitions. That’s the thing, ambition. Quantum Break: The Show is just a hair too ambitious for its means, and it never quite overcomes that. Also weighing it down is perhaps the most boggling decision in the package – the series isn’t actually on the disc, but streamed via internet. This means that not only does the visual quality of the show suffer depending on connection, but also that if you’re offline you must download the show separately – for free at the cost of 75 gigs of space.
If that sounds absurd, you have to take into account that even though there’s only four episodes of show, that show’s content is actually extraordinarily dependent on player choice. The show isn’t a static narrative, and neither are the character’s actions – it adapts to objects you find in the world, and choices you make in game.
Which is the final, most important thing about Quantum Break: player choice. For a linear action game to do with time manipulation where player choice would appear to be a very bad idea, Quantum Break is extraordinarily reactive to choice. A single playthrough of the game will give you one of several possible outcomes – outcomes that don’t come from the hero, Jack Joyce. They come from the villain, Paul Serene.
At the end of each act, you play as Paul Serene for a brief narrative moment where you are asked to make a critical decision regarding the plot between two options, with Serene seeing visions of what each path will bring. These have massive ripple effects across the game and show, and are where the game makes its smartest decision – it gives you no easy villain.
Quantum Break is like every other Remedy game in that its heroes are preoccupied with inevitability, and the fight against it. Max Payne knew he would solve little in his quest for revenge. Alan Wake was constantly reminded that his path was already set by himself, in his own book. But these were sole individuals. Quantum Break is unique among Remedy’s works in that it shows both heroes and villains struggling against the same ideas, and makes every perspective reasonable and rational. Those choices and playable segments take away any simplicity from Gillen’s Paul Serene – it shows that he and Jack Joyce, and indeed everyone on every side of the game’s conflict, are staring down the same gun of time itself. It finds both criticism and heroism in raging against fate.
In the end, Quantum Break doesn’t quite stick every landing that its ambitions strive towards. It moves a bit too fast, doesn’t quite tie up enough loose ends, and does leave a couple of well-developed characters in the cold. But the core beats are the ones it lands. Its final moments are wonderfully emotional, and earned.
Quantum Break is as unstuck in time as its characters. A blend of old and new in both gameplay and storytelling, of virtual and live action. But it found its way here, and is a time worth visiting.