“The number one killer is time.”
It’s with those ominous words that the story to Quantum Break kicks off, and it’s a phrase that resonates with some of the larger themes of the game in a big way – in fact, it’s a phrase that connects in many ways to the very production of this new blockbuster. We first saw Quantum Break many years ago, as one of the games that had the privilege of being shown off at E3 during the Xbox One announcement. In that reveal, we were promised the world – a narrative focused game that not only featured real, consequential choices, but had a self-contained TV show that actually changed with your choices as well.
At that time, especially since the backlash against the initial Xbox One announcement had given us a sour taste in our mouth for the Xbox one, many people didn’t really know how to feel. Gamers have been over-promised things on many occasions, and if anything seemed too ambitious or too outlandish, it’s what Remedy, developers of Alan Wake and now Quantum Break, brought on stage that day. The lack of immediate enthusiasm turned into a bit of concern when we found out that we wouldn’t be seeing Quantum Break until 2016, as we all remember how drawn-out development periods have done serious harm to games in the past (I’m looking at you, Duke Nukem.) Now that Quantum Break has come out of its development cycle and landed itself on store shelves, the question is simple: Did time kill Quantum Break?
Short answer? No. I was nervous when I first launched up the game and heard that soon-to-be-iconic phrase (It’ll be a tagline when this turns into a big franchise, mark my words), but my fears were dashed away surprisingly quickly. First of all, I was immediately taken by just how polished Quantum Break looked. The game is nothing short of gorgeous, bringing together fluid body movement and Until Dawn-tier facial expression to breathe life into the characters that carry Quantum Break’s story.
The beauty of the game doesn’t just stop at its character detail, however. Anyone who knows about some of the nitty-gritty in designing games knows that making your textures look good and shiny is only half the battle – the other half, and arguably the more important, is creating convincing environments and designs. It’s here where I think that Quantum Break has achieved one of its critical goals: creating a cohesive, immersive world feels real enough to become invested in but identifiable and unique enough to carry a franchise going forward.
The most notable examples of this success all come from Monarch, the corporation that serves as a major plot point in Quantum Break. From the architecture of the Monarch HQ to the designs of its uniforms, there’s a strict and identifiable theme of minimalism that helps shape who they are. The uniforms of all of Monarch’s foot-soldiers are mostly very par for the course, but the addition of the minimalist Monarch logo on all of their gear makes them feel more like a the private military they are, and inject some much needed personality into an otherwise boring character design.
The presentation of any game, however, doesn’t mean all that much if its story is weak – that’s doubly true for a game like Quantum Break, which has made a very bold choice in today’s gaming industry by creating a solely single player experience. Thankfully, the narrative in Quantum Break is very strong, even to the point where it chilled my spine a few times.
Quantum Break flirts with a lot of the subjects that all time-oriented stories are obligated to talk about – things like rewriting history and the existence or lack thereof of multiple timelines – but actually applies some interesting rules that not only make the plot of the game less predictable and generic, but more importantly, make you feel like you understand how things work in the context of the game. Time travel is not a fix-all-your-problems salve in Quantum Break – it has specific rules that cannot be broken. This adds consequence and real weight to the events of the story, and help the game avoid some of the classic mistakes of other time travel stories.
If you don’t know the story of Quantum Break from some of the story trailers it’s put out (I would not recommend going out and searching for many of these if you’re interested in playing for yourself, as some of them tend to overshare, giving away critical plot points), here’s the gist of it: Time is ending. You, Jack Joyce, have to try and make that not happen. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is – and if that was the entirety of Quantum Break’s story as seems to be the case on the surface, I would not feel very satisfied by it at all. What carries Quantum Break’s simple overall premise into another level of storytelling is a combination of two very important things: Characters and a whole bunch of subplots. This is where the TV show aspect of Quantum Break comes in.
To understand the Quantum Break live-action show that comes with the game, you have to first understand Quantum Break’s structure, as it’s pretty unique. As a whole, Quantum Break consists of 5 acts. Each act comprises of three things: The main parts of the act (being several missions in the game itself), a Junction, and an episode of the show.
In the majority of the game you’re playing as Jack Joyce, a worldly fellow and occasional mischief-maker who was called out to a fictional North Eastern town by the name of Riverport to help out a long-lost friend. In Junctions, you play as the antagonist of the game for about 5 or 10 minutes, and you make a choice that’s going to dramatically affect the rest of the game. In fact, your choice also determines the course of the TV show, each episode of which lasts about a half hour, actually melding perfectly into the game and offering it a sort of pacing that makes it very easy to sit down and binge Quantum Break in its entirety. Spending a half hour to sit back, put down your controller, and watch the consequences of your actions unfold is fun, engaging, and natural.
Where the bulk of the game follows Jack Joyce, the live-action show follows a wide cast of several other side characters in the game, showing how everybody else is dealing with the impending End of Time, and how Jack and the antagonist’s actions are creating a ripple effect that actually has consequences. It’s here where you really get to know every other character in the game, and where you’re thrown into the deep end of this universe and made to care about the narrative that’s being spun for you. By the last episode of the show, I was really and genuinely invested in the well-being and happiness of each one of these characters, and throughout every junction I had to stop and think about how it was going to affect some of my favorite characters down the line.
It’s that narrative dynamic, I think, that is the absolute biggest selling point for Quantum Break. In many games that tout how the choices of the player matter, there’s a lot of criticism that there are no actual consequences, and every one of your choices is overridden in short order so that the writers can keep things simple. This criticism, often called the “illusion of choice,” is something that the team at Remedy has done a fairly good job of avoiding.
Quantum Break isn’t absolutely lousy with choices – there’s only a handful of Junctions – but when you do get to these choices, you can bet that they’re going to have a huge impact on the future of your playthrough. This is so much the case, in fact, that I almost felt uncomfortable starting this review having only played the game one time, as I can’t help but feeling that I only experienced half of the story. I won’t go into much detail about the nature of the choices that you’re making in these junctions so that I can save you from spoilers, but they’re most definitely relevant choices and they hold real weight.
Finally, let’s dig into the meat of the game. Quantum Break is, like Remedy’s other projects (Max Payne and Alan Wake), a third-person shooter at its very core. What separates the game from its competitors as far as its gameplay is concerned, however, is the fact that the protagonist has a whole arsenal of time-based superpowers. Unlike games like Life is Strange that handle time as a strict reverse-or-forward continuity, Quantum Break’s fiction has invented “Chronon particles,” things that have a whole lot to do with the flow of time in specific areas, and can, by individuals like Jack Joyce, actually be manipulated into doing a whole lot of things.
The powers get pretty creative, actually. Instead of only including some of the essential time powers, like slowing down time to line up shots and using time manipulation to get places quickly, Quantum Break has some really interesting strategies available. Possibly my favorite ability is the one that allows you to briefly freeze time in a targeted area – not just because this stops enemies dead in their tracks, but because you can then actually dump a clip of your weapon at the bubble of frozen time so that, when time resumes in that area, all of the bullets hit your target in one instant, allowing you to take down some of the highly armored targets in the game quickly.
Because your powers are all on separate cooldowns, you can chain them together to do some impressive combos that often times look like they came straight out of The Matrix. There’s nothing more satisfying in Quantum Break than walking into a room of heavily armed men, standing behind cover while you formulate a strategic string of powers, and then executing that strategy perfectly – you can take enemies down very quickly, before they even knew what hit them. This becomes even more interesting when you meet some of the game’s more varied enemy types, which force you to fight from different ranges and positions as you go on.
The game stops adding new enemy types a little bit earlier than I wanted it to, however, and perhaps the most egregious crime that Quantum Break commits is its final boss fight, which attempted to introduce a totally new type of enemy at the end of the game – one that just didn’t seem interesting enough to be the cherry on top of what I consider a very well put together game overall.
When you’re outside of combat, you’ll also run into a significant amount of different platforming puzzles, where you’ll have to reverse or otherwise manipulate time in order to navigate some of the mayhem that’s going on around you – these make for some of Quantum Break’s most impressive set pieces. That being said, while these scenes are often very impressive, they can become frustrating on the multiple occasions that you die because of a somewhat clunky movement system.
While it usually wasn’t an issue when I was in the middle of combat, I found that on just about every other platforming portion of the game I died because I wasn’t jumping precisely where I was trying to jump, or I had some other strange issue with the controls. This wasn’t game breaking, but there were many times where I had those all-too-familiar “Come on!!!” moments when I narrowly missed a platform.
When you aren’t falling off rooftops and engaging in fast-paced action, you may very well be doing what I ended up spending countless hours doing – reading the game’s narrative objects. There are a ton of these scattered throughout just about every level (we’re talking around 18 narrative objects per level) and many of them are pretty long and, surprisingly, never really bored me that much.
I was genuinely invested enough in this story that I became very excited when I found a new narrative object to help me dig deeper into Quantum Break’s lore. The writers managed to keep them varied enough for the most part – from hints at devious conspiracies, to interpersonal drama, to what I’ve taken to calling the Time Knife saga: a set of three absolutely genius narrative objects in acts 2,3, and 4 that each had me laughing to the point where I was almost in tears.
In short, Quantum Break is a masterfully presented game that achieved exactly what it set out to do: marry the mediums of live action film and video games, and make it so that both portions would be great on their own. The live action portion of Quantum Break will keep you on your toes (and our audience in particular might get a kick out of the fact that everybody uses Surface Pro 4’s and Windows 10 Mobile devices) and the game, despite a few minor missteps, succeeds in making a name for itself as a franchise that I’d be absolutely ecstatic to see return for a sequel.
If you’re a fan of shooters, science fiction, or just good storytelling in general, I would definitely recommend Quantum Break.
This copy of Quantum Break was reviewed on the Xbox One. It is also available for PC on the Windows Store.Further reading: Gaming, Microsoft, Quantum Break, Remedy, Video Games, Windows 10, Xbox, Xbox One