I remember one Christmas receiving a game called Sewer Shark that presented us with a world in which all of humanity was forced to live below ground in the sewers. Players were pilots flying them battling a variety of creatures and the game featured what I think was my first experience with live-action video in a game. Actor Robert Costanzo has the honor of being the first real actor I remember seeing in a title and to this day I remember how sort of stunning that was to see. Games had come a long way in a short time, from crude 8-bit to embedded video with real actors.
Fast forward 23-years and we have Quantum Break, a game that is graphically exquisite and features not just seconds of rudimentary live-action video segments, but an entire show smack in the middle of the game play. For a guy who grew up playing 80’s games it’s hard not to play a title like Quantum Break without being a little in awe at how far we’ve come technologically since Sewer Shark.
Quantum Break is a time travel game that explores areas sci-fi has been exploring for decades. So it would have been expected if it felt stale, done before or even predictable. But It doesn’t and Remedy Entertainment has delivered something nobody ever has before: a tight shooter, a compelling story and an entire popcorn-worthy television show all within one experience.
The game begins with a scientific experiment gone wrong and the resulting explosion grants the hero, Jack Joyce, and the villain, Paul Serene, incredible time-bending abilities. 10 minutes into the story and the race is on as you try and stop a spreading fracture in time that threatens to end the entire universe while Serene, believing that the end is a foregone conclusion and the fracture can’t be stopped, forges ahead with his plan to build a “life boat” that will save a select few people he deems worthy from the stoppage of time. The conflict ultimately arises from one device, the “Chronon Flow Regulator” that Jack believes can stop the fracture but that Paul is currently using to power his life boat plan. The entire game takes place in the fictional town of Riverport that has been slowly gobbled up by The Monarch Corporation, owned by Serene, to the extent that they have the mayor, the police and the news organizations all under their sway. So when things go wrong and the fracture starts it’s a you-against-the-world scenario where you battle Monarch, Serene and often public sentiment.
At the core of the title, from the developers behind Max Payne, is a stylized shooter featuring tight controls and some extremely creative uses of the environment and the players time bending abilities. It’s often jarring to be caught in the middle of a “stutter”, a place where time temporarily stops, rewinds, springs forward, and rewinds again. A derailed train smashes through a building, stops, rewinds and then smashes through the wall over and over; a stroll through seemingly deserted office buildings reveals people going through an average day frozen in time, mid-bite in a bagel, permanently paused leafing through a folder or, if you’ve shot them, suspended in midair while a grotesquely beautiful mix of blood and smoke are frozen still above them. The sense of desolation and the meticulously crafted small town environment can sometimes evoke the feelings behind a good horror title rather than a fast paced action shooter.
At times in the game your perspective switches and you find yourself playing the antagonist, Paul Serene, during “junction moments” where you are asked to choose a path for the villain. Serene can see both timelines so by holding the left and then right trigger you can view a cut scene that gives you a pretty fair idea what the consequences will be for either path. The choice you make will alter the next episode of the show that you view and will change the dialogue, and sometimes fate, of the in-game characters. My instinct, on the first play through, was to attempt to make decisions that would sabotage Paul’s efforts and make things easier for me when I retook control of Joyce and attempted to bring down the Monarch Company and stop the fracture. It’s an interesting position to be in, playing through the eyes of someone and actively making choices you hope will cause them to fail is somewhat counterintuitive and setting the controller down to think them through is fun and unique.
Ultimately some of the choices didn’t alter things enough that I felt any real sense of gravity when I was making other decisions later in the game. Until Dawn and their Butterfly Effect system did this better, presenting you with sometimes life and death, sometimes just relationship altering choices to make that often had unintended consequences and caused you to think every decision through as you mentally tried to watch the dominos fall before making a selection. In this way Quantam Break comes up a bit short.
Where the title excels is by giving you a high-production value live-action show seamlessly wound into the game. With an array of brilliant actors with credits ranging from Lost to The Wire the television episodes you get interspersed between the games 5 acts are fun, action-packed and well worth setting the controller down for ½ hour. The end result is a real flesh and blood feel to the digitized versions of the characters in-game, a depth resulting in some genuine emotional investment you don’t get very often from a shooter title.
There can be little question that this is one of the better acted titles ever and maybe the best lineup of actors in a game. Lance Reddick, in particular, as the CEO Martin Hatch, is brilliant in his Machiavellian attempt to overthrow Serene and take control of Monarch. His acting keeps what could be a tired story-within-the-story segment of the game interesting and often what makes the live-action show must watch theater.
The progression system is, however, rather rudimentary and takes a little of the fun out of searching for “Chronons” as you progress through levels. Joyce’s powers, which include slowing time so you can run behind an enemy and deliver a devastating melee blow, a bullet shield that slows time within your bubble, the ability to freeze people temporarily in place while you fill them with bullets and few other tricks are fun and can be combined creatively to give you a huge array of methods to dispatch the enemy. However, the ways in which you can upgrade these power are underwhelming and generally focus on duration of effect and recharge rate. At about the midway point through the campaign you’ll realize you’re upgraded enough to take all comers and dispense with any real search for hard to locate Chronons.
In addition to this minor weakness there is a lack of variety in enemies. Most can be killed quite easily with a combination of Assault Rifle fire and your powers. Others are more tank-like enemies who are slow but heavily armored and take quite a bit of damage to defeat. Some of these baddies will be immune to your powers and have suits that give them powers of their own but still the game offers 3 or 4 basic enemy types and once you figured out their weaknesses you’ll stroll through most of the combat in acts 4 and 5.
Quantum Break is a fast paced sci-fi shooter that offers exquisite graphics, brilliant use of the surrounding environment both for game play and atmosphere and some of the most fleshed out and engaging characters in quite some time. While it falls somewhat short in offering real consequence for some of the decisions you make and in its pedestrian progression system it is still fun, unique and highly likely you’ll take on the 10-hour campaign more than once to see what you can change in the timeline. Remedy took a real gamble on something different by including a compelling and brilliantly acted live-action TV show within the game and it pays off. Asking a gamer to put his trigger fingers in their holsters for a ½ hour stretch of time can’t be a decision that came easily for the developer and kudos to them for trying it and for pulling it off. Quantum Break is a can’t miss title and easily the one of the best looking games in this console cycle.