My name is Jack Joyce. I’m an attractive young man with the world at my feet. I’m well-connected. My mate’s a pretty big deal in the science world and he’s working on stuff that’s so important and complex that I lose focus and drift off when he tells me about it. Something to do with time travel or some such. Oh, my brother Will … he’s also pretty decent when it comes to science. He made a splash in the nerd world a few years ago and was given a pretty sizeable grant to expand his research. Not entirely sure why, but he literally wasted every dollar of that grant. My mate Paul Serene – he’s the bloke I was talking about earlier – asked me to come to the Riverport University and help him with something he’s been working on. It’s top secret and it better be good … I don’t like getting up this early, not even for time travel nonsense….
Quantum Break is the latest entry from Remedy Entertainment, the guys behind hits such as Max Payne and Alan Wake. This one’s perhaps a bit more ambitious than their previous entries. Not only have they decided to push the limits of the Xbox One by centring the gameplay around controlling time and interacting with frozen objects and the like, but they’ve also filmed several live-action episodes to run alongside the gameplay. It’s a bold move by Remedy … but does it pay off? The answer to that question is both yes, and no.
The best way to explain how the marriage of game and live-action has been achieved is to lay it out nice and clearly for you.
You’ll spend the bulk of the game controlling Jack Joyce. He’s the protagonist in this story and he’s the Joe-every-guy. He’s caught in a web of intrigue, mostly pertaining to the fabric of time and how things are sort of falling apart. The playable parts of the game’s story are spent predominately in Jack’s shoes. You’ll be running away from baddies and escaping from heavily-fortified buildings … only to spend some more time getting back into said heavily-fortified buildings. Jack’s a pretty one-dimensional character. The most interesting thing about him is the fact that – after an accident early in the game – he possesses pretty bad-ass time powers.
When it comes to the game play aspects of Quantum Break, Remedy have delivered a visually stunning and fun game. On easy difficulty you’ll roam around each area with god-like power, bullets seemingly bouncing off you as you slow time and carve your way through the militia thrown at you. On hard difficulty you’ll find yourself hiding behind objects in the early parts of the game, wishing you had some basic combat options like melee or even silent take-downs.
Time spent behind the Jack Joyce wheel would – in other games – be all about uncovering secrets, slowly pushing the narrative toward a conclusion where good succeeds over evil as a direct result of your actions. Quantum Break for me didn’t feel that way. This is, in part, because the game’s other playable sections see you behind the Paul Serene wheel. Paul’s the leader of Monarch Solutions and he’s not a very good guy. In fact, he’s quite the opposite. In these shortened sections of play, you’ll be given a choice of two options. Each impacts the flow of both the gameplay and the live-action episodes which follow. There’s been plenty of advertising about how the game gives the player choice, letting you shape the narrative and offering a varied experience. This is true, however having me make choices which impact so much based on Paul’s perspective meant that I started to become more invested in his journey than Jack’s. To add insult to injury the live-action episodes that immediately follow each of the junction choices are generally from the villain’s perspective.
Four live-action episodes – each with a running time of over 20 minutes – meant that I got to know the baddies well … really well. Even the soldiers wearing ski-masks seemed more human than usual. I mean, the blokes’ have probably got families, a mortgage to pay and maybe they’re not out for world domination at all. After all, for said ski-mask-wearing clone soldiers, working at Monarch Solutions is probably just a job.
The episode draws to a close and again I’m behind the wheel of the Jack Joyce express. The demi-god who now finds himself in a sticky situation because of the choices I made as Paul. Jack’s tasked with escaping the compound and as he steps outside of a cell he’s met with a few of the ski-mask guys we empathised with earlier. Normally I wouldn’t care if I watched as the main character brought time to a stand-still while he emptied an entire magazine into one of the unsuspecting villains, only to turn around and shoot the rest of the group one after the other. But – somehow – making choices as the main bad guy and then watching as the rest of the lesser baddies go about their lives made me invested in them. I found myself wanting to be stealthier and sneak past the enemy instead of targeting them. Perhaps I could make my way across the other side to the elevator without dropping a single one of the guys wearing a mask, I thought? Nope. Jack can’t progress until every last one of these guys are dead.
For a game that professes to be about choice; about how no action is without a reaction, Quantum Break falls short in a critical area. It fuses gameplay with live-action show just as it promised it would, but in doing so it’s made me want to explore more choices. Perhaps even less profound, maybe subtle, butterfly-effect type decisions and subsequent impacts. It’s perhaps the game’s ambition to provide more character development and to show you both sides of the coin that is it’s failing aspect. The gameplay feels reactive and a consequence of the choices you make as the opposition and the episodes you watch.
I feel that the opinions of the people who play this game will be quite divisive. Some will be swept up in the cool time powers and go into auto-pilot, collecting intel scattered throughout the levels and searching for upgrade points hidden and easily overlooked. They’ll get a thrill from shooting hundreds of Monarch infantry and making their way through each of the game’s five acts, feeling satisfaction when the credits eventually role. For others – perhaps like myself – they’ll question the decision to give the enemy so much screen time and to have them make the choices which shape the narrative.
I liken the experience of playing as Jack Joyce in latter parts of the game to being the driver of a rally car. You’re in control and success or failure is a result of your skill and ability, but you don’t know what’s around the next corner and even if you manage to scrape through, you might not agree with your navigator’s directions. Sometimes I felt like the rally car, a high-performance vehicle purpose-built for the task was instead replaced with a family SUV, built for safety and to meet my comfort expectations. The SUV isn’t equipped to handle the rough terrain and after a few hairy corners, it rolls.
I wanted to not only like Quantum Break … I wanted to love this game. I’ve been following its development since it was announced way back in 2013 and nothing would have made me happier than playing through it smiling in awe of the graphics and sitting back with a box of popcorn as I watched each of the well-produced live-action episodes. Although I did enjoy the live-action stuff (without popcorn, sadly) I couldn’t get passed the ‘this game looks cool’ to where I wanted to land, in the ‘this game is amazing,’ territory.
There’s some technical things to consider when you walk into your local video game retail store also. Quantum Break’s live-action episodes are all displayed in 1920 x 1080p resolution (which is big, for anyone who doesn’t see where I am going with this). As there are varied episodes based on your decisions during gameplay, there’s quite a few episodes. Due to the sheer number and size of each, these aren’t included in retail copies of the game, instead you’ll need to stream them or alternatively download them from the Xbox Marketplace. Although the price to download these is very little, the data cost is staggering. Weighing in at a whopping 75GB, the episode pack might prove too big for many Aussie gamers with sub-par data plans. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if the live-action episodes weren’t such a critical component to the overall story … or in this reviewer’s opinion, the best part of it. It will be interesting to see whether Microsoft advertise clearly the game’s internet requirements, or whether this will be overlooked in favour of casting a wider net.
I played this game twice. The second play-through was purely to see the changes in the game’s story when opposing choices were made. I found that making different choices impacted secondary characters’ involvement in the game’s plot, however the core narrative remained the same. If Jack was a prisoner the first time around, he was a prisoner the second. He still would need to escape, but perhaps with the aid of someone different. My choices impacted whether some of these secondary characters lived or died, a factor I found interesting and it made me wonder whether alternating choices at each junction (of which there are four) would further change smaller aspects of the story. Sadly, for this review I cannot comment on that, I have finished Quantum Break twice and that is enough for me.
In summary, it’s a game and it’s a show. In some areas it’s ground-breaking and in other areas, the stuff we gamers live for … it’s not up to the task. Ultimately Quantum Break is an experience; a short burn, taking you less than 10 hours of playing and watching to form your own opinion.
Would I recommend this game to people that like third-person action/shooters? Yes. Would I recommend this game to people who enjoy games purely for the narrative aspects? Yes. If you’ve got a small amount of time to kill and you want something which isn’t like what you’ve played before then QB will fit the bill. If you’re someone who is being held hostage by an internet service provider or likes to invest days, weeks or even months into a game … perhaps leave this one on the shelf.
Quantum Break is out April 5 on Xbox One and Windows PC. This review was completed on Xbox One with a copy supplied by the publisher.