The launch of Quantum Break - the first ever title shown for Xbox One - is finally here. It's the story of Jack Joyce (played by Shawn Ashmore) and his best friend Paul Serene (played by Aidan Gillen), caught on opposite sides of a fracture in time that threatens to bring about the end of time. At first glance you may mistake this for a story of the hero going up against his former best friend who's built an empire on knowledge he gained travelling back and forth in time, but there's more to Quantum Break and the nuances of the story are left up to the player to decide. In fact your choices largely dictate just how black and white or grey and nuanced the story gets.
Jack Joyce is your run of the mill hero in many ways. It's his brother who's the genius, and exactly how he gets tangled up in this mess is perhaps one of the biggest omissions. His motivation for turning on the time machine in the very first part of act one is not quite as elegant as when you first inject yourself with plasmids in Bioshock. You're being taken for a ride, you know it, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Time travel is a popular theme in science fiction and one that's primed for plot holes the size of massive man killing war machines. The key isn't to make everything plausible as that's really an impossible task. The key is gentle misdirection. You're not thinking of just how illogical the plot of The Terminator is when bullets are flying or there is a car chase in progress. If you want to poke holes in the plot or make fun of some of the lines, it's there for the taking. That said, we tend to enjoy this sort of fiction and forgive all but the most stupid of narrative missteps (again, the Terminator franchise has provided plenty of these in recent years).
But Remedy manages to somehow create a branching narrative about time travel that holds up reasonably well over the course of a play-through. One might question one or two things (maybe even three or four), but the end result is largely cohesive. In many ways Quantum Break is outrageously ambitious, almost to the point where you'd expect it to fail in at least some respects, to break apart at the seams. Yet it doesn't. It's not perfect, but the experience delivered here is one that will stick in our minds for years to come. It's a look into one possible future for AAA video games, perhaps not the most likely one, but one were the narrative seamlessly flows between game and live action footage.
The structure of the game is as follows. You play an act (consisting of three or four chapters), then there's a junction where you get to pick one of two options on how to proceed. The first junction involves Paul Serene choosing whether to kill all the witnesses and take a hardline approach to covering up the incident at the library, or instead coercing a witness into falsely confessing her involvement and implicating Jack Joyce in what happened. This means that you'll either get to rescue the witness and she'll be part of the story, or she is killed by the evil corporation (Monarch in this case) and gone for good. While the decision made won't matter much to the structure of the game (you'll still play the same levels) it does impact the narrative. Certainly enough to warrant a second play-through, even if the differences are mainly cosmetic. There are five acts and in between there are four such junction points along with episodes of the TV show. The show is influenced not only by your decision at the junction (as is the game of course), but also by interacting with "ripples" that you'll find in the game world. As a whole the experience lasted more than a dozen hours.
We must admit to being impressed by the quality of the live action sections. Not only were the visuals well tuned to the sharp images of a video game, and the lighting also worked well, but the production as a whole left us impressed. On a scale between Game of Thrones (brilliant) and The Following (competent) this falls closer to the latter as it's undeniably well-crafted, even if it never truly wowed us. On its own it's a show we'd watch every day of the week over say Continuum (if you want to compare it to something in the time travel genre). The casting is spot on (Lance Reddick is just a perfect fit for Martin Hatch) and the actors do a good job generally speaking. The pace is very high here, and unlike network shows that largely rinse and repeat a set format, it benefited from the extra freedom afforded by being interludes in a video game. It's not often that you get to see so much of the villain's point of view and a character of this kind is fully explored and well rounded. That in itself makes the live action bits worth watching.
It's easy enough to focus on the narrative with a game like Quantum Break. It's certainly the main selling point here, but Quantum Break is an interesting action game in its own right and while the many time powers you bring onto the battlefield will make you feel overpowered at times there's some degree of variation in combat both in terms of your own tactics and the enemies you face. Combat is empowering, yet it never breaks loose of the tried and tested formula of locking the player into an arena where they need to dispose of a certain number of enemies or waves of enemies. The basis here is a cover-based shooter along the lines of Gears of War, but you won't spend much time (pun intended) behind cover; the cover mechanic is really bare bones, and instead you'll use a variety of powers to bring down enemies and zap around the battlefield.
It's still fun, but given the many powers Jack has at his disposal it would have been interesting if maybe you could have avoided killing hundreds of henchmen on your way to save the world. If you can teleport (sort of like Dishonored's Blink) it would have made sense to maybe have been able to bypass some of the combat or at least use some diversions or stealth tactics. For much of the game you can quickly push through combat by spamming some of the time powers, like the time blast, your time shield and time rush (which upgraded lets you run up to all but the most hardened enemies, press B and instantly dispose of them - fully upgraded you can link three such attacks together) combined with the various guns you pick up. The gunplay itself is competent, but nothing special. The end boss encounter is a little more challenging and things could perhaps have escalated more gradually up to that point.
The third part of the equation, apart from narrative and combat is puzzle-solving and exploration. You're going to have to canvass the various locations for a multitude of collectibles, some in order to upgrade your powers, others in order to unlock and understand the full narrative. There is so much narrative in the shape of journals and e-mails here that it feels a bit overwhelming. To a certain degree it feels as if Remedy could have killed a few darlings here as it affects the pacing a bit. It's not a massive problem by any means, but for a game that's pushing the envelope as much as Quantum Break, it relies a bit too much on this rather basic mechanic. It should, however, be mentioned that Remedy has been kind enough to hide quite a few neat Easter eggs in there, several to do with Alan Wake, for those who pay attention.
The puzzles mainly revolve around Jack using his time-warping powers to move and manipulate objects that are somehow in flux while time is stuttering or frozen. It doesn't really evolve beyond this, but it is clear that the puzzles are there more to help with pacing and delivering narrative than actually challenging the player in a meaningful way.
At the end of the day Quantum Break is an incredibly ambitious product. We're surprised that the overall quality is as high as it is. The acting is rock solid, and the way the live action footage has been shot fits perfectly with how the game looks. The beauty here, though, is not that the live action segments are great on their own, but how they accompany and bring a new dimension to a story that would otherwise run the risk of simply being the tale of yet another hero guided by his gut, shooting from the hip, and ending up (possibly) saving the world. As it stands Quantum Break is so much more. There are plenty of interesting characters from Liam Burke and Martin Hatch to Fiona Miller and Beth Wilder; all of them tangled up in this chronologically challenged narrative. They're characters that not only do their part in serving the narrative, but thanks to a multi-layered narrative consisting of live-action episodes, cutscenes, radio chatter, as well as e-mails and even murals, they come alive and feel more three dimensional than the characters that this sort of game typically offers. If we could have asked for something it would have been to have seen more of Martin Hatch's motives, but perhaps a choice at a junction cut some of that off and he was left something of an unsolved riddle for our play-through.
Much like Alan Wake before it, Quantum Break is a game that will really appeal to some players, and it has the potential to become a cult classic, yet it also fails to deliver in some respects. If you're the kind of player who puts high demand on the actual gameplay mechanics and you derive most of your enjoyment that way, maybe this isn't a game for you. The combat isn't stellar, it's even a bit pedestrian at times. Animations and platforming aren't top notch. The narrative could have done with a little trimming to avoid becoming a game of collecting virtual bread crumbs. It could also be a case of the Emperor's New Clothes here, and we're falling for some cheap tricks, but even still we quite enjoyed what Remedy has done. The story and the quality of its execution is well above what you typically see from this genre, both in terms of the game and the TV show that sits alongside it.