Monday 25 June 2018

Quantum Break review; story and spectacle collide

Quantum Break
Quantum Break

Daniel Anderson

Quantum Break is the new game from the makers of Max Payne and Alan Wake and it wants to entertain you with story and spectacle

Time is ending and only one man stands in the way of the end of everything. Well one man and his utterly insane time bending superpowers. This is Quantum Break.

It’s the latest game from Swedish crowd Remedy, who previously brought us Max Payne and Alan Wake. And it’s very much an extension of a style which the company has been pursing for more than 15 years; a marriage of genre storytelling with high production values and even a live action element.

Max had pulpy noir, Alan’s was a slick horror/thriller and Quantum Break is a serving of sci-fi spectacle. With a recognisable cast including Aiden Gillen and Shawn Ashmore and plenty of story, as well as a short TV series, it’s undoubtedly their biggest product yet.

You play as Jack Joyce (that’s X-Men’s Ashmore) a guy who happens to be friends with Paul Serene (Gillen) and ends up helping out in an experiment which shatters time and causes all sorts of problems. It also gifts you with incredible powers, so there’s an upside too.

It’s up to Jack to fix things and he does that by killing a lot of people. The main gameplay for Quantum Break sees you arrive in an area with a host of enemies who are intent on riddling you with bullets. Sadly for them, you’re basically a time manipulating god.

Jack can do all sorts of things – dash at high speed, create a healing shield, send out explosive waves, see through walls and freeze enemies in a bubble of time. This last move is the most satisfying, allowing you to stack up a hail of bullets inside the orb. When it dissipates, an entire clip hammers home into your quivering foe.

It’s all pretty delicious, with simple controls and a series of systems which encourage aggression, forcing you to get into the thick of it and deal out death in style. Remedy knows how to do time-bending action and takes it new heights here, complete with their signature slow motion death for the final enemy in an area.

The best part of the gameplay is that it goes out of its way to make you feel cool. For most of the game, Jack is nigh on invincible, so instead you can think about taking out enemies in the most flamboyant way possible. Juggle their frail bodies with weapons fire, nip into their blind spot and deliver a crushing killing blow. Their death is your playground.

It helps that these set pieces all look gorgeous. Enemy fire scatters into sparks off your shield and the world morphs and bends to your will. And when you take certain enemies down, they’re frozen in death – an artistic, tortured spray of viscera etching their final moment into the world.

Quantum Break has a few different kinds of enemies to mix things up, including ones with partial time powers and others who neutralise your own abilities, but there’s little real variety. That results in a lack of challenge and overly familiar fights. The difficulty amps up towards the end, particularly in the finale, but it too little too late, giving us a frustrating glimpse at what might have been.

Remedy’s world is impeccably designed, and the character models very closely match the performers, but the environments feels oddly lifeless. They’re merely corridors for storytelling and slightly larger rooms for shooting, with no interaction and the odd touch of destructible elements. Furthering the scene is done by finding something to press ‘X’ on, and the game is ruthless in pushing you down its linear path to the next story point.

And it’s a very short path too. My first run came in at less than 10 hours, and that’s including the 80 minutes of live action footage. If you took out the time spent on awkward environmental puzzles and scavenging for narrative pieces and upgrade orbs you could probably fly through the full game in as little as 7 hours.

That’s not especially surprising for a title which foregrounds story to this degree but it does often feel rushed, especially the hasty and unsatisfying ending. The plot itself is very broad and takes a good long while to really hit its stride. When it does, there are entertaining moments – and the live action episodes are surprisingly good – but it’s also prone to awkwardness.

Those corny lines worked well in the likes of Max Payne but feel out of place in the mouths of professional actors, and it’s pretty hard to care about the fate of any of the major players. It’s also overwhelmingly serious, despite the ridiculousness of what is going on. A (good) joke or two would have been most welcome.

Much has been made of how your time in game affects the live action story and that’s overstating matters. Fully exploring the levels can net you a tiny variation in some background elements but the real decisions are made in short interactive interstitial scenes. As the main baddie, you’ll choose how to handle a certain situation and the binary decision directly impacts the next video you’ll see. It’s a nice touch, but feels somewhat disconnected from the main game.

Still the game does have its moments; like when a gigantic container ship smashes headlong into a bridge and the debris is caught in stuttering time, with you at the centre. The fighting consistently brought a smile to my face too, though it was often over too soon with another long story driven scene or 20 minutes of watching a TV show when I really wanted to be filling up bubbles with bullets.

Quantum Break is a curious experiment in melding narrative and gameplay into a slick entertainment package. And while it works to some degree as a multimedia project it’s also prone to awkwardness and long periods of sitting around watching stuff happen rather than mixing it up as a time spinning superhero.

3.5/5 -Daniel Anderson

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