Game Review: Quantum Break (Xbox One)

Remedy has had a phenomenal track record with their past hit games. Max Payne and Alan Wake were both critically well received and established the developer as a go-to team for great storytelling and interesting game mechanics. When Microsoft announced that Remedy would be making a console exclusive title for the Xbox One, many were excited, and for good reason. Quantum Break is a time traveling epic told with believable and wonderfully acted characters, a consistently well told tale, with time powers that while fun and sometimes thrilling, don’t quite live up to their full potential.

I remember watching the initial trailer for Quantum Break years ago, which looked stunning both visually as well as aesthetically. On display during this reveal was footage of the game in-engine, at the time, as well as a few scenes from the TV show that was pitched as a part of Microsoft’s attempt at bringing us original TV programming. While Halo: Nightfall was the only real show to come from this programming initiative, Quantum Break would still retain its live action component, but see a huge restructure in casting, seeing the largely unknown talent replaced with faces from The X-Men, Game of Thrones, Fringe and The Lord of the Rings. Shawn Ashmore, Aidan Gillen, Lance Reddick and Dominic Monaghan all stepped in to be faces of characters you will see through a great majority of the 8+ hour adventure.

The story of Quantum Break starts as Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore) makes a visit to his friend Paul Serene (Aidan Gillen) who is working on a huge project for Riverport University. While Paul has been working on the project with Jack’s brother William (Dominic Monaghan), this visit is more secretive, and William is left out of the reunion. Shawn Ashmore and Aidan Gillen have great chemistry together and I really like the way they play off each other. Shawn’s interactions with Dominic are very brother like, and they are a solid duo when they share the screen. When you meet Beth (Courtney Hope), the game gets very interesting. I really enjoyed the Beth Wilder character and found that she added a much needed dynamic to the story. Her future and past with a few of the events that occur is really well constructed. There is a section later on when you meet back up with her that I wish had been further explored, but that scene before the credits gave me hope for the future of this potential series.

Aidan Gillen is tremendous here and plays a really well written villain. His turn to villainy is wonderfully executed, and the junction scenes between acts, which allow you to make narrative choices, really open up and give a lot of depth to Paul, making him one of the better video game villains in recent memory. I found I enjoyed his story far more than the one the game was insistent on telling through Jack. I would have loved to have played sections of the game as Paul, seeing the future he so often talks about. And then we come to Lance Reddick. He is easily my favorite addition to the cast. Despite Paul being the driving force behind his company, Monarch Solutions, Martin is a very in control character with an intriguing mystery behind him. Make sure you read the emails and documents you find in the game to learn more about Martin and some interesting details about him. Stay tuned after the credits of the game to view a scene that is both really cool and see how it may set up the next game in the series.

As far as the remaining cast goes, Amy (Amelia Rose Blaire) and Nick (Sean Durrie) will be a sort of sidekick to Jack depending on your choice at the end of the first act. Fun fact about Sean Durrie, is that he is the original Jack Joyce before Shawn Ashmore was given the lead. Charlie Wincott (Marshall Allman), Fiona Miller (Mimi Michaels) and Liam Burke (Patrick Heusinger) round out the remaining cast and aside from a few appearances or voices in the game, they tend to only be a larger part of the story via the TV episodes. Charlie and Fiona are fantastic together and really come into their own later on. Liam is a huge focus of the episodes and his struggle to protect his wife and unborn child is a fantastic dynamic to the show and it is well handled. Speaking of which, while his wife Emily (Brooke Nevin) isn’t in the show that much, the material she has to work with is really great, especially in the ‘Surrender’ version of episode 4.

In between each act of the game is the TV show. As Paul, in what are called Junction areas, you’ll make a narrative choice between two options given to you. You’ll see a semi-break down of what will occur, and the following episode will show you the result of that choice. I found that only the final episode really made good on the promise of controlling the show and game with our choices. The other three episodes do give you some characters and scenes to swap out with variations, but in the end, you don’t really change much of the overall story. While I initially went with the ‘Control’ option with my final episode choice, I found the ‘Surrender’ counter-episode to be far more entertaining. You can find various items around the game that push some easter eggs and additional dialogue and scenes into the show, but rest assured, they don’t change the outcome. No matter which path you take, you will end up with the same resolution by the time the credits roll. Regardless of the small changes those choices bring to the show; it’s still a very engaging experience and masterfully pulled off.

Visually, Quantum Break is far from the graphical splendor that its in-engine debut would have us believe, but its final release still managed to be a very striking game in its own right. Quantum Break looks incredible when close up, giving characters an impressive amount of detail. When the characters are further away they tend to lose a lot of that detail, and some characters sometimes have a shadow hazing around them when they walk around, it’s extremely distracting and stands out in a bad way. This game has easily the best mouth animations I have ever seen as in the case of Beth Wilder, I was able to lip read everything that she was saying, it’s that impressive. Aside from that shadow hazing, the animations for each character’s movements are spectacular. The visuals regarding the time powers and time fractures are gorgeous. These fracture of time can be visually pleasing as taking out a guard to have his Chronon pack explode and have him freeze in mid explosion is a real graphical treat. There are not many different environments here to take advantage of how good this game can look, but given how little of a time frame this game takes place in, it probably can’t be helped. I will have to say that the shipping yard is about the only poor looking area in the game as it tends to be a bit too bright for its own good. Anything indoors, especially in the Monarch Solutions building tends to be flat out gorgeous.

Combat in the game is mostly a win, with only a few issues that prevent it from being great. At the start of the game, an event occurs that gives Jack the ability to control time. You can encase Jack in a time sphere that stops all time from occurring within it, speed run by slowing down everything around you, and a few other time manipulating actions. I would speed dash and then aim during the slowdown that occurs right after to pop off a solid head shot, then speed run to perform a melee combo, then set down a time sphere around myself to stop the incoming bullets, duck down behind cover and then fire off an explosive fracture bomb at a large group of enemies, all within maybe 5 seconds.

The combat is one element that Remedy was really needing to nail, and they did, mostly. The game offers a cover system, using a type of cover most commonly known as ‘active cover’. This type of cover system is dynamic and doesn’t need a button press to use. Walk up to an area that provides cover and you will cling to it. While this sounds amazing, I found it never really worked as intended. After I gained all my abilities, I only really used cover to build back up my powers while they were on cool down, and I am thinking that was the real intent of the cover system, but I can only assume. I also found that the game restricts where and when you can jump. I had issues where the area I wanted to jump to needed to be at a certain angle, which is also an issue I had with picking up or interacting with the collectibles, it just requires a silly amount of precision. It’s a minor gripe, but one I had.

If I had to give one section of the game up as being executed very poorly, it’s the finale. The end battle between Jack and Paul is met with no originality what-so-ever. You have a few waves of enemies and then it is over before you know it and ironically, it can be done with little to no time power usage at all, which is sort of insulting to the game itself. I half expected the game to run me through the gauntlet, testing my compatibility with all that it has taught me, but that sadly was not the case.

I found that you gain access to your full range of powers too early on in the game. This exposure to your whole arsenal so early makes the back half of the game a bit bland. While you can access an upgrade system to make your powers more potent, having all your powers so early leaves encounters less interesting the further the game goes on. I found a basic rhythm after gaining all my powers that never needed to be altered, and therefore; all encounters came to be solved the same way, each and every time. It’s not that it got boring, as the game never is; it just gets a bit repetitive. I tried to shake it up, but fell back into my rhythm as it just ended up being far more effective than trying new approaches. I should also state that while the game has guns to use during moments when time powers are either on cool down or just not effective, they tend to be extremely generic and doesn’t seem to offer anything original.

You’ll find Chronon Spheres around the game that will allow you to upgrade those powers. These are found using your time vision, which like every game out there it seems, is a grey’d out vision that highlights enemies, items and other important elements. I find that games that use this mechanic seem to build most of their exploration around it, and I found myself using time vision every few seconds to find the narrative collectibles and Chronon Spheres to upgrade my powers, and it worked, I ended my play through with 96% of them found, only missing a few due to kickstarting a scene that didn’t allow me to back track.

During your adventures you’ll uncover a lot of the secrets behind the creation of the time machine, and what can be done to fix the event at the start of the game. The story is really well written, and for the most part, well executed. I did find a lot of the more important sections of the story to be buried in emails, collectibles and other discovered items. I wish more of these narrative points were in the central story, but it is what it is. It is also worth pointing out that your choices will also affect the contents of those emails and documents, which is pretty cool. Time travel stories usually have a very basic default to them, usually you’ll get help by yourself in some manner or events will unfold by a future you, and that, more or less, is what happens here. I quite enjoyed the story and the choices I made felt like a natural fit to what I wanted from it.

Quantum Break, despite its flaws, both major and minor, is a great experience none-the-less. I would have preferred that the time powers been spaced out throughout the entire game to keep each set piece more fresh and exciting. I also wish that the live action segments would have varied far greater in outcome that what is currently here. Remedy took a very original take on a well-traveled concept like time travel and set some interesting rules within it to keep it fresh and engaging. The experience is a fairly short one, especially if collectible finding isn’t your bag, but given the semi-replayable nature of the game, it is meant to be started up again for another trip through time to set things right, or horribly wrong.

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