Quantum Break is a risky gamble, one that might not pay off for the general public, but one that a review and lover of story crafting and world building like myself deeply appreciates. While the general public might not love the idea of sitting down to watch 20 minutes of TV at the end of each chapter, I found it a beautiful combination of my love for marathoning Netflix TV and gaming.
+Live action is well shot and well acted.
+Story and world are deep, interesting, and will keep you guessing.
+Time-manipulation powers are a lot of fun to abuse.
-Core shooting mechanics are weak, compared even to previous Remedy action-shooters.
-Easy to see people not being interested in 20 minute "cut scenes" at the end of each chapter.
From the end of the first chapter I knew that Quantum Break was going to be a controversial title. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to sit and watch a 22 minute "cut scene" at the end of each level. That being said, this is hardly the first time we've been asked to sit and watch either. Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid have found success with elongated cut scenes to close out chapters of the game, so why is the idea of watching a full TV show quality bumper so unreasonable?
My assumption is that the tipping point is the fact that these are fully realized television episodes. Like the public outcry of the "rest experience" in World of Warcraft, I'm assuming this is in how the feature is being sold to the public.
Personally I appreciate a company willing to take a risk. I also believe that in an era of Netflix binging, the marriage of a video game marathon and a television binge-watch work rather well. That being said, I absolutely acknowledge the fact that most people will not be as excited, or as enthusiastic, as I have been for Quantum Break's unique twist on narrative.
Quantum Break, is at its core, a gamble.
Not only are the brilliant minds at Remedy gambling on the fact that people will be interested in watching 20+ minutes of live-action sci-fi/drama at the end of completing each chapter of the game... but they've upped the ante by making the game all about the mechanics of "time powers" and a crazy time-travel paradox-centric storyline rested on the acting talent of their cast (which is, anyone would have to admit, rather impressive in its own right).
Even more interesting than that, for me, was the fact that before each episode of the "television series" plays out you enjoy a short perspective shift, playing from the point of view of the primary antagonist in the game. Not only is this a cool way to break up the gameplay and introduce the live action sequences (which focus a lot more around Monarch then the protagonist Jack Joyce) but it introduces an interesting metagame element. While playing as the "villain" you have the option to choose the next course of action for the company to take... meaning you can make life easier on Jack Joyce by playing a particularly inept villain, or you can role play a true mastermind and make the game more difficult for yourself when you inevitably switch back to the primary character during the game itself.
The game itself, taken in a vacuum, is something that would fall just above the median line. The shooting mechanics are something I would consider sub-par but at the same time it feels like if you're just straight up shooting guys you're probably doing it wrong. Unfortunately, to even further muddle the thoughts I have on its core gameplay elements, the game sometimes forgets this as well.
The true strength of the game lies in the time-bending powers that Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore) inherits after the first act of the game in the accident that "breaks time" and will be your primary repair goal for the remainder of the game. As you progress through the levels though, as per video game tradition, the enemies that you encounter upgrade their gear and, by extension, their difficulty. This means that about half way through the game the majority have some kind of defense against your powers... meaning in several instances you have to just deal with the less-than-ideal shooting mechanics to grind your way through an encounter.
Honestly, as short of a review of the 'game' portion of Quantum Break is, that feels honest and complete. The gameplay itself is lackluster. The time abilities are great, but the game feels like it's constantly trying to take them away from you. Had Remedy focused a little more on making the fights challenging without removing your god-like abilities this might have been a lot more fun to dick around in.
Instead we have a game which introduces a lot of really cool concepts, like being able to trap an enemy inside of a frozen time-bubble then stack bullets inside and create a massive explosion when time resumes, then promptly takes it away again as it is one of the very first abilities that the Monarch (the evil organization run by your foe) employees learn to defend against.
Quantum Break, like so many other games these days, also utilizes a skill-tree system which allows you to enhance these powers. You're able to increase radius and duration of your time-freeze and time shield abilities (an ability that allows you to freeze time around yourself, deflecting bullets and giving you a breather). Where the problem comes in though is when the game starts taking away those abilities (like the time stop) that you had interest in, especially if you hard lined their upgrade tree (like I had).
Jumping back on to the story train, as it is by far and away the best part of this game, I have to say that the experience I've heard thus far is pretty hit-or-miss as well. It feels like one of those stories that you're either going to love and appreciate, or it might fly right over your head and annoy you. Complicating matters even further is that the best reveal or "true ending" of the game exists only in the post-credits. That's something I hesitate to mention, as it borders on spoiler territory, but it adds to the game in such a way that I would feel remiss in my job not mention it (in case there are those that might close down the game as soon as the credits begin their roll).
Alright, alright... Enough about my deep and intense love of storytelling and sci-fi. I get it. Just one more piece I want to add before I officially "let it go." The writing staff at Remedy have been working overtime to produce a bunch of ancillary pieces to the story. Throughout the game you can "side-quest" for pieces of information about the world and it's characters via unlocked phones and computers, reading through an epic backlog of story text and inside jokes that I combed through every last word of. A particular favorite was a screenplay written by one of the Monarch employees and sent to his his love interest (a superior) found in two levels in two parts with absolutely zero response from the receiver. It's hilarious world building that adds to the depth and makes the world feel flushed and out and fully realized (plus it's just damn good comedy).
Speaking briefly on the live-action moments themselves, I want to acknowledge the work done by the production staff and acting talent. I've always been a huge fan of Aidan Gillien (who plays the game's primary antagonist, Paul Serene) so the performance he delivered was already expected (for me at least). While it was good to see delivered, the more surprising work was that of Shawn Ashmore and the supporting cast.
I've never really been a fan of Ashmore, he's done a serviceable job in film but it seemed like a video game was kind of him admitting he wasn't a star talent for feature film. The work he does in Quantum Break turned me on him though, it is, for my money, his best acting performance to date. His job of Jack Joyce, a smarmy quick-witted world-traveler develops though the story into a hard boiled time-traveling badass in such a natural progression that you almost forget who he was at the start of the game by the time you get to the end and he's clearing out skyscrapers full of invading troops as though he were John McClane.
The production and acting in the live-action moments of the game is definitely of television quality. Which is a probably the most-asked question I've been getting from friends and colleagues through-out my gameplay experience. "Would you watch this, if it was an actual TV show?"
If this was to become a full TV series you can bet your ass I would set my PVR for a season's pass. Maybe there is some potential here for Remedy to expand on the universe via a full run of the series on Netflix? Though of course they'd need to fill in some of the gaps between existing episodes of the show, left out by the lack of gameplay that a digital streaming site would offer...
The second most asked question is the one that I want to end on, as it is generally the most prevalent question to gamers in the modern era: "Is it worth buying?"
I'm inclined to say yes but will include a giant asterisk on that statement.
While I enjoyed my time with the game, gameplay mechanics, story, live-action episodes and all, I understand that this is absolutely not a game that is "for everyone." For the general audience I would urge caution, perhaps picking the game up when it is discounted ($80 Canadian is asking a lot for a single-player experience with perhaps only two playthroughs in it).
For those who are fans of pitching in a little extra for a truly unique experience, rewarding game developers who take a chance with something different via their wallet I say to you: Pick this one the hell up. Remedy gambled and I would love to see it pay out. It's especially important for those of us that pay to reward development considering that it is the first title to cross into Windows 10/Xbox One cross-play territory by awarding you a PC copy of the game on purchase of the Xbox One edition.
Review based on a retail copy for Xbox One provided by the publisher.
Release Date: April 4th, 2016