Time may be going to end, but is there any more sand in the Remedy hourglass?
I’d like to think that by now, I know absolutely everything there is to know about time travel. I’ve seen all things Terminator, adore 12 Monkeys and I own the Back to the Future trilogy on VHS, DVD and on Blu-ray twice (one for upstairs, one for down). So when it comes to the subject, you’d have to find the nearest San Dimas Phone Booth and travel back to my birth to pull the wool over my eyes. While TV, movies and books have all had numerous stabs at the topic (some way worse than others – I’m looking at you Butterfly Effect) one question has always plagued me, why when time travel is the most popular sub-genre of science fiction has there not been a software developer bold enough to throw themselves feet first into the world of space/time manipulation? Sure, many games have flirted with the concept of time travel over the years but they’ve never really been able to capture the essence. It’s always been an afterthought. A comedic subplot. Games like ‘Day of the Tentacle’ purposely subverted time travel and ignored the minutiae in preference of being daft and throwaway. Others, like Bioshock Infinite, have explored it as a secondary twist. It has never been at the forefront of a major VG title until now as finally… in Remedy’s ‘Quantum Break’ we have a game willing to ask the question; What would happen if we distorted time as we know it?
I was impressed with the game years before it was released, when a tantalizing trailer was shown at E3 '13. It showed Quantum Break as a fascinatingly unique action game, showcasing an impressive physics engine. It promised a fast paced-narrative that was tailored to the choices you made and I remembered reading a one-line review describing it as the bastard lovechild of 'Heavy Rain' and 'Stranglehold' - where cinematic storytelling and slow-motion action combine. I mean, it was the most anticipated game in decades! Despite the increased levels of excitement, I must admit, I wasn't sure this game would be for me. Rarely do heavily publicized games live up to the hype. For that reason I waited a year, eventually waiting for the patches to be released, the price to drop and the irritating day-one pod-casters verdicts to be removed from memory. Treating it with a level of gaming equality, I soon learned that it's so much more than all it had promised. Like it or not, it's an incomparable experiment into multimedia gaming that thinks outside the sandbox and happily confines itself to a linear landscape to achieve it's goal. It stays true to it's Max Payne heritage whilst also proving itself to be a mature, standalone title in it's own right.
While it doesn't get off to the best of starts, kicking off in the most irritating of styles of cinematic storytelling - showing the very end of the game in a painful recap. Now, I’m a fan of non-linear narratives, but in gaming there’s nothing more irritating than knowing that eventually, I’m going to end up in custody speaking to an annoying woman who wants to know my inner most thoughts and secrets. Kind of takes any fear out of the countless situations I’m about to be thrust into - knowing that no matter what I do, I’m getting caught and that’s that. My other irritation of the intro is trying to work out who the hell Jack Joyce is and where you’ve seen him before… it took me around 3 Acts before I finally clicked he played the ice dude in the X-Men franchise. Anyway… There’s one moment of refreshment in the intro that actually filled me full of excitement. The first time we see Shawn Ashmore’s face close up, you realise the impressive capabilities of Remedy’s NorthLight engine. The facial recognition is astounding and by far the most realistic I’ve seen in a VG title. Rather than forcing itself to the forefront of the gameplay, like LA Noire’s then-famous MotionScan technology, and make you try to figure out the depth of the character’s sincerity, the facial expressions in Quantum Break only exist to compliment the gaming experience. They smartly and subtly add to the cinematic and multimedia experience that Remedy have aimed to achieve.
Moving on to the first ‘Act’ and we’re placed into that Half-life world of waiting, patiently preparing for the equilibrium to be distorted and a point set of no return. Walking around, scanning items of seeming insignificance to earn XP and a semblance of backstory while knowing that no matter what we do, all hell will ultimately break loose and we’ll be back in an inverted version of this world by the time the cutscene ends, the cigarette’s smoked and the kettle’s boiled. While this doesn’t disappoint, It’s exactly as you would expect. While games like Half-life got this perfect, QB struggles with the narrative to the point where you almost feel like you’re sitting through a timeshare presentation just to get the free gift at the end. In fact, that’s almost literally what you’re made you do at one point when your old pal Paul “Littlefinger” Serene calls you out of the blue, invites you to his building and makes you watch a full, unskippable presentation on his life-changing invention. Now it’s easy to be critical of Remedy, it’s their first foray into a serious story with a recognisable cast and while the opening level may begin painfully dull, delaying the inevitable actually adds something to the game. It establishes a tension between pro and antagonist that will force a rivalry throughout time. So I’ll happily let this minor inconvenience go for the sake of the greater gaming good.
Skipping forward, past a painful West Wing-style walk through the soulless, corporate corridors, we finally discover the time machine. It seems Serene needs your help to conduct his first ever experiment for reasons revealed later. Right now, I’m expecting a future Serene/Joyce to rock up and remind him to set his watch, but instead we’re treated to another familiar face. Joyce’s brother William appears and its part time Hobbit, full time irritator Dominic Monaghan. He arrives with some eerily prophetic warnings but in spite of them, the Time Travelling experiment goes both ahead and terribly awry. The machine has caused Serene to be thrust back in time and has caused a fracture which is slowly imploding everything around the “ground zero” in which we’re stood. As the world around us begins to spiral on a one-way trip to the destruction of time as we know it, explosions start and the screen begins to flare. However, we quickly notice something’s happened which we weren’t expecting – the noise has stopped. Time is slowing down (a-la Max Payne) and in places even freezing (a-la Zack Morris, Saved by the Bell). Okay… now it’s getting interesting – but not before we must be spoon fed that pressing up makes you go up, down makes you go down and trigger fires. At this point we’ve sat through a painful 12-hour install, 90-minutes of story set-up and a half dozen cut scenes and we're all desperate just to get stuck into the gameplay. In no way do I neither want or need a painfully samey tutorial highlighting the basics of character movement and again I am made to wait a little longer before being thrown into the action that the trailer had so heavily promised.
As we play through the remainder of the opening Act, there’s a familiarity to the game. It handles like a generic 3PS and doesn’t have any real fluidity. It’s also an extremely linear level that gives you the illusion of choice while leading you exactly where it wants you to go. For instance, while trying to escape the campus you’re given a choice of 6 doors in a corridor to choose from - only drawback being 5 are locked and only one actually opens… you catch my drift. Time is slowing down around us, but that doesn’t lessen the haste. We must escape as quickly as we can before the whole building erupts. That said, the game doesn’t give you the sense of urgency it should, instead, it reminds you that the first level has 16 different collectibles and by blindly running away from it, you’re missing out. This isn’t an open world game where you can go back at a later date, miss collectibles and you’ll have no chance to return and pick them up – something profoundly irritating, particularly for achievement hunters and wannabe 100%-ers. What I did like was that the collectibles here are akin to ‘Fallout’ or ‘Half-life’, where we find ourselves scanning computers and reading random e-mails to discover pieces of a backstory jigsaw. It’s not spoon-fed, the onus is wholly on the player to unlock more of the story.
As we waste time trophy hunting before finally getting to the exit, we’re met with a game-defining moment, Serene shows up and kills your brother – who you weren’t particularly fond of anyway but are now understandably devastated at his death. Cue your new mission - to go back in time, stop Serene, save your brother and save the world. The problem with this plan is that we all know there’s no changing the past. This isn’t some wacky, ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ style comedy where Joyce can go back with a sports almanac, get super-rich and re-invent Google, we know very early that this is a set in stone timeline and no-matter what you try to do, there’s always going to be an explanation as to why it’s impossible to achieve. Joyce’s reluctance to understand and accept this interpretation of time travel is actually quite a useful mechanic as it gives the narrative ample chance to lecture the gamer via the protagonist.
I have to say, it seems that Sam Lake and his team of writers have managed the time travel paradox incredibly well. The level of detail is equally as scientific as it is vague to make the gamer feel that it could be plausible without making them think too hard. In this age of gaming, you really have to make sure that you’re coherent in your storytelling and all elements of it must be perfect. There can’t be any flaws in your logic, there can’t be any mistakes in your theory and you must be aware that every action has a consequence. Assassins Creed got around this quite well with the theory that you’re playing memories so you could never affect the future with your actions in the past and if you tried, you’d just be disconnected from the Animus. However, as sequel after sequel was produced and the AC franchise got better, the plot just got more and more confusing. Particularly by the time we came to Black Flag with the whole John/Sage subplot boiling over into the real world. First playthrough, this went completely over my head and made me think, is this time travel? Is it re-incarnation? The reason I struggled to comprehend this was because it’s largely explained as re-incarnation within the present day stuff, which I tended to either skip or drift off to sleep while playing. I mean, who thought it would be a good idea to take me out of plundering the seven seas as a bad-ass pirate to instead wander round an empty office block, hacking computers to unlock concept art?! Anyway, you get my point and while Quantum Break didn't exactly fall into the same trap, there’s a definite feeling that you’re running through the game with your shoelaces tied together, trying desperately not to trip up. While Lake & co. always manage to keep you on your feet, we only just cross the finish line without falling on our arse … just.
Once we finally end the first Act, we encounter our first episode. Great Scott! Something new and unseen in gaming. The gameplay Acts weave in and out of a 4-part live action miniseries that effectively exists to fill in the gaps between levels. Wondering what series you and the other half are going to sit and binge on Netflix next? Well, this certainly isn’t it as, unless your partner wants to sit and watch you play for 3 hours between episodes, it’s not strong enough to stand alone. It’s a failed experiment because the seasoned gamer who has only just got a taste of the action will want to keep playing and most won’t have the patience for a half-hour cut scene. While it’s well acted with a recognisable TV cast, It just makes me think the publishers really don’t know who they’re catering for. It’s almost as if it’s for a sub-category of media consumers and the more you watch and play, the more you feel like this is the result of a meeting room round-table gone horrible wrong – where blokes in suits are shouting words like “synergy”, “second screen” and “cross-platform” at a team of bewildered writers and interns, hoping they’ll deliver a profitable return for Q4. It’s a nice idea, but it feels like a tactic to prolong what’s essentially an 8-hour game into more than a weekend’s worth of play. It’s told entirely from the perspective of Monarch employees, meaning it’s almost Joyce-less and it has that under-budgeted feel you’d expect to see at 10pm on Syfy as the bridge between ‘Defiance’ and ‘Sharknado’. They are skippable, but be warned – if you do leap past them, prepare to complete the game very quickly.
The first game I can remember doing something like this was “Enter the Matrix”, when Jada Pinkett-Smith and co. signed on to do the cut scenes at the same time as they filmed ‘The Matrix Reloaded’. That game is probably the best comparison I can draw to Quantum Break, as it too weaved in and out of a live action story, had slow motion game mechanics with surprisingly stiff controls. Like 'Enter the Matrix', QB needs that sequel, it’s ‘Path of Neo’, to really straighten out the awkwardness we feel when playing the game. Given it’s (supposedly) an action-packed, story-driven hybrid of a 3PS meets hack-n-slash - I should love this game, however, I can’t help feeling I’m replaying ‘Watchdogs’ where the anticipation and expectation was too high to deliver against. The idea is good but the execution falls short of other games who have mastered similar and simple mechanics. In fact, I’d maybe go as far as saying that even ‘Max Payne 3’ did a better job on the bullet-time... okay, maybe that’s a bit too harsh… but it’s certainly not too dissimilar.
Every fight scene is an arena battle. An inescapable bowl or bubble where you must defeat all enemies to move forward to the next platform. At first we think, "this is a piece of cake – I'll stop time and go and knock them out…hold my beer..." While that's true for Act I, the rest of the game isn't that easy and with the increase of each level there’s a counter introduced for your superpowers. Potentially the toughest of which are the ‘Stutter Soldiers'. Yep, Monarch has created suits to make certain bad guys immune to the time cracks and if that's not bad enough, they’ve also armed them with an obscene amount of machine guns, grenades and a health bar of a mid-level boss. These soldiers can slow down time and move just as quickly as you so, if you’re not in focus, they can get close to you in the blink of an eye - meaning it essentially becomes a slow motion cat-and-mouse chase until you can get a clean shot on their packs and make them explode. It’s kind of an obvious move really, I mean, even Sonic the Hedgehog’s most feared enemy was a robot version of himself, but while I wasn’t expecting it to be easy, it just doesn’t feel very inventive.
As the game progresses, I do begin to really get sucked in. The story is immersive and the combat becomes increasingly more strategic. There’s ‘Tomb Raider’ style platform-puzzles to solve which uses Time in an inventive way, such as finding a broken elevator and rewinding time to when it was functional. There’s a few tough fight sequences too that made playing on a hard difficulty setting really good fun, I died a lot more than I was expecting and when it came to the end of Act choices – I felt like it really mattered. I deliberated over my actions a lot more than I would have done in other story-based thrillers, or in a Mass Effect. These choice junctions were nicely juxtaposed too - as you flipped to Serene to make the choice. There was no need to follow your moral compass, because you're making the decisions as the bad guy, so hey - go nuts, kill people, what does it matter to Joyce? It also added a level of replay value as it affected the mini-series, making them more than just half hour cutscenes.
What I really like about the choice junctions are that they actually show you the consequences to the actions. So there's no trickery into making you think you're doing right by doing wrong. Each path is uniquely as beneficial as it is troublesome and it's up to you on the flip side to make that choice. Very nicely done...
It was great being back in the ‘Max Payne’ style world too, albeit it with a non-noire, futuristic twist and, while it's reluctance to follow it's lineage would irritate most, it was a actually a welcome break from the fallen hero narrative we're used to to. It was also good to go back to a very straightforward game which I could blitz through entirely in a weekend. The marketplace is flooded with 50hr sandbox games and it was a light relief to finish something definitively in a short space of time.
The game is fast paced in places, but falls short of hitting the magical 88mph mark that would have really set this game apart from others on the market and give it that instant replay value that so many actioners have. What saddens me most is that it was a really good attempt that just doesn't quite hit the heights the hype promised. Well written, smart and visually stunning, no-one can deny that it's undoubtedly enjoyable, but I get the feeling their experiment has failed and I doubt we’ll see another foray into this genre for the next 7-8 years. Those pesky suits will no-doubt be dismayed with the mediocre game sales which saw the high-budget title shoot straight into the £20 bargain bucket just 2 months after release. I’d expect less Quantum Break’s and more Alan Wake’s over the next decade as Remedy will no doubt look back to it's steady, noire hand in the next few years.
In fact, Quantum Break stirs up the memory and the nostalgia of Alan Wake in two ways. Firstly, the Xbox One version gifts you Alan Wake as a backwards compatible 360 game as part of your purchase so you can dive in for another playthrough but also contains a number of hints references and Easter Eggs throughout the game that makes you long to play the catalogue. This wonderfully dissected analysis of the game's plot on a chalkboard in one of the classrooms on campus shows how much fun the designers had in making this title - but also how much they must be longing to produce a sequel.
(Hmm… a new Alan Wake… perhaps a Blast from the Past of the original is in order…)
As we learn from Quantum Break, we can’t change the past but time certainly changes everything. I waited a year to play this as a second wind and I'm glad I did because I get the feeling that the real victory for this title will be how well it ages. Like Max Payne way back in ’01, Quantum Break could be a silent game changer. A memorable gaming anecdote or a pub quiz question about which title was the forerunner to the highest grossing game of all time. I'm sure other developers will take Remedy's idea and push it further but say I'm wrong and they don't, Quantum Break certainly has the potential to be the game that we'll look back on with real fondness in 10 years’ time that’ll make you dust the cobwebs off the old, Xbox One and set aside an afternoon with a few beers and nostalgically revisit with a grin....a grin of a winner...
April 2016 | Developer Remedy Entertainment | Publisher Microsoft Studios
platforms Wins, XO