Time is of the essence
Remedy Entertainment is a studio that’s made quite a name for itself by crafting solid action games woven together with a compelling narrative. From the gritty crime noir-tinged exploits of Max Payne to the Stephen King-inspired supernatural horror Alan Wake, the Espoo, Finland-based studio has consistently raised the bar for storytelling within the realm of the often shallow shooter genre. Quantum Break is the latest release from Remedy, and while its time-shifting story seems poised to take things to the next level with its sky-high production values and a story that’s told through both in-game action and a stylish, well-delivered TV series that’s been grafted onto the experience, the game’s lackluster gunplay and some serious pacing issues keep this sci-fi shooter from ever rising above mediocrity.
Of course, every game from Remedy has its gimmick, and Quantum Break is no exception. While Max Payne‘s gunplay centered around the innovative “Bullet Time” mechanic, and Alan Wake‘s combat had an emphasis on intermingling both light and bullets to combat your foes, manipulating time itself is the main focus of Quantum Break’s gameplay. Players assume the role of Jack Joyce, an orphan with a troubled past who has returned to his hometown of Riverport after a long stint overseas at the behest of his childhood friend Paul Serene (played by Game of Thrones‘ Aidan Gillen), who has become something of a rock star businessman and wannabe quantum physicist working alongside Jack’s brother Will. After the two conduct a disastrous test of a time machine on a Riverport campus during the game’s opening sequence, the duo manage to break time itself, sending the world as they know it into violent fits and stops. During the accident, Jack is bombarded with time-altering Chronon particles. This mishap gives Jack the ability to bend and shape time itself, which you’ll use to the fullest over the course of the game’s 10-hour campaign.
These time-bending powers give Jack an edge in combat as he murders hundreds of corporate goons working for the shadowy Monarch corporation throughout the game’s story. Jack can freeze enemies in “time bubbles”, which he can then shower in gunfire. After the bubble bursts, the suspended bullets will all impact their target at once dealing massive damage. Jack can also run laps around his foes with a time-enhanced dash, which allows him to juke and sprint behind his enemies to get to cover or deliver a crushing melee attack. You can even unleash what can best be described as a literal Time Bomb, hurling an orb of concentrated Chronon energy to absolutely decimate the opposition. These time-based mechanics do a nice job of spicing up the combat by affording you a wealth of options to dispatch your enemies, but it isn’t before long that enemies begin sporting gear that offers them an similar abilities, essentially nullifying the digital power-trip these powers initially bring to the table.
It’s here that the rough edges of Quantum Break‘s combat system really start to bleed to the surface. The game features a dynamic cover system which, in theory, should have Jack take cover behind any low ledges or objects in the environment without the need for the player to worry about any button presses. However, this system doesn’t always work as it should, and you’ll suffer way too many deaths due to fumbling against a well or other obstruction fruitlessly fighting to shield yourself from harm. As if that weren’t frustrating enough, the gunplay itself is hamstrung by some infuriatingly loose aiming controls, which make it incredibly difficult to draw a bead on your enemies without wildly overshooting your mark. This issue persisted even after fiddling with the game’s sensitivity settings numerous times – an issue Remedy’s previous games never had to contend with. This is made worse by a questionable hit detection system, where rounds lined up with an enemy’s center of mass don’t seem to connect with their target at all. There were numerous occasions I’d activate my time shield, stunning an enemy in front of me only to unload a magazine and a half into their chest to no avail.
It’s a shame that the combat itself is so clumsily executed, because when it does click, Quantum Break‘s gunfights can be an exhilarating experience. However, far too often the whiff of a point-blank shotgun blast or a hopeless battle with a row of crates to find cover strips the fun from the frenzy, making it feel like Quantum Break could’ve used a few more months in the oven before making its way to Microsoft’s shiny black box.
When you’re not shooting it out with corporate thugs you’ll explore shadowy research facilities, abandoned warehouses and other areas of Riverport as you work your way to the next encounter. During these lulls in the action you’ll typically interact with other characters central to the game’s story to flesh out the narrative. You’ll also find glowing ripples in time that you can collect to augment your repertoire of special abilities and solve puzzles. One such example is rewinding time to cause a garage to open as a car backs out of it, or using your powers to turn a bridge that crumbled long ago to become whole again. This puzzles are usually solved as simply as just tapping the “Y” button, though sometimes you’ll have to use another power, such as your Time Freeze ability or dash in order to successfully overcome your obstacles. Ultimately these puzzles feel shallow and uninspired, and only serve to pad the experience. Countless notes that flesh out the finer details of the game’s supporting cast’s motives are also rather voluminous, forcing you to read five or six emails in one collectible note, which also makes these segments drag on for far too long. Having them play as an audio recording as you collected them would have gone a long way towards keeping them from killing the immersion.
Occasionally you’ll take control of friend-turned-heel Paul Serene himself, who has become the head of the Monarch Corporation. During these brief segments you’ll be presented with choices on how to proceed in the story. I found these segments to bring a welcome layer of replayability to the experience, and it’s cool to see how the decisions you make are handled in the game’s roughly 20-minute live-action episodes that cap each of the game’s five gameplay chapters. One such choice is whether or not Serene handles a cover-up by murdering all witnesses to his misdeeds or pushing a PR campaign to make Monarch appear as heroes to Riverport, which directly shapes the following episode depending on your choice. It’s just a shame that in the long run these choices are mere deviations from the final destination, rather than a real ability to shape the game’s final outcome. Even still, they serve as a nice incentive to diving back in for a second time to see all of the possible ramifications of your choices.
If there’s one area where Quantum Break really shines its in the visuals department. The character models for the game’s main cast, as well as the numerous soldiers you’ll battle, all look fantastic and sport a surprising level of detail and impressive animations. Jack Joyce ( of Iceman in the X-Men films fame) and Paul Serene are instantly recognizable as their real-life actors, and their facial animations provide an almost eerie sense of believably. The game features some impressively rendered environments as well, littered with countless small details. It’s just a shame you’ll be fighting in such mundane warehouses and construction yards which are largely uninspired.
As a huge fan of Remedy’s previous efforts, I really wanted to love Quantum Break. However, the game’s lackluster combat really holds it back from achieving the greatness of its predecessors. Sure, the time-based mechanics are neat, but it doesn’t take long before you’ve seen everything they have to offer, and as the story progresses these abilities become less potent, forcing you to contend with the game’s sloppy core mechanics. Even still, the game’s sci-fi story is engaging from start to finish, and the TV show episodes are slickly produced and really work to expand on the game’s narrative in between the action sequences. With a little more refinement Quantum Break could have been a real killer app for the Xbox One, but as it stands it’s simply hard to recommend to all but the most die-hard shooter fan. If you absolutely need another action game on the Xbox One, you could do worse than pick up Quantum Break, but everyone else should probably wait for a price drop.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: Xbox One (reviewed), PC; Publisher: Microsoft Studios ; Developer: Remedy Entertainment ; Players: 1 ; Released: April 5, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail Xbox One copy purchased by Hey Poor Player.