Well… sort of.
Remedy, the highly revered action shooter development studio, has had the luxury of owning its own creative freedom to form the studio’s idiosyncrasies over the past 15 years. From Max Payne to Alan Wake, Remedy has constantly iterated on two distinct characteristics: Hollywood-styled storytelling, and incorporating time manipulation into its game mechanics. When looking at Quantum Break through the guise of Remedy’s own history, it becomes almost apparent that everything that the developer has worked on has led up to this point.
This unusually ambitious Xbox One exclusive (ehem… sorry, Microsoft exclusive) has thrown itself into both of their signature wheelhouses more than any other game Remedy has developed. Time manipulation is certainly nothing new, however it’s not often seen in video games past and present. Live action shorts, on the other hand, are far less common, and has certainly never been done to the degree of Quantum Break’s full 22 minute long episodes.
So, has Remedy fully mastered its craft in Quantum Break, or have they made a game that’s too obtuse to be hailed as a classic?
A Lot of Reading, A Lot of Watching
Remedy has actualized a fascinating storytelling portal through Quantum Break, and has easily established themselves as one of the most interesting story tellers in the industry today. Time travel itself is a belabored sci-fi plot device that has had many game developers struggling to preserve the thought-provoking intentions of the fictional theme. Though Quantum Break might not quite ring that “What if?” bell in your head, the drama around the Lifeboat Program, Chronone Syndrome and Stutters are smart “time rules” that Quantum Break uses in its real world setting.
These time rules are present throughout Quantum Break’s story, giving you a basic idea on what they mean, but merely ingesting the game’s narrative passively will unfortunately leave noticeable gaps in the entire plot. These gaps are filled in by collectible story bits that positively litter your venture though time, taking the form of emails, letters, company announcements, and even more emails. You’ll literally find yourself doing as much reading as you do shooting, picking up large chunks of information that build the world around Quantum Break’s story. Unfortunately, that’s the problem; every document and email that you read in Quantum Break seems essential to the story in a way that you’ll feel obligated to read every bit of information you come across. This can cripple the game’s pacing that’s quite jarring for an action game, especially one that has you shoot through a dozen or so goons before spending the next 15 minutes digging through people’s personal lives.
But nonetheless, these personalities form a strong pillar at the center of the story; Quantum Break has written a surprisingly compelling cast despite their blatantly obvious archetypes. You have your well-intended mad man, your back-stabbing corporate snake, your unkempt scientist, and so on. Quantum Break’s archetypes are toned down, though they are just as distinguishable as they were in Alan Wake and Max Payne. However, the dramatic turns these characterizations take range from predictable to shocking, both in which are well earned and serves its audience in a way that’s entertaining. This is in part thanks to the performances.
Ever since L.A. Noir, performance capture in games has become less and less of a novelty. Our new hardware allows for a level of fidelity that is often uncanny, which has encouraged known Hollywood actors to make appearances in our games. Quantum Break redefines the method of on-screen performances through the art of live action film making as seen in their network television styled FMVs. There’s a required tailored expectation needed when it comes to appreciating the four 22 minute episodes spliced into Quantum Break. By cable television standards, Quantum Break is a painfully average TV show whose set lighting, green screen shots, and limited special effects practically calculate its low budget. But when seen as less of a Sci Fi channel miniseries and more of a thread of extended cutscenes, Quantum Break is leagues better than anything I’ve ever seen save for The Last of Us. Our leading man Shawn Ashmore might not pose as anything particularly exceptional, but The Wire’s Lance Reddick and Aidan Gillen, and even more impressively, the lesser known actors put forth well-acted performances that don’t feel cheap or skimped in any way.
Hats off to you Remedy.
Losing Track of Time
Some would argue that if Remedy would have simply stuck to Bullet Time instead of bursting the Time Power Piñata, that Quantum Break would have been a much better video game. While that doesn’t make much sense to me, I can see the intent to simplify the player’s combat options to something that’s less quantitative, but more adaptable. As you may already know, Quantum Break empowers Jack Joyce with a number of time abilities that manifest themselves through interesting applications in combat. He can freeze enemies before pumping bullets into their frozen bubble, he can dash or race through time, he can create a shield around himself, and he can eviscerate foes with a concussive “Time Blast”. Each ability is upgradable, a progressive feature that seemingly closes the loop in a satisfying action game.
However though Joyce’s abilities are distinct and contextually appropriate within this fiction, in gameplay, they feel almost completely divorced from the style and control found in Remedy’s previous works. Bullet Time was such a staple in Max Payne and, unamely so, in Alan Wake because it was an effective way to counter enemies’ attacks. You simply dodge and time slows down, allowing you a moment to fine tune your precision for your next move. The closest thing that you’ll find to that in Quantum Break is after you’ve completed a Time Rush or Dodge, Joyce has a just a few seconds to line up a headshot. It doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying as Bullet Time, as both powers here in Quantum Break require a nearly complete realignment of the camera.
Time Stop (the bubble) and Time Blast also seem like obvious choices for a guy that shoots time out of his fingers, but the greater problem with Quantum Break is the lack sequencing for these powers. Pardon the pun, but Joyce’s movements feel “fractured”, with a lack of fluid transitioning from one power to the next. I would try to dash multiple times and shoot a series of time bubbles, but there’s a stumble in-between each of his actions, occasionally leaving him briefly vulnerable. If, say, a developer like Platinum had control of this concept, you’d better believe that they would ensure Joyce was able to run circles around his enemies, freezing and targeting multiple at once, and clearing away large groups in seconds. But given that there’s a constant hesitance between each action, I had to resort to what I call “Time Guerilla Warfare”, involving using Time Dash and Time Stop repeatedly before quickly retreating back to safety and allowing my abilities to recharge. It’s not the way I imagined playing Quantum Break, and it certainly was a struggle to find much enjoyment out of it.
There are opportunities to advance your abilities, granting Joyce more control of the 4th dimension around him. However, the upgrade system is perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen in a video game. Typically, when you’re allowed to upgrade a character’s abilities, it involves some sort of points system that awards simple actions such as killing enemies or completing objectives. There’s also usually more than enough that can be farmed by way of repeatable encounters, or if you’re playing a more linear action game, side objectives that awards additional points. Remedy made the weird decision to tie ability upgrades to a very finite amount of collectables called Chronon Sources, which are hidden throughout the game. In fact they’re so finite, that they amount to the exact number of Chronon needed to upgrade Joyce’s powers. For many, this means that they’ll reach the end of the game not having enough Chronon to max out Joyce’s upgrades. Players do have the option of going back to previous levels to grab ones that they’ve missed, but this involves playing entire linear sequences again just to collect stray upgrade points. In the end, when looking at using Joyce’s powers and upgrading them, neither are all that fun or satisfying, amounting to a game that feels oddly amateurish in its design for a veteran studio.
Before Hideo Kojima unceremoniously distanced himself from Konami, fans repeatedly claimed that Kojima should just go ahead and make a movie since his long winded cutscenes and not-so-subtle flair in the MGS franchise was unapologetically inspired by Hollywood. To his credit, we’re glad he didn’t as he was the creative mind behind one of the greatest stealth action games in past and present gaming. Now, though I’m not suggesting in any way that Remedy get out of games, if there’s any studio that has earned the call for such a change in direction, it’s Remedy.
Quantum Break is a distinguished storytelling showcase that has revealed a knack for film making within the long-time game development studio. It works well for the most part, which is more than I can say for the gameplay itself. As an action game, Quantum Break is a frustrating endeavor that seems to have lost touch with modern gaming, but more tragically, the studio’s pedigree. In the end, Quantum Break is Remedy’s definitive title, but only through their efforts in inserting motion picture into gaming.