Time travellin' man.
Gamers are spoiled, not just by the sheer amount of games available today, or how easy and cheap many are to access, but by the consoles themselves. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are multimedia devices that give us access to so much content that we are spoiled for choice.
If a game frustrates me --- kills me unfairly, or pits me against a seemingly impossible puzzle -- I don't have to keeping banging my head against the problem. I can just say "Xbox, go to Netflix," and I am watching a film or TV show inside 30 seconds. When I'm bored of whatever the streaming services have to offer I can return to the game in no time and have another stab at the previously insurmountable challenge.
By combining gameplay and live action TV-style episode, developers Remedy Entertainment have created, a video game TV show hybrid for the Netflix generation. Welcome to Quantum Break.
A time less travelled
Jack Joyce (played by actor Shawn Ashmore) is our would-be hero of time (no green tunic and master sword here though). An accident at a University research facility leaves the world on the brink of the end of time itself and our hero with an array of time altering powers. The problem is, so too has his newfound enemy. For such an unlikely hero, Joyce adapts to his abilities well and it's not long before he's using a mixture of traditional weapons and his new powers in a ballet of time-bending destruction.
Cover mechanics are the foundation of Quantum Break's combat, but I got the impression Remedy didn't want me hiding behind walls too much. It felt much more natural to be on the move, freezing my enemies in time stopping bubbles before pumping round after round into the stasis field. You can imagine what happens to the helpless soldiers when time returns to normal. Jack can create his own cover too by creating a singularity around himself that slows bullets and prevents them from causing any damage for a short period of time. You can use the time bought by your shield to run rings around your enemies at what must look, to them, like impossible speeds before unloading a shotgun blast into their dopey, stunned faces or landing a devastating Superman punch.
Jack's Pièce de Résistance sees him hurl a time grenade from his bare hands that can easily take out multiple enemies at once, but the obligatory long cool down stops this becoming a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Managing each powers cooldown never felt difficult, despite how many there are. Upgrades are easy to come by, and having figured out early that I preferred to be mobile during combat, I upgraded my dodge and time sprint abilities straight away. I soon learned to remember how many charges of my time shield I'd used, and whether I had another dodge left before the cooldown kicked in and I was rarely caught in a sticky situation without any time powers at my disposal.
Oh, somebody stop me!
Freezing time may seem like an unfair advantage and, let's be honest, it is, but your enemies have ways of levelling the playing field. For a start, there are striker teams who come equipped with a backpack that allows them to zip from place to place like you can and continue to operate when time is frozen.
There are bug bruisers too, who seem to take all your ammo to put down. Scarier still are those equipped with portable dampening fields which render your powers useless. Treat these guys with caution. These hi-tech adversaries still have weak spots. Savvy use of your powers can get you behind them allowing you to shoot their time warping backpacks making them as useless as the motionless civilians -- nothing more than scenery with no idea of the mayhem going on around them.
The end of time is a gradual thing, and as the world gets closer to calamity, more and more fractures begin to happen. These fractures freeze time. Bullets stop in mid-air, cars mid-crash, birds mid-flight, and fighting through during these frozen, dream-like sequences shows Quantum Break at its exhilarating best.
The whirlwind of destruction the bullets and grenades cause results in chunks of broken plaster and splintered wood hanging in confused kinetic stillness waiting to burst. Likewise, dead soldiers don't fall to the ground; they careen in a ragdoll display, frozen in mid-air as the machines keeping them moving through static time fail. The destructive tableau that remains after a fire-fight looks like a freeze frame of the hotel lobby scene in The Matrix and wandering through the carnage -- nudging bodies and debris out of your way -- is a satisfying reminder of your power.
The only letdown of the super-powered Joyce is how quickly he unlocks all his powers. By roughly the second act I had the full complement of time-shifting abilities and the upgrades did little to change them. There are enough collectables hidden in the levels to fully upgrade each power, and while it's nice to complete each path, I would've preferred to have more upgrades for the abilities I used most, even if they were at the expense of some I didn't use as often.
- Use your time pulse often to locate upgrades points in the levels.
- If you prefer to run around rather than hiding in cover, then don't forget to upgrade your shield as well as your mobility powers. They complement each other nicely.
- Have a shotgun on you -- they make short work of most enemies close up and are great for shooting off the striker teams' time-warping backpacks.
A tale as old as time itself
Driving the action is Quantum Break's unique narrative approach. Between each act there is a 20-30 minute live-action episode which focuses on the villainous organization, Monarch, and its leader, Paul Serene (played by Aidan Gillen). By focusing on Paul and his organization the episodes flesh out what could've easily been a one-dimensional villain and adds context to his nefarious (or is it?) plot. The story is told from multiple perspectives, the most memorable of which was the conflicted enforcer whose goal to protect his pregnant wife led to some very moving scenes.
In a clever twist on the TV show formula I was able to have a hand in how things worked out. At the end of each act I briefly took control of Paul and made a choice as to how the next section of the game would play out, live-action portion included. Because of these decisions, I had some say in the story, and even though everything drove to the same conclusion having that modicum of control added weight to the action that came next.
The quality of the episodes is high. Recognizable actors from Game of Thrones (like Aidan Gillen) and The Wire do not seem to be phoning in any performances, and it's clear no expense has been spared on the production. The time-stopping effects are believable and it's clear that Remedy didn't forget that these episodes make up part of an action game. Car chases, fist fights and shootouts are aplenty, and despite the calmer exposition, the excitement remained, even though I had put my controller down.
However, it's a shame the episodes are streamed over the Internet rather than loading from the disc, and though most played without a hitch, one stuttered unbearably. The episodes can be downloaded, but the 76GB file size is huge and I don't know whether these episodes will take into account the decisions you've made during your playthrough.
This game was reviewed Xbox One with a digital copy provided by Microsoft.
Images courtesy of Microsoft Studios and Remedy Entertainment.