Quantum Break - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
Back in 2016 Microsoft was taking a liberal kicking by Sony with regards to the ‘console wars’. The lack of Xbox exclusives was becoming a real problem while PlayStation seemed to be getting beauty after beauty in exclusive content. Quantum Break was supposed to be a big deal — a cross-media presentation the likes of which had apparently not been seen or experienced before (someone in PR obviously forgot about 2003’s Enter The Matrix), where the player could influence the outcomes of the Quantum Break live show.
But, as with anything on Xbox in 2016 — Quantum Break came, and Quantum Break went.
It was always on my radar, but I knew it was a single campaign kind of deal. And £50 for such a short-lived thing is rather eye-watering (a sentiment obviously shared by many gamers). But once again, raise a glass to the Xbox Game Pass — because now I can get my mitts on it and not have to consider the brutal price tag for a single, solid weekend’s gaming!
Twenty Minutes In
There is no getting around the fact that Quantum Break has ambitions of being a playable motion picture. Unlike any game created by Hideo Kojima, however, it has a more Hollywood than arthouse feel, which means we’re not talking hours upon hours of exposition. Time travel is a slippery concept to explain without alienating an audience, but to the game’s credit you can choose to dive into the more nuanced details or just let the narrative do its thing. I spent the first twenty minutes finding extra depth in the story by rooting out collectables just in the introduction alone (even choosing to sit down for an investor presentation to squeeze a few more details out from the ‘science’ of time travel). It’s not necessary at all, but I fully appreciate the depths that are there for the willing player. The motion capture is excellent, with actors Shawn Ashmore and Aiden Gillen (playing main protagonist Jack Joyce, and Paul Serene respectively) excellently realised within the game. Already, this game has a lot of punch in its world.
One Hour In
It’s superpower origin time! When does messing with black holes and space time ever achieve anything other than end of the world/universe consequences? Though it’s been seen many times in many different formats (personal favourite — Quicksilver’s kitchen scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past), having time stop while you move around it just never gets old. With the added ‘fracture’ effects, Quantum Break achieves a truly unsettling time displacement experience. While it is beautiful, it is also inherently wrong. As your in-game brother William Joyce (played by Dominic Monaghan) tells us loudly for the next portion of the game.
And now it’s action time! Escaping from evil corporation Monarch's paramilitary types (who just happen to be there ready to shoot us — time travel already in play or cliched coincidence for me to shoot things?) leads Jack to develop his new time-powers bit by bit as you attempt to escape the lab. In essence, it’s a high-octane tutorial but it’s a damn good one. Essentially, Quantum Break is a third-person cover shooter with some fancy elements — so there are some expected mechanics. Running into cover, pop out, shoot fast, pop down. There’s no blind fire in this game, but that’s okay because at this point I have what are essentially slow-time grenades (throw it up, unload a clip, watch said bullets explosively hit the enemy), a time-dash (a la DC Comics’ Flash) and time-vision, which is explained as a premonition of sorts (letting you see where threats and supplies are as long as you don’t move). After some standard shoot-em-up set pieces and a couple of platforming puzzles involving stopping time, I came to the most surprising aspect of the game so far.
I won’t delve into spoiler territory (though I’m sure they are widespread), but the game shifted to Paul Serene’s perspective — who is now framed as a time-travelling villain. At this point, after some conversation, you are given two choices of how to handle things going forward. Once your decision is made, we move into full live-action territory based on your decision. It’s a simple either/or thing to do, but it holds some gravitas when you see real characters, and not digital ones, ride the consequences. It doesn’t skimp either; we’ve gone into full thirty-minute action film territory here, complete with scheming and engine-revving car chases. It’s definitely got that whole 24 action feeling, and it's really not terrible at all!
Three Hours In
There’s almost a flavour of last-gen video game design here. In fact, I would go as far as to say last, last, generation. I can feel it in my bones (read: I’ve played far too many video games over the last ten years) but I just know that, despite its live-action episodes and divergent moments, all roads will lead to a fairly linear path and that I’m going to have a supervillain of sorts to take down at the end before the world ends as we know it.
And I’m alright with it. It’s refreshing to just be playing a straight story rather than having some huge behemoth of a map or madcap multiplayer to delve into. I know that means minimal replayability, but this is like watching a good movie one evening and just getting a buzz out of the outrageousness of it all.
So at this point, we are getting firmly into time paradox territory and despite Jack’s civilian roots, I am a time-shifting, action-reloading, swift thinking badass. Every third-person cliche is there, but hey, at least it’s doing it all with some real gusto.
Six Hours In
I was definitely being overly generous when I said there was a Hollywood feel as now that I’ve partaken of a few live-action episodes it’s definitely more weekly TV serialised crime thriller. That’s not a bad thing per say, but the live-action budget is beginning to show strain. Everything is developing as much as one can expect, and anyone with a strong affection for science fiction is more than likely seeing exactly where this is all headed, though there are some nice little misdirections here and there.
Unbeknownst to me I had aim assist on ‘high’ when I first started the game, which made me feel like a third-person god, but made things feel quite easy (even on hard). I’ve now turned that off and there’s definitely a solid need to concentrate during a firefight. The stakes amp up quickly, with similar time-manipulating grunts darting all around making your time-vision all the more vital if you don’t want to get shot. As a result, winning a combat has become infinitely more rewarding now that I’m actively time-warping (still my favourite effect of the game — watching the area around me ripple as I distort time), throwing shields up while trying to keep track of how many bullets I have left in the clip.
However, the platforming aspect of the game is just junk. There’s a real clunkiness to Jack’s movements when it comes to jumping and leaping up objects which just makes it frustrating when you’re exploring for collectables and power ups. It’s necessary, sure, but it’s a shame such a vanilla aspect of control has so obviously been left as an afterthought.
Eight Hours In
I’ve spent the last couple of hours catching up on exposition, being unaware that I was unlocking diaries in the menu as I collected bits of intel throughout my playthrough. A bit frustrating that I stumbled on it — there was no indication that I was actively opening up new threads of the story — but I enjoyed listening and watching the various parts to try and piece together events that lead to Quantum Break’s current story. There is a real effort from the story to give some complexity and nuance to an otherwise standard action game.
Ten Hours In
Just hitting the ten hour mark, and I’m all finished. There were some surprising payoffs and twists to the time travel story as a whole and as a science fiction fan, I thoroughly enjoyed them. I definitely called the ultimate end-game prevalent in most shooters, but it wasn’t actually a disappointment. Much like the story’s pseudoscience talk regarding time travel states — these things just are and we cannot change them. Deep.
I went into Quantum Break not expecting much of anything, but have been pleasantly surprised by its ambition. Gameplay-wise it’s not breaking new ground but its time travel theme made for some excellent and, frankly, sexy dynamics and art-style. Whether or not its cross-medium storytelling ambitions were successful is open to wider discussion, but I personally enjoyed it and appreciated the developers trying something new and putting some genuine effort into it, Quantum Break separates itself from the pack somewhat. It’s a solid action game which has no qualms in wearing what it is on its sleeve — a fun science-fiction romp with lots of guns and time travel paradoxes.
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