I plan to write a review for the “Game of the year edition” of Control by the time all its DLC has hit the digital shelf. Somehow, it would not be fair to review Control without a look at Remedy’s previous game, Quantum Break. So, I bought and played that game on Steam. What was intended as tipping my toe into the pond soon turned into an Achievement hunt. After 20 hours of play time, I unlocked all 42 Steam Achievements of Quantum Break through 2 full playthroughs and some revisits paid to certain levels.
It could be nostalgia. My only-got-one-gaming-system days were with an Xbox 360 and this game sort of radiates a strong Xbox exclusive vibe that I was so fond of in the early 2010s. However, the game’s inconsistencies in both the narrative and the mechanic aspects has prevented it from being the next big thing Microsoft marketed it as. Quantum Break could have been a fun B game for people to remember keenly, but somehow hyped into to a class A disappointment.
Jack Joyce’ jarring first/only day as a time bandit
Jack Joyce had been called back to his hometown, Riverport after a 6 years long self exile. His friend Paul Serene asked him to assist on a top secret project, and he soon got the “top secret” part in a painful way. What seemed to be simple enough turned into a end of world scenario, with time travel and hostiles with guns. Joyce found himself forced to shoot his way out. Traveling through time and space, this is going to be a very long day for Jack Joyce.
The game, even without the live-action “episodes” and 2 actors actual starred in scripted shows on Fox, would have felt like an action drama aired on Fox. The self-serious tone and budgeted but not that budgeted look are trademarks of drama on that video game despising broadcasting network.
The occasionally anti-climax in-game action is something straight out of Fox’s 24. I remember sometimes on that show, seeing a armed to the teeth Jack Bauer walking into wherever some bad guys are and excepting an at least 2 minutes long firefight. Then 2 gunshots later, it’s all over. In Quantum Break, Joyce sometimes walked towards 2 or 3 armed enemies and I expected to shoot at least dozen more. I gunned down the few in sight and a slow motion kill cam told me that this is over, move on.
TV show style aside, Quantum Break’s story could be too meta for its own good. This can be seen in both its dramatic and comedic aspects.
In terms of drama, writers at Remedy really wanted to hammer home the fact that there was a 6 years long gap since Alan Wake during the opening hour of Quantum Break. Their method is to have both the player character Jack Joyce’ monologue and his conversation with other characters mentioning “6 years” over and over again. Honesty, without Control, you would think Remedy had gone over to the deep end where Kojima Productions’ narrative team, both in and outside Konami, resides since development of MGS4 began.
Comedy wise, there is an X-Men joke in 1 of 2 different timelines as well. Probably because Shawn Ashmore, who played Iceman in 4 X-Men movies, was cast as Jack Joyce in the final build of the game. It made me roll my eyes rather than laugh.
Such jarring meta layers are what Remedy aimed, swung and missed with the ambition that was Quantum Break. Add that on top of a potentially convoluted time travel story, and it is quite a mess. Then the layered structure didn’t help either.
The two straight lines and the 4 diamonds between them
Quantum Back is extremely linear as a game compared to Control. It makes collectible hunting both easier and harder. The easier part is, there is a timeline even for the various collectibles. So if you miss something, there is an easy reference. The hard part is that the doors Jack Joyce opens would close automatically and permanently behind him. So if you missed something after you went through some door, you might need to bring out the level selection the game calls Timeline and restart that level over all again.
Along this linear path, Quantum Break is composed of 3 portions, Acts, Junctions and Episodes.
The 5 Acts and shorter, reload-able levels known as Parts in them are your typical third person action adventure game in which you play Jack Joyce, shoot hostile forces known as Monarch and occasionally solve some puzzles. More on this portion in details later.
The 4 Junctions is the weirdest portion of the game. In those you play the game’s antagonist and make two way choices that impacts the late game. It usually leads to different textures on walls in late game and some not playable characters’ fates differ. However, the final 2 Parts of game are completely free from those choices. The most impact those choices have is on the Episodes.
The 4 about 30 minutes long Episodes are a feature length live action movie cut into a mini series. On the Timeline, they were marked as opening cut scenes of Acts 2 to 5, while I consider them as epilogues of Acts 1 to 4. Those are the self serious and made on certain level of budget action drama on Fox stuff. It’s not “Top Quality” as advertised, but at least it’s not the overtly long, poorly written and questionably acted Kojima cut scene either.
The oddest thing about Episodes is that they’re streamed from some server on the internet, rather than played as downloaded video files. The game has a half-ass video streaming app built in. I call it “half-ass” because there is no way to manually select resolutions. The choices in Junctions might lead to minutes of different footage while collectibles known Quantum Ripples in Acts would add seconds of additional footage.
Despite marketing making it as a unique experience blending game and tv, Episodes are just long live action cut scene. It’s just made with enough crafts and professionalism to be legit entertainment.
Quantum Break is not a long game, my first time through is 10 hours even watching all the Episodes. The different choices in Junctions offer superficial reason to play the game more than once. But since it’s superficial, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are Achievement hunting like I was.
Manipulating time, manipulated by game
At its core, Quantum Break is a third person shooter confused whether it should lay into the gun & run or stop & pop. It has the so-called auto cover system, Joyce would duck behind waist high cover. It’s not always clear whether he is in cover or not and in section where he needs to find cover against sniper fires it can be very frustrating.
The shooting bit also has something go against the norm of shooters with reloading mechanic. If Joyce empties a clip of his gun, he would finish reloading it even if the player chooses to switch weapon. The switch comes after the reload animation is completed. This goes against the “switching to side arm is faster than reloading” design of post Call of Duty 4 time and can lead to cheap death in the game.
Speak of in-game death, the checkpoints of Quantum Break can act up weirdly at times. In final shoot out of Act 3, the checkpoint would not be reached if player choose to go out through one door rather than another after completing certain task. Difficulty setting can change those as well. Earlier in that same Act, a checkpoint would be reached seconds before a boss fight on Normal. On Hard though, the game would send player two firefights and one elevator ride before. It’s annoying rather than challenging.
Besides the shooting, the game also have time manipulation. It feels like Joyce is making his powers up as he goes along. The lack of internal consistency here makes me retroactively appreciate Control’s Object of Power hunt more.
Much like Control after it, Quantum Break has its powers mostly mapped to the game pad bumpers. Tap left bumper to dodge and holding it since Act 3 would make Joyce run faster than any other enemies. Running in this ultra speed is also the only way for Joyce to melee attack. Right bumper would launch a stasis filed, the player can unload rounds into it for a more powerful attack. Besides the bumpers, face button B is for a shield and Y is for your standard hint vision since the days of original Assassin’s Creed.
Overall, even all those powers are time themed, Quantum Break just makes the player feel like one of those generic super soldiers rather than a genuine time manipulator. You are not aging enemies to death like 2010’s under appreciated first person shooter Singularity. Time rewinding puzzles are strictly determined by the game. There are impressive set pieces in the game where time stop and flow all over the place, but they are your usual set pieces in AAA games with some more neat visual effects. Time manipulation of the player does interact with them in interesting ways.
Much like Alan Wake before it, Quantum Break’s end, while not exactly cliffhanging, contains sequel tease. However, it seems either the audience nor Remedy themselves wants a sequel. Which is a shame, this flawed game has room for improvement and a sequel can fill it.
It’s not to say that Remedy didn’t learn any lesson from it, Control is living prove that they did. While Control’s blend of episodic and serialized television style narrative through a single focused perspective is a better fit for the media form that is video game, I would love to see Remedy tell another purely serialized story through multiple perspectives like Quantum Break. It just needs more internal consistency.