The seamless blending of action video gaming with dramatic narrative storytelling has been somewhat of a holy grail for some of the more ambitious games developers over the years. From early examples like Shemue through Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater to the Uncharted series, there have been many different approaches to melding a story with action sequences to create an overall interactive experience with depth of character and plot.
Some have worked more effectively than others; QTE, movies, and cut scenes have been combined with game sequences to sometimes deliver a memorable experience, while others have felt disjointed and clunky – the sum of their parts not necessarily creating a cohesive whole. Quantum Break fortunately falls more into the former category than the latter: An action game whose generally seamless transitions from cut scene to action sequence makes for a highly watchable experience. Adding further depth to its storytelling is a series of four 25-or-so minute live action movies that essentially link Quantum Break's five acts to create what feels like a hybrid of TV show and game. What's interesting here is that the game actually packs eight of these live action sequences, but you only get to watch four of them, depending on the choices you make while playing.
Quantum Break's story is all about time. Or rather, the end of it. Following a failed experiment with a time machine, two friends are imbued with powers that enable them to manipulate time. However, the experiment also creates a temporal fracture that threatens to cause time itself to collapse, potentially bringing the universe to a shuddering halt for all eternity. As both men race to save the day, they find themselves at odds, and friends become enemies as each attempts to execute his own plan.
What's immediately apparent the moment you start playing Quantum Break is the remarkable quality of the facial and motion capture. The game stars some very recognizable actors, including Shawn Ashmore (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), Lance Reddick (The Wire), and Dominic Monaghan (The Lord of the Rings), and their in-game appearance is uncannily lifelike. From the texture of their skin to their clothing, the detailing is absolutely amazing. Better still, the actors all put in quality performances, and the end result is digital acting that ranks up amongst the best that gaming has to offer.
The action is a blend of third-person cover shooter, walking simulator, and platform puzzle game that play out as sequences connected by cut scenes and vignettes. In most situations you have an overarching goal to achieve, such as escaping from a room, reaching a destination, or neutralizing a group of enemies. Most objectives start out fairly straightforward, but as the game progresses they become increasingly more complex, and it's here where your special powers come into play.
Most of the game is played through the eyes of protagonist Jack Joyce, and, as previously mentioned, not long after his adventure begins, he's imbued with some interesting time-bending powers. Time vision enables him to spot enemies, locate helpful items, and, in certain situations, rewind time. He can also stop time to freeze an enemy in its tracks, blast particles from his hands to damage anyone in front of him, and slow time down so he can rush up on enemies to take them down – or perhaps do something like run through a fast-closing gate.
Jack's powers are all on cooldowns, and managing them is a central part of the game. Sometimes they come into play to solve puzzles – such as navigating through a collapsing shipyard by using his time slowdown, or rewinding time to repair a broken platform so that Jack can cross an otherwise inaccessible gap. Some of these puzzles are very imaginative, but I did find that they could be a little fussy in terms of where you have to stand to activate your time rewind power. If you're not standing in just the right place, nothing happens, and you have to shuffle around until you're on exactly the right spot.
This criticism extends to some of the platforming puzzles too. There are quite a few situations where you have to climb around an environment to achieve an objective, and clambering on some objects can require a little bit of trial-and-error before Jack actually scrambles up. It's fine when you're on an obvious path and you know that you have to climb up to a platform, but when you're actually looking for somewhere to start climbing, and your first few attempts at clambering up result in Jack just jumping on the spot, it can lead you to believe you're not searching in the right place. This can mean you needlessly looking around for the right place to climb when you've already essentially found it – which happened to me a couple of times, and caused frustration when I finally figured out the issue.
The other area where you spend a lot of time managing your special abilities is in firefights, and Quantum Break features quite a few of these. The game uses a cover mechanism that has Jack automatically hiding behind objects when he nears them. Breaking cover is just a case of aiming or moving away from it, and it’s a smooth and intuitive process. On the whole, the gunplay is pretty good, and while the different weapons in the game all feel essentially the same in terms of weight and movement, they're all very effective to use.
However, while you can shoot your way through the game if you're skilful enough, using your powers is they key to success – especially when you chain moves together into combos. Indeed, some of Jack's moves feel almost too powerful, but then again, that makes them enjoyably satisfying to use. I think part of the overpowered feeling is because most enemies are fairly easy to take down, and aren't particularly smart in terms of their AI. As long as you use cover effectively, you can shoot the weaker enemies with ease, and save your special moves for when the tougher ones come directly at you. Still, even though combat does lack some challenge, I did find it entertaining enough. It's just that for the most part – until you reach the very end of the game and things ramp up a little more – the firefights don't feel particularly exciting and intense. They're more of a shooting exercise than anything else. Fun, but not pulse-pounding.
Where the game does get interesting is as the story progresses, so does the time fracturing. This results in weird temporal anomalies such as events repeatedly playing backwards and forwards as you try to navigate through the environment, or pockets of time being frozen in space. This gives rise to some really spectacular sequences, including a collapsing bridge, and a train smashing through an office building. The rendering of these scenes is absolutely brilliant and incredibly detailed, and as a result, the game looks astonishing – often far more impressive than the passive live action shows themselves.
Adding further depth and interest to the narrative are a myriad of objects and items that you can collect. These include notes, emails, books, posters, and more, each of which can be examined to glean more information about the characters, their relationships, and the overall storyline. To be blunt, I didn't really care about the plot and characters enough to obsessively search for every item available, but it's a nice option should collecting things float your boat – or you're into the story enough to want to piece together all the details.
These items, combined with the shows add a lot of additional backstory to Quantum Break's gameplay. However, I didn't find the shows that compelling. They're well written and acted for sure – feeling like something you'd find on one of the minor cable channels – but they just didn't quite capture my imagination in the way that much of the gameplay did. There's a lot of character exposition that provides insight into different personalities' motivations and relationships, but it's not like the shows really enhanced my enjoyment of the game. Retrospectively, I could have not watched them, and it wouldn't have changed my opinion on the game at all: most of the key plotlines are played out through the game's cutscenes.
What really disappointed me, though, is that I was supposed to be making key decisions in the game at certain junctures, which would result in one of two shows playing depending on the option chosen. Yet I just didn't feel particularly invested in the decision and the result: I just half-heartedly watched my choice of show play out, impatient to get back to the action. Your mileage might vary, of course, and if you're into the backstory and characters, I think the show could be fun to watch. It just didn't work for me.
Fortunately, though, the game itself is solid on the whole. It's not the greatest cover shooter, or the most compelling of platform puzzlers, and the walking simulator bits can be a little pedestrian at times, but somehow it all comes together to form an entertaining adventure that, while a little short at around eight-or-so hours, looks and sounds absolutely fantastic. The story that the game tells is interesting – and indeed that's what kept me playing. Not to see the next episode of the show, but to see what the game itself was going to have me do next, and where its plot was going to take me.
Ultimately, Quantum Break tries to be revolutionary, but doesn't advance the medium. It certainly succeeds technically – from its digital actors to its amazing settings and backdrops, it's one of the best-looking games seen this generation – but it doesn't quite marry passive entertainment and interactivity in a really meaningful way. The show ultimately provides backstory, but doesn't drive the game – and the game doesn't feel like it's driving the show. It just feels like something optional to watch, rather than being intrinsic to the experience.
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