You probably know one or two people who are fantastic storytellers. Perhaps a teacher, grandparent, or just a really creative friend. I certainty know a few, and often find myself inspired by their ability to take a topic and present it in a compelling way. I’ve aspired to be one myself, actually, and have taken great care to study what it takes to weave a narrative that will captivate an audience and inspire them to also explore their creativity.
With that said, I suppose it should be obvious that I’m a bit of a sucker for a good story. Always have been. From movies, television, and beyond, I tend to latch onto a compelling narrative and explore it to its fullest. When it comes to gaming, we’ve always had a plethora of great stories to pull from, and I’ve tried to catch as many as I could over the years. Remedy Entertainment is widely regarded as a story power house, with legendary titles like Alan Wake and Max Payne in their catalog. Now, partnered with Microsoft, we have their next venture into story telling with Quantum Break.
I went into this game fully aware of the level of polish Remedy is known for when it comes to their fiction. While I sadly missed out on Alan Wake when it was released (a black mark on my gaming record that is soon to be remedied – heh – thanks to Xbox On’s backward-compatibility mode), I am a huge fan of the Max Payne franchise. When I first saw that Remedy was attempting a time-travel based narrative in a third-person shooter, a lot of ideas starting rolling around my head on how they would pull off such a daunting task. My first idea was something combining Max Payne game play with a Prince of Persia – Sands of Time method of time control. This wasn’t terribly far from what we got, but Remedy found a way to make the concept so much more compelling than a feature mash-up of other successful titles.
The game started kind of bland in a game-play sense, actually. It used pretty basic cover mechanics at first. Really basic, honestly. You automatically take cover when approaching the right kind of environment, rather than a toggle-cover method seen just about everywhere else. It was annoying at first, because it was not very fluid, and simply nudging the left stick pops you out of cover and back into harm’s way. The shooting is average, at best, and limited to a couple of gun types (SMG, rifle, pistol, shotgun, etc.). It isn’t long, however, until the game turns this formula inside out by giving you time-control abilities.
I cannot emphasize enough how different the game is the moment you are granted your first power. It was as if someone re-wrote the entire game in an instant. The first power you are granted is the ability to shoot a bubble of slower time at an area. Presumably, this stars off with you trapping an enemy in a bubble of frozen time, allowing you to line up a bunch of killing shots and watching them all suddenly freeze in the air until the bubble collapses. Alternatively, you can use the bubble as a go-between with you and your enemy, trapping incoming fire in a frozen state while you get out of harm’s way. Even better? Use the time distortion to outflank your enemies and confuse them. The possibilities are endless, and when you start receiving other powers like time dashing, time shields, and time blasts, you suddenly realize that this is so much more than a cover shooter. Instead of resting on their bullet-time history, Remedy found a way to make time manipulation the real weapon in your arsenal. Complete with a satisfying upgrade system, the game really makes you feel like a super powered Marty McFly. After about an hour, I never bothered taking cover again.
These powers are used in other ways. A decent chunk of the game comes in non-combat scenarios where you are tasked with navigating around an area that may require your powers to get through. I was a little let down in these puzzle-like sections, as I felt they were often too easy. Most of the time the game points you in the right direction, eliminating the challenge and satisfaction of discovering a way through on your own. With most of today’s games so focused on combat, this game had a chance to stand out as a puzzle experience with depth. Instead I felt a little short-changed. If there is one thing I’d like to see changed if this franchise moves ahead, it would be more challenging and varied experiences in this space.
All this inventive game play means nothing if the game’s narrative fails to give you a reason to move forward. I’m thrilled to tell you that Remedy delivers, big time. I can’t remember too many games captivating me with story elements quite like Quantum Break does. The game is broken down into acts, each with dozens of narrative collectibles and hidden references to characters and details of each of the story’s many threads. I’m not going to go into great detail here for the sake of spoilers, but the essential framework is that the main character, Jack Joyce, is caught up in a failed time travel experiment that leaves him endowed with the aforementioned time powers and the task of fixing what went wrong in the experiment, all while being hunted by a mega-corporation with its own nefarious agenda.
There is a solid degree of linear storytelling here, but you still have a surprising amount of control over it. The levels are large, but lead you down a specific path toward completion. The details along the way are where things really get interesting. There are multiple stories here to experience, as your decisions throughout the game change possible outcomes. Minor story items can be unlocked (or passed over) based on the interactive elements in the actual stages. Miss a collectible, for example, and the story may not be as complete later on. A great (spoiler free) example of this is some of the game’s diaries that highlight Jack’s past relationship with other characters. Things that would equate to an inside-joke will be completely ignored by character dialog later if you never read the diary you find sitting on a desk in the opening hour of the game. There are so many items to find that I’m not sure how many of these small variances exist, but it has to be a huge number. It’s safe to say that you play fast and loose with the collectibles, you may be skipping out on some substantial story elements later on, and that would be a huge disservice to you, in my opinion. I personally found great satisfaction in each collectible I found, and had no problem taking the game at a slower pace to try to find them all my first time through. You’re by no means forced to do this. Players who don’t have patience for this sort of thing can freely skip these, but they’d also be completely oblivious to what they are missing by doing so.
There are much larger branches to the story, however, and they relate to the game’s much-discussed television counterpart. At the end of each act, you are presented with a fork in the road. You are asked to choose a different narrative path that completely changes the narrative going forward. Each choice is then followed with a 20-30 minute live action episode that follows the path that you’ve chosen. This is important, as it means the story can (and should) be played more than once to experience all the possible story lines. Other games have this kind of feature, but few offer a polished experience like a TV show to push it along.
These episodes are very well done and offer a significant amount of polish, which I was not expecting. It’s great to see that the Remedy team put a huge focus on getting the stars of the game to also act out their parts on camera, pulling in a bunch of high-profile talent for each role. Fans may recognize the lead, Shawn Ashmore, from his past roles in X-Men and Smallville, or Game of Throne’s Aidan Gillen as the game’s main antagonist (to name just a few). They all play fantastic roles on-screen and carry over their performances to the in-game animated characters (who all are astounding digital re-creations by themselves, down to the quality detail of the neck beards).
Quantum Break is a big deal for Microsoft and for Remedy, who had a lot to prove with their mixed game/tv endeavor. Microsoft positioned the Xbox One as a multimedia console at launch, which was a controversial move that forced them to backtrack and, in the case of a full-fledged tv content push, cancel a lot of their initial plans. I think Quantum Break was a spearhead project for their now-defunct original content hopes, and I think that they may have actually had some creative ideas in other areas that now will never see the light of day. Thankfully, Quantum Break was a hybrid project, and a damn good one at that. Remedy can really push storytelling to new levels with their technology and passion, and Quantum Break is a showcase moment for interactive storytelling. I hope that they inspire other content creators to try this approach, and I hope they keep going as well.
I really am a sucker for a good story, and Quantum break only helped ensure I stay addicted in the near future. The game offers more story than one play-through can deliver, so I’m thrilled I get to go back in. Please play this game, if only to encourage more like them to get produced.
As a separate but important note with the review of this game, I feel obligated to talk briefly about the distribution of this title, as it represents a new frontier for Microsoft that lines them up with what other entertainment providers are starting to do in the same space. Early buyers of Quantum Break are entitled to significant bonuses that I, on a personal level, appreciate and hope to see more of.
First off, I was given digital codes of Alan Wake and Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, which are Xbox 360 titles from Remedy that are part of the backwards compatibility program on the Xbox One. As someone who was not able to play these games the first time around, I’m thrilled to go back and experience such a highly regarded series.
Additionally, I was also given a copy of Quantum Break for Windows 10. It was not that long ago that the game was only announced for the Xbox One, so when the game was announced to have a simultaneous release on Windows, it was met with some mixed responses, as well as valid questions on what exactly an exclusive is these days. I intended to do a write-up on this concept initially, but decided to wait until I experienced Microsoft’s approach first before putting my thoughts down.
Microsoft isn’t the first company to flirt with “Cross-Buy”. Sony does it with some games for the PS4 and Vita, and has been received positively, and Nintendo is starting to venture into that area too. I doubt any of them pull back from the idea, as it is a good way to push multiple devices to the consumer in the marketplace that may not have otherwise looked at things like the Vita. Windows is perhaps the largest gaming platform available, so it makes sense that Microsoft treats it like the Xbox in terms of ecosystem support. Quantum Break’s PC version runs from the Windows store, which is a controversial approach when Steam is so popular, but it allows Microsoft to do some interesting things for those that also own an Xbox One. For one, I can access my cloud save from both games, allowing me to play on one platform and pick up my progress on another. It’s awesome, and I actually used it while traveling for work this week. I simply threw my Xbox One controller in my luggage and fired up my laptop later on to pick up where I left off. (It is probably good to note that the PC Version, unlike the Xbox One Version, has some notable lack of polish right now. Nothing game-breaking, but it may need a patch or two to bring it up to par with the Console version).
It remains to be seen if Microsoft will offer cross-buy titles like this for every one of their first party efforts, but I doubt most people will buy a game twice, let alone from the Windows store if Steam is still an option. Of course, it is up to third-party developers to jump on this bandwagon too. I hope they consider it.
I’d hope that 1) Microsoft continues to let you have a copy on both of their platforms with just one overall purchase and 2) they let you choose which distributor you get PC titles from while still allowing cross-save support. It’s a long shot right now, but with their clear intent to enable cross-platform play, it would appear that Microsoft is a lot more open to consumer choice than ever before, and I only see good things coming from it.
I appreciate it if you’ve read this far down. It’s important to understand the plethora of options available to you, the consumer, especially in the crowded gaming space. Ultimately, we all have to vote with our business, and right now it appears Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo all have compelling agendas in this regard. If you are on board, you should let them know.