Quantum Break

Platform(s): PC, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Release Date: April 5, 2016

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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Xbox One Review - 'Quantum Break'

by Brian Dumlao on April 4, 2016 @ 3:00 a.m. PDT

Quantum Break blurs the line between gaming and TV by integrating drama and gameplay into one seamless, uniquely immersive experience.

Remedy Entertainment may have started with Death Rally, but it's best known for story-rich approaches to third-person action games. Max Payne introduced the "bullet time" mechanic, but the title was also steeped in crime noir and told in a comic book/pulp novel style. Alan Wake may not have introduced any gameplay mechanics, but the engaging tale was told in the style of an episodic TV series. Quantum Break takes the Alan Wake concept and runs with it, delivering a hybrid game/television show that was the focal point of the Xbox One when it was introduced. It's ambitious, but the various teams manage to pull it off rather well.

If you want the optimal experience on the Xbox One, you'll need to ensure that you have around 122GB of free hard drive space. Not only does the game take up the full dual-layer Blu-ray disc, but the television episodes aren't on the disc. You'll normally have them streaming when they play, but if you have a mediocre internet connection or worry about the quality fluctuating, you're better off downloading the 70+GB bundle. If you've been thinking about adding some extra storage to your Xbox One, this will be the game to push you toward that decision.

The story starts with Jack Joyce being interrogated by an agent. From there, it takes the player to a flashback where Jack has been invited by his friend Paul Serene, an owner of the Monarch Corporation, to a secret presentation in the middle of the night. With the help of Jack's younger brother William, they've been able to crack the code of time travel, and Paul wants to be the first human to try it out. Unfortunately, your younger brother shows up around the time the machine malfunctions, and the result is both you and Paul get time-related powers. Whereas you seem to be fine, a future version of him seems dedicated to stopping William from fixing things. It falls on you to find out what's happening and try to make things normal again.

The pacing is well done, and the course of the story is laid out well, but what makes this title stand out is the focus of the story. There may be a central character, but there is an emphasis on the ensemble cast instead of a simple hero/villain dynamic with a few side players showing up occasionally. Everyone has a tale to tell, and it collectively creates a much stronger narrative since you have lots of different angles to view it from. It also helps that you're not always seeing things from Jack's point of view, and without spoiling anything, the different perspectives add depth to the characters on both sides of the conflict as well as depth to the story as a whole.

The gameplay feels like a culmination of what Remedy has done with Max Payne and Alan Wake, as it is split up into two distinct styles. A good chunk is spent walking around and picking up or examining objects that affect the story. Some provide a backstory on what has transpired in the Monarch Corporation's or your brother's past. A number of the items relate to what's going on around you; you get semi-current reports on what others think of your actions or their approach to stopping you. The few puzzle elements are rather easy, as they involve platforming or hitting switches in the correct order. None of it feels shoehorned in to give you something to do between firefights.

Speaking of action, it breaks away from the cover shooter mold that seems to be the crux of third-person shooter games nowadays. You can take cover, but it's done automatically, so you don't have to hit a button to duck and lean on waist-high blockades. You can't do blind fire, though, so the cover helps you catch your breath. Weapons are pretty standard fare, so they're referred to as an SMG or rapid-fire pistol instead of the manufacturer names. They feel nice to shoot and have appropriate recoil, so you'll learn to time your shots instead of firing all the time. Enemies don't seem to take much more damage when they're in a reaction animation. The game also doesn't have a hip firing or melee attack, so if you've grown accustomed to aiming before shooting, you'll feel at home.

It doesn't take long before you're introduced to the hook of time manipulation. You start with the sonar ability to scout out enemy and ammo locations as well as other important items in the area. Shortly after that, you get the ability to freeze enemies in a time bubble. Before you know it, you get a time-related speed dash, the ability to throw the equivalent of Force blasts at foes, and the chance to toss up a shield to protect against enemy fire. All of the powers can be upgraded by finding points around the levels, but aside from the initial upgrades, they don't seem very significant.

Both major aspects of the game benefit greatly from the introduction of time manipulation elements. The puzzles aren't more difficult once you get certain powers, but they are more enjoyable because they look cool. For chrono points and other collectibles, the time sonar does wonders to make those things easier to find.

Meanwhile, your newfound time powers replace some of the expected moves of a third-person shooter. One the one hand, you can be more tactical by freezing stronger enemies while concentrating on the weaker ones or slowing down stronger foes and saving the easier ones for later. On the other hand, you can make this a more fast-paced shooter by darting around to melee a foe while getting the drop on other enemies. Either way, the game plays differently enough using these powers, and the fights remain engaging due to the numerous possible approaches.

Though Quantum Break features two distinct gameplay sections, it handles their transitions nicely. The combat sections are more pronounced because of the musical crescendo and you'll see Jack head for cover first and pull out a gun. For the most part, you'll know those sections are over because the last enemy crumples in slow-motion. Surprisingly, for a game that features a number of scenes using the in-game engine, there are no load times between them. When you encounter loading screens, they're reasonable in length, so you're not pulled out of the game for very long.

One of the more interesting aspects of the game comes after you finish an act. You're thrown into sections called Junctions, where you control Paul Serene instead of Jack. You only have a few items to look at, but the purpose is to choose which branch the story continues along. You get a perceived summary of the events that will occur for each choice. Every choice seems to change the story significantly enough that individual playthroughs can feel different for different players.

When the game was announced, there was emphasis on the accompanying television series and the tight  integration. Perhaps the best comparison to this would be Enter the Matrix, where the gameplay merged with high-quality cut scenes starring a host of established actors. This time, those live-action segments are half-hour episodes instead of five-minute snippets that bookend gameplay.

There's an emphasis on everyone else who works for Monarch. The episodes are meant to highlight the characters you don't see in the game, like the computer specialist and the security head who suddenly becomes aware of the coming events. This set of B-stories works very well in the game world, and you get the sense that the inclusion and actions of the characters aren't tacked on for the sake of extending the experience. This also means that you won't want to skip the cinematics.

However, there are parts that will remind you to temper your expectations. Some of the effects look artificial. This is especially true of some of the establishing shots for the locations in the second and third episodes. There's a great deal of product placement for Windows and Nissan. Things like this are expected but still worth pointing out.

None of this ruins the fact that the game and show integrate nicely with one another. The decisions you make at the junctions greatly affect the plot, so you'll want a second playthrough just to see how things differ on the pathways you didn't choose. Some of the intel you find directly correlates with what you see in the episodes, and even though the effects of the ripples you cause in the game are tiny, they're neat nonetheless.

Graphically, Quantum Break is excellent. Players will immediately notice how well the characters are modeled, complete with great skin and clothing textures. This is especially true of the more notable actors, like Shawn Ashmore, Aiden Gillen and Lance Reddick,  whose digital representations are impressive without ending up in Uncanny Valley. Their animations are also top-notch, especially when they speak. Not only are the mouth movements accurate, but you'll even see them try to face the person they're talking to, even if you purposefully turn their bodies away. The backgrounds are also well detailed, with only a few instances of texture pop. Lighting is well done, but the time stutter zones will really make an impression. There's a soft film grain that covers the title and may annoy some, but a solid frame rate while running the game makes up for this.

Likewise, the sound is equally terrific. As expected from the cast, the voice acting is excellent and the performances are solid. This is especially true of the characters only seen in the game, as they maintain the tone conveyed by the actors in the live-action portions. The music is great during the live action and gameplay scenes, with good use of licensed and original tracks. Some of the music during the gunfights stands out because the bits of electronic noise perfectly convey the fragile nature of the environments. From an audio standpoint, the game toys with that fragility well whenever you do anything time-related.

As a game, Quantum Break is solid. There's a good balance between the shooting and exploration sections, and while some people may dislike the simplicity of the core shooting, the time-related powers augment it enough to make it fun. As a TV show, it does a good job of staying interesting without wearing out its welcome. As a whole, the story nicely melds together both pieces, and the different avenues the tale takes gives you a reason to replay it. Quantum Break is another excellent game from Remedy, and it belongs on the shelves of all adventure game fans.

Score: 9.0/10

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