Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Quantum Break - Review

Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: Xbox One (version played), PC

On the surface, Quantum Break is exactly what you expect from the studio that also worked on the first two Max Payne games, along with Alan Wake. In short, it's a third-person shooter, but one that attempts to place equal emphasis on its narrative and writing.

It's clear that Remedy Entertainment have effectively become Microsoft's attempt at an answer to Naughty Dog. There's no shortage of ideas in Quantum Break, just as Max Payne and Alan Wake took typical genre conceits, crime noir and horror respectively, and tied them to story-driven gameplay, so too does Quantum Break with its time-hopping science fiction plot.

Remedy leverage time travel as both the core focus of the story and the gameplay. You play as Jack Joyce, who, along with his brother and best friend, find themselves facing the end of the world (or the end of time, to be precise) following a time travel experiment gone horribly wrong.

In gameplay terms this means that Jack gets endowed with time travel powers. Well...I say time travel powers but it's more along the lines of “Generic Superhero Kit”. Quantum Break might be about time, but in gameplay terms these powers could be lifted from just about any game in recent years. There's the “time bubble” that operates like a grenade, a super fast dash with a touch of bullet-time, and a shield that stops incoming projectiles.

Straight from the get go it creates the impression that this was a game where the story was created first and the gameplay second. Gameplay segments in Quantum Break feel like filler before the next chunk of cut-scenes than they do the meat of the game. Blasting enemies is fun and all, but, when the same variety of grunts are still attacking you five hours later the enjoyment begins to quickly fade.

Power-ups dot the five chapter's levels and allow you to upgrade each of Jack's powers, yet, even they manage to be placed practically straight in front of your face, with minimal exploration required. This is a game that's shuttling you along on such a narrow track that it doesn't have the time to even disguise its linear “ghost-train” structure.

Of course, the answer to this complaint is that Quantum Break is about its story, and, in a sense it is. Once again, Remedy aren't ones to simply do what's already been done.

The gimmick here is that four TV show episodes are interspersed between the game's chapters, each around thirty minutes long. Moreover, your decisions in game result in changes to the show that you watch. It's an interesting concept for sure, and Remedy have always had a bizarre connection to TV in their games (remember the Twilight Zone-style episodes in Alan Wake?) yet the overall execution leaves a lot to be desired.

The cast certainly have an impressive collection of resumes; Shawn Ashmore, Dominic Monaghan and Aiden Gillen are all good actors with solid “geek cred” appeal. Yet, they're wasted on a plot that goes nowhere and is filled with bland exposition at the expense of crafting likeable characters.

Worse still, the TV show suffers from a strained budget, with glossy shots of people walking down corridors comprising most of each episode's run time. In theory it provides a side story that dovetails with the game's plot, but in practise its a boring piece of filler that only has a semblance of coherency when experienced alongside the actual game. There's no sense in watching the show if you haven't played the game.

This then makes you ask why the game needed live action episodes in the first place. In the mid-90s, when cheesy, FMV-driven adventure games were in their prime, they were primarily used as necessary evil for the limited visuals of the time. Now, in 2016 many game's arguably look better than many films/TV shows, sometimes for a considerably lower budget. Simply put, the live action sequences are not only poorly written and poorly acted, worse, they're redundant.

Even the game's choices are handled in a clunky manner. Each episode will cut to Aiden Gillen's character, ostensibly the game's primary villain, who'll then have to make a choice about how he handles events. Given his time-travel powers however, he has full knowledge of how each binary choice will pan out, removing any tension that would otherwise be put on the player.

Other moments suffer from rushed or sloppy execution. A choice I made early on lead to a character surviving (the other choice having been to kill her). This resulted in the woman turning up throughout several other levels only to stand awkwardly outside of rooms, with a glassy-eyed stare and barely a line of dialogue to spout.

Likewise, one episode has Jack making his way along a drawbridge whilst time begins to stop and start around him. Visually, it's rather impressive, and the section has Jack trying to avoid chunks of debris that are only intermittently obeying the laws of gravity. During the episode's climax he goes crashing into the water as time re-asserts itself...only to hard-cut to several hours later where he's suddenly fine and in a completely different location.

Numerous moments throughout the game are like this, with various story beats feeling rushed or missing entirely. Characters are barely introduced, thinly sketched and given barely any emotional connection, but great effort is spent spewing forth reams of exposition and boring techno-babble that, without proper context and pacing, struggles to make much sense or give you a big enough reason to care.

Quantum Break is in many respects frustrating because it's a creative misfire rather than an outright bad game. There's oodles of ambition here. With a bit more love and attention the game's combat could have made for a fun superhero game, with the bullet time dashing being a natural evolution of the studio's previous work on Max Payne.

Just like the mad scientists that are at the heart of the game's story, Quantum Break is a collection of faulty designs and overreaching ambition. None of the game's three core elements, the third-person shooting, the TV show, or the overarching story are enough to get excited about, and, when isolated from one another, all three begin to look anaemic and woefully underdeveloped.

Ironically, with more time, and a bit more focus, this could have been a fun story driven successor to Alan Wake. As it stands however, it's clunky, banal and, quite frankly, a bore to play through.


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