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‘Quantum Break’ Is a Great Video Game, Burdened By a Needless TV Show

Remedy's new superhero shooter plays like a dream – so why does it insist on asking me to put the control pad down?
April 1, 2016, 8:01am

Shawn Ashmore of X-Men's Iceman fame plays Jack Joyce

Quantum Break is a good video game. Its third-person combat, mixing traditional gunplay and superhero-style time-bending powers, is exhilarating. It provides you with areas of waist- and chest-high environmental assets, like so many games of this genre before it; but then it subverts convention by punishing you, mercilessly, if you try to play the game as a standard cover shooter. So, don't. Embrace playable protagonist Jack Joyce's powers as soon as he has them, or else progress from quiet beginnings against moderately armed enemies to late-game bullet-hell hardasses with heavyweight armour is going to prove incredibly painful. Play it more like Vanquish than Gears of War. That's the way to do it: like Max Payne "plus".

Actually, Quantum Break is a very good video game. Its accessibility is a blessing, Jack's super powers mapped to face and shoulder buttons without the need to dip in and out of rotary menus or switching one ability for another. You have them all, whenever you need them (but watch those cool-down times). Tapping the two L buttons in rapid succession to slow time around your foes might seem unwieldy the first time you do it, but by the fifth it's as simple as spinning a Tetris block to fit. Jack can carry three guns at a time, all of which magically disappear into his tight jeans when he's not lining up a headshot, and you flick between them using the D-pad. Easy. There's no sprint, initially, but you soon find out why – Jack's "Time Rush" ability does that job, and some. And the game's makers at Remedy Entertainment have wisely tossed the slow-unlock nature of other games' superpowers to the wind, loading their hero with most of his upgradable arsenal by the end of the first (of five) gameplay chapters.

The game's time-power effects really are something in motion (and sound) – stills like this really don't do them justice

Now that I really think about it, having finished the story and picked up 97 percent of its available collectibles on a first time through, Quantum Break is almost an excellent video game. It's just. How do I put this? It's just that there's not enough of it. Those five chapters deliver a whole lot of action, but leave me wanting more in terms of untangling the potholed plot and relating not only to Jack but the cast of core characters around him. There's his scientist brother Will, who's at the very heart of the compelling but confused narrative. There's Jack's long-term best pal Paul Serene (played by Game of Thrones star Aidan Gillen), who transforms from childhood buddy to nefarious villain in a here's-the-twist reveal at the end of the first chapter (although he doesn't have to be completely evil; more on that momentarily). There's the bad-girl-turns-good Beth Wilder, the gold-hearted thug-for-hire Liam Burke, the finely bearded tech wizard Charlie Wincott, the shady mega-corp head honcho Martin Hatch, and so many more. But to really get to know them, you have to put the controller down and your feet up.

And this is where Quantum Break's one almighty problem rears its goddamn ugly head. While Quantum Break, the video game, is very good, Quantum Break, the TV show, isn't. And there's a hell of a lot of it here.

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Sandwiched between chapters are four streamable or downloadable (though you'll need a spare 75GB on your hard drive to do the latter) episodes of a live-action show filling in the "blanks" of the story and expanding on the actions and reactions of the supporting characters. We meet Fiona Miller, an employee of the (he-went-back-in-time-to-do-so) Serene-founded Monarch Solutions, a company that seems to have its fingers in a multitude of pies but is primarily concerned, at the time of the game's events, with protecting a select few from the end of time itself. Outside of the telly bits, Miller's only in the game through what feels like hundreds of stray tablet devices with important emails left open on them. The same applies to Wincott, and mostly Hatch. At least Burke sees some actual action, but to say anything more is entering Total Spoiler Territory.

Beth Wilder is one of the game's most interesting characters, yet her story is never explored as fully as it could have been

Oh good god, the amount of collectibles in this game. But that's a small complaint – they're there, if you want to pick them up, with tens of thousands of words delving into the deeper story behind Monarch's relationship with Will Joyce and their interest in his time machine trials. Indeed, it's the only complaint in regard to how this plays. Fast and fluid, utilising Remedy's new proprietary Northlight engine, Quantum Break is breathless fun, and it genuinely never gets boring spinning Jack from pillar to post, dashing behind enemies to club them on their dumb skulls, and lifting them off the ground using his rad powers which ripple across the screen like waves of crystal. One of these abilities will scan the local area for enemies and pick-ups, so if you can't be arsed to poke around for the fiction-expanding/further-complicating PDAs and laptops, you needn't. They'll glow yellow, so if you want them, there they are. Truthfully, I grabbed 'em and bagged 'em, without really analysing anything too deeply after the second act – everything's readable again through the menus, so just truck on with the stylish murder already.

I appreciate I've rather derailed the flow of this article from the suggestion of slamming the game's TV sections, but I'll get back to that in a moment. First, it's probably best to outline the plot, in loose terms. Just how did we get here? Nutshell: an experiment conducted by Serene, with Jack's help, based on Will's research, goes totally tits up in the first half hour, and the very fabric of time begins to crack. From the first act onwards, it's all about going back in time to restore it; or to grab a countermeasure that might fix things in the present; or some combination of the two courses of action. (Like I hopefully implied, this isn't exactly prize-winning writing.) Serene and Jack are caught up in a blast of something called Chronon energy, which gives them both cool abilities like being able to teleport over small distances, wrap time bubbles around enemies, and basically act like renegade X-Men on separate paths that you just know are going to converge at some point near the end credits. Beth's a mole inside Monarch, sort of, who's on Jack's side – and the why becomes clear enough in her case. Fiona's also not all that she seems, and that's less obvious, but to even get that much you need to watch the episodes. Okay, we're here. The episodes.

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Remedy's long been about games that play like television shows. The studio's last major game before this one, Alan Wake (yes, there's an Easter egg in QB), was structured in such a fashion, split across six "episodes", each of which begins with a "previously on" montage. Quantum Break is, really, a nine-episode story, of which five parts are playable and four require you simply to watch the action as it unfolds. And while they're no disaster, these clips irritate a lot more than they do entertain. It's not that they're incompetently directed, or the sets aren't suitably dressed to match the in-game environments, or that any of the actors are having a stinker – it's just that there's precisely no reason why all of the things we see in the show couldn't be incorporated into the game. And as soon as one particular epiphany struck me, midway through the second episode, I pretty much tuned out of all that followed.

Quantum Break should have been a multiple player perspective experience, like Heavy Rain. As it is, you do control Serene for plot-affecting "Junction" sections, in which a binary choice is presented and you can, basically, either be a heartless bastard or paint your version of this guy in slightly more sympathetic shades. But these instances aside, which total less than ten minutes of gameplay, it's Jack all the time – blowing shit up, blasting these goons, popping off bullets first and asking questions never (because it's not like he listens, anyway, but that's a whole other article). But how amazing would it have been to play as Fiona Miller, and creep around Monarch, discovering its secrets? And Beth, too, as she gets herself into situations where she saves Jack's arse, without us really seeing how.

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To be honest, Beth might be the best character here. I can't go into details on where her story is by the time of the fifth act, but let's just say it's a lot more intriguing and ripe for exploration than Dude With Guns Kills Other Dudes With Guns To Stop Big Bad Dude Without Guns From Oh I Don't Know Destroying The World I Guess. (Unless he's actually saving it, but again, that's a piece for another time, when spoilers aren't so, um, spoiler-y.)

Okay, fair enough: I'm criticising the game for what's not in it, which is a bugbear of mine somewhat, too. But there's ample (time and) space in Quantum Break's erratic story for more than a single, straight-line take on what the hell is going on. Its combat is truly top notch, and I cannot knock that at all. Remedy, take a bow: you've delivered what will probably prove to be the most dazzlingly kinetic third-person shooter of 2016, and with the likes of Uncharted 4 and new Gears of War to come, that's quite the declaration. Jack Joyce might be an almost black hole-like personality vacuum, but unleashing the man's array of awesome powers is never not an absolute joy. I just wish I could have played what I saw in the shown too, what with its car chases and desperate escapes from danger and turncoat sabotage and I probably shouldn't write any more because of that S-word, again.

Certain enemies, like this "striker", carry equipment that grants them time-twisting powers comparable to Jack's

It might be that Quantum Break's jarring inclusion of Actual Telly is an unfortunate symptom of the Xbox One's launch in 2013, with all that promise of TV and movies and movies and TV in place of, y'know, playing video games. It was announced all the way back then, and it carries the burden of being something of a delayed "launch" title, as a result: this is going to be amazing, just you wait (and keep waiting). And while in a lot of the right respects this is amazing, I can't help thinking about what Quantum Break could have been. Imagine what we'd have here, today, had all that TV budget been directed towards expanding the game itself, transforming what are basically extravagant, who-knows-how-expensive cutscenes into playable passages that furthered the story without the temptation to look away from the screen and check Twitter… and then do the same, but Facebook this time… and then Twitter again, because you heard a buzz… and, sorry, what's going on here, now?

Just one other thing, actually: why the hell does Jack stand like that? Sorta hunched, kind of crooked, like he's eaten something that's threatening to re-emerge from both ends, simultaneously? For the whole game I couldn't get my head around it. Did his dad never tell him to stand up straight? Does he suffer from some kind of spinal discomfort that's never explained? Does Shawn Ashmore need a chiropractor? Someone find out, would you? Thanks.

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Quantum Break is released for Xbox One and Windows on April 5th. Check the game's official website for more details.

@MikeDiver

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