‘Quantum Break’ Looks Like the Superhero Gaming Surprise of 2016
Finland's Remedy Entertainment is following up <i>Alan Wake</i> with a sci-fi shooter unlike any you've played before.
Sam Lake is Finnish, through and through – his real name is Sami Järvi, and he was born in this currently ice-crusted corner of the Nordic countries. But when scanning his desk at Remedy Entertainment, the Espoo-based studio he's the creative director of, for clues as to what inspires him to write games that tap into American culture, one thick tome stands out. The Dictionary of American Slang. It's half hidden but you can't miss it, peeking out from underneath presumably some pretty important documents, actively underpinning them – just as Lake's twisted take on all things pulpy about modern Americana serves as the foundation for Remedy's celebrated story-focused games.
First came 2001's gritty crime drama Max Payne and its sequel of two years later. Then, in 2010, the company released the supernatural thriller Alan Wake, soon followed by its American Nightmare spinoff. And now comes Quantum Break, a new sci-fi IP for a new generation, a console exclusive for the Xbox One. It's a risky position to be in – launching a brand-new series is never easy, and doing so on a system that's far from the market leader right now, with Microsoft's machine substantially lagging behind the PlayStation 4 in sales terms, increases the chances of it failing to capture an audience sizeable enough to make the endeavour worthwhile. But while he's clearly nervous about Quantum Break's release, Lake is confident that the game Remedy has made is more than worthy of player time and money.
"Doing a new thing on a new platform, pushing the technology forward, creating a new story in a new world with new core gameplay – there are a lot of 'firsts' in this game, and every one of them alone is a challenge," he tells me, as I take a break from hands-on preview time with the game. "Combine them, and it's a lot to handle. We stop at times and ask ourselves if we're crazy, and I suppose we kind of are, just a bit. But at the same time doing something new keeps you exploring, doing fresh things. It all takes time – this has taken a long time, just as Alan Wake did. But I'm happy with having been on this journey."
The development of Quantum Break goes back some years, with its first public trailer shown at the Xbox One's own reveal, in the spring of 2013. Its release, on April 5th, will be supported by a live-action TV show, with episodes shown between the game's acts, which is both directly influenced by your in-game decisions and comprises plotline colour for what happens in the game's next act (as decided by "Junction" sections, which give you the choice of two routes for the plot to take). The transitions from the real-life actors doing real-life stuff, albeit for pretend, and the graphics isn't quite seamless, but Quantum Break is a damn handsome game. It's not running on any off-the-shelf engine, either – Remedy has built its own, from scratch.
Quantum Break runs on the Northlight engine, which gameplay designer Kyle Rowley says is a project that's been going on behind the scenes since the Max Payne days. "We have an amazing tech team, one of the best visual effects teams in the world, for games, I think," he says. "They've worked in movies, on Gravity, and some of the Harry Potter films. Those guys are really strong. And then the AI and animation systems, they're done from scratch. This is a next-generation animation system." The way that the game's protagonist, Jack Joyce – played by X-Men's Iceman actor, Shawn Ashmore – moves is incredibly fluid, while the stuttering, glitching effects of his time powers – more on those in a second – are wonderful in motion. Quantum Break looks the part, before you've so much as finished its first act.
And how you play through the game is a mix of familiar third-person combat – guns, grenades, waist-high walls – and entirely new abilities that encourage you to not duck behind cover at any opportunity, but to take on enemies in fast-paced shootouts. Jack's time-controlling powers – which he receives when an experiment goes awry, showering both him and the game's antagonist, Paul Serene (played by Game of Thrones' own Littlefinger, Aidan Gillen), in "Chronos energy" – allow him to slip behind foes without them seeing him, create a temporary time shield to deflect bullets, briefly suspend opponents in the air for a simple take-down, and much more. And it doesn't mess about in revealing these powers – Quantum Break wants you to experiment with your arsenal as soon as possible, holding little back for unlocking later in the game.
"Initially, the game was slower," Kyle recalls, "but when we started adding the time powers, it became obvious that the game was a lot more fun when we sped everything up. We didn't want people to think, early on, that they were just playing a regular cover shooter. So we introduced the time powers quickly, to encourage people to use them. And the game is quite difficult if you choose to play without using the time powers – enemies are aggressive at hunting you down, and the damage they deal is high. So you have to make use of your powers, just to survive."
I can vouch for that. Attempt to take on Serene's private army, part of a shady corporation called Monarch Solutions, without deploying Jack's superhero-like skills, and he'll be shot to ribbons. You need to move fast, always, as hunkering down and hoping to pop heads from afar simply won't work, most of the time. "In Alan Wake, the AI was very zombie like," Kyle says. "But here, the enemies have full search patterns, they take on flanking behaviour, all the good stuff that you might see in a quality military shooter." Again: do not sit still. You will die.
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As electric as the action becomes, though – and it does, only escalating the further you get, with enemies beginning to use time-shifting gear of their own – this wouldn't be a Remedy Game without a solid story behind the spectacular scenes. The TV side of Quantum Break shows that Remedy are taking the narrative aspect of their latest venture more seriously than anything they've done before – "The bar is really high on TV right now," Lake says. "I think that TV is living through a golden age right now, so I don't see it as an old medium." And he's certain that the world Remedy has created, with its original characters and organisations, isn't going to begin and end with this single game and complementary series.
"The way we look at creating a new franchise, and a new concept, is that we look at it from the perspective that it doesn't just have to be a game," he says. "We put a lot of effort into building a foundation that can support more than just one game. First of all there's the potential for sequels, multiple games; but also the trans-media angle. Be that a movie or TV series, or books or whatever – I just want to create a cool set of characters, and have them engaged in conflict across great stories, in a world that's inspiring. That can work in any medium.
'Quantum Break', The Game Awards trailer
"That being said, I don't think we'd want to repeat what happened with Max Payne, where the movie rights were sold and then we saw nothing of it until the final film. It would be nice to think that if that happened again, we'd be more of a part of the process, being able to link it further into the future of the franchise. But we'll see if something like that happens."
The Quantum Break you'll be playing in early April is, its makers hope, just the first chapter in a longer story. This is the base from which everything else will grow. (Although Quantum Break's future doesn't mean we won't also see an Alan Wake sequel at some point, judging by what Lake tries his best to not tell me: "I'm definitely not saying no to sequels, and looking at what we've done now, it'd probably be refreshing to do a sequel after this game.") For want of a better expression, I put it to Lake that this is his, and Jack's, superhero origin story.
"For sure, that's definitely what this story is. We feel that all our games need a definitive ending, but more and more we look at what we're making as the 'first season'. So Quantum Break is Jack's origin story, how he becomes a superhero. There's some Spider-Man in there, in terms of the idea of science going wrong, and through that the hero gains his powers, and doors open to this new world. That's what we're seeing here. A time travel experiment goes wrong, he's blasted with Chronos energy, and he gains superpowers – and at the same time, the villain is born. So as you say, it has these familiar elements to it, but very definitely with our spin on them. I kind of feel that with Alan Wake and Max Payne, I grew to not be worried about using 'classical' story elements, because you can always produce original work from there. I don't think anyone else but us could do a Remedy game."
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There's always been something rather cultish about Remedy. The studio's games look great, and play like their triple-A cousins, slickly and with plenty of sizzle. But there's always something a step to the left about their productions, too, and Quantum Break feels like it's coming from a similar position to Alan Wake and the original Max Payne. Here's a game that you think you know all about, just from looking at it. It's a third-person cover shooter, big whoop. But then you dig into it. You poke around the environments and uncover what its makers call optional storytelling components – collectibles, broadcasts, Easter eggs. You begin to appreciate the incredible depth of the world that's been crafted here, and how it's quite unlike any sci-fi-themed games before it. You click with Jack's time powers and suddenly you're racing through levels, only to hit a Junction and genuinely find yourself pausing for what feels like an eternity, painfully torn between two directions.
Lake's right: only Remedy could have made this game. An American story shaped by a Finnish writer from a desk that looks out over a landscape so commonly covered in snow. It's partially familiar, yet fundamentally different from its genre peers. And based on what I've seen so far – the entire first act, a full episode of the show, and more – it's a title to make time for.
Quantum Break is released for Xbox One and PC on April 5th – find more information at the game's official website. Travel to and from Helsinki and hotel accommodation to make this feature possible were covered by Xbox.
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