Spoiler alert: This preview has text and video that tell you what happens at the start of the game.
Remedy Entertainment pioneered the use of the slow-motion, Matrix-like “bullet time” in video games in Max Payne way back in 2001. It carried slow-motion combat to new levels in Alan Wake, from 2010. And now the developer is changing time itself with its newest action-shooter, Quantum Break.
Quantum Break is one of Microsoft’s biggest exclusives for the Xbox One and Windows 10. The time-bending game has been in development for four years at Remedy Entertainment, and it’s a brand new intellectual property that represents one of the boldest bets in the $23 billion video game industry. Quantum Break marries a five-act interactive video game with four episodes of a live-action television show. The twist is that you make a decision at the end of each act, and that affects which video you will see. Altogether, there are 40 different versions of videos that you could watch.
Remedy’s Sam Lake and his team of eight writers really want to blow your mind. While the game offers the perspective of hero Jack Joyce (played by actor Shawn Ashmore), the live-action series created by Lifeboat Productions and Microsoft focuses on the story of the villain, Paul Serene (Aidan Gillen), and the decisions he makes during the story. Remedy has effectively found a solution — albeit a very expensive one — to make cinematic videos more interactive. If that confuses you, you’ll have plenty of company.
“I think the story can be quite intimidating at the beginning,” acknowledged Greg Louden (see our interview here), the senior narrative designer at Remedy, in an interview with GamesBeat. “In a lot of ways, that was intentional. We want you to feel a bit of what it is to be Paul and what it is to be Jack. But we definitely do have a lot of flashback sequences to show what you’ve seen before. We reuse a lot of the same locations, trying to make sure that’s more ingrained.”
He added, “We always had this vision as game developers. People have always been experimenting with changing a game’s story based on the player’s decisions, but it hasn’t been done in live action before. The challenge for us, working with Lifeboat, was making this happen, telling a live-action show crew, ‘We want you to have to shoot a sequence twice. We want the opening scenes of the show to be different.’ Most shows, you shoot the screenplay. Our screenplay had scenes done twice and different endings and all these different things.”
The first act
The game starts out as Jack Joyce arrives at a university that he hasn’t visited in six years. His friend, Paul Serene, meets him early in the morning in a lab. Paul doesn’t explain but he asks Jack to trust him. Jack helps Paul activate a contraption that looks like a nuclear missile. But it’s a time machine. Paul steps into the future and comes back changed. Then something goes wrong. Jack’s brother, Will, shows up and tries to stop it. Paul escapes, and a bunch of goons arrive. They start shooting first.
That’s when one of the cool moments happens. A soldier fires his gun at Will, but it happens in slow motion. Jack can move around freely even as time has slowed down. He sees three bullets heading straight for his brother. So he quickly pushes his brother out of harm’s way. Then time speeds up again. Jack grabs a gun and shoots the soldier. Then they escape. Will explains in bits and pieces that Jack has been affected by the time machine, giving him powers to manipulate time. The acting and action in this sequence is first-rate.
Will and Jack then try to escape from the campus. The soldiers are everywhere. They have to fight their way out. Will only says that there’s a fracture in time and that it could lead to the end of time. When you shoot the last soldier in a firefight, the soldier falls in slow motion. They have to clear rooms and spaces, taking out one squad of soldiers at a time.
Outside, they see people frozen in time. Jack can go around from soldier to soldier, stealing their ammo while they are standing frozen. He can also focus and release Will so he becomes unstuck as well. But Jack can’t unfreeze others. There’s one cool moment when they pass by a classroom chalkboard and see a bunch of notes about Alan Wake.
Jack’s powers get better. When you press the Y button on the game controller, you can get a lay of the land through Time Vision. Enemies show up in red, and you can see hazards or objectives in the landscape. You can also press a button to see Time Echoes, or something that happened in the past, like Will exiting his car. If you hit the left bumper, you can stop time altogether and run for cover.
Jack finds that he can stop time in little bubbles. If someone shoots at Jack, he can freeze that person, pull out his gun quickly, and shoot them as they are frozen. It sounds unfair, but it allows Jack to deal with multiple enemies at the same time. As the player, If you hit the right bumper, you can freeze enemies for a few seconds and take them out. When it happens, everything gets blurry.
Asked what these things are, Louden said, “We call them stutters, when time freezes. At first, there’s the fracture. That’s what causes the fracture in time, which means that the end of time in our game is when everything freezes and life doesn’t exist. Nothing gets burnt or blown up. No zombies. Everything just stops, which I think is the saddest end of all. There’s no afterlife, no fallout, nothing. That’s it.”
These powers can take you through some difficult firefights, where soldiers with submachine guns and assault rifles are constantly shooting at you from multiple directions. You pick up different weapons like shotguns and learn how to make use of them. That allows for a pretty smooth introduction to the game and all of the actions you need to take. At the end of one sequence, you meet Beth Wilder, who appears to be on the enemy side. She pulls a gun on Jack, and he faces her down with his own gun. But she lets him go, and Jack escapes. More combat ensues. You learn how to jump across large gaps by slowing down time while you are still moving quickly. As Jack’s powers grow again, you can press the B button and create a shield that blocks bullets temporarily.
Then the game sets up a dramatic moment involving Will and the return of Paul. I won’t spoil that. But it leads to the end of the first act. A long cinematic game animation starts. Paul talks to his henchmen in the Monarch Solutions, a 17-year-old company with its own private army. Monarch is intent on dominating all activity in the town of Riverport and the university, and it has captured some of its citizens. That’s where you reach a Junction Point. At this point, you have to decide whether to execute a captured woman, Amy Ferrero, and harshly crack down on the opposition and eliminate all witnesses. Or Paul could let her go, force her to do public relations on behalf of Monarch, and gain help in the search for Jack. One method is merciless, and the other is Machiavellian. The player must decide what to do.
“The choice is yours, but keep in mind, the men will view your decision as a unified strategy moving forward,” Paul’s top man, Martin Hatch, says.
The first episode
Depending on what you choose, you’ll see one of two videos. Both of them focus on the villain, Paul, and what happens with him during the events where Jack and Will are being chased. The video is a 20-minute live-action sequence that plays continuously until the end. I chose the kinder and gentler path. It reminded me of the Butterfly Effect, or the chaos theory idea that suggests a small change in a system’s initial conditions can result in huge variations in a later state. The Butterfly Effect was used to great effect in the Until Dawn video game.
The captured woman, Amy, is forced to make a video statement vilifying Jack and reinforcing Monarch. But she lives on as a witness who could potentially help Jack later.
The action in the game focuses on a Monarch guard, Liam Burke, who has doubts about what’s been happening. He goes home to his pregnant wife. Then the scene cuts to a new character, Charlie Wincott, a computer guy who proceeds to blackmail a news director into running the woman’s video as provided.
Burke is a sympathetic character. He’s ready to do the wrong thing as a security guy for Monarch. He is under orders to help track down Jack. But then he runs into Beth Wilder, who is helping Jack. Wilder convinces Burke to switch sides. He makes a snap judgement and does so. And then Hatch and Wincott bring down the full force of Monarch’s private army on Burke. A big chase scene ensues, and then the episode comes to an end.
One of the questions is whether these bad guys are really all bad. Monarch, clearly, isn’t a monolithic entity with nothing but bad people.
Louden said he likes the ambiguity that results from seeing the villain’s point of view.
“One thing I like about the overall story is there is this element. Games are always so black and white,” he said. “You’re the hero, that’s the bad guy. In Quantum Break, no, you play the bad guy. And then you wonder if he really is the bad guy. Is the show really about the villains? Is the game really about the heroes? When you play the game and understand—That’s the thing we really like. It’s really down to your perspective on the story.”
So what do I think?
There are some things you won’t like. Quantum Break doesn’t look nearly as good as it did when Microsoft first touted the game in 2013. You can still see some of that outstanding imagery in some of the scenes, particularly when you freeze time and those graphics become extremely easy to render. But not everything looks awesome. That reminds me of the same trade-offs that Remedy had to make with Alan Wake. But I’ll take a fully functional game that runs reasonably well on the Xbox One over a game full of stutters that looks pretty.
Still, some of the explosions are quite spectacular, and they remind me of the pyrotechnics when you shot the Taken enemies in Alan Wake. On 4K Windows 10 machines, these graphics should look great, thanks to DirectX 12 technology.
I can live without the awesome graphics that people expected from past press events. Quantum Break is going to be an outstanding narrative experience. The dialogue is good. My favorite line so far: “I got a whole new batch of messed-up shit I need you to explain,” Jack says to Will near the end of Act I.
The real question is whether Remedy maintains real control over the full story and all of its permutations — even as it creates the illusion that you can play this story any way you want, and it will be yours and yours alone. I love that ambition. I hope the game lives up to it.
We’ll find out soon enough. Quantum Break debuts April 5 worldwide and April 7 in Japan. It will be available on the Xbox One and Windows 10 PCs.
Here’s a video of 10 minutes of gameplay in Quantum Break. It starts in the first act, scene two, just as Jack Joyce learns that he has special powers to manipulate time. For more scenes, check out our video story.