Time-travel tales are perhaps the most complicated plots in all of storytelling, and they’re difficult to pull off. But when they work, they’re awesome, such as in the Terminator movies or Stephen King’s The Dark Tower novels. Quantum Break, the big budget video game from Microsoft and developer Remedy Entertainment, has one of the most ambitious time-travel stories I’ve ever seen in a video game. It makes me wonder if I can rewind my life and live it over again.
Quantum Break is one of the most important new original games coming from Microsoft, which needs exclusive games like this for its hardware platforms such as the Windows 10 PC and the Xbox One to stay competitive. Sony’s PlayStation 4 is pulling far ahead in the hardware battle, and potential blockbusters like Quantum Break are critical for Microsoft to remain relevant to gamers.
You’ll find yourself wondering what’s going on at times, as characters move back-and-forth in time to try to undo what the other has done. But the core is very simple. William Joyce, a brilliant but unstable scientist, has built a time machine. His younger brother, Jack Joyce, is unwittingly lured into using it by his friend, venture capitalist Paul Serene. Time breaks, or suffers a “fracture,” when the experiment goes wrong. Then the it becomes a race between the parties to stop the end of time. Serene wants a world with a lifeboat, where most of the people are sacrificed so that a few may live on in search of a solution. But the Joyce brothers want to undo the fracture and save everyone.
We’ve tried to write this review with a minimal amount of spoilers — Ed.
It’s a nice meta story, created by Remedy’s storyteller Sam Lake and his team of narrative writers. They’re already famous for the narrative-based games they’ve done, such as Alan Wake and Max Payne. Alan Wake is particularly relevant in understanding Remedy’s direction with Quantum Break. That 2010 game, which I ranked at 98 out of 100, tells the story of a novelist searching for his missing wife and finds, to his horror, that he is living out the pages of his unfinished novel. It unfolds in episodes, like a television show, and it has a moody environment appropriate for a chilling psychological thriller.
Quantum Break’s world is much more like everyday life — if you could just stop it and freeze everybody in mid-stride. The first time this happens, Jack realizes that the experiment affected him physically and gave him the ability to manipulate time in small ways. You always play as Jack, but you’re often accompanied by allies who want to help you and take down Serene and Monarch Solutions, the private security company that he builds with the unfair advantage of being able to go back in time and predict the future.
What makes the game interesting is how Quantum Break moves beyond Alan Wake and creates actual TV episodes. The actors who provide the animated likenesses and voices in the game are used in those episodes. The game has five acts. At the end of each has a junction point where you see a bit of the world from the view of the villain, Serene. Then you have to make a choice, such as cracking down on the townspeople who are upset about what Monarch has done at the university, or using those folks in a PR campaign to help hunt down Jack.
After the junction point, a live action video starts playing. It’s a 20 minute episode where the characters are played by real-life actors. You see the story from the villain’s point of view in these scenes, and they serve the purpose of adding ambiguity to the story. Serene is clearly bad news, as he is portrayed excellently by Game of Thrones actor Aidan Gillen (Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish). But the people around Serene are more ambiguous, and seem like they can be swayed toward good.
Based on your choices, the story changes. You’ll see up to 40 different video episodes and shorts. And in a more subtle way, the small dialogue moments and email that you find also change. I’ve finished my second playthrough, and I’m finding a lot of changes. This story is so complex, I can see why it took Remedy’s team of more than 100 people, not counting the group at Lifeboat Productions that made the video episodes, more than five years to make, and how it took a team of narrative directors to keep everything straight.
“I have a time travel chart which shows where the characters are placed in time,” said Greg Louden, the senior narrative designer at Remedy, in an interview with GamesBeat. “I have a timeline, which shows an interest curve and all the larger story beats so I can keep track of it. And then I’m just very lucky. I’ve always been told I have a great memory. I leverage that quite a lot. And I take meticulous notes. It’s been a challenge, but it’s great for players.”
What you’ll like
The story about time is complicated but awesome
Remedy has a way of developing gripping stories that grab your attention. Time — the game’s narrator, Jack Joyce, says — is the No. 1 killer. And nobody is getting out of this one alive, particularly if something happens that will cause the end of time. The characters who act out the story are very interesting, as we’ll note down below in the section on great performances. It’s a story about two estranged brothers who meet again and come into conflict with the best friend of one of those brothers. As soon as the game started, I pretty much knew that Remedy had me until the finish.
It has some great moments, like when time freezes temporarily in a “stutter,” and you can still walk around while everyone else is frozen. The first time this happens, you can go around taking ammo away from all of the security goons who are trying to kill you and capture witnesses. This is one of the cool scenes that comes from a story that creates a fictional world and fully explores all of the ideas related to a central theme, which in this case is the ability to manipulate time.
Jack gradually learns what he can do with his powers. If he finds a security fence blocking him, he can rewind time until he finds a moment when it was open. Then he can go through it and then return to the present. He also passes by places and can listen to conversations that happened between people who were previously at that location. This is pretty cool.
The Butterfly Effect
The Monarch Corp. name (Paul Serene’s evil security and technology company) suggests a butterfly. And that brings us to 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 name was coined by Edward Lorenz, and it comes from an example where the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can cause subtle changes that affect the path of a hurricane weeks later. In the game, your smallest and biggest decisions can affect the outcome. Yes, we saw this theory used last year in Sony’s Until Dawn video game on the PlayStation 4. In that game, small decisions you made early in the game could affect whether you could save eight teens in the horror story.
In Quantum Break, you’ll only discover other branches of the story by replaying the game and making different decisions at the junction points. On my second playthrough, the video episodes seemed quite similar, even though my choices were very different. But the email messages that you discover inside the laptops scattered throughout the environment.
In one case, you make a choice about whether a character lives or dies. In the next episode, that character is replaced by another one. And that character is a lot dumber and behaves in a different way. This is all part of the Butterfly Effect, and it makes you feel like you are in control of the story, but the consequences of your decisions can quickly get out of control.
Great performances and writing
Quantum Break is the ultimate cinematic game, where the story and the gameplay and the cinematics are all tightly interwoven so that you feel like you are playing inside a movie. It reminds me of last year’s Until Dawn in that respect, but it has a lot more actual interactivity and gameplay than that horror game does.
The actors in Quantum Break do a first-rate job. Gillen does a good job as the evil and extreme Serene. Dominic Monaghan has great moments as the idiosyncratic genius William. Shawn Ashmore comes off as a likeable and heroic Jack. Lance Reddick is an intimidating No. 2 bad guy as Serene’s appropriately named hatchet man, Martin Hatch. Courtney Hope is a strong female protagonist on a mission as Beth Wilder. Paul Heusinger plays an executioner with a conscience in Liam Burke. And Jaqueline Pinol makes a good ambivalent scientist on Serene’s team. Their performances are good both in the game as well as in the videos that form the episodes. Rather than just pure good and pure evil characters, they have real nuances.
I laughed out loud when Jack said to his brother William, “I got a whole new batch of messed up shit I need you to explain.” And there’s another funny moment later on during a very serious part of the story. Beth Wilder says to her car mates, “My ride, my music.” Then the 1982 song Africa from Toto starts blaring on the radio. This is what I like about Remedy. They put a lot of thought into their scenes, their scripts, the voice acting, and, in this case, the video acting. It all comes together as well done.
There’s a scary moment early on when William and Jack are hiding from goods in a data center. They’re holding their breath, and William whispers in one long breath, “Fuuuuuccckkkkk.” It comes out as a hiss, but it properly conveys the tension and humor in the moment.
There are also some funny things that happen in the background. Beth Wilder is a no-nonsense hero. Nick, a random taxi driver, has a long conversation with her in the background about a silly conspiracy theory that he has developed about the fact that a certain zip code keeps coming up associated with Monarch. Beth is not impressed and says, “Remind me why I rescued you.”
Time-related environment puzzles
You face some daunting mysteries when you’re trying to get past some obstacles. You can go back in time and rewind it to overcome these. You can return to a time when the obstacle wasn’t there, then pass through the passage, and then return to the present time. I found this to be one of the more intellectually stimulating challenges of Quantum Break. The user interface is particularly helpful in solving some of these problems. If you are stumped, you can hit the Y button. That highlights anything that is important in the scene in yellow, so you can’t miss it. And if you get lost, you can hit the Y button and figure out where your next objective is. This is very helpful. In Act 4, the environment comes into center stage, as Jack is on the top of a bridge as a giant cargo ship plows into it. A time stutter freezes the ship, and then Jack has to navigate his escape from the wreckage. Microsoft showed this scene off years ago, and it’s one of the highlights of the game.
Puzzling Easter eggs
Remedy embedded some Easter eggs, or hidden inside jokes, throughout Quantum Break. At the beginning, there’s an Alan Wake-style, X-Files-style video that plays when you go into a tent in the middle of the university quad. Some say this is teasing a new Alan Wake game, Alan Wake Returns. It may be as simple as that. The faces of both Alan Wake and Remedy creative director Sam Lake used in the video.
In the classroom, during the first act, part two, you’ll see Alan Wake written on the chalkboard. It’s like an English professor’s deconstruction of the themes of Alan Wake and the hero’s journey of its main character. It references some William Blake poems such as Auguries of Innocence. At the very least, this tells you that Alan Wake exists in the same universe as Quantum Break. Wake had special powers to move objects in the environment, while Jack Joyce in Quantum Break has the power to control time. They’re not exactly the same, but are definitely related.
Combat is ultimately a satisfying experience in Quantum Break. Remedy. It does go on too long sometimes, and you run into the same types of characters over and over. But there are some very challenging tank characters, as well as some tough enemies called Strikers.
The Strikers can dash around the battlefield in an instant just like Jack can. They can quite easily sneak up behind you. Fortunately, they don’t kill you with one shot. You have time to dash away and possibly run up behind them to pull the same kind of ambush. Each one takes a lot of time to kill, and they travel in groups. When they are combined with other enemies, then it becomes a truly harsh firefight that is hard to survive. It’s satisfying when you take these tougher enemies out.
When all of the different kinds of enemies come at you at once, it can be a nightmare, much like Alan Wake was back in the day. But when you prevail, it’s a great feeling. And, like in the Batman games, when you shoot the last assailant in a scene, that combatant goes down in a slow-motion death scene. That slow motion is appropriate because of the time control theme. And it’s satisfying to watch.
The graphics are good
There’s been a lot of chatter about how Microsoft showed some lifelike animations in previews as far back as 2011. But the game runs at a native resolution of 720p. That’s disappointing someone who was expecting 1080p, but I had no problems with the graphics quality. I think that it looks beautiful, like the lighting in this scene above.
That’s partly because there are a lot of cinematics integrated into the gameplay when you really need a lot of quality in facial animation and narrated scenes. At those points, the animations of the actors really looks so good you’ll wonder if you are looking at a real person or not. The slow motion and freeze frame scenes are also where Remedy has a chance to show you some unbelievably good imagery of humans close up. There were so many awesome cinematics, with close-ups of human faces, that I was constantly wowed by the visuals. I didn’t care so much about the animated gameplay sessions and how they could have looked better. Together with the video episodes, the visuals collectively made this into a beautiful game.
You’ll still see some awesome events like the blast that takes place with Sophie Amaral and the scene where ship crashes into a giant bridge. Those are some memorable scenes.
What you won’t like
It crashed five times on me during my first playthrough. Once, the graphics went black, but I could still move my character around in the game. That was bizarre. On the second playthrough, it crashed once. I also saw some buffer delays in the video episode. This spent five years in development, and after that much time, I expect that problems like this just won’t happen. The crashes happen when I can’t exit from viewing something up close. But I didn’t really lose much when I rebooted, and then the game worked fine. Nothing held me up from making progress. Hopefully, Remedy and Microsoft will keep working on fixes and updates for this.
Villains and heroes can be so dumb
Serene has a penchant for allowing the environment to do his dirty work for him. Rather than shoot someone, he’ll say “trigger” into a microphone and then set off an explosion that almost takes him out as well as his intended villain. You encounter several moments like this when Serene chooses to show off his powers rather than just take out the target. The target, of course, has a chance to escape and that allows the story to continue.
But the hero, Jack, can be equally dumb. He starts one instance staring while in plain view at a big mech-like tank character. The tank is arming its weapons, and when it sees Joyce, it opens fire. Joyce just stands there dumbfounded until the bullets start hitting around him. Maybe this is realistic, but it makes the characters annoying.
Fighting can be repetitive
Its third-person shooting experience isn’t great on the console. It’s a little hard to aim around objects at first. So you have to get used to that and compensate by moving more when you fire.
One of the nice design decisions is that Jack will move immediately into cover, ducking behind it, whenever he’s near it. I didn’t like this at first, as I expected to have to push a button to hide behind cover. But it worked well enough so that I didn’t notice it after a while.
There are a lot of firefights in this game. Some involve squads of a few soldiers who attack Jack in piecemeal fashion. They’re easy to take out. But you have to constantly fight the same kinds of firefights over and over, particularly if you lose and are reborn. This can get a little tedious. As I mentioned, Remedy added some variety with the addition of minibosses and tanks. I sometimes felt a little handicapped when fighting the regular enemies. They constantly threw grenades at me, but I couldn’t throw grenades back. I guess that would have made the fighting to easy, as I already had the time power advantages.
I worry that while the videos and story variations make Quantum Break replayable, the fighting does not.
The final boss is tough
It took me a few hours to get through my first battle with the final boss. I am not kidding. The battle can be over in a matter of minutes, particularly if you remember all of your time powers. I did not. I spent a fair amount of time trying to shoot my way out of problems. But as I died and fought again, I began to adapt and use my ability to run — through Time Rush — for an accelerated pace, where time slowed down and I sped up. This allowed me to start evading some of the attacks that came my way. I certainly wouldn’t want the final boss to be easy. But three hours?
It’s too bad crashes disrupt the experience, and I wish Remedy would learn how to deal with repetitious content. That was a big complaint with Alan Wake, and it has come around again. But it’s not as bad in this game. It didn’t annoy me that much, but I think it will drive some people to just go and watch the game on YouTube playthroughs, rather than deal with playing it themselves.
But the story is quite elaborate, the human character animations are outstanding, the performances are great, and there are some real moving moments in the game. Greg Louden of Remedy told me, “Most games you play through once and forget. Quantum Break and Alan Wake and Max Payne are games you remember.”
I agree. Quantum Break is a memorable game. It makes me truly wonder if any of us can truly escape the reach of time, and it reminds me we all have to live with the choices we make.
Quantum Break comes out for Windows 10 and Xbox One on April 5. Microsoft provided us with a digital copy of the Xbox One version for the purposes of this review.