Last August, off the back of a 30-minute-long hands-off demo, I wrote an article titled ‘Quantum Break Looks a Bit Pants’. This was because the game looked like a bland shooter with dull environmental puzzles, a cliché-ridden story, and nothing original when it came to combat. I was sorely disappointed, considering this was a third-person shooter from the creators of Max Payne, one of my favourite games of all time.
I’ve now played through the first two hours of Quantum Break and am happy to report that I was completely wrong, and based on this evidence Remedy has made something excellent.
The plot is still a bit eye-rolly. Set in 2016, Quantum Break opens with you, Jack Joyce, returning to the town of Riverport for the first time in six years. Joyce been invited back by an old friend, Paul Serene, who’s been working on something at the university: a time machine. For Plot Reasons, the time machines explodes, fracturing time and creating stutters that freeze everyone in place – everyone but you. Standing too close to the time machine when it exploded gave you superpowers. (If only standing next to other sorts of explosions gave you special abilities, instead of, you know, horrible injuries.)
Almost immediately after the explosion, groups of special forces assault the university, all of them looking to kill you. You can use the stutters against the soldiers: you can steal their guns and even fire your gun, queuing up bullets to resume their path into your targets as soon as time restarts.
This works really well in practice. There are some wonderful moments where you will come across action scenes completely frozen in place. For instance, when you leave the university, Joyce walks into a freeze-frame scene filled with action. Students are being arrested by the troops, with one already in cuffs on the ground while another hovers in the air, in mid-leap over a barricade. They’re a good change of pace to a game that could otherwise be straight gunfights all the way through.
The first power you can actually control is the ability to create bubbles of slow time. These globular bubbles can freeze enemies in place, giving you a momentary reprieve, or you can use them offensively by firing shots into the bubble that will hit the enemy as soon as the bubble collapses.
The second power is time dodge. A quick tap of the left trigger button will leap you forwards three metres or so. You can use this to blink into cover, to skirt round enemies, or to jump into an enemy, knocking them backwards from the surprise punch to the chest. It’s a wonderfully versatile move, particularly because if you hold down the left trigger to aim immediately after dodging, you’re gifted with a couple of seconds of bullet time.
In practice what this means is that you can dodge between a pair of enemies, who will then take a second to work out where you now are, enter into slow motion as you aim your gun, and pull off two perfect headshots. The whole encounter takes less than five seconds.
This is what didn’t come across from the hands-off demo and what makes Quantum Break come into its own: the game feels great to play. All your time powers feel like natural extensions of your moves. In less than 30 minutes I found myself throwing bubbles at soldiers, dodging past their friends, and lining up headshots, or shooting opportunely placed gas canisters in slow motion. Other games with time powers can feel clunky, whereas this is an excellent shooter with all the time powers neatly integrated into your moveset.
Later abilities (like a shield that curves incoming fire around you and provides you with a small health regen) are useful, but the core pair of the time dodge and the time bubble are ones I used constantly.
Remedy has made the canny decision of giving each separate ability its own brief cooldown, instead of giving you a single pool of energy from which all of your abilities draw. This means that you can’t rely on a single ability and it makes it much easier to combine your powers, slowing enemies, healing, and dodging through problems.
The level design also shines. Well, not so much the levels as a whole, but the discrete locations that house gun battles. Quantum Break is a linear game, and the story is basically funnelling you down the corridors between gunfights. But when you get to the warehouses, car parks, and lobbies where you fight, you’re given a complex space filled with cover, explosives, staircases, and balconies to use however you want. Quantum Break plays like a return to the punchy, satisfying gunplay of Max Payne.
However, while the gunplay feels excellent and I completely misjudged when I saw it last August, I’m not convinced by the game’s live-action segments. After completing each act of the game, the perspective shifts to Paul Serene, the other person caught up in the explosion, the game’s villain. He is leading the group of soldiers who are hunting you down, Monarch, and you are given a choice upon each act as to how Monarch should behave. After the attack on the university, for instance, you have to decide what to do with the witnesses you arrested at the scene. You can take the hardline approach and kill them all, or try to get them onside and pin the whole event on Jack. That decision then plays out in a 20-minute TV programme.
It’s really quite bizarre. One minute you’re playing as Jack, blasting through an old library filled with soldiers, the next you’re sat there, controller left idle on the desk as you have to watch a bland episode of an action programme. It’s a major break in pace.
Remedy says you can skip the episode and go straight back into the action as Joyce, but are you really going to skip such a massive part of the game? Even if it’s not very good? You’d be diving back into the game and have no clue what had happened, which would surely be a problem.
It’s not the story that’s making me look forward to playing more of Quantum Break: it’s the prospect of coming up with more ways to dance around my enemies in slow time while threading their weak spots with bullets. Marrying this great gunplay with passive episodes of TV-style action in a way that feels coherent, though, might be an impossibility.