I love Alan Wake. That being said, I was sorely disappointed when I found out that Remedy Games was not able to get funding for Alan Wake 2 and instead would be focusing their efforts on Quantum Break.
However, I am a huge fan of time travel stories. The Back to The Future Trilogy is my favorite movie (yes, I count all three as one long movie) and my favorite book is The Time Machine. So, when I discovered that Quantum Break was a game about time breaking, I was intrigued. I continued to follow Remedy’s development of the game, and it soon became one of my most-anticipated games for 2016.
Having played through Quantum Break, I am not disappointed and consider it in many ways a spiritual successor to Alan Wake. Especially with the many references to Alan Wake lore as well as the character himself, it is undeniably clear that Quantum Break and Alan Wake are in the same universe.
Although Alan Wake was a more slow-paced Survival Horror game, Quantum Break is a full-on Max Payne-style Action Shooter (Max Payne was also developed by Remedy Games). I understand the focus on more Action over Survival, but I was dumbfounded to find my handgun had infinite bullets. I feel that if they were going to have this feature, it could have at least been explained in-game given that the main character is able to manipulate time. But infinite bullets were not explained at all. What makes it even more confusing is that I rarely found myself needing to use the handgun since bullets for more powerful weapons were always around and easy to find.
Speaking of bullets, there was only one real melee attack that I did not gain the ability to use until much later in the game. Therefore, forcing me to mow down enemies like a shooting gallery. One would think that a normal guy like Jack Joyce, who is not a cop or military man, would feel strange about mindlessly killing people especially since he’d never done it before. Even when we meet Nathan Drake, in Uncharted, he’s already had a seedy history involving gunplay. We are told that Jack has been a bit of a rebel with a record of protests, theft, and assault. But as far as we know, he had never taken a life before the events of this game. Which is why I find it mostly unrealistic that he would more commonly decide to shoot a man over punching him in the face…especially since he could manipulate time.
Proceeding through the game I found other confounding and counter-intuitive game design decisions. The most frustrating were the three boss fights in the game. Two of them were the same boss fight but in different areas. All three of the battles were very simple-minded and tedious. They all fall back on tired video game tropes that instantly make it obvious what needs to be done. The only challenge lies in that no matter how far you are into battle, if you die you’ll have to start from the beginning of the fight again. What adds to the frustration is, that once you die, there are incredibly long load-times. Then, once the game loads, the player is given the option to either watch a cinematic or skip it…but, skipping the cinematic makes you wait through another load time that is just as long as the cinematic itself. During the second boss fight, I clocked it took a full minute before I was able to start fighting again, every time I died.
Another nuisance occurs when the player is encouraged to investigate the world by reading emails and gathering clues to piece together the game’s backstory. Ironically, time does not pause when reading such emails and documents. So, I was frequently having some NPC nag me to move forward while I was trying to read a 3 page email. It was a minor annoyance that I found could be resolved by navigating through my items menu to read the documents there, but I felt that it significantly pulled me out of the in-game experience. What couldn’t be resolved is the text-size for emails and journal entries was incredibly small, leading me to strain my eyes every time I desired to read anything. Perhaps it’s just my old thirty-something eyes, but I asked my twenty-something friend his opinion and he concurred that the text was hard to read.
Difficulty in reading the found documents is disappointing since there were many times these optional reading materials illuminated incredible back-stories and details about characters. Some of them were incredibly amusing (if you find “Time Knife” you’ll know what I mean), while some of them were incredibly emotional and touching. For example, there is mention of 9/11. People from New York especially know how terrible it would be to know those events were going to happen and not be able to do anything to stop it. I feel that they treated the subject matter with respect, and let it carry the weight it should.
Another point of strife, was encountering an abundance of glitches throughout my play-through. Most of them were minor graphical issues, such as pop-ins and delayed rendering. However, there was one glitch, early on in the game, where I ended up going over a guard rail I wasn’t supposed to, having to then restart from my most recent checkpoint in order to continue playing. That only happened once. But, there was a common game design issue of it being unclear whether I could jump on, off, or over something; this is a common problem in linear games, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that it broke my immersion and confused me.
Even with a few glitches and strange game design decisions, there was enough done exceptionally well to keep me interested. The shooting mechanics and special time-themed super-powers were very enjoyable and addictive. There was a certain sadistic thrill every time I was able to charge at an enemy frozen in time, create a time-bubble that could be used as a shield, or freeze an enemy to shoot 10 bullets at him and then un-freeze him watching him fly back and down. Accompanied with a great soundtrack and ear pleasing sound design, every time Quantum Break pulled me out of the game, it almost immediately was able to pull me back in.
The tie-in live-action TV show segments are a strange but welcome addition to the experience. Each Act in the game ends with a half-hour TV episode that focuses on what is going on with the “bad guys” of the game (Monarch Corp. employees). These segments, in particular, reminded me a lot of Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse”. The two are similar since, in both, I found the “bad guys” very likeable, charming, and humorous but found it emotionally difficult to connect with them since they were supporting such heinous acts. However, later in the show when it is revealed the true motivations of the characters, it makes them much more easy to relate to.
But, there is a downside in switching from computer animation to live-action and back. It can feel a bit jarring when seeing the digital characters vs. their live-action counterparts. It reminded me a lot of Theme Park attractions such as Terminator 2’s 3-D experience at Universal Studios, where there is a mixture of live on-stage performances that interplay with the 3D movie…you can tell that the actors you saw on-screen are different than the actors on-stage, but it’s subtle enough for your mind to convince yourself otherwise. Likewise, your mind can tell the difference between live-action and computer animation, but it’s not jarring enough to ruin the experience.
Something worth mentioning is that, by default, the game will stream the episodes much like Netflix. However, unlike Netflix, buffering isn’t so great and can definitely interrupt the episode as well as the visual quality. There is another option to download the TV portion onto your hard-drive but it will take up 75GB. Also, worth noting, is the TV show’s subtitles would sometimes go in and out which could prove problematic for the hearing-impaired.
The game has an intriguing story overall, with nuanced and believable characters. Although I was engaged from beginning to end, the emotional core of the story really picks up in Act 4. While the first three acts relied mostly in building up the plot, Acts 4 and 5 dive more deeply into the characters and their motivations, therefore delivering a more emotional impact.
Both the show and game are assisted by an incredible cast including Shawn Ashmore (X-Men), Dominic Monaghan (Lost), Lance Reddick (Fringe), and Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones). However, the performance I was most impressed with was for Beth Wilder who was played by Courtney Hope. She demonstrates a range of emotions that goes from exciting and flirtatious, at the beginning of the game, to heavy and cynical towards the end. I only wish there was more of her, and would even welcome a sequel with her as the main playable character.
Quantum Break concludes with an incredibly philosophical query of whether we are controlled by fate, or if we have free will. Although time-travel story fans might find this to be cliché, it is a question that never seizes to fascinate me, leaving me with the desire to go back and find all the clues and narrative objects that I might have missed. I would still like an Alan Wake 2. But, if Remedy Games can continue to build off of Quantum Break, or make games just as intriguing, I will be content.