Once in a while a game comes along which does something truly different. Where others copy tried-and-true formulas and can fairly be described as ‘clones’ (for example, early FPS games were called ‘Doom-clones’), occasionally one comes along that does something new.
Traditionally this has been the realm of the indie developer, where personal backing and lack of oversight from a publisher means they’re free to experiment and risk their money on whatever ‘crazy’ idea they wish. So when a risky new idea comes along in the form of an AAA game, the courage of the developer and publisher should be applauded. Especially when it works.
Quantum Break is one such game. Whilst on the surface it looks like a traditional 3rd person action-adventure game, it quickly reveals itself to be much, much more. First and foremost, not only is it a game, it’s also a live-action television show, with four roughly 20 minute long episodes occurring at different points in the game. While this in itself would be unusual enough, Quantum Break goes a step further: decisions made during the course of play effect not only what players will find in the game-world, but what happens during the shows. These range from the mundane - such as the contents of a letter you find spread throughout the game – to the game’s overall tone (how dark the story becomes), to major changes such as who lives and dies. According to the devs, there are some 40 differences, and whether or not you see them depends not only on which choices you make, but also the combination of choices.
You see, while action plays a large role in Quantum Break, story plays a bigger one. And what a story it is. Revolving around time travel, the story sees the player’s character – Jack Joyce – caught in the fallout of a time-machine experiment gone awry. Along with bestowing a limited command of time upon Jack, it also shatters time, leading to increasingly frequent ‘stutters’ – periods when time freezes, loops and moves out of sync. In their efforts to fix the damage before total, permanent collapse occurs, players are treated to one of the best thought-out time travel stories and some of the most imaginative set-pieces around.
Unlike most time travel stories (which barely stand up to scrutiny) Quantum Break manages to juggle several time lines and multiple characters travelling forwards and back through time, and actually makes sense. Aiding the story-telling is the brilliant voice-acting and mo-capped performances by a cast of professional actors (several of which should be instantly recognizable – which in itself is something of a surreal experience).
In terms of gameplay, Quantum Break uses, as its basis, a fairly linear 3rd person cover-based shooter, If this was all there was to it, not even the brilliantly constructed and executed story could save it from feeling ho-hum. However, the time-powers bestowed upon Jack give quite a bit of tactical depth. Enemies can be temporarily frozen in a stasis bubble, or caught in a lethal blast of ‘chronon’ energy, and Jack can conjour a shield for brief moments when in danger of being overwhelmed. My personal favourite, however, is where Jack can briefly speed up: dashing at high-speed while everyone else slows to a crawl – very useful for quickly closing distances or getting behind cover or enemies (leaving them searching for where you’ve suddenly disappeared to). Each of these powers has an individual number of charges and different replenishment rates, making players carefully consider when to use them (and if you don’t, the AI will defeat you).
The pacing is also spot-on. Just when you’ve gotten used to how combat works, a new power, scenario or enemy is added to the mix. For example, when you’ve come to accept the stutters as providing a safe-haven from enemy combatants, you’ll encounter foes equipped with chronon-tech harnesses that allow them to operate outside of time.
In fact, some of the very best moments in the game (both within and outside of combat) occur during stutters. Players can suddenly find the environment going through a time-lapse effect, or be treated to the sight of a train crashing into the lobby of the building you’re in, only for it to reverse back out, and smash through again and again. These sorts of hazards are common in stutters, and also provide for some amazing set-pieces: such as when players find themselves having to navigate their way across a bridge that ‘s been frozen in the process of falling apart.
Combat during stutters is likewise spectacular. Whether it be the strange, time-enabled projectiles that explode, freeze mid-explosions, then get sucked back together and pulled back into the gun to be fired at you all over again, or the eerie tableau of time-frozen bodies that occurs whenever players defeat a foe or destroy their chronon-tech. This last is used to brilliant effect in the final stages of the game, where players find themselves following in the terrifying wake of destruction left by hostile entities that exist outside of time’s flow.
All in all, Quantum Break is solid, fun, and brilliantly innovative. While time travel has been done in games before, none have done it in such a logically consistent or imaginative way (making you realise how many opportunities other games have missed). While it mightn’t appeal to the more action-oriented player, if you’re after story, innovation and the sort of strange, surreal set-pieces that only computers can do, Quantum Break is easy to recommond. ■