Thomas Puha is a communications director from Remedy Entertainment. He’s giving a brief presentation, although it’s not really about Quantum Break so much as it is about Remedy Entertainment. And one of the things Remedy likes the parts of pop culture that are cheesy and corny. The things so overused that make you cringe? For the makers of Alan Wake and Max Payne, they’re an inspiration.
It helps to know that upfront. Because if you have a low tolerance for Hollywood tropes or nonsense, Quantum Break is definitely not for you.
There’s a moment within Quantum Break’s first act when protagonist Jack Joyce finds himself in the firing line of a paramilitary trooper. The trooper fires, and Joyce instinctively raises his hands to cover his face. A bubble appears. A time bubble. A shield. But how? That’s not discussed. It just happened.
That’s Quantum Break.
According to Puha’s presentation, the story and characters are the key, almost driving factors of Remedy’s games. But when I think of the Finnish studio’s contributions to gaming over the last two decades, I think of mechanics: the flashlight from Alan Wake, Max Payne’s bullet-time, the tight handling and shooting of Death Rally.
So here’s the setup. Jack gets summoned back to Riverport University by Paul Serene, a friend who needs Jack’s help to convince his brother William about the feasibility of a project. According to Serene, William has lost it and has spooked off investors from his scientific discovery.
The reason for the kerfuffle: the project more or less simulates a rotating black hole that creates a deformation in the space-time continuum. It’s a giant time machine basically, a point stretched out over a couple of minutes.
To convince Will that the project works and won’t cause the end of society, Paul needs Jack to play lab assistant so he can jump back and forward in time. But naturally, everything goes to pot, Will shows up with a pistol trying to shut everything down, the core destabilises, time begins to fracture and Jack — and Paul as well — discovers he has the ability to manipulate time on a small scale.
Which is handy when dudes in kevlar start shooting at you. They’ve been hired by Monarch Solutions, a company you later discover is headed up by Paul Serene. He’s gone way back in time, apparently, but the how and why of that isn’t revealed in the first act.
The gameplay then immediately descended into all-too-familiar third-person cover shooter territory, with some wizardry to boot. I nostly used four abilities over the first act, including a short-range blink, Quantum Break’s take on sixth sense X-ray vision, an area-of-effect ability to freeze time, and the life-saving Time Shield. You’ll also access a Time Rush and time-bending explosion, although I barely used the former and the latter wasn’t unlocked at that point.
They have environmental uses as well, with a single environmental puzzle in the first act showing how the AOE time freezing sphere could be used to manipulate objects. Given how most enemies are incredible bullet sponges, the time powers are handy as an escape mechanism or just as a quick tool to isolate enemies.
There’s also some strangeness about how the fracture works. When a stutter occurs, everyone — except Jack — is frozen in time. You’re given the ability to unfreeze people in time, which is handy for saving your brother. But minutes later, you’re unable to save a university protestor. “Might have something to do with chronon exposure,” you’re obliquely told.
Once you’re done with the first act’s string of firefights and cryptic references — there’s an insider who tipped Will off, he built a device to stop time from unravelling but it’s kind of complicated — you’re then sent into a short story-focused sequence of gameplay.
They’re called Junctions, and they’re effectively forks in the road for the story from different perspectives. Incidentally, the gameplay is largely focused on how the story plays out from Jack’s perspective, while the live-action sequences (which play at the end of each act) concentrate on matters from Monarch and Serene’s side.
But the first Junction is a largely an elongated opportunity to let you walk around a bit as Serene. You’ll get to talk to his second in command, Martin Hatch, and decide whether the protestor above lives or dies. It’s the choice between a full-frontal blackout, or a widespread PR effort to cover up the events of the evening.
It’s all a cover-up, really.
The final element of the first act is the live-action sequence which, while not thrilling by any stretch of the imagination, kept me intrigued for nearly half an hour. One of Monarch’s chief henchmen, Liam Burke, is introduced on a more personal level — he and his pregnant wife love each other very much, but she’s unaware as to his real job and he’s been out of home for days — and placed in a precarious position.
One of Quantum Break’s major drawcards is the multiple pathways the story can take, coupled with the variations that can be found by discovering certain objects. And Remedy deserve some credit here: during the Junction, you’re able to get a short preview of what your choices might entail in a more practical sense.
It’s the televised sequence, the hint of a more compelling delivery and execution, that piques my interest in Quantum Break. Having played it for a couple of hours and finally understanding how all the pieces come together, I’d be lying if I didn’t say my expectations were minimal.
But maybe that’s the right place to be, to treat Quantum Break like a cheesy cable TV series. It’s odd that the live-action segment of a video game is what I’m most invested in going forward, but then it wasn’t that long ago that the prospect of streaming TV shows through a console in Australia seemed farcical.
Quantum Break is out for PC and Xbox One on April 5.