Whenever you hear video game and narrative together in a sentence, most people will moan or just assume we’re discussing a game cluttered with overly long cut scenes where guys discuss Japanese anime. But others have cleverly made gaming narratives more enjoyable, and rather more so, interlink with gameplay elements to deliver a dynamic approach of storytelling in games. Sam Lake is a top writer and director for games, who takes him time to craft some of gaming’s more compelling titles and Quantum Break may well be his magnum opus. Or was that six-years of development a waste of time?
(Insert clever time travel pun here)
Sam Lake has given us the broody noir epic of Max Payne and the surrealist, Stephen King-inspired Alan Wake. Both are great games and I would have imagined that Quantum Break would be even better. It has some interesting elements right off the bat, blending an epic time-bending action thriller game with a TV show dynamic that alters to choices you make in the game. It sounds compelling with an interesting narrative that explores the concept of time travel where altering past, present and future may lead to the end of time itself.
You control Jack Joyce, played by Shawn Ashmore, who’s been involved in the massive time travel cock-up when his friend Paul, played by Aidan Gillen, who goes into a time machine and screws things royally. Jack develops super powers and his brother Will, played by Dominic Monaghan, become involved in a massive conspiracy. Strangely enough, their friend Paul has come back older, wiser and a little bit crazy. He has seen the end of time and will do everything in his power to stop it. Jack must race against the clock with the aid of a double agent named Beth to stop Paul and the end of time.
There are plenty of interesting elements in the plot that can be examined and discussed in great detail. The involvement of time travel and the effects caused by the event are utterly compelling and offer some fantastic story-driven moments. The pacing is excellent, breaking up action with some meaningful storytelling and for the most part, characters are engaging and sympathetic. But there are many elements I didn’t enjoy: including Quantum Break‘s narrative or its method of telling a large chunk of the story.
For instance, The TV-component of Quantum Break is very much hit-and-miss. Where the show stands strong is again the superb acting from many of the cast, with Aidan Gillen providing such a strong presence. The gravitas of his performance is alluring and unforgettable as the villain you grow to respect, fear and pity. As for the others, Shawn Williamson, Lance Reddick and Courtney Hope also do a good job. While they are strong performances, other supporting characters are painfully dull, uninteresting or just plain unlikable. Such as the cardboard-personality field manager of Monarch with the pregnant wife or the cocky tech assistant who has a thing for coasters and non-runny egg sandwiches. This is all I learned and all I cared about for these characters.
But where the episodes have major faults is with slow pacing, budgeted production values and terrible action sequences that feel so stilted and poorly executed. I cannot stand extreme close ups in fight scenes or car chases where the cars are going under 30 mph. It’s an interesting idea, but sadly the show just thimbles around and doesn’t live up to the excitement of the actual game. It fails to keep interests engaged long enough to survive an episode’s 22-minute run time.
Dynamic changes in the game are interesting and compelling, allowing the player to take on the role of the main villain and choose different paths within the game. Ultimately though, the game doesn’t branch out as much as you may think, with minor cosmetics changing and the end of the game remains the same no matter what you choose.
I also wasn’t a fan of the overly long and tedious text logs scattered across the game to give you more “depth” on the world and characters. For starters, there are so many. While some are interesting, most of them just drag on and feel like shallow padding. You can so easily miss one when the game asks you to stop playing and spend a good few minutes reading a document, only to have another one next to it. This could be to help increase the game’s running time, which is fairly short. With just standard game time and no episodes, it’s about 7 hours.
Enough about story, now it’s time for the action! Quantum Break has some visually spectacular displays, with high-end particle effects and beautiful displays of motion creating an energetic and mesmerizing experience. We see all manner of details from light strokes, waves created by moving objects and, of course, the stutters in time look amazing, adding to the quality of the aesthetics and presenting a rather haunting and isolating feeling for the player. With no sounds and everything framed perfectly to reflect a photo-like image of what is happening, you can’t help but feel extremely vulnerable. It just adds to the intensity and every detail plays an important part of creating an immersive action experience.
Quantum Break is indeed an intense and intelligent action game. With a range of different powers at your disposal, you can deploy various tactics such as flanking enemies and dealing massive damage with a time blast or charging a barrage of gunfire into a single powerful blast taking out the most hardened of enemies. There are various encounters throughout the game and for the most part, they offer an exciting and quite frankly brutal challenge. It must be said that Quantum Break doesn’t offer a steady difficulty curve and rather flows at the same pacing of difficulty throughout. Tough but manageable and by the end, it doesn’t really raise the stakes high enough.
You’ll start to notice as well that by the halfway mark, tactics and maneuvers repeat while the game slowly progresses. It doesn’t help as well that many of the levels just feel lazily designed with little dynamic elements to make the experience more engaging. The only time I felt the game offered a battlefield worthy of fighting in was within the last two acts and a moment that shows a train crash looping through time. But these types of encounters are few and far between.
These freakishly bizarre loops also play into the multiple puzzle/platforming segments which become grand scale set pieces that also make use of your powers. Smaller obstacles in the form of a puzzle are pretty weak, often just resorting to rewinding time to the right moment, running very fast and getting to the next point of interest. Usually these small puzzles have a theme of locked doors or doors which open and close very quickly.
Quantum Break was an exciting concept and with Sam Lake’s involvement I was hoping for another blockbuster epic. While it has intelligent action, interesting gameplay mechanics, spectacular visuals and some good concepts for a gaming narrative, Quantum Break is let down heavily by the lame TV show aspect, short game time, needless padding of back story along the very shallow puzzle and level designs. I hoped this would be great, but sadly it’s a let down. Still a decent action game with some great concepts and worth checking out if you liked Alan Wake and Max Payne. I hope there will be a sequel and the problems here are pulled out for a greater experience. Don’t let me down again, Sam Lake!