Killing time in Quantum Break

Hands-on with Remedy's unrelenting action game where time manipulation can save you from disaster.

In terms of pure gameplay, Quantum Break is familiar ground for Remedy Entertainment: a functional third-person shooter distinguished by its hook. Max Payne's bullet-time was an innovation that brought a cinematic quality to firefights, while Alan Wake's weaponized light was a means to make combat consistent with atmosphere and tension. In Quantum Break, the studio expands on toying with time and gives players a set of temporal superpowers. Although not particularly innovative, these abilities are layered on top of each other and hooked into the underpinning gunplay in a way that adds strategy and freneticism.

The core cover-based shooting is perfectly acceptable, but for now lacks the satisfying feedback of, say, pumping bullets into Gears of War's fleshy Locust or Binary Domain's mechanical robots. Firing rifles and SMGs is like delivering death by a thousand cuts -- not particularly exhilarating but effective nonetheless. The shotgun has the range of a flailing toddler, but is like a Mike Tyson-grade uppercut up close. Meanwhile, a pistol with unlimited ammo serves as a fallback for when primary weapons run empty. Uninspired? Yes, but a solid foundation on which Remedy builds something more exciting.

Quantum Break opens with a time travel experiment going wrong (do they ever go right?). In the aftermath, time itself teeters on the edge of collapse, and protagonist Jack Joyce is hunted by an organisation called Monarch -- run by his former best friend Paul Serene. The upshot is he acquires the ability to manipulate zero state energy. Essentially, he can slow time to the point where it appears suspended. Think Hiro Nakamura, minus the "Yatta!"

In combat, this means the player is granted a range of abilities to experiment with. Although there are six powers in total, we had access to four of them in our hands-on. The first was called Time Vision and acted much like Batman's Detective Mode by highlighting threats in red. Since different enemy types have distinct silhouettes, this was a handy way of getting an at-a-glance threat assessment.

With the Time Stop ability, Jack creates a sphere of frozen time. Anything caught within that sphere is brought to snail speed for a few seconds. This means that, if you're quick, you can freeze a grenade coming your way and scoot out of the blast zone, or trap an enemy next to an explosive barrel and, well, you know what happens next. During various battles with Monarch soldiers, this ability revealed itself to be the most versatile of the bunch, since it has defensive, offensive, and strategic applications. It actually was a crutch in our playthrough.

The third power, Time Dodge, is essentially a blink. As fans of "Dragon Ball Z" can attest, few things are as awesome as an instant teleport. And when Jack vanished right before a charging enemy and reappeared behind him, I couldn't help but smile a little as I emptied a clip into his back. Helpfully, Time Dodge-ing directly into enemies delivers a shoulder barge that knocks them off balance; good for when one of them gets the jump on you.

Finally, Time Shield lets Jack become The One (Neo, not Gabriel Yulaw) for a few seconds and nullify all incoming damage with a force field. This was particularly useful whenever we let our zeal get the better of us, which it turns out was all the time. In a sticky situation, it could be activated to give us the opportunity to retreat behind cover. Combine it with a teleport and you've got an effective cowering manoeuvre.

With all that power you'd think it'd be easy to steamroll through most enemies, but there are nuances that prevent this from happening. Each power has a different cooldown period, so while the Time Vision sonar can be used with little interruption, the rest require between six and 14 seconds to recharge, depending on how frequently they're used. This forces you to be mindful of what skills are available, and introduces a degree of micromanagement and improvisation when you're caught out.

Quantum Break forces you to understand and optimize abilities in the face of aggressive, intelligent enemy behaviour. Monarch soldiers constantly did their best to trap us by approaching from all directions. When in cover, they showered us with a hail of bullets to make us dig in, then followed up with flank attacks. When we retreated into rooms to try and limit approaches, they turned to grenades to flush us out into the open. At times it verged on overwhelming, but that pressure is by design. It's Remedy turning otherwise overpowered skills into tools for survival.

Each skirmish is painfully intense, flitting between a power trip and desperate crisis management. The constant depleting and recharging of abilities gave combat an electrifying ebb-and-flow. Enemies also react to players' actions, calling out to each other when powers are used and compensating for them. In turn, their movements could be manipulated by concentrating gunfire or using abilities to funnel forces. This puppeteering gave combat a cat-becomes-mouse quality. As the game progresses and enemies gain powers similar to Jack, the strategy and execution grows even more demanding.

On those few occasions when planets align and you're firing on all cylinders, the synergy of abilities gives you a control over the battlefield that borders on predatory. There's an explosive energy to moving around the environment that makes you feel superheroic, even more so when you upgrade powers to add a new wrinkle to them. This is done by using Chronons (candidate for goofiest power-up name of the year), which are hidden around environments.

So, impressive so far, but I had some reservations nevertheless. Aiming always felt a bit loose regardless of the sensitivity setting, and the act of moving from cover to cover wasn't particularly satisfying. Sometimes it's tempting to teleport between points, which is perfectly permissible, but it means you're undermining the drama and tension of combat. Based on the slice of Quantum Break we played, however, it didn't prove to be a deal-breaker.

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Remedy Entertainment

Of course, Remedy has some big storytelling ambitions for Quantum Break too. Whether the live action episodes work is the big question, but at the very least the delivery of them -- specifically how they converse with the game--is interesting.

While the game focuses on Jack Joyce's side of the story, TV episodes interspersed between each act follow antagonist Paul Serene's efforts to catch him. Serene is also playable in-game during sections called Junctions. These force you to make tough decisions, the consequences of which feed back into both the game and TV show.

For example, early on in the game Jack runs into Amy Ferraro, a student protesting Monarch's plans to demolish a historic building on Riverport University's campus. After Serene's experiment decimates the campus, Amy -- a witness to it all -- is captured and players must decide her fate. You can kill her and eliminate the threat she poses, but this turns public sentiment against the company. However, use her to broadcast a false statement blaming Jack and you can make his life harder, but at the risk of her tattling if she ever escapes.

Removing Amy from the picture causes Jack's story to branch off in a different direction, where he'll meet alternative characters in-game. These buddy characters support Jack in different ways and feed him unique information about what's going on. In our experience, the drama of the decisions didn't hit home -- neither in the game nor in the live-action episodes. The potential ripple effect, however, gave us pause since decisions have upsides and downsides for both the hero and villain.

The live-action portions also provide a means to explore supporting characters further. During the episode we watched, we spent some time with Liam Burke, the leader of Monarch's special forces team. We learned that he's about to become a father, and may even be a good man who's just in over his head. It was a neat touch that helps players -- or viewers -- invest in characters that would otherwise be somewhat forgettable. Serene's side of the story is also given some depth in these episodes. We see the exploding time machine debacle gave him the power of foresight, but it's wearing him down.

Quantum Break seeks to marry the interactivity of games with the passive storytelling of TV shows. It's the culmination of an idea Remedy first flirted with in Max Payne, then again in Alan Wake. Smartly, the Finnish studio has anchored its wild narrative ambitions on third-person shooting that feels empowering and thrilling. Will it be able to pull the whole thing off though? Time will tell.

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