Quantum Break Review: a Beautifully Designed Romp Across Time

on April 1, 2016 8:11 AM

Quantum Break has been a relatively long time coming, but it’s finally about to be released in just five days. It has been massively hyped as Remedy Entertainment’s return to the console spotlight, and as a sort of meeting point between video games and TV-like shows.

Those are definitely big shoes to fill, but Quantum Break does have large feet.

The story is at the same time complex and charming. I can’t tell much without delving into mild spoilers, so I’ll be brief: Jack Joyce meets his old friend Paul Serene to help him with an experiment involving the test run of a time machine, designed by Jack’s brother, Will.

During the experiment, something goes horribly wrong, and time “breaks.” Jack finds himself provided with superpowers based on the manipulation of time, and a mission to fix what was broken. Yet, his old friend Paul has a different idea, creating a struggle between an improvised “hero” and a “villain” that is certainly more nuanced than most bad guys.

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The most advertised element of the game, besides its lovely visuals, is that after each act in which the gameplay is divided, you will be presented with a “junction point.” That’s a choice that will be made while playing Paul.

After the junction point, you will be given a chance to watch a live action TV-format episode, that changes rather radically depending on the choice Paul made and on some smaller elements you can unlock during gameplay, effectively giving you a reason to play the game twice.

I fully expected the divide between gameplay and show to be somewhat jarring, but it isn’t. Thanks to the power of performance capture and mostly  believable character models, the game’s visuals fit those of the show very nicely. Of course the game’s cutscenes don’t look like live-action, but the style fits well enough, creating a rather smooth transition.

The quality of the narration and the depth of the characters is what you would expect from Remedy Entertainment, which means that they both are top-notch, crowned by absolutely fantastic writing.

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Paul’s internal struggles, and Jack’s process of coming to terms with his power and his role, are absolutely delightful to watch and play. Will’s depiction as the scatterbrained scientist that hides much better insight than meets the eye, is also absolutely great, if a bit stereotypical.

The protagonists aren’t the only ones who stand out, and we meet a rich cast of enjoyable characters, played masterfully both in the game and in the show.

Remedy Entertainment is known for its stories, and this time around they really nailed it. While I enjoyed Alan Wake, I found Quantum Break to be even superior (and I know some of you are already reaching for the pitchforks), even if this might have a lot to do with the narrative genre, which better fits my taste.

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The game’s visuals are generally stunning, with a few caveats .

Performance capture is used masterfully to convey every nuance of the emotions from the original actors’ faces directly to our screen, and their graphical depiction is normally downright awesome. Yet, there are a few rare moments in which the quality of the models seems to be somehow lower, giving them a less realistic look, with a bit of “uncanny valley” effect coming into play.

This seems to happen more with Paul Serene, for reasons that I could not easily identify. That said, the issue happens only occasionally, and is not widespread enough to be a big deal.

You’ll possibly be surprised to learn that what really shines are the environments. Remedy Entertainment’s level designers did an incredible job in depicting locales that come with both variety and absolute visual charm.

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Especially the textures and lighting are close to perfect, and create a world that is simply a pleasure to navigate, and even just to watch. I remember many times in which I found myself just standing in place and panning the camera around, not to find collectibles, but to ogle the beauty of the areas around me.

There are a few imperfections here and there, including occasional frame rate drops and some pop-in for shadows, but perfection isn’t of this world.

Surprisingly, the apparently sub-Full HD resolution doesn’t really impact the game’s visual glitz all that much. Quantum Break is another demonstration that numbers are just numbers, and the artistry of a team can overcome cold pixel counts.

Elements like rich textures, effects, shaders, lighting and techniques that I would certainly love to hear more about, take front and center stage and force pixel-focused equations to take a back seat.

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The audio compartment is close to perfect, with fantastic voice acting, an engaging sountrack, and film-like sound effects. Especially the acting is delivered in a way that I would easily define on par with the best TV shows, or even Hollywood levels.

Of course, gameplay is king, and gameplay is very, very tight. The shooting mechanics are spot-on, making Quantum Break an excellent cover shooter.

Gunplay itself feels very solid, with believable kick for the most powerful weapons, and a respectable variety that will satisfy both the fans of the shotgunning run-and-gun style, and those who prefer a more reasoned and tactical approach from afar,

Sitting into cover is, rightfully, not encouraged. Enemies can and will flank and surround excessively defensive players, on top of making generous use of grenades.

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This means that the player will have to switch from cover to cover often, seeking the best vantage points continuosly. Luckily the mechanics of snapping into cover are as simple as placing yourself behind an object.

The result is a system that works very well, and is free from the frustration you find in many games, where a small delay in taking shelter can result in an early demise. The easy and seamless process of getting in and out of cover is pretty much indispensable, as the game does put you in tight spots rather often even in normal difficulty.

Layered on top of the cover shooter are Jack’s time powers. You have a variety of tricks up your sleeve that allow you to easily move around, incapacitate enemies in temporary time bubbles that you can gingerly fill with lead, shield yourself, create shockwaves,and much more.

Paradoxically, a “flaw” so to speak, is that gunplay is so good and satisfying that I often forgot that I actually had time powers to use. The minimalist UI is also partly to blame (while it’s visually very pleasing), because it’s not always easy to notice that your powers have recharged while you’re busy avoiding an untimely death.

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This doesn’t mean that the time powers aren’t fun to use. As a matter of fact, they’re a lot of fun to use, but since they’re not part of the canonical third person shooter repertoire, it might take you a bit to get used to actually make use extensively of your full arsenal. Time dodge is an exception, since you basically have to use it, if you want to survive the many grenades that will be lobbed your way.

The game also does a great job in getting you comfortable with the enemies you’re facing, only to introduce more powerful and dangerous ones, until they’ll have time powers themselves, really putting your mastery of your guns and abilities to the test.

Breaking the action are some really entertaining puzzle platforming sections, which I could easily define “timeforming,” as you’ll use your powers a lot in order to rewind the timeline of objects to place them in the right position to facilitate traversal, or will have to use your time powers in creative ways to reach the next area.

A small problem is that the availability of those powers prompted Remedy to make Jack’s physical parkhour abilities feel too limited. For a superhero, he often isn’t able to simply climb obstacles that would appear rather low at first sight. This can look a bit awkward, and slows you down as you try to climb onto a ledge that you’re not supposed to reach with normal means.

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Small nitpicks aside, the gameplay is absolutely well structured and entertaining, intense in the right places and tactical and almost relaxing in in equally appropriate areas.

Everything is topped off by a metric ton of collectible e-mail, documents, articles and similar items that encourage exploration and will let you delve even deeper into the story and into the background and motivations that drive its characters.

The combination with the TV series is also more enjoyable that I expected, allowing me to wind down after each level, enjoying the great acting and generally pretty good production quality.

You could say that if the resources spent for the show had been invested into more gameplay, we’d have an even better and more meaty game in our hands, and I wouldn’t blame you. As a matter of fact, if that had been the case, at the top of this review you’d probably read a score much closer to a 10.

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That said, Quantum Break isn’t in any shape or form a lightweight game. Even if you were to completely skip the show (while you’d miss some great storytelling, so I don’t advise it), you’d find yourself with a great game that hits almost all the right notes.

Ultimately, Quantum Break was obviously an experiment. On one side, I’d rather  see game developers and publishers focus their resources on telling their stories via the games themselves, but it’s impossible not to recognize the value of this title as a game.

It looks awesome, it plays great, and makes you feel really badass. What’s not to love? Remedy is back, baby!

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.