Apr 6, 2016

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Quantum Break – Fighting the Future

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Quantum Break is a game about time. Apparently. It’s also about technology, as in the technology to make a serious attempt at merging interactive and passive media into one experience that will hopefully amount to more than the sum of their parts. In that respect, it’s also about time, but we’ll get to that…in time.

Although it might be spoilery, I don’t think it’s talking about anything that hasn’t been in previews when I say that in Quantum Break an experiment in time travel goes horribly awry, leading to the eventual and amorphous concept of the “end of time”. You get to play as (at least) two characters. The first is Jack Joyce, voiced and scanned by Shawn Ashmore. Jack is kind of a cypher amidst the storm, and the most we learn about his background was that he used to get into a lot of trouble, and knows how to use a gun. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy, but he’s also just a tool we the player use to fire bullets at people. You also get to play Paul Serene, voiced and scanned by Aidan Gillen. Paul is a big deal, a kind of physics wunderkind who invites his old friend Jack to his lab at an ailing university to help pull some levers and push some buttons on his latest creation: a time machine. We learn that Jack’s brother Will, voiced and scanned by Dominic Monaghan, got the brains in the family, but is opposed to Paul’s experiment. He shows up at a critical juncture when Paul is attempting to transport himself five minutes into the future, when Jack is amazed that it works, and when everything goes to hell. The machine “explodes” in some timey-wimey way that launches Paul way into the future where he witnesses this “end of time”.

Cut to the game proper. Up to this point you spend a lot of time walking around the University following Paul, while trying not to outpace Paul. Now a group of paramilitary soldiers from the “Monarch Solutions” corporation show up and start putting the University on lockdown. What do they want? The time machine, of course. As Jack, you have to get you and your brother off campus, but wouldn’t you know it? We’re dealing with time travel, so who should appear but a more militaristic, future Paul Serene, now head of Monarch, who has returned to the past (Present? Future?) to collect the time machine for something called “Project Lifeboat”, a plan to save select individuals from the impending Timepocalypse that he started. Will refuses to join in on Paul’s plans, and dies in the process, starting Jack on a crusade to stop his old friend Paul from doing what he’s…already done, I guess?

Oh yeah, the time explosion gave you and Paul super powers to manipulate time. How could it not?

The game introduces you to these powers slowly. First you get the ability to put a time-bubble around a specific area, stopping anything it encompasses. Then you get a time-dodge, which allows you to teleport quickly in “a direction” (not sure if this is controllable or not). You can augment this briefly to slow actual time in general. You eventually get a time shield, allowing you to throw up a barrier through which anything that wants to pass is slowed to a veritable standstill. And you have guns, which is finally the least impressive item in a character’s arsenal.

I opted to play on Easy mode because I’ve got more than enough shooters in my life right now, and because since QB is so story focused I wanted to find out what’s going on with the plot more than I want to perforate corporate lackeys with ballistic calling cards. East mode is almost stupidly easy: using aim assist, your zoom locks onto the nearest (meaning “hair’s-nearest”) enemy, and a quick pull of the trigger will fell your average cannon fodder target in the blink of an eye.  At some point, the enemies become more heavily armored, requiring more ammo, or better tactics, but the approach is more or less the same.

The time mechanics are probably useful later on, but early in the game I wasn’t using them all that often in combat. The time bubble sounds like the bread and butter ability, and when used creatively, it can be a lot of fun. Yes, bubbling a nearby foe will stop them cold, but if you fire bullets into this bubble, they also stop…and collect…and when the effect ends, those bullets will explode like a grenade. This is super useful against the enemies with higher armor, but looks cool no matter what the target. The time dodge…I haven’t used that much at all because I’m not sure if it can be directed. When using the left trigger in conjunction with the dodge, you can pause time in general allowing you to run around to get to better cover or even to take weapons out of the hands of enemies. And of course, time shield is what it says it is: a wall that stops anything that passes through it. You can also heal while behind the wall.

While the abilities are the mechanical representations of the time crisis, it’s the time crisis itself that becomes the front and center concern. You’ve got a handler, Beth Wilder, voiced and scanned by Courtney Hope, who works for Monarch but knows about the time crisis and wants Jack to stop it. She wants Jack to focus on the crisis, but Jack wants to stop Paul. The problem is that the time explosion has had a wide ranging effect on reality by stopping everything at random points, but the crisis also allows you to manipulate sections of the game world where appropriate. One of the most prevalent mechanics allows you to “rewind” time. For example, there’s a section where you need to cross a bridge of corrugated metals, which collapse before you get to them. At this point, you can rewind time to get those metals back in place so you can cross the bridge. Still, you can’t prevent things from happening: the corrugated metals will still fall as they were destined to do, so step lively!

You level up by collecting chronons, which are blah blah blah some kind of MacGuffin that was ejected from the time explosion, which gave you your powers, and which you find throughout the world. Picking up these glowing bits grants you points that you can spend to make your time abilities stronger, last longer, and other terms that sound like I’m talking about Viagra. You find these either by sight, or by using your (ugh) time vision, a well-worn game mechanic that greys out the world but highlights important elements in the world like laptops, files, exploding barrels, enemies, and chronon locations (which show up on a compass in the center of the screen when you’re close to them).

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If the EPA had this ability, toxic waste would be a thing of the past.

The bulk of “the game” is you trying to solve environmental movement puzzles like “where to jump” or “how to use my time powers to get me where I need to be”, interspersed with waves of people to shoot. Luckily, liberal use of the time vision can show enemies before you get to them, but unluckily enemies tend to come at you in waves. Just when you think you’re done, and you stand up…another wave appears. There’s a cover mechanic here, but it’s automatic: get near something to hide behind, and you crouch or sidel. Unfortunately, it’s not universal, as several times I sidled up to a wall, but just ended up facing it and not using it as cover. Thankfully, the AI is smart enough to split up and flank, but not smart enough to shoot first, so time vision + time bubble = kaboom most of the time, and on Easy mode enemies haven’t been a major concern.

So far, pretty standard stuff. Where things start to get weird is when you first take over the role of Paul. More spoilers, but after Paul absconds with the time machine from the University, he takes it to a particular location where he and Will had first worked on the prototype. This has something to do with his plan to save some of civilization from the unstoppable “end of time”, but Paul has more pressing concerns, such as how to deal with the fact that heavily armed Monarch goons assaulted a University and ended up on the nightly news. Here you’re given a choice: kill any and all witnesses, raising questions about their whereabouts and causing a backlash against Monarch that will give Jack allies in his vendetta, or spin a PR campaign that will blame everything on Jack, but will tie the hands of Monarch to do everything “above board”. This is not a meaningless decision: after picking an option (which you can preview before you select) you are told how many folks in the community selected the same option (a la TellTale games). Your choice also affects the really weird part of the game: the TV show.

Yes, there’s a gawddamn TV show jammed into your game. After the Paul segment completed, I was kicked to a live action segment that lasted for about 20-30 minutes (I think), focusing on Monarch’s chief of security Liam Burke, voiced and scanned by Patrick Heusinger, and how he’s having second thoughts about his role in Monarch’s decision to kill all witnesses (which is the option I chose, along with a paltry 30% of the rest of the community). The sequence is a chase scene in which Liam is outted by the personification of Douchiness who’s Monarchy’s lead cybersecurity dillhole (seriously, he’s an obnoxious and unlikeable stereotype and I hope he gets a bullet in his head).

So what’s the verdict on Quantum Break thus far? Overall, I am enjoying the game, but find myself mainly driven by the story, so much as it is. The combat is OK, but Easy is way too easy. The time powers are interesting, but so far have been “I might as well use them” as opposed to “holy shit cooldown hurry the fuck up!” important. The cover mechanic works when it works, but when it doesn’t it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem (again, at least on Easy mode).

Having a TV show in the middle of the game is handled better than you’d think. At least in the first case, you get some gameplay downtime that segues into the “put the controller down” segments nicely. I’m not sure what relevance the live action segments have on the overall game, but the fact that your decisions determine what scenes you see gives the game potentially massive replay value if you’re the kind of person who likes to consume everything possibly available to you. The only issue I have with this is that playing so infrequently, I’m going to forget what happened “last time on Quantum Break“.

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“Hey! It’s the guy from ‘Killjoys’!”

Thus far I have no ragrets in buying Quantum Break. It’s a good game. There’s some graphical issues with lighting and some weird jumpiness that I decided I’d just attribute to the in-game “time stutter” problems. I bought it early so I could have the Windows 10 version as well for free, because it supports save once, pick up anywhere. However, if you find yourself at Target this week with the game in your hand wondering if you should buy it, hold off for a sale. So far the game is good, but not super oh mah gawd get it now stellar, and I don’t think you’ll be missing out on anything by waiting. Just make sure you pick it up before the end of time because I suspect there’ll be a short supply at that point.

 

As an aside, have you ever noticed how action heroes all have first names that start with “J”? Jack Joyce. John McClane. Jack Ryan. James Bond. Jason Bourne. What’s up with that?

I also have to apologize to Dominic Monaghan. I thought his in-game avatar was just a fucked up version of Shawn Ashmore’s avatar, designed to kind of look like Shawn, but tweaked so he didn’t look like Shawn’s twin. I also now have to apologize to Dominic for implying that he looks “fucked up”.  I’m just going to stop now.

 

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