Remedy Entertainment and their games have always struck me as being smarter than most people give them credit for. They hide it well, admittedly. Max Payne, released in 2001, was on one hand a game about a man with a daft name and an awful shirt. On the other, though, it managed to combine the slowed-down akimbo gunplay of Chinese cinema with hilariously overwritten conspiracy-chewing noir, and it was a great time. Its sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, released two years later, was better still. And the games knew this about themselves. They made time for moments of silliness and self-indulgence that other titles wouldn’t. In both, the player could approach television sets and watch short, weirdly detailed little made-up shows, like the soapy Lords & Ladies and the cartoon adventures of Captain BaseBallBat-Boy, who became an unofficial series mascot. Ask someone what they remember most about either of the first two Max Payne games and the answer will probably be one of those shows.
And then there’s Alan Wake, an underappreciated camp gem of the last console generation. Its eponymous hero was an insomniac writer (Alan Wake… A. Wake… Awake… Oh, Remedy) whose terrible writing formed the backbone of a paranormal thriller that stretched the well-thumbed pages of a Stephen King novel into a season of Twin Peaks. That game had TVs too, all showing episodes of a Twilight Zone-inspired anthology series called Night Springs. But it also had scattered pages of Alan’s prose, presented as collectibles. And he’s a hack. His writing is some species of feverish fan-fiction. Yet in the game he’s ludicrously famous. You can scarcely walk anywhere without being greeted by a cardboard cut-out of him. Nobody ever mentions that he’s awful, which is obviously the joke. And as the game progresses, Alan trying to frantically re-write its story (which he already wrote in the first place – don’t ask), you realize the whole thing is in on it.
These are clever games masquerading as dumb ones. Quantum Break is different in that it’s a dumb game that wants you to believe it’s clever. From the very beginning it bombards you with pseudo-scientific babble about “chronon particles” and “Meyer-Joyce Fields” and “Lifeboat Protocols”. Nobody knows what any of this means, least of all the cast, who chew on their lines with enthusiastic bewilderment. But luckily this doesn’t matter. The ridiculousness is half the point. Quantum Break is the sheer embodiment of pulp sci-fi time-travel mumbo-jumbo. It’s eagerness to explain everything with a straight face becomes endearing. Every sci-fi conceit it leans against, every debt it owes to the necessarily convoluted narratives and implausible super-devices of the time travel genre, none of them compare to how capably it wields weapons-grade camp.
It’s also resolutely a Remedy game, which means it doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve as it does flagrantly rip them off and brag about doing so. Alan Wake did this too; Stephen King gets a namedrop in the very first line, and like Twin Peaks the whole thing is episodic – it even has cute little “Previously On…” and “Next Time On…” montages at the beginning and end of the episodes. You think back to the ropey TV shows in Max Payne and you see them less as interesting little curios and more as Remedy flexing cinematic muscles that they’d later develop into the rippling physique of Quantum Break, which is as much a TV show as it is a game, full of countless in-engine cutscenes and also a serialized live-action show that runs in four 20-minute episodes between each major story act.
Written down this sounds absurd. Nobody pays full retail price for a video game just to watch four episodes of a TV show. But it works, mostly due to a cast that includes The Wire’s Aiden Gillen and Lance Reddick, and a script that feels flat in the rest of the game but takes on additional dimensions when filtered through the charmingly low-rent live-action framework. These portions are also thankfully devoid of all the long-winded explanatory technobabble that clogs up the far too lengthy and frequent text logs. Mostly the show concerns itself with the internal politics of Monarch, Quantum Break’s obligatory evil mega-corporation, but thankfully the duplicitous corporate manoeuvring usually takes the form of fistfights, shootouts, car chases, and a lot of tense sprinting through corridors.
This all sounds ridiculous because, frankly, it is. But it’s also fast-paced and legitimately watchable, which is all it really needs to be. And it lends a distinctly human component to the villains that the motion captures used elsewhere, despite being exactingly detailed, never really could. Even the hero of these sequences is more interesting than the fat-faced protagonist of the game bits, which is a shame considering whose head you end up staring at the back of for most of your time.
Ah, Jack Joyce. Our hero. It’s about time I mentioned him, given how the story revolves around the relentless black-hole gravity of his exceedingly round head. Turned-up jeans aside, as an engine to drive the plot he does the job well enough. And the plot’s perfectly alright. By the end I had a decent understanding of what had happened and why, and the characters behave and communicate more or less how real human beings might when confronted with trains crashing through walls and boats barrelling through bridges. I don’t want to give away too much, because Quantum Break wants to be sold on its story, and because that story is about time travel, which means even a basic plot synopsis would devolve almost immediately into the chaos of alternate realities and fake science and metaphysical thought exercises. Plus I don’t have the glossary handy.
All that really matters is that Jack Joyce is trying to save the world from a temporal calamity called The End of Time, which is where I imagine the bloke in charge of naming things at Remedy had thrown up his hands in defeat. How he goes about doing that is through occasional environmental navigation challenges and frequent, drab gunfights, both of which lean quite heavily against the design potential of classic sci-fi conceits. For the platforming, they work wonders. Nothing you’ll find is particularly taxing on the old noggin, but the time manipulation and “stutters” – pockets of frozen time in which Jack can move but everyone and everything else remains motionless – make for some visually spectacular sequences. The physics governing Jack’s ability to grab ledges and climb things is typically appalling, but that’s par for the course in a Remedy game, and it never creates moments of outright frustration aside from the occasional instant-death environmental hazard.
Gunplay fares much worse, although if I’m being charitable I can say that it definitely gets more enjoyable as you better your understanding of the mechanics and figure out how the game would actually like you to play. And while it’s not in my nature to say you should play a game one specific way as opposed to however you’d like, in Quantum Break the shootouts can either be relatively enjoyable or utterly miserable, so if you’re like me you’ll use your powers all the time. They’re all governed by short individual cooldowns, they can be combined in fun and interesting ways, and they turn Jack Joyce into a teleporting superhero – albeit the only one I’m aware of that wears turned-up jeans.
This might seem obvious, and indeed to most players it probably will be, but I played Quantum Break on Hard, which according to conventional gaming wisdom meant I would be killed rather quickly in open combat. So I elected to play this cover-based third-person shooter how I play other cover-based third-person shooters – which is to say by using a lot of cover. And after the first two fights I was bored out of my fucking skull. The cover mechanic itself didn’t exactly help. It’s one of those new-fangled dynamic systems wherein Jack will automatically crouch behind low objects, and it’s impossible to tell whether you’re safe from gunfire or not. And the guns are atrocious. Of the paltry pile on offer only one is reliably satisfying to use, and the others are a mess of recoil and toy sound effects. Couple that with bullet-sponge enemies and you have a recipe for tortuous wars of attrition, which if it’s all the same to you I’d rather not bother with.
Then again, Jack’s time powers really do energize the combat to the extent that all of the above issues are pretty much nullified. You get the sense that the guns are intentionally pathetic to steer players towards throwing blasts of halted time around, and when you start stacking up rounds into bubbles of frozen space you can see the logic behind that – especially when the bubble then explodes for no real reason other than why not? A lot of Jack’s powers have this playful just-because quality, and even though most of them stretch the definition of “time” a fair bit, functionally they’re enjoyable tools to mess around with, and a sentence of woolly scientific explanation doesn’t make them any less so. Like a reckless time-hopping madman is undeniably the only way to play Quantum Break and have any fun with its combat, but once you’ve got to grips with that if offers a set of mechanics that allow for enjoyable and dynamic encounters.
Like the live-action and the in-engine narrative segments, the shooting and platforming gameplay always remains distinct. It’s a problem in both areas. Quantum Break struggles to transition from one thing to the next, but it also struggles to weave two things together. Here, the narrative suffers the most. It’s not uncommon for the player to have very little to do in the game other than slowly walk alongside an NPC as they painstakingly explain one thing or another, and that’s fine, but the flow of these sections is continuously interrupted by slabs of text in emails and notes, and other items you can fiddle with, like TVs, radios and oddities in the environment, most of which prompt additional comments from Jack or people around him. It can lead to weird scenarios in which three or four conversations are happening concurrently. And the more game-y gameplay has the opposite problem. You’re either shooting, or you’re platforming. The two styles never converge, and so you never get a real sense of unpredictability. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it feels rote, and the game is decently paced overall, but it lacks a certain organic quality. You always feel as if you’re playing a game or watching a TV show. There’s no getting lost in the story because you can always see the seams.
This is all, of course, assuming that Quantum Break still has a potential audience. Anyone who gravitated towards the title out of loyalty to Remedy, or to the Xbox One, likely picked it up immediately upon release. Who’s left? The game’s an exclusive, technically, although you can play it on PC now, but that still leaves out the Playstation-owning demographic, and it’s such a weird mix of narrative and gameplay that the word “niche” is already applicable. And it contains an entire live-action TV show. This a product that is profoundly weird – so weird, in fact, that I wish more people could play it. It’s not a great game, but it is a unique and interesting one.
It’s also, ultimately, a frustrating one. Because of its lacklustre combat, sure, but more so because it feels as though it’s trying to locate something thought-provoking and profound about technological advancement and the grim irony that only the greedy fat cats who fiddle with the fabric of our reality in the first place are able to protect themselves when it all goes wrong. Quantum Break clearly has this on its mind, but it never quite manages to pinpoint what to say about it. Really, what could it say? It’s an exclusive. If Microsoft ever unravel the space-time continuum, Remedy have already secured their spot on the lifeboat. And Quantum Break wants to point the finger at corporatism. Now there’s irony for you.