Article includes minor, early-game spoilers.
Playing Quantum Break feels like watching a mildly entertaining TV action-pilot on Fox while stopping every now and again to play a familiar shooting game. Or perhaps it's the other way around.
At a recent Xbox promotional event, I spent a few hours with Remedy's game. It's fun. I'm certain I'll play the whole thing when it comes out, even though there are elements of it that I find confusing and disagreeable.
The story is draped around a decent sci-fi apocalypse theme and the action is solidly arranged. Like previous Remedy games such as Alan Wake and Max Payne, it seeks a merger between the traditional linear narrative model and gameplay elements such as shooting, exploration and puzzle-solving. It displays a clear desire to emulate the explosive TV drama while delivering a standard third-person action game.
In many ways its early sections come up short in their attempts to ape TV drama, but clever dovetailing of game and exposition sections make this look like a promising addition to the growing ranks of video game dramas, though with some caveats.
The tale opens with Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore) entering a research facility operated by his old friend Paul Serene (Aidan Gillen). Something not-entirely kosher is going on here, but the player is encouraged to go along, by both literally and fictionally pressing buttons that progress the story. (Push this lever to make something, anything, happen.)
It becomes apparent that Serene is mucking around with time travel. Enter Jack's brother Will (Dominic Monaghan) waving a gun around and demanding that the madcap experiment come to an end.
The whole thing goes belly-up. Mean security guards burst onto the scene firing weapons. The brothers effect an escape. Jack shoots and kills a bunch of guards. Like, lots of them.
You can see how it feels like standard prime-time action fare. Imagine Quantum Break as a 30-second trailer for a TV show and it works just fine. It has a shape that is often missing from some of those big third-person adventures that set themselves up as stories, but are really just multiple missions jammed together.
There's a compelling drama inherent to this story, of one brother's unwitting empowerment of the villain, and the other who understands the danger. The whole time-travel thing is just the sort of high concept gimmick we've come to expect from TV networks that regularly churn out shows about superheroes, demons, tech conspiracies and portals to other realms. Quantum Break feels a lot like TV.
The characters even have generic macho drama names, including yet another leading man TV 'Jack'. And there are lots of guns, an ever-present staple of TV drama.
In terms of actual player participation, the early segments slice down into three parts. First, there's just plodding along and following the story. You literally walk behind the bloke who is talking and listen to what he says. You open doors and you push keys.
Then, there's the shooting bits. Hide behind cover, pop out, drop a bad guy, move around a bit and repeat. This is augmented by time-based super-powers like being able to zip forward at lightning speed or throwing a time-disruption grenade at enemies. In the early sections, these are difficult to use effectively, and only available in limited quantities, but they become a bigger part of the game as it goes on.
Finally, there's a time-based puzzle of the sort we saw multiple times in Life is Strange. If I stand on this platform it sinks to the ground. It is no use to me. But if I time-freeze the thing, it stays raised, so I can use it to move forward. You can see how this sort of puzzle is going to get plenty of use as the game progresses. My guess is that some of these puzzles will be satisfying, as you'd expect from a smart design team like Remedy.
But on the whole, the game looks like a very familiar third-person action adventure with lots of 'press Y to see another story element appear' moments. The key element of difference is in the story, which makes much of time-manipulation in order to deliver exposition. Jack walks around a room looking for stuff, and witnesses events that happened there in the past. It's a neat story-telling trick, a cascading stream of flashbacks that flow into the game itself.
The reason why Remedy games attract notice is that they generally look and feel good, that thing the PRs like to call "high production values." Ashmore, Gillen and Monaghan give solid performances within the constraints of motion-capture technology. So do the actors playing secondary characters, such as Lance Reddick, Patrick Heusinger and Courtney Hope. Their faces tell us a lot more than the dialog, which itself is written sparingly and effectively.
But taken alone, the drama (at least in these early scenes) falls short even of standard TV fare. Unusually for TV, there are no women, until about an hour in, when a security guard called Beth gives Jack a pass. Beth is obviously going to be a significant secondary character. But she's at least fourth on the character pecking order for the first hour of the story. I can't think of a mainstream TV show that would do this, unless it was really about a male environment, like a WWII U-boat story.
When women do appear in the early parts of the story, they are mostly there to support or illuminate the more active men. One is a victim, another a flirtatious co-worker, another a wife who is annoyed at her husband's workload.
This tired use of secondary characters is pretty disappointing, as is the lack of interesting leading women who set up the story's potential. I'm surprised that Remedy, obviously keen students of fictional forms, haven't picked up on this.
The game's plot begins in entirely linear fashion. There's the whole thing going down at the research facility, and a sense of previous not-terribly-interesting relationships between both the Joyce brothers and Serene (he's not the splendid chap you think him to be, bro). We also witness the inevitable signals of fascistic over-stretch by the evil research company, but that's about it. No secondary character arcs. Not even a flashback.
This is very much in the mode of video game stories, and a long way from modern TV drama, which generally offers multiple character stories right from the start.
I spoke to Quantum Break's senior narrative designer Greg Louden. "You've only seen the beginning of the game and I think it evolves in a lot of ways," he said. "The opening part of the game is very atmospheric"
He then went on to talk about how, for him, watching linear stories always makes him want to be in on the action. This is the core pitch of the game's proposition. "Whenever I watch superhero stories, I've always been like, I'd rather play this. When I saw the latest Avengers, I'd rather be fighting Iron Man in the woods than watching it happen. So to create a superhero story you can participate in, I think it's great."
Of course, even in the most malevolently violent superhero movies, the central character doesn't mow down law enforcement professionals by the dozen, as Jack does here. Having killed a bunch of human beings, Jack seems to have no feelings or opinions on the matter worth sharing. It's another jarring example of characters who seem pretty normal, but then turn out to be cold-blooded killers. As we saw with recent Tomb Raider games, this murderous body-count is just assumed to be okay with both the player and the character.
It would be ludicrous to expect every video game character to stop for a moment to wrangle internally over the morals of their actions. But in a story that's about timelines and the consequences of individual actions, the lack of any introspection looks like an omission here. I want to see this character react when he guns down a few dozen people, especially when he has previously been presented as an every-man.
One significant quirk of this game is its introduction of four, 22 minute non-interactive episodes that are designed to be watched in-between playing the game. While the game focuses on the hero, the episodes focus on the villains. This gives us those separate arcs, but not within the game itself, only as part of its non-interactive annex. Players can influence these films via a series of binary choices that multiply into a variety of outcomes.
It's here that we see some interesting approaches to the story, offering up alternative perspectives and human sub-plots. But it's also a reminder of how far games have to go as a story-telling platform. Where the playable section is a gormless straight line from A to B, the TV section jumps around playfully, with various points-of-view as well as all the usual dramatic beats, such as sex, car-chases, fist-fights etc. It's a vastly more sophisticated medium for delivering human stories, and, frankly, it makes the game's efforts to do the same look childish.
We end up with three different versions of major characters. There's the one who runs around in gameplay, then the one you see in mo-capped cut-scenes and finally the live-action actor. The suspension-of-disbelief required to hold them all as the same person is further stretched by the massive differences in the way each section is shot. In the game modes, we sit behind Jack as he spends long periods walking around and shooting stuff. In the filmed section, the camera is stationary and cutting between characters every few seconds. These are two, very different things.
Stopping one activity to begin another is, by definition, disruptive to the experience. Yet despite its clunky strangeness, watching these TV sections does add something to the richness of the world once the game starts up again. I think it's more in the detail than in the stories themselves. I was constantly noticing things in the game that I had seen in the TV section and thinking, "oh yeah." It's a shame the same effect can't be achieved within the framework of the game itself.
Louden said that players who decide to skip the story sections will enjoy the game just fine, but will not enjoy the full experience. "If you want to skip through and get the game experience, you can. But you're lacking this undercurrent, this subplot tour."
I agree with him, but it says something about games as story vehicles, that a massive production from a well-respected team requires that you step outside its walls for 20 minutes at a time, to really deliver all that it wants to tell. The TV sections feel like a crutch for the narrative ambitions of the game's makers. Not content with the emotional pull of efficiently shooting people, they want us to understand a wider framework, which is fine. But the experience is vaguely disconcerting, almost an abrogation of gaming's ability to do the same job through environment, dialog, cut-scenes and even action.
Quantum Break is a big budget, prime-time piece of popular entertainment wrapped inside a lot of familiar video game activities. It's out on Xbox One and Windows 10 on April 5.