Wot I Think: Quantum Break

Quantum Break [official site] has finally received a proper PC release via Steam (although sadly only Steam so far), rather than the ridiculous Windows Store. (A store that hides where it installs games on your PC, which isn’t something you’ll want with a 70GB game!) I’ve played it through for the very first time this week, and can tell you wot I think of this time travelling multimedia caper.

You may well already be completely aufait with Quantum Break, what with its having originally come out in April on the Xone Box, and even on something called the “Windows Store” whatever that might be. It completely passed me by at the time, so I started the game entirely blind when it appeared on Steam for the first time this week. I genuinely didn’t know what to expect, including that it contains four twenty minute TV episodes between its chapters. It is, undeniably, an epic, extraordinary creation, pushing at the edges of gaming storytelling and use of real-world actors, with a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey plot to keep you unpicking it for weeks to come. It is also, oddly, a really average third-person shooter jam-packed with dumb ideas and lazy exposition.

They of Max Payne fame, Remedy, had enormously huge ambitions and presumably an enormous Microsoft cheque to create Quantum Break. This tale of time travel, evil corporations, and men who shoot other men in the head makes the bold and – in delivery – superb idea of casting proper real-life Hollywood actors in the game, creating their likeness in gobsmackingly stunning graphics, such that when it switches to the real actors on film it’s not nearly so jarring as you’d expect. X-Men’s Shawn Ashmore is the lead, and main player character Jack Joyce, an old school friend of pioneer and potential tech guru Paul Serene, played by Game Of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen. The two, at 4.15am one October morning, switch on a time machine, and in doing so rupture the fabric of time itself. Time gets broken, Paul gets flung into the future, and Jack finds himself in a position to survive attacks by elite armed guards what with his new-found time-based superpowers.

Jack’s brother (Lord Of The Rings’ Dominic Monaghan) was the scientist behind the time travel technology, and he’s quickly embroiled in the action, and then come a whole raft of other core characters from Lance Reddick’s moustache-twirling Martin Hatch and Courtney Hope’s intrepid, plucky Beth Wilder. Time starts collapsing all around the city, stutters freezing time in bubbles, with Jack able to move within them. And a corporation called Monarch is heavily involved in it all, seemingly desperate to stop Jack Joyce and bring about the End of Time.

The game portion of it all is delivered in an alternating sequence of trudging about and chatting, and third-person cover-based shooting. Combat is frenetic, loose, and designed to be thwarted with a combination of aiming guns at heads, and using your time powers such as trapping enemies in bubbles, speed running, and slo-mo shooting (it is Remedy, after all). And is, without doubt, wholly unoriginal in every possible way. It’s not bad, but it’s completely unremarkable, especially since time-controlling powers in combat are nothing new, with (mediocre) games like Raven’s Singularity (2010) and Sabre’s TimeShift (2007) having done it all before.

In all instances you run to cover (automatically snapped into, but not particularly well), slow down whatever you can slow down, and pop a few headshots. Move on. There are a couple of sequences with tougher baddies you have to, well, run behind, and that’s it. Failure did not come often. Until the final battle, of course, where it naturally had to become stupid and starting killing me with one-hit kills from five different directions at once, but hey, video games.

This isn’t unpleasant, and there are occasions where manipulating the battlefield with your powers offers some fun, but it’s mostly mercenary work. When you’re not fighting, you’re most likely chatting to other characters, and this is all completely splendidly delivered, but for one rather key issue.

The game is such an inexplicable mix of the best and worst of game storytelling. This incredible beauty, uncanny-valley-nudging human faces, superb voice acting, an intriguing plot about the breaking of time, is all delivered wonderfully. But to actually know what they’re talking about most of the time, you have to run around incongruously to the nature of a scene, pressing E on highlighted objects. “Follow me,” a character will say. “Sorry, just a minute,” you’re required to think in reply, “I’ve got to run down all these dead ends in case a pinboard tells me what it is you’re about to allude to.” “Quickly, they’re coming! We have to escape!” “Okay, sure, no problem, but I’m just going to read a couple of emails over there so I know why.” It’s crazy. They hired fantastic actors, got splendid performances out of them, and then tell the core of the story in scattered-about diary entries.

In the first half, if you want to know who people even are, you’re going to have to seek out these collectibles. There are attempts to incentivise this, with promises of extras and changes to the filmed sequences depending upon what you find, as well as unlocking audio diaries that themselves contain really quite vital information. But the reality of the game is, from start to finish of this enormous story (I think the game took me around 12-14 hours, which is an awfully long time for something so plot heavy), you’re engaged in this farcical act of stopping to read people’s emails while the characters around you are shouting for you to hurry because the world’s about to end. Even in the final chapter, to know who the bloody hell Dr Kim is, to keep up with the alternating allegiances of another key character, to really have a grip on an increasingly unraveling storyline, you need to read emails that are thousands of words long.

It’s so silly! You’re literally racing the end of time, and you’re stopping to stare at a tablet for however long it takes you to read a couple of two thousand word emails, and the game’s really encouraging you to do this! The other characters aren’t, but the game itself pushes the idea that you should. All these poor brilliant actors hired to fill in between the main plot that was accidentally delivered on paper.

The structure is very peculiar, but delightfully experimental. In between the five acts are these four filmed “episodes”, the same cast by now their actual human forms, providing a perspective of the story from the side of the employees of Monarch. (I am having to be very careful about what I say as mentioning names really does spoil early surprises.) They’re less special effects intensive than the game’s own cutscenes, presumably to save some costs, but look splendid, and appear in the game in crisp HD.

Aidan Gillen, it turns out, can act when he’s not trying to do his inexplicable wormy-squirmy Game Of Thrones accent! He’s putting on a fine American lilt here, and it’s like a whole different Littlefinger, you’ll be relieved to learn. He’s no longer like listening to a sentient sigh. There’s really not a duffer in the cast, and these sections make for a nice break from the action, let you sit back in your chair, and soak in a bit more story from another perspective.

But why they’re there? Why it was imperative that this be the game to intermix action video game and live action film? I can’t think of a single reason. I love that they did it, I love that there was a desire to meddle with formats and be original, but I wish they’d also come up with a good reason for doing so.

While playing, goodness me, Remedy’s new Northlight engine is something damned special. Representing the breakdown of time is not an easy ask, but this delivers such spectacle, such enormous set pieces with incredible scale of action, and yet does this not in cutscenes but all around you as you play. There’s a sequence in which you’re crossing an enormous road bridge, which is midway through being ripped apart by an enormous ship crashing into it. The moment this is happening is caught in a stutter, juddering backward and forward, vast towers of metal collapsing and restructuring, cars falling up and down, jittering between, while you attempt to run and jump through it all. It’s epic.

And then in the tiniest details it’s wonderfully realised too. Time, you’ll be interested to learn, is made of triangles. And these rip and tear and float and flitter, objects fracturing and reconstructing, people’s faces breaking down into polygons, the world tearing itself apart and putting itself back together. It all looks just so incredible, so unceasingly complicated and gorgeous. (The stills cannot do it justice – it’s so much about the flow of the animation.) While I’ve far preferred the aesthetic choices of other games, I can’t think of one that has used top-notch graphics so powerfully.

And then I get killed during a cutscene. It really is the most polar of games, these wonderfully huge ideas, these overwhelmingly ambitious graphics and massive-scale set pieces, and then terribly checkpointed repetitive shoot-outs and this daft, mundane trudging about (it just cannot get enough of robbing you of your time powers to make sure you’re concentrating) and reading wall charts and email accounts. It writes this elaborate and increasingly convoluted story (it’s not exactly Primer) of twisting time loops, and then mangles it between three different deliveries. And of course its ending trousers cannot match its build-up mouth, with so many threads left completely forgotten or muddled, and an anti-climax so egregious I found it weirdly dishonest.

I love that they reached so high, but I really wish they’d thought harder about what it was they were trying to balance on as they did. Ambition wasn’t thwarted by technology, but just a lack of common sense. I find myself still wanting to recommend you play it, not least because the action is mostly fine, if very repetitive, and therefore there’s nothing that’s actively unpleasant about playing it – you can experience the wonders it has to offer, just for the price of grinding through the okay-ness of it all. That’s not a hearty recommendation, of course, but it remains one of the most fascinating AAA games I’ve ever played, even if it can’t realise a lot of what it set out to do.

Quantum Break is out now on Steam for £30/€37/$40.

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96 Comments

  1. gwop_the_derailer says:

    *in the voice of the Kaz Hirai*

    70 Gigabytes!

    • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

      I was thinking Doc Brown.

      “Great Scott, 70 jiggerbites!”

  2. trashbat says:

    If you didn’t know Aiden Gillen can act, you can’t have watched The Wire. Watch The Wire.

  3. golem09 says:

    Recently tried to play Uncharted 2 for seemingly the same reasons as the ones mentioned in this review. I just couldn’t, it was too boring all around.
    But this one has a scifi plot, and seemingly way more interesting setpieces. And no fucking climbing, jesus.

    • welverin says:

      You heretic.

      • golem09 says:

        I’ve played many games in my lifetimes, but Uncharted has to take the cake for the most boring shooting I’ve ever played. Gears of War was better at than, heavens, Binary Domain was better at that. Uncharted 1 and 2 were just plain terrible.

        • klownk says:

          You must judge a game for what it is. Uncharted is not a shooter game, it’s obvious.

          • golem09 says:

            I must judge it by the fun I have with it. 90% of the gameplay is shooting people in the face, and it’s boring. I don’t care what nametag I have to slap on it to make my opinion relevant.

          • welverin says:

            I have to disagree with you about it not being a shooter, while that’s not all it is, it is a core aspect and one of Naughty Dogs three pillars.

            I also have to agree with golem09, if they don’t enjoy the game because of it, it doesn’t matter if that’s not what the game is about.

        • ramirezfm says:

          I’m with you. I played Uncharted 2 the most and it was so utterly boring. Take Tomb Raider, pull out all the fun, and you have Uncharted. The weirdest thing is that for me it was mechanically fine, just not fun at all…

    • GazPumped says:

      Your comment is basically why I liked Alan Wake.

      • Raoul Duke says:

        Are you claiming there is a computer in existence capable of running the awful mess that is Alan Wake on PC?

        • UnrealClock says:

          My six year old mid-range rig plays it maxed out without any slowdown. You’re insane.

          • Raoul Duke says:

            Along with GTA IV and LA Noire, it’s one of the technically worst games I’ve ever encountered.

            I am not alone:

            link to google.com.au

          • Simplex says:

            I guess you can type “[any PC game in existence] performance problems” into google and get some results.

            4 years ago game was already running great on a GeForce 580:
            link to eurogamer.net

            I’m the first to bash a poorly optimized game, but Alan Wake is not that.

  4. Darth Gangrel says:

    The many loose threads of the story in such a story-heavy game is quite a discouraging thing for me personally (I hate not getting closure) and it doesn’t sound like the gameplay is as fun as it should be (I love the guns+powers combo in games). Still, it doesn’t sound bad enough that I won’t consider playing it once it’s down to like 5 euros in a sale.

    • Cleave says:

      The story is very good and there aren’t many loose threads that I could see, most of it comes full circle in a satisfying time travel manner. I think they fluffed the actual ending though, took the safe option.

  5. fearandloathing says:

    I can understand the reasoning behind it, but really, RPS, is clicking that important? I very much appreciate when you hint “wot you think” in that brief summary at the beginning. I mean I’m not a supporter so I’m not really bothered by going through a few more clicks and scrolls to get to the end and see wot you really think. I just wonder if this really helps you out, because I can tell it bothers your audience a bit when you just dabble in vagueness so that the readers have to click. By all means continue if this brings revenue, but otherwise it’s just an annoyance.

    • yoggesothothe says:

      It’s an annoyance to actually read the review? :O

    • Alice O'Connor says:

      We could put the score on the header image.

      • pelwl says:

        Yeah, RPS, as part of your audience I feel you should be able to sum up these WITs much more concisely. In fact you ought to scrap the website completely and just tweet your thoughts. Anything more than 140 characters is just obscenely verbose.

        • Sizeable Dirk says:

          Just send out a newsletter with a number in the subject field.
          Also the name of the game would be tl;dr.
          (I bet the godforsaken Taboola would still auto attach itself to the mail though…)

        • mattevansc3 says:

          140 characters? I don’t have the attention span to read that. I demand the review be a GIF!

          • Premium User Badge

            Benratha says:

            And I demand that the gif contains at least one fluffy animal!

        • fearandloathing says:

          Will you take your childish statements to the logical end and ask for removal of, say Adam (Civ6) and John (Lichtspeer) for providing just what was asked? It is fairly standard practice (especially in the past) in RPS articles to indicate if there is anything interesting about the game in the briefs, rather than providing clickbaits. Eh, well this is the limit of my caring, I wish the best to your circle, live long and jerk longer.

      • welverin says:

        It’s well past time you did so.

      • Premium User Badge

        Ericusson says:

        I can find grades on Metacritic and Steam.
        I appreciate RPS trying to have more of a writer type approach.

        (To be honest with a huge digression, what I would most like is for RPS to put back its teeth on. The website I read even 2 years ago had teeth and cringe and put its feet and round organic allegoric genital parts on the table.
        These days I sometimes feel like I am reading a nintendo game, all smoothed up with no edges. I understand the evolution and the ineluctability of the Matrix … er what no the ineluctability of embourgeoisement (and my comparison is pushed up to the extreme) but still.)

        • a very affectionate parrot says:

          What

        • golem09 says:

          Same thoughts here, I just thought it happened when they extenend their writing staff. I liked the original guys, all the news voices not so much. They are just plain different than what I originally came here for. That’s why I never renewed my paid membership.

      • a very affectionate parrot says:

        Reviews should be out of 10 and gong-based.

      • Siimon says:

        It would really help me if you could post an article that had one single summary score for all the games of this year, that way I know if I should bother with 2016 at all.

        • a very affectionate parrot says:

          0/10
          a cartoon frog is politically relevant but
          oh there’s no but

      • Urthman says:

        Looks to me like the header image already has an exhaustive list of the numerical scores John gave the game in his review.

    • fearandloathing says:

      Great circlejerking ppl, way to behave, good for you. Your reading skills are obviously great.

      • fearandloathing says:

        Oh and RPS, I love your “we’re doing subjective reviews -we no IGN, we better” attitude. Oh, what is that, another magically pumped up NMS (or The Division, or any hyped, big PR game) article?

        • SanguineAngel says:

          To be honest, in the 7 odd years I’ve been reading RPS there’s never been a mandate to offer Wot I Think summaries in the header snippet. There has often been similar summaries on other article headers so I can see why you might expect it but even the it’s not consistently the case. Presumably, it’s avoided in Wot I Thinks so as not to colour the reader’s opinion prior to reading the piece with all its pros, cons and rambling subjective thought.

          Incidentally, the WIT for No Mans Sky was decidedly mediocre despite john (I think it was john?) enjoying his time with it and going back for more while still admitting it’s flaws openly. Such has been the colour of all the articles I read here honestly, even the beauteous screenshot ones

        • Holysheep says:

          lol, this. The fucking NMS articles… please.

      • Shakes999 says:

        Can you leave already? No one cares.

      • thedosbox says:

        Your reading skills are obviously great.

        Says someone who’s complaining about having to read an article.

  6. TΛPETRVE says:

    I do like how punchy the combat feels. It’s quite the opposite in that regard to the Rockstar-made third instalment of Max Payne that tried to make up for its lukewarm shootouts with excessive amounts of graphic gore. Here, the whole stop-and-go dynamic grants combat an unexpected amount of physical oomph.

    • Jediben says:

      Err the Max Payne 3 gunplay was excellent on Hard or higher.

      • polecat says:

        Agreed – I thought Max Payne 3 was great all round, took itself a bit seriously but great physically oomphy gunplay, nice and twitchy on harder levels, just fun to play!

    • Buggery says:

      Yeah, I’m not really on board with the idea that the action is “lukewarm.” Dashing around the map, shooting off time powers and blasting enemies in groups to cause maximum devastation was a blast. As with Max Payne 2, I kind of feel you get out what you put in with the combat — playing around with the powers and only using cover as a place to reload and briefly consider the best order to unload on the enemies is the way to play.

      Max Payne 3 was fun when I stopped using the cover as anything but a place to hide behind, but I preferred the constant risk/reward of MP2. Running around in slow motion trying to kill more and more enemies to get time to slow down ever further was more fun than ducking and diving between cover.

    • GGiyo says:

      I’ll take Max Payne 3 over Gears of War 4 any day of the week.

  7. a very affectionate parrot says:

    Dr Walker I’m CIA

  8. Fabio Silva says:

    I’ve played the first act, both game and episode, and it is as John describes. The first few scenes reminded me a lot of Alan Wake, which also has average combat. There’s something though about Remedy’s storytelling that I find very engaging, and I hope it keeps it up until the end.

  9. ShineDog says:

    I mostly agree, but I probably enjoyed it more than John did. The imagery is indeed fantastic, but it’s not just the big set piece glitching disasters, just the little bits where you have a simple firefight during frozen time, ducking and weaving between oblivious people. Similarly excellent, when you plug someone and their time device fails and they return to normal time, freezing in place mid death? That’s super, super cool, particularly the weird frozen light effects from their pack.

    Plot I didn’t mind. The main hanging plot to me was the really obvious sequel hook – The main plot resolve itself surprisingly elegantly, I thought. It was also pretty admirable when it came to sticking to it’s own ruleset.

    If they’ve resolved the PC versions issues, I’d give it a solid recommendation, with the caveat that it’s 100% not going to change your world.

  10. Blastaz says:

    I think this feels much like Ryse.

    It will be well worth picking up in the inevitable sale, for both pretty graphics and interesting story locked round solid enough, but never spectacular, gameplay.

    • DanMan says:

      I’m wondering how long they will keep up the video streams. I guess at some point they’ll shut them down. Will the game still work then?

      • Gunrun says:

        By the very nature of the game being designed to be playable offline the story works just fine without the live action cutscenes, it’s a separate storythread that happens at the same time as the game, basically.

  11. engion3 says:

    Is this not going to be on humble store? I wanna use my discounttttt.

  12. FecesOfDeath says:

    I’ve had no problem moving Windows Store apps/games around so you know exactly where they’re located on your storage drive, if that’s your main gripe about Windows Store.

    • engion3 says:

      I just found this out because of Forza Horizon3 but you can move windows store games via system –> apps and features. Click on the app and you can move it to the desired hd.

      • -Spooky- says:

        Or install it direct on your HD of choice ..

      • iainl says:

        Warning: this is enabled or disabled on an app-by-app basis. Some refuse to let you put them anywhere other than C:\ because the developer hates you.

        • Simplex says:

          Not entirely true. You can select global default location of apps in windows settings and I have yet to see application that overrides (although I am not claiming that such aplication definitely does not exist).

    • Buggery says:

      Conversely, I had to buy a new, larger system drive because the Windows Store refused to recognise my D drive. Went to the forums to complain and it turns out that this is a known issue that Microsoft isn’t going to fix.

  13. montorsi says:

    I lightly skimmed since I like to avoid spoilers but the screenshots so asinine they make me want to buy this even if the verdict is not a strong recommendation.

  14. April March says:

    “Another mediocre entry to the long list of mediocre games with time-based powers”

    But seriously, though, sounds like something I’ll like to play when it’s like 90% off and I have a computer good enough to render all the pretty.

  15. SingularityParadigm says:

    Fuck cover-based third person shooters. It is a boring as shit gameplay mechanic.

    • Phinor says:

      Quantum Break isn’t really a cover shooter unless you play it like one but then you can do that with almost every shooter and call them cover shooters. The gameplay of QB is designed to be played not behind covers but being active.

    • Buggery says:

      The cover is there to hide behind while you reload. The game is best played by pausing just long enough to consider how best to use your powers and weapons, then stringing them together while running madly about and causing MAXIMUM DEVASTATION. Do it right and it not only feels good, it looks good too.

  16. Premium User Badge

    Lars Westergren says:

    Sounds like the quintessential AAA game.

  17. tslog says:

    Quantum break is ambitious, but it’s never translated into something worthwhile.

    The problems of Alan Wake are redeployed in quantum break but you can already tell that Alan Wake has a much longer lasting legacy.

    Quantum break has already been forgotten or not missed by the vast majority of gamers, and in a generation where I feel is the worst i’ve experienced for 20 years, that’s not a good sign.

  18. Premium User Badge

    Philopoemen says:

    My main issue when it was originally released was the “PC users have to stream the episodes” shenanigans. I live in a third-world country (well, at least when it comes to internets) and I want to be able to download and watch at my own leisure. You know, like the X-Box version.

    Is that fixed in the Steam version, or is there still shenanigans?

    • Simplex says:

      Streaming is still present in the Steam version, sadly.
      I wonder what happens when someone wants to play QB on a PC 10 years from now. I doubt the content servers for video will still be operational.

    • lglethal says:

      Third World Country in terms of internet? Oh, you mean Hull?

      :P

  19. DanMan says:

    So no technical problems then?

    • Simplex says:

      Game runs poorly in general, although the DX11/Steam version runs much better on nvidia than DX12/UWP version (over 30% more performance on 970).

  20. Chorltonwheelie says:

    Singularity was great, misery guts.

  21. Fnord73 says:

    What I dont get: If you have so much time to do video and so on, why the f. cant you spend 5 of those minutes telling the actual story baseline and avoid the diaries?

    • horrorgasm says:

      I’d guess the answer to that probably has more to do with publisher deadlines and restrictions about not wanting there to be a 200gb video download

    • Urthman says:

      Probably because the story has to be flexible up to the last minute to work around whatever levels and other gameplay stuff gets cut or added or rearranged.

  22. HoboDragon says:

    Over 70 GB download. Nothing special soon it seems.
    Wolfenstein a few years back was already 50 GB. Elder Scrolls Online is around 70 something. Forza 3 is 60. Even WoW is almost 40 (?).

    • Simplex says:

      Many textures in the game (newspapers, etc) are actually really good and hi-res.

  23. Premium User Badge

    Marclev says:

    Ummm … maybe I’m not being cynical enough or something but … that review actually sounds pretty damn good. I know it’s presumaby not meant to read like that, but this sounds like a exactly the game I’ve been waiting for, an epic basically.

  24. SaunteringLion says:

    “Aidan Gillen, it turns out, can act when he’s not trying to do his inexplicable wormy-squirmy Game Of Thrones accent!”

    You just outed yourself as someone who’s never watched the Wire. SHAME!

    • Simplex says:

      Shame indeed. Both Gillen and Reddick give very strong performances in The Wire, which is the best TV show of all times, now and for whole eternity. Even if it’s fans can be douchebags ;)

  25. Simplex says:

    “They’re less special effects intensive than the game’s own cutscenes, presumably to save some costs, but look splendid, and appear in the game in crisp HD.”

    I think they are even Ultra HD (4K) on PC.

  26. Werthead says:

    Ever since the original Max Payne, Remedy games are pretty much an insta-buy for me. They do seem to always be aiming for a really interesting mix of doing something original and over-the-top but in a very accessible and popular genre. Their games also don’t take themselves too seriously, which is refreshing.

    I also like the fact that you’re not supposed to take their game protagonists at face value. Payne is obviously a walking mass of unhealthy neuroses, but Alan Wake is hugely improved as a game when you realise that Wake is a really, really bad (but somewhat popular) novelist.

    I’d basically happily pay £30 to play a game on the off-chance that Sam Lake shows up and does The Face, basically.

    • Werthead says:

      He does show up and do The Face! Price tag fully justified.

      Also, running it on a GeForce 760 and it chugs a bit on Ultra (weirdly, there is no High, it goes straight from Medium to Ultra) but runs smooth on Medium whilst still looking very good.

  27. Werthead says:

    Also, I think Lance Reddick being in this is also a nod to the extremely underrated and tremendously good (especially after the first half of the first season) Fringe, which also dealt with time travel/parallel universe shenanigans.

  28. gbrading says:

    I’ve enjoyed every game Remedy have made and I still view Max Payne 1 and 2 amongst my all-time favourites. Alan Wake I liked, but it had several big issues, mainly the lacklustre shooting and how there was so much of it. Quantum Break I feel like is the kind of game I might play when it’s on sale with a great discount. Other than that, I’m not really interested.

    I feel for Remedy’s next game they should firstly stop collaborating with Microsoft all the time as that has clearly had an impact, and instead go back to their roots and re-examine what made Max Payne 1 and 2 so good. Perhaps they could convince Rockstar to let them have a shot at Max Payne 4. Who knows.