Since Microsoft reassessed its Xbox One strategy and decided to focus more on the games than the box as an all-round entertainment machine, the console has become more competitive and a greater threat to the PlayStation 4. Especially with games like Quantum Break, replete with cinematic cutscenes reminiscent of Sony's Quantic Dream titles and gameplay elements touching on Infamous and Uncharted.
However, the Xbox One still languishes considerably behind Sony's console in terms of sales, but PS4 owners no longer snigger when those who plumped for the other side of the fence walk by. And that's largely thanks to a very strong line-up of exclusive games at the tail-end of 2015: Halo 5, Forza 6, Ori and the Blind Forest and, one of our particular favourites, Rise of the Tomb Raider, each cemented the Xbox One's position as gaming machine of some note.
Quantum Break shows Microsoft setting out its stall for another year of quality exclusive titles, which will also include Gears 4 and Crackdown 3. But does Remedy's long-awaited, original action-adventure game deliver the goods?
Quantum Break review: Visual thrills
Thankfully, it does. It is this year's answer to the last Lara Croft outing, in scope and thrills. Yet it also sends a shot across the bows of Sony and its much-delayed Uncharted 4. "Your turn," it boldly states. We'd hazard a guess that the next Uncharted will happily meet the challenge, but Quantum Break has many highlights and talents of its own to give Xbox One owners a little one-upmanship for a month or so at least.
For a start, it looks absolutely incredible. Remedy – the studio behind the original Max Payne and the more recent Alan Wake – has pulled out all the stops to make Quantum Break the best looking game on the Xbox One so far. Indeed, in terms of motion capture and the digital representations of the cast, it is unsurpassed, we feel, by any current-gen game so far.
The game stars Shaun Ashmore from the X-Men movies, Aidan Gillen from Game of Thrones, Lance Reddick of The Wire, and Dominic Monaghan from Lost and The Lord of the Rings. And their faces, movements and mannerisms have been so meticulously digitised that there is little difference between their in-game look and their appearances in live-action sequences.
Quantum Break review: Hollywood highs
Actually, we say sequences, but that's one of Quantum Break's biggest innovations: aside from the superb technology that has rendered life-like avatars, the game intersperses gameplay and interactive elements with a full-on, high budget, Hollywood-style TV show.
At four points within the game, a 20-22 minute TV episode, starring the same cast, will stream in Full HD. It looks stunning, is well acted, provides plenty of interesting plot development, and is essential viewing for those who want to know what the hell is going on between gameplay sections. It is also, though, a hugely brave mood by the developer as it could be seen as either genius or hugely irritating – depending on your view.
We're getting ahead of ourselves though, let's rewind time a bit (see what we did there?). We really need to explain a little of the plot in order to progress with how it is presented – all tied cunningly tied together, you see.
Quantum Break review: Time-travel premise
The entire premise of Quantum Break centres on time travel and the misuse thereof. We don't really want to give away any spoilers, not least because one of the game's strongest elements is its superbly crafted script and narrative, but we will say that soon after it starts, you, as lead character Jack Joyce, acquire time manipulation abilities and your best friend has found himself trapped in a misfiring time machine.
Cue a convoluted science-fiction tale that borrows as many sci-fi time travel tropes from movies, TV shows and novels as it can cram in, yet still has the ability to surprise and delight. There are twists you can see coming from a mile off, but also some you can't. And the whole experience comes across like a well-crafted movie.
Where it differs is that, not only is it interactive – it is a game after all – but outcomes and plot turns can be altered along the way. And that is where the live-action episodes most come into play.
Quantum Break review: Heroes and villains
The game itself is mainly a third-person, cover-based shooter, with time control powers adding spice to the action. There are some platform sections and a bit of puzzle solving, but they are few and far between. Most of the time you will be cowering behind a desk or car, taking out enemies from afar.
There are several acts, cut into different action scenes, and at the end of four of them there is a different interstitial "junction" point that provides both respite between the tenser moments and a chance to affect the path on which the game will continue.
That's because, unlike the main game where you step into the boots of hero Jack Joyce, the junction points put you in control of main villain Paul Serene (played brilliantly by Gillen). These sections do not require much dexterity and are designed more for plot progression than play, but at the end of each you are presented with a 50/50 choice on how you'd like the story and, therefore, game to continue.
Quantum Break review: Re-re-wind
Whatever you choose has ramifications for events and encounters in the main game, even adding or eliminating characters going forward. It also directly influences the TV episode you then watch, with the narrative shown being based entirely on your previous decision. This happens three more times at certain game points and you don't need a degree in mathematics to realise that with each choice, the possible plot permutations increase.
By the end of the game your experience could vary wildly from a friends', for example. Or you could choose to play again with very different outcomes. And there's a handy, accessible timeline that you can access during and after your play through with the key events listed as they occur, so you can opt to alter a decision at any point to see how an alternative would play out without having to play from the beginning again.
It is this mechanic that also makes the 20-minutes or so required to watch each non-interactive TV episode worthwhile, although there is an initial issue to overcome.
Quantum Break review: TV show or game?
Innovation in games is much welcome, and although we were initially sceptical over the prospective large use of full motion video sequences in Quantum Break when the game was first announced in 2013, we like the fact that Remedy has tried something truly different. However, it only works if the player is persistent and is willing to exercise patience.
That's because the first episode of the in-game TV show is difficult to get into and fairly unrewarding when all you really want to do is crack on with some more of the excellent gameplay.
We feel that's because of Remedy's decision to focus the live action aspects on the villains and Paul Serene's corporation Monarch, rather than the characters you have gotten to know already. So, while you are already au fait with Ashmore's Jack Joyce and the good guys, getting to know them by controlling their actions and trying to prevent them getting their brains blown out, you are then suddenly required to follow the adventures of a bunch of new characters that you have absolutely no emotional tie to at that time.
It is at this point less patient players will just hit the skip button. But doing so means you are then launched into a new section of gameplay that narratively relies on scenes shown in the video. And by the end of the game, you might not have a monkeys what's actually going on.
Thankfully, this is not an issue come the second FMV session, because you will already have a better understanding of the players involved, but the creative choice on focusing on Monarch and the baddies for the TV elements could be what divides opinion, no matter how innovative and bold.
On our own part, it works. And through persistence of that first episode we were rewarded. In gameplay terms, the action gets better in time too, especially as Joyce acquires more and greater abilities.
Quantum Break review: In a flash
Remedy has done an incredible job, both visually and in gameplay design, to represent what it could be like to remain active even when time stops around you. Levels representing stutters in time are stunning, with objects and people remaining frozen as you dart amongst them, and there are many clever examples of puzzles that can only be solved by rewinding time.
In fact, we think the developer has such a keen grasp on time-effect gameplay and graphics, we'd love to see it take on a game based on DC Comics hero The Flash. Whenever we've seen scarlet speedster in games before, he's just a bit faster than others, but we imagine that when he really runs time around him slows down or seemingly stops entirely. That's how Quantum Break feels in its finest moments.
Thankfully, the other well-tuned aspect to the gameplay, combat, is able to be used within the frozen time sections too – with all-out battles against security forces fitted with time manipulation braces some of the most standout moments in the entire game.
We're not entirely sure where Joyce learned to fire a range of military weaponry so capably, but thank the heavens he can, because the firefights are superb. And the fact that the cover mechanics work instinctively whenever you are near an object that can be hidden behind – rather than require a button press, like many other games – is testament to Remedy's long experience in the field.
Quantum Break presents a decent challenge, but doesn't add joypad dexterity to the list of concerns, and that is something to be applauded.
How you ultimately rate Quantum Break relies heavily on your acceptance of the TV episodes that you must watch to get the fullest experience. And we can't help but feel that there will be plenty of players out there who positively hate the idea of fast, furious gameplay occasionally punctuated by a 20-minute full motion video sequence.
However, we also feel that patience and investment in each one of those scenes is rewarded - and it would be a great shame if you miss out on a rich, involving game purely because you can't sit still for less than the time it takes to get through central London on the Tube.
Plus, the shows are well acted by a stellar cast. And while you can sometimes see corners being cut - with a lot of close-ups in small, unassuming rooms - there are still some big, bombastic sequences to suggest that they could as easily have been made by the Sci-Fi Channel as a game developer.
And when you consider the craft and cleverness in the multiple choice structure of the videos, that not only affects other episodes but in-game events, you have to congratulate Remedy for trying something new in Quantum Break.
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