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Quantum Break Review - The guy on the left is actually frozen in time, not because I made some sick flick shot.

Quantum Break Review

Rating: 4,5
Time powers don't add much to the cover-based shooting, but the story presents a thought-provoking perspective of time travel.
Developer:Remedy Entertainment
Publisher:Microsoft Studios

Background

Max Payne was one of my favourite games in my youth. It was a third-person shooter with bullet-time dodging and an emotional story of revenge. The game was highly praised, receiving lots of 90% scores from all the major reviewers for its gunplay. I became interested in Quantum Break after watching jacksepticeye's coverage and also from seeing that it's made by the same developer as Max Payne. It looked like a third-person shooter with bullet-time dodging and an emotional story involving time travel. The game was hammered with "mixed" (i.e. bad) reviews, with a Metacritic of 66%, often criticized for being an "average" shooter. It was also criticized for being a poorly optimized console port and for using the controversial Universal Windows Platform. I was still intrigued by the story and it eventually appeared on Steam, so I decided to give it a shot.

Gameplay

Shooting mechanics

There are three weapon categories and you can carry one of each: pistols, automatics, and situational weapons. Your choice of weapons is due to availability and preference with respect to your combat style, but you may have to switch out weapons if you run out of ammo, which can be a problem if you shoot too aggressively. Some weapons are rarer than others, so you may want to keep them for when you need them, and ammo for rare guns is not a problem because many areas have unlimited refills in the form of backpacks that refill whatever you are carrying. So, as long as you have good aim, trigger discipline, and mobility, you should be able to get through most encounters without running out of ammo.

Your crosshairs will turn red when you're lined up exactly on an enemy, but the guns are not hitscan, which means hitting enemies moving at a distance requires knowing how fast the bullets travel and leading your shots appropriately. Guns have varying ranges where your shots do less damage over distance and they are affected by hefty cone-fire recoil. The shooting demands that you aim carefully and fire in short bursts to maintain accuracy or else you won't be able to put out enough damage before the enemies swarm you.

Weapons

Some environments have explosive barrels you can shoot for easy kills or staggering heavies. There are also special chronon barrels that when destroyed, will cause a temporary time stop that you can exploit for escape or getting cheap shots in. However, it doesn't last very long and destroying these barrels requires casting a time stop on them and stacking bullets, which takes up valuable time and ammo that could be better spent on enemies. These barrels are also uncommon and are redundant to time powers, so I rarely use them.

Time powers

As you progress through the game, you unlock time powers, which are helpful for getting out of difficult situations or charging in like a badass. You can also upgrade powers through collectable items found in hidden areas, although upgrades are not strictly necessary as they simply improve upon what the powers already do, rather than unlock new properties that increase the possibilities. Despite your powers, you can't afford to be too aggressive because they have lengthy cooldowns. Each power has its own cooldown meter, so you can string different powers at once or distribute your power usage to stay in the fight longer.

Cool, but shallow

The time powers are a nice novelty, but they don't add much depth to the gameplay considering that enemies have no counter to them beyond just throwing everything they have in the hopes of overwhelming you. The powers are pretty much variations of the same function: give you more time to aim and shoot. They don't have a whole lot of interaction with each other beyond stacking slowdowns and there are only a handful of enemies where use of time powers is necessary. Most enemies can be defeated with simple aiming and positioning, but I don't consider it inherently bad because it enables choice of play style and allows you to keep fighting if you're on cooldown instead of just cowering behind cover.

Time Vision.jpg
Time vision allows you to see enemies through walls, explosive barrels, and pickups, allowing you to plan your approach. Snipers are a high priority because they can pick you off if you're not paying attention.

Level design

The levels consist of a series of cover-based arenas: big rooms with lots of conveniently scattered boxes and pillars to facilitate the cover system. While there are some arenas where staying in one, easy-to-defend location works, there are also arenas that push you to keep moving due to easily-overwhelmed cover, tough enemies, and exploding cars. However, I do feel that there are too many open spaces with scattered cover and not enough close-quarter, corridor environments, which makes every level play similarly. Making effective use of shotguns requires you to charge-in aggressively across open space with time powers, but a lot of arenas don't have good escape options after you charge in. Since you have to manage cooldowns on your powers and enemies will quickly swarm in on you, the safest strategy is to hang back and shoot, only using your powers in emergencies to get away.

You will also fight inside time stops called stutters. In stutters, the world is frozen in time while you are able to act freely, but there are enemies who have special gear that lets them operate in them. Your guns work in a stutter, but bullets travel at reduced speed. This means you have to lead moving targets much more than in normal time or you have to close in aggressively because enemies might not move predictably enough at a distance. Environmental hazards can still be set off in stutters, but they reset themselves soon after.

Simple platforming

There's also quite a bit of platforming, which involves climbing boxes to proceed and that's about it. Some platforming levels are encountered during a stutter, where everything is either frozen in place or stuck in a time loop while everything is collapsing. These make for platforming obstacles where you have to hop onto surfaces that are frozen in the middle of a fall or avoid looping objects that require timing to pass or you will be crushed. Some obstacles allow you to reverse time on them with a unique interaction to take advantage of its past state to continue forward. However, the platforming is quite simple and doesn't require creative use of powers, nor is there much in the way of challenging puzzles, making them feel more like padding than something that mixes up the gameplay. It's also a bit disappointing to not have time reversal powers in combat.

Walk-through cutscenes

There are also a lot of non-hostile environments to run through between fights as a way to provide story exposition. These environments also have hidden areas off to the side containing collectables that provide some details into the story or give upgrade points. Because I enjoy the action, I feel like there are too many of these segments while the action segments are too short and contained. Cutscenes are skippable and if you have already collected everything in a previous playthrough, you can just rush through them quickly. However, you still have to do all the boring platforming sections as well as walk through story exposition sections just to get to the next encounter. After the first playthrough, it annoys me that the story sections aren't relegated to cutscenes. You spend a lot of time running around, interacting with stuff, and waiting for dialog to finish instead of engaged in combat.

Enemies

Not much variety

You encounter the same enemies throughout the game with barely any variation in how to deal with them. I do wish enemies had more tricks up their sleeve than just shoot and flank. At long range, they're mostly target practice. Maybe have flashbangs to discourage aggression? Smoke grenades to discourage camping? Time stop grenades that create a bubble that you can't shoot through and slows you down if you go in it? Enemies who are ultra fast in both movement and shooting so you need to combine time shield and time stop to catch them? Combat is a pretty simple formula from one encounter to the next, so it could do more to balance enemies against your powers and design more complex encounters to surprise you and test all of your skills.

Heavy.jpg
Heavies can take a lot of damage and inflict a lot of damage. Time stop is necessary to take him down or he will overrun you. Also, the cover system forces you to pop up over the box and doesn't allow you to peek to the side of it.
Juggernaut.jpg
You need to use time rush to get behind Juggernauts to target their weak spot. The distortions that surround them can sometimes make targeting difficult. You only have a few seconds to line up the shot or he'll turn around quickly.

Controls

Keyboard

Keyboard controls can be rebound to almost anything, but the F-keys will be displayed as "(null)" if you bind them. They still work, but any in-game prompts will show "(null)" when they appear. Otherwise, I've had little problems rebinding the keys and maintaining ergonomics. Some of your powers share the same keys, but which power activates depends on whether you tap or hold. For example, time dodge and time rush share the same key, so you tap to dodge and hold to rush. Same with time stop and time blast. The problem with it is that those powers have noticeable lag before they activate because the game seems to take time to decide whether you're tapping or holding. Picking up weapons also requires holding the Use key, which is not ideal in the middle of a firefight.

Movement is quite weighty with significant lag in stopping, so there's no strafe-dancing. Many shooters have unrealistic movement where you can twitch back and forth as though you were a floating dot rather than a human that depends on two feet and has weight to shift around. This game manages to model movement fairly well to emphasize the need to use cover properly instead of ADAD-spamming.

Mouse

Mouse input is quite good for a console port since there's minimal lag and acceleration. However, shooting requires you to zoom-in to aim first, which means you can't run and gun or shoot someone in your face in a panic. Your sensitivity is also lowered when aiming, requiring you to tune your sensitivity according to the zoomed sensitivity if you want to aim well, but it still leads to a jarring disconnect between zoomed and unzoomed camera movement. One thing to understand about video game aiming is that the more you zoom in on an enemy, the faster he will move relative to your crosshairs. So, zooming-in on a guy that's right in your face can actually make it harder to aim. It encourages you to maintain a comfortable distance and play tactically rather than rush in and brute-force your opposition, but it's an artificial restriction.

Camera system

The over-the-shoulder camera system allows you to switch shoulders to get better perspectives on either your left or right. Bullets originate from your crosshairs, so you can shoot enemies around a corner without exposing yourself with proper strafe finesse. It's a cheap exploit that renders most of your time powers unnecessary in many situations as long as you keep abusing it, but I see it as the only way to make third-person aiming consistent regardless of range and angle.

The game also switches between two camera angles depending on whether you're in hostile area or a story area. When you're in a story area, the game drastically reduces your FOV and the camera follows closely over Jack's shoulder. I find it annoying because I want to actually see the environment I'm exploring and get a proper sense of scale. It also created a bad first-impression when I first started the game because it made me think the game was locked at that FOV with no setting to change it. I get that it's trying to be "cinematic", but it's ultimately a nonsense form over function effect because the game doesn't look any better in my eyes. In fact, it looks worse. Games are about being in the world, not watching it from a screen. Fortunately, when you're in hostile territory, the FOV widens and is good enough.

The game suffers performance issues with a tendency to fall below 60 FPS even if you have a fairly high-end PC. I played this game on an i7-6700 with a GTX 1070 and I had to turn down some settings (volumetric lighting, shadows) to keep frame rates above 50 FPS, which is my break-point for fluid rendering and mouse control, although it is not ideal. I would rather that frame rates are prioritized over trying to be "cinematic" because games are meant to be played more than watched. It doesn't help that the graphics look a bit blurry and washed out anyways due to what looks like post-process anti-aliasing that cannot be turned off.

Cover system

The cover system is automatic and non-sticky. Just moving next to cover will make you automatically duck or press against it. It's non-intrusive as it won't snap you into it and you have to strafe to manage corner cover and slice the pie. Basically, it plays as though there is no cover system. However, if you're in low cover, zoom-aiming will automatically pop you out of it and you can play the classic third-person whack-a-mole. The game doesn't let you crouch manually, which can create problems because sometimes you want to stay crouched to maximize cover you're not directly pressed against (e.g. when there's low cover in front). Even then, aiming will cause you to stand up even when you're trying to shoot someone on the same side of cover as you, which exposes you to all the enemies on the other side of cover. Generally, I consider cover systems a case of overdesign because they solve a non-issue and introduce problems due to their lack of nuance.

Story

It's the year 2016. You play as Jack Joyce, a misfit who was engaging in some shady, undisclosed activity in Bangkok. Jack goes to visit his best friend, Paul Serene, who is an entrepreneur working with the local university to build a time machine. Unfortunately, Paul's attempt to test the machine with the help of Jack goes awry and causes a fracture in time that causes intermittent time stops called "stutters" that would eventually cause the world to be permanently frozen in a timeless state referred to as the End of Time. Jack's brother, William, is a scientist who helped discover time particles called "chronons". William had warned of this doomsday scenario because he invented his own time machine back in 1999, was visited by someone from the future, and he had built a countermeasure that could fix the fracture. However, the local mega-corporation, Monarch Solutions, comes in with armed commandos to silence the facility. Paul was stuck in the time machine when it happened and he went through the machine to the future. The exposure to the time machine while it was malfunctioning gave Jack the ability to exist in a stutter as well as grant him limited abilities to manipulate time. He uses these new abilities to evade Monarch to try to fix the fracture according to William's plan. However, an older Paul appears with time powers and kills William by demolishing the university library on top of him.

Monarch is led by the older Paul. When Paul went through the time machine, he went to the future only to discover that the world was permanently frozen in time and that meant the fracture was never fixed. Paul has the same powers Jack has and could exist in the End of Time, so he managed to find William's time machine, travel back through time to 1999, start Monarch, use his knowledge of the future to build up the company, and secretly develop the Lifeboat Protocol, which is a way for a select few to survive the End of Time to hopefully find a solution. Paul stole the countermeasure the year it was created and used it to power the Lifeboat at Monarch Headquarters because he believes there is no point in trying to fix the fracture. He realized that time is a closed loop where any action you take is reflected in the history you remember, so there's no point changing it. Because he believes the Lifeboat is the only way to save humanity, he is dedicated to eliminating any threats to his plan, which includes Jack and William. Jack, on the other hand, believes that time is not set in stone and the fracture can still be fixed, so he intends to steal back the countermeasure and use it as it was originally intended.

Jack eventually retrieves the countermeasure from Monarch HQ, but unfortunately doesn't know how to use it and only William did. Monarch had retrieved the university time machine and put it in their headquarters, so Jack decides he would go back in time to save William to learn how to use the countermeasure. The time machine can't go back farther than when the machine was first activated, so Jack had no choice but to go back to the university during the accident. Despite time being a closed loop, Jack is able to save William because Jack never saw William's body when the library was demolished. However, William tells Jack that there's no point trying to fix the fracture in the current time because Jack's presence means that any attempt to fix the fracture in the current time did not happen. So the only solution is to return to the present and try to fix it there, since the future is not as certain as the past. So they used William's hidden time machine and upon returning to the present, there is one last showdown against Paul, since he found William's time machine in the present. After defeating Paul, Jack and William plug the countermeasure into the time machine, which fixes the fracture and the world is saved. However, Paul had originally projected the End of Time to be much later in the future, so did they really avert it? With Paul gone and having unique time powers, Jack is given the opportunity to take over Monarch.

Closed loop paradox

Time machines work by generating a minature black hole that twists the chronon field of normal time and you walk along the distorted field via a circular corridor to travel through time. Time machines can only take you as far back as when the machine was first activated because prior to that, there was no black hole to produce the distorted chronon field that connects the points in times and no time machine to pop out of. However, the machine doesn't have to be active to arrive at a destination because the twisted chronon field is continuous. This prevents anyone from going back in time to prevent Will from creating the time machine, which would have prevented everything from happening and create a paradox.

Discarding free will

You cannot change the past because your future self already appeared and you are living the consequences of that, which will eventually lead you to go back in time to repeat history. Quantum Break manages to stay true to this rule and offer a solution to it without introducing convenient exceptions like insulating the time traveler from changes in the timeline or introducing parallel universes. Time paradoxes don't happen because you will ultimately not do the things that would create a paradox. History is the way it is because every decision, every piece of information you learn, and every mistake you make is reflected in it, past, present, and future. Your future self already appeared in the past to change it, resulting in the present conditions that make you want to go back in time to change it. It's a rather elegant portrayal of time travel.

The problem is that it ignores how people may change their behaviour in response to new information. In the beginning, when Paul travels back two minutes to test the time machine, his future self popped out of the time machine before he enters. What if present Paul decides not to go into the machine in response to seeing his future self? Jack raises this question, but Paul said that there is no "what if" because it already happened, which is a convenient hand-wave. You can do an experiment to test the closed loop. If you activate the machine and do not see your future self come out, enter the machine. If you do see your future self, don't enter the machine. By setting the machine to take you back after entering the machine, you should meet your past self waiting for you, but that would tell your past self to not go into the machine. So, how would the conditions leading to you entering the machine happen? Closed loop logic requires manipulating external factors so that the experiment cannot be controlled: you will hide in the machine until your past self enters. It's an example of a theory that is not falsifiable and would constitute pseudoscience.

The events in the story also raises this question. Even though William said that fixing the fracture in the past wouldn't work, it isn't clear why. William's time machine was hidden from Monarch at the time and the countermeasure simply needed a time machine to work. They had a time machine right there to go to the present with, so what would stop the countermeasure from working then and there? The only reason they didn't try was because they believed history was set in stone. You simply have to trust that it wouldn't work for some unforeseen reason. The story even teased the possibility of creating a paradox when Jack was asked whether he would destroy the time machine he used to travel back in time while he was in the past. Jack didn't want to risk everything so he didn't test it, which reinforces the closed loop.

Subjective nihilism

The idea that time is a closed loop encourages a self-defeating attitude. If you believe that going back in time or preventing the future will accomplish nothing, you don't try and you will certainly accomplish nothing, which doesn't make sense when you consider that Paul went back in time to start Monarch and make it so that Monarch always existed. The story teaches that even if time is a closed loop, you should try anyways because events have a lot of subjective human interpretation, like thinking William was killed when he really wasn't or Paul assuming that the Lifeboat would work even though there was no mention that he saw it in the End of Time. It is an allegory to life in general. You might think that nature has put you at a disadvantage to others, that success is too complicated for your puny mind, but you won't know until you try. Giving in to nihilism only makes you blind to better possibilities and you will never succeed.

Many decisions, same outcome

The game is split into five acts. Lengthy live-action cutscenes make up a big chunk of the game and an episode plays at the beginning of each act. At the end of each act, you choose between two decisions that steer the course of events, affecting what you see in the following live-action episodes and some of the things you see in-game. All decisions are made by Paul and you play as him whenever there is a decision to be made. You are able to foresee some of the things that will happen with both decisions before you pick one, but the visions don't tell you everything and it may be unclear what is the best choice. But regardless of your choices, the overarching plot will play out similarly and there are no multiple endings. Your decisions affect what unimportant side characters live or die and what information Jack learns at what point in the story, but it doesn't matter because Jack will figure it out anyways. Regardless of your choices, the levels play the same with only one exception where a decision affects a single encounter.

One decision requires you to choose whether Paul himself or his right-hand advisor, Martin Hatch, interrogates Jack after his capture. Martin will tell Jack of his plan against Paul and helps Jack escape, while Paul talks about how time is a closed loop and you can't change history. But it doesn't matter either way because Jack escapes with the help of a friend and the information doesn't change what he does. After Jack escapes, Paul has to choose whether to trust his chief scientist or Martin as one of them may be a traitor. Regardless of who you choose, Martin is the traitor and he will still succeed at ruining Paul because Martin is actually a badass and will escape custody.

The decisions you make also punch a hole in the fourth wall in the logical sense. If Paul interrogates Jack, Paul has little evidence against Martin so it's unclear why Paul would suspect Martin when the decision comes. But as the player, you can use knowledge obtained by Jack to guide Paul's decision. As Jack, you can find evidence of Martin plotting something through e-mails and temporal echoes of the past during the escape. If you chose Martin to do the interrogation, it would make a lot more sense for Paul to suspect him because Paul orders Martin to execute Jack, but Jack still escapes, not to mention Martin makes it crystal clear to Jack that he opposes Paul.

Filler side story

Liam Burke is a Monarch security officer who learns of the Lifeboat Protocol. Much of the live-action episodes cover his opposition to Monarch in an attempt to get his wife onto the Lifeboat, since the world was ending and he and his wife are not a part of the solution. I'm not sure why so much live-action screen time is spent on him and the people around him. He doesn't do anything that helps Jack, and his story just runs parallel to the main story, away from Jack's action. He fights a lot of Monarch guards and acts like a badass, but in the end, he just ends up being another casualty by forces greater than him.

I guess he represents the chaos that would ensue if the Lifeboat were not a secret. Many people would die as a result of every person's selfishness as they all struggle to get onto the Lifeboat and kill each other in the process. Afterall, Liam had killed many guards without considering if they had families to save too. There's already text describing this sort of chaos, so Liam's story feels more like padding considering the amount of focus he gets. Speaking of text and padding, the number and length of e-mails to read is quite pace-breaking and encourages skipping them. Fortunately, you don't need to read them to understand the gist of what's happening since the most important plot points are explained in dialog, but they're there if you want to dig into fine details.

Final words

While Max Payne was probably the first shooter to be based around bullet-time mechanics, the core gameplay was still running around blasting dudes in the face. Quantum Break has less trial-and-error, more combat complexity, and a better third-person camera, but Max Payne gives you more actual in-game play time and more frantic combat. While Max Payne had minimal enemy variety (they only differed in appearance, gun, and health), it provided more tactical variation in its environments and encounters. However, Quantum Break's story is a lot less corny and better developed. Quantum Break's problems are largely missed opportunities rather than actual design flaws, so it is not a bad game by any stretch. Overall, I'd say Quantum Break is better than Max Payne largely due to its newer technology.

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