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Preview: Is Quantum Break stuck in the past?

By Nick Cowen on Thursday 14th Aug 2014 at 10:20 AM UTC

When Max Payne first leapt across a screen spraying lead at bad guys in slow motion, creator Remedy Entertainment demonstrated how its breakthrough game was inspired by cinema.

Yet in recent years the television has usurped the silver screen as the dominant outlet for storytelling. And, as the quality of TV shows has climbed over the years in terms of content and production values, Remedy and its Finland based team was inspired by this too.

Its last game, Alan Wake, was structured similarly to a high-end HBO series complete with "Previously on Alan Wake" segues and levels divided into episodes containing their own narrative arcs.

When Remedy announced Quantum Break at the Xbox One reveal event last year, it also laid out its intention to bring TV and games even closer together as entertainment. Quantum Break, it said, would be comprised of both interactive gaming levels and a series of made-for-TV episodes that would dovetail in and out of each other.

Reactions were mixed; while games inspired by movies and television (such as L.A. Noire, The Walking Dead and Red Dead Redemption) can certainly be lucrative - and more importantly, fun to play - sandwiching the two formats together tends to yield mixed results. If Remedy could pull it off, optimistic pundits noted, Quantum Break may stand out as a fresh way of looking at the gaming medium.

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But don't be fooled. Over the last fourteen years, Remedy has only ever made one type of game: third-person shooters with reality bending mechanics bolted on the top. In Max Payne, the mechanic in question was bullet-time. In Alan Wake, it was light-based weaponry. Now, in Quantum Break, it's time manipulation.

In its Gamescom demo, this time-based mechanic essentially enables the player to stop time for brief periods, and in turn, this unlocks a couple of nifty abilities.

"While it looks quite fun and stylish, you have to wonder whether it does enough"

Once the protagonist - a suitably dour-looking individual called Jack Joyce - is fired upon by enemies, he can stall time around himself. This allows him to either move too quickly for them to draw a bead on him, or capture their bullets as they leave the muzzles of guns and hurl them back at them. Basically, it's two of the more impressive powers exhibited by Neo in The Matrix.

The rest of the in-game combat is third-person pop-and-cover gunplay, along the same lines as Uncharted or Gears of War. Occasionally when Joyce does something spectacular like leaping into the air and smashing his fist into a bad guy's face, or blowing up a gas canister (of course) and sending enemies flying, the camera whirls and slows to make the results look as cool as they can.

That, in essence, is all that the combat offers if Quantum Break's demo is anything to go by. While it looks quite fun and stylish, you have to wonder whether or not it's enough to keep players glued to a Triple A blockbuster for the expected eight or so hours.

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This is an aspect that Alan Wake was deservedly criticized for; while its moody story entertained some and it had atmosphere to burn, its mechanics became pretty repetitive before the halfway mark.

Quantum Break's story sounds a little more compelling than the mechanics that underpin the combat. After an experiment at a research facility goes horribly wrong, Joyce finds himself able to manipulate time and becomes acutely aware that this anomaly has a potentially world-ending consequence for both him and the rest of humanity. Time itself is becoming finite and it's up to Joyce to find a solution to this. To add to his woes, a shady corporation called Monarch seems intent on finding him and using his time-warping abilities for its own nefarious purposes.

As time starts to fracture and split, Joyce - and by extension, the player - finds himself wandering through pockets of frozen time called Stutters. These are localized and as Joyce moves through them, objects and individuals slowly start to regain movement at varying speed. This means that walking across a collapsing bridge or through a gunfight that's in progress can suddenly result in fatal consequences.

So, outside of combat, Joyce's temporal powers lend themselves to a puzzle platformer format. As the reality around him starts to shudder back to life, Joyce can freeze items in his environment to create pathways from the debris around him.

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In the demo, Remedy showed off a rather impressive sequence in which Joyce had to create a route off a bridge that was splitting into pieces after being rammed by a tanker.

To that end, the Remedy employee controlling Joyce was pulling ledges and girders into Joyce's path and, at one point, had to time a run under a truck that was repeatedly smashing grill-first into his path since it was stuck on a time loop. Imagine a TPS version of Super Mario where you had to create your own route forward in a matter of seconds and you're starting to get the idea.

Plot details for both the game and the TV show - the latter of which is still being shot and will ship with the final game - were admittedly quite thin. This is understandable, really; Remedy doesn't want to give away any spoilers since story has always been an integral part of the games it produces.

However, studio head Sam Lake did reveal that the TV series will focus mainly on the internal political wrangling and cut-throat antics of the ne'er-do-wells who work at the Monarch Corporation. It wasn't clear whether the show's events would still dovetail with the events in the game or if it would simply serve as background for the game's plot.

So all we're left to go on at this stage was the demo, which came across as the illegitimate offspring of Gears Of War and Singularity.

"The demo came across as the illegitimate offspring of Gears Of War and Singularity"

Admittedly, the platforming section of the demo looked more compelling than the gunplay, but once again, you have to wonder if it's enough to carry an entire game.

But perhaps it's unfair to judge Quantum Break solely on its demo. It is possible that Remedy noted Alan Wake's mixed reception and has a large selection of time-based trickery planned for its game. Here's hoping there's more on offer than the demo though - and by that, we don't mean just the TV show.

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