Gamereactor recently had the chance to visit probably the most ambitious studio in Finland. Remedy has been making games for twenty years in (Helsinki's neighbouring city) Espoo, and the studio is now on the verge of its biggest and most critical game release so far. Can Max Payne and Alan Wake's successor, Quantum Break, cash in on the huge expectations that its predecessors are responsible for?
The visit to Espoo started with a pleasant surprise. During the welcoming speeches it was revealed officially that the rumours were true and Quantum Break will launch on PC via Windows 10. PC gamers don't have to wait either as the game will arrive on both Xbox One and PC on the same day, April 5.
Before the jumping into the game we took a tour of Remedy's offices. The tour included a visit the their own motion capture studio and several other work spaces, where countless man hours have been sunk into the game. The core message of the tour was crystal clear. Remedy is reaching for production values that rival the most prestigious multimedia products in the industry. In many ways methods on show were similar to those used in film making, but Remedy has also been doing things the hard way by developing their own tools for face and motion animation and rendering.
Everything during the tour looked really impressive, which was of course the point, but it also makes it easier to understand why Quantum Break has taken so long to make. Remedy's main man and creative director Sam Lake explained that the goal from the outset was to create a true Hollywood blockbuster of gaming that would combine the cinematic narrative with an action-packed game experience like never before. Lake admitted that it is a brave, if not daring goal, but he was optimistic that all the elements are there in order from them to achieve both their high quality production standards and their innovative ideas for integrating live action with the gaming narrative.
Quantum Break consists of five main acts, where you explore the story from the point of view of Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore) and seek to survive both time breaking down and his former friend Paul Serene (Aidan Gillen) and his unscrupulous company, Monarch Solutions. However, at the end of each act the point of view changes to Serene's side, where we learn everything isn't as black and white as it might seem. As Serene, players have to make choices between possible future events. The decision in these "Junctions" must be made carefully, because they literally lead the timeline into different directions and affect both the game and the live-action sequences. In this lies one of Quantum Break's biggest hooks as the game story can progress and end in a variety of ways. According to Remedy it also was a kind of production and screen writing nightmare: the last live action episode had to be created in 40 different variations.
As an example we got to experience the game's first Junction. It occurred after the first act and in the aftermath of a big time shattering accident. Paul Serene had to decide how Monarch would take care of the situation in terms of publicity. The alternatives were "Hard Line" or "PR". In the former Monarch would ruthlessly cover up all traces of the event, even going as far as murdering the eyewitnesses. Although the solution would be effective in the short term, it would cause the Riverport City's residents to turn against the company. The PR-option could paint Jack as the villain and facilitate a quick capture. It would, however, leave too many traces that would link Monarch to the time experiments and the disaster lurking beneath the surface. Fortunately these choices do not have to be made blindfold. Serene's exposure to time fractures offers the player the ability to look briefly at each timeline before making the decision.
Following the choice we get to see what is probably the most controversial part of Quantum Break. Last year it appeared that some sort of TV series would run alongside the game in its own right, but in the end this is not the case. Instead the live action sequences will be displayed between acts as 20-22 minutes episodes. They focus specifically on Serene and Monarch, going behind the scenes of the playable events. The first episode was focused on Monarch's agent Liam Burke, who gets a wake up call with regards to the dealings of Monarch. Since we picked the hard-line option and many innocent people had died, Burke started to question his loyalty and future with the company.
The live action was pretty well done and was definitely on par with most American network shows. We'd also like to praise the casting for Quantum Break. Especially Aidan Gillen, who is best known as Game of Thrones' Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish, and Lance Reddick (The Wire), who both did a very good job as the main antagonists.
This quality of acting is also mirrored in the game part of the offering, and the facial animations are indeed among the finest we've seen in a video game. We still have to acknowledge that the transition between the live-action episodes and the playable game is a little shocking, even when you're prepared for it. Putting down the controller for an extended live-action sequence may be something that isn't to everyone's liking. Then again you can always skip them and watch them later. This, however, is not something we can imagine ourselves doing. They showed a totally different side of the game and they felt like a nice addition to the experience. Then again, this will most certainly be something that will divide opinion.
But how did the game actually play? We had a surprising amount of hands-on time and got to clear the first act and a few strategically chosen action sequences from the second. It's better not to reveal and spoil much about the story since Quantum Break is definitely a story-driven experience and it's best when you go in knowing as little as possible. The game starts off nice and calm at Riverport University, where you meet the main characters and are introduced to the time travel experiment. Of course everything will go haywire and the player is thrown into action. The beginning of the game felt well-paced and there was minimum amount of tutorials and distractions.
Quantum Break is essentially a straightforward third-person shooter, sporting some interesting twists in the form of time-affecting super powers. First off the game looks like a cover-based shooter but that impression is deceptive. Squatting behind cover does not protect the player very much from the enemy bullets and the only way to keep yourself out of harm's way is to keep moving and use your special skills.
Remedy's representatives told us that the combat is done deliberately as simple as possible in order to emphasise the use Jack's special abilities. For instance, there is no separate button for cover, dodge jump or stealth, which are usually staples in third-person action games. Instead the player has to make use of skills that freeze enemies in time, so you can dash from cover to cover and into protective time fields to stop incoming attacks. Use of these basic abilities was absolutely crucial and there was little chance to survive Monarch's soldiers without them and on "hard" it kicked many a game journo's ass so badly that they had to restart the game from the beginning.
Aiming and shooting, on the other hand, felt a bit slippery. We're used to a fairly high level of sensitivity, but this time we had to scale it way down. Otherwise it was hard to find any major problems with the way it plays. The action was dynamic and entertaining, and it was paced with some light problem solving and platforming that required the use of Jack's time stopping and rewinding skills. Option menus also revealed that there are several additional skills opening in further acts and you can also upgrade them with skill points. There are also tons of collectibles, audio tapes, and the like scattered all over the place.
Quantum Break is going to be an extremely interesting game. The mix of our time spent hands-on with the game and the live-action left us with a good feeling. The long wait and the delay from last year had cooled our expectations, but the preview event rekindled our hopes. It seems that Remedy has used that extra time well and Quantum Break looks like one of the most visually and narratively ambitious video games in a long time. It's a fascinating hybrid of a sci-fi action game and live-action storytelling, but it's almost impossible to gauge how well everything will lock into place by the end. There is also no avoiding that for some people the live-action scenes will feel like an unnecessary gimmick. Remedy seems to know this, but has chosen this route with the intention of breaking new ground in video game storytelling. We can't wait to get our hands on the final game in April.