Collecting Time: A Quantum Break Review


2771302-quantum-break_2015_08-04-15_011.jpg


Remedy Entertainment’s Quantum Break is a peculiar title. A game that, roughly twenty minutes in, had me audibly laughing at what it proposed. A multi-media, live-action hybrid –– starring Littlefinger from Game of Thrones –– and with a script seemingly riddled with pseudo–scientific cliche. It felt preposterous, indulgent and woefully overproduced. But what transpired was a title that, in time, won my attention. One that I actually grew to enjoy; even mull over its meandering narrative whilst away from my console. A game that, for all its shortcomings, left me suitably intrigued all the way through to its closing credits.

Quantum Break is a far from perfect game. But it is an ambitious, cross-media form of entertainment. It merges AAA-budget gameplay with live action sequences that feature the actors and characters we encounter along the way. Its story, gravitates around a flawed by engaging time-travelling thriller, one that actively rewards your engagement with it. In fact, through its campaign the player is given a number of ‘choose your path’ options, which changes both the direction of the game and the episodes we watch in tandem. It’s an altogether noble premise –– one that feels worthy of your time –– if not entirely for concept over execution.


3004866-quantum_break_takedown-2


Of course, its premise isn’t entirely new. A relatively forgettable protagonist (Jack Joyce) is drawn into a time-travelling conspiracy, no thanks to his genius brother’s machine that –– shock, horror –– disrupts the space time continuum. It borrows philosophy from many of this genre: playing on whether time is fixed or if we can carve our own fate. But it does offer a heightened sense of interactivity and replay-ablity, by providing different paths and supplementary material.

For example, the evolving narrative plays on the idea of time ‘fracturing’, with disruptions becoming more pertinent as we try to reverse the effects of the machine. These fractures affect the gameplay quite tangibly –– literally causing time to freeze and fluctuate –– which reflects a genuine mediation of the different mediums at play. Moreover, navigating the ever-changing timeline(s) encourages a closer reading of its story: something that is satisfied through the live action shorts and [frankly colossal] amount of material presented through in-game collectables. Quantum Break, in many ways, leans on more traditional methods of storytelling when appropriate. Sometimes it uses filmed media, sometime it tells short-stories through diary entries or office emails. This doesn’t always work –– which I address in due course –– but it all serves to enrich the surrounding world. And it certainly demonstrates what can be achieved by taking this broader approach.


quantum-break-2


In fact, there are moments of true ingenuity. As the player develops a clearer understanding of what is at stake –– largely through said collectibles –– character motivations become inherently more conflicted. The main antagonist, Paul Serene (Aiden Gillen) –– who I consider the strongest asset in the game –– has his justification for opposing Joyce. His empire and ‘Noah’s Ark for the elite’ seems increasingly more logical when read from his side. This actually amalgamated to the point where I began questioning my role as the protagonist and whether or not I was indeed the villain. Yet this development is best conveyed through his laptop and diary entries, rather than the somewhat ropey dialogue during their animated cinematics. Which suggests that this cross-media approach can compliment, even rectify, the main vessel of storytelling throughout the game.

There are some shortcomings to this ambition, though. Whilst Serene and Joyce carve a decent binary, the supporting figures –– namely Charlie Wincott and Fiona Miller –– feel a little half-baked. At times, they seem added almost entirely to satisfy the need for live action segments, with only Liam Burke and Beth Wilder significantly confronting Joyce in-game. Putting faces to emails does’t feel entirely warranted, nor are their on-screen escapades particularly interesting, either. And the story more-often-than-not relies on McGuffins to justify its linearity. With that said, Wilder’s arc eventually reaps some well punctuated heartfelt moments and Martin Hatch adds a compelling third-wheel; one that welcomes a second play-through. Especially given the convoluted ending.


quantum-break-aiden


As for the gameplay itself? Quantum Break sits somewhere rather awkwardly. It boasts a generic but perfectly serviceable run-and-gun mechanic –– with Timesplitters style ‘super-powers’ to combat harder foes. It’s fun and for the most part well paced; with platforming segments really utilising the breadth of these time effects. But it seems on the whole at odds with the easter-egg hunt for exposition that defines the bulk of its storytelling. Large shoot-outs are often offset by frantic email-reading and collectable scouring. This can become jarring and is only heightened by the fact players have to watch up to thirty minute episodes before each chapter, cueing an inevitable desire to jump straight into the action to little-to-no avail. Frankly, it’s for this reason I feel Quantum Break never manages to capitalise on its true potential. Its live action sequences are not written well enough to stand up as television and its gameplay isn’t engaging enough to make for a solid action title, either. It has moments where the two mediums compliment each other effectively –– at times wonderfully –– but it generally spreads itself a little thin. Which is a shame, because when the platforming/action/story-telling work in harmony, it’s damn good fun. And the long, unwinding plot certainly accommodates it.

Its production values, conversely, deserve almost unanimous praise. The live action sequences have a glossy, ‘4K’ tinge to its digital photography, with a sterility that matches the animated characters rather well. The game, too, runs and looks fantastic. The set-pieces are bold and there are moments –– especially when avoiding collapsing environments –– that feel genuinely exhilarating. If its aim was to blur the lines between filmed and computerised entertainment, then it does a fine job of striking that conjecture. It is an immersive ordeal, one that is improved exponentially by how willing the player is to buy into it. No doubt, Quantum Break boasts a confidence in its every step it takes: something that is mirrored in every expensive camera angle, in-game collectable or blockbuster level design. Even if that confidence is a little misplaced.


screenshot41


On reflection, I think my immediate hostility towards Quantum Break lies in misunderstanding. It is a grossly overblown thriller, with outrageous production values and its fair share of cliche. For many, it is hard to look past that. Yet all the same it’s a narrative and text-heavy adventure. One that is far more sensitive and slow-burning than its car chases and shoot-outs would have you believe. And if you’re willing to get on board with it’s frivolity –– by reading the in-game collectables, levelling-up your powers and weighing up the pathway options –– it offers something of a rewarding narrativised journey. My initial play-through became notably more enjoyable as I dug deeper into this muddled world. It’s also a considerably lengthy game by modern standards. No doubt this is buffed out by the live action segments, but it’s certainly in the double figures, which is surprising given its linearity. This is not a free-roaming RPG –– at times it’s little more than glorified quick time event –– yet it still maintains a longevity in its story telling. Which is a noble feat.


3004869-quantum_break_time_shield


Above else, though, Quantum Break is a charming, daring but equally frustrating experience. It remains a deeply pretentious and self-assured ‘creative project’. And in terms of gameplay, it brings little new to the proverbial table. But it’s still a title that won me over. A game that had me engrossed; despite my initial skepticism. A game that feels like a conceptional masterstroke, even if its struggles to balance the tempo of its combat, live action and seemingly endless endeavour to collecting things. In many ways, it feels let down by the very ambition that makes it an interesting game. It’s glaring faults come as a result of its dizzying heights. But it is, if anything, a title that encourages an active engagement with its storytelling, whilst trying to discover new ways to do precisely that.

* * *

Quantum Break is Microsoft’s glossiest IP. Whether or not it achieved its divine goals of cementing the Xbox One as a gaming machine has yet to be seen. It certainly divided opinion upon launch in 2016 –– and it’s perfectly clear why it did just that. But in an era where single-player games invariably play it safe: the blind ambition of what is attempted here earns its dues, regardless if it falls short of its full potential. Quantum Break is, in my opinion, worth your time –– even if that time, or indeed your concept of time –– will be thrown through a blender of Whovian nonsense by the end of it.


Advertisements

Aiming High: DOOM, Titanfall 2 and the FPS campaign


Screenshot 2017-04-21 16.31.13


There’s little doubt that the First-Person Shooter genre has faltered in recent years. From overblown set-pieces, undercooked narratives to excessive downloadable content: the number of inventive and thought-provoking shooters — at least on a AAA budget — seem far and few between.

Many point to annualised releases for blame; blockbuster franchises have stifled ambition by enforcing a factory-line production. It second-guesses what fans want and creates a race to the bottom between developers, itching to outdo each other on Micheal Bay theatrics. Even as a once committed Halo player, the most recent iteration of 343’s sacred-icon felt like a confused cocktail of other shooters. The creative level design and careful story-telling I once loved had been replaced by generic climbing mechanics and clumsy dialogue.

To my surprise, however, two of the most bombastic and outrageous shooters of 2016 proved to mediate many of my issues. Titles with such creative and crafted single-player campaigns that I genuine stopped to realise how much fun I was having. Yet titles, all the same, that wear all the hallmarks of being symptomatic of the idiotic spectacle that constitutes for modern shooters. Alongside our insatiable desire to reboot existing IPs.


Titanfall™ 2_20161027191606


DOOM (2016) and Titanfall 2 (2016) offer something new in their single-player packages by being entire self-aware of their context. This extends beyond tonality and into their very construction and level design. These are games that opt for that trendy fast, high-octane action over anything entirely meaningful. But they do so with such care that this actually becomes something worthwhile in itself. They’re composed with a sort of musical orchestration: prefacing fast combat sections with eerie build-ups, breakdowns and crescendos. They offset all-out carnage with exploration and platforming segments to capitalise upon their penchant for agile movement. And whilst political and philosophical referent is sidelined for this action: they ascertain a coherent enough story to engage the player throughout the performance.


686773-2


What makes DOOM so enjoyable is its flagrant non-conformity. It takes the dynamics of its twenty-something predecessor and repackages it to sit alongside modern-shooters. That fluid, outlandish jaunt of double-jumping, demon-slaying and nigh-on infinite waves of ammunition wears a fresh coat of paint. But it’s much more than a simple re-skin. Whilst I’ve written extensively about my love for realism and the ‘Ranger Difficulty’ Metro titles — where one is frequently down to the final bullet and forced to run — there is something deeply cathartic about this style of gameplay. In DOOM, the player is actively penalised for playing tactically, taking cover and being at all conservative. Our fabled space marine wields a seemingly self-loading shotgun and acquires mythical power-ups along the way. One is therefore forced to entertain the theatrics DOOM encourages, on its openly ridiculous terms, and reap the benefits accordingly,

In fact, the strength of DOOM is not so much its lineage and nostalgia, but rather that these elements are mutually aligned. Design and dynamics work in tandem. We move from industrial research labs to satanic rituals almost seamlessly. The level construction rewards this exploration and style of open combat, but remains linear enough to avoid getting lost. Combat situations have limitless solutions, so ammunition and weapons are aplenty to facilitate that. It also juggles its larger set-pieces with claustrophobic and juxtaposed combat to keep the player on edge. Where one is more startled by a handful of imps jumping from a dark corridor, than the hordes of Hell we have to face head-on.

It’s also accompanied by one of the strongest soundtracks I’ve heard in recent years. Mick Gordon’s aggressive score blends Periphery style guitar parts with Nine Inch Nails synths and percussion. It’s a subtle throwback to the scores of yesteryear: namely Duke Nuke 3D and Trent Reznor’s infamous Quake soundtrack. But it really ties into the game’s sense of moment and pacing: adding a tout and foreboding facet to every environment we visit, whilst allowing for clear signifiers between chaotic and calming moments.


DOOM-2016-review


A similar line of thought enchants Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall 2. Whilst it takes a seemingly more realistic stance — realistic in that includes talking, flying robots but does not extend to storming the bloody gates of Hell — it retains that marriage of design and pacing. In fact, it’s raison d’être is literally a distinction of tempo: in its ‘pilot’ and ‘titan’ play-styles. Whilst the former can mount walls and scale buildings in a traditional FPS format, the latter is rather a slow but heavily-armed AI mech. My preconception here was that this would make for an opaque, ‘one of the other’ gameplay — but it proved to shift between the two inventively.

These ‘pilot’ segments require platforming and fast combat. Shootouts are often backdropped with moving environments, conveyer belts and so forth, whilst the ‘titan’ moments offer larger and more intense encounters. Yet it’s the moments in-between, where the player is separated from their titan for a brief interlude — only to return for the boss battle — that it really comes into fruition. These moments demonstrate precisely that musical quality that DOOM attains though its side-rooms and exploration. That the game is not merely stitching together key battles but rather building a coherent body; a world and narrative, that allows the player to enjoy all it has to offer.

Titanfall 2 also flirts with time-travel with a unique creativity. In one level, the player has to navigate a destroyed building by seamlessly switching between different time periods. The requires carefully bouncing between combat and platforming, as the ‘past’ iteration of the building is full of armed militia. This leads to some wonderful moments of carefully timing impossible jumps and avoiding gun shots. And more strikingly, this feature is never exhausted to the point of boredom. The game moves swiftly onto the next problem, environment and encounter: maintaining pace and intrigue along the way.


Titanfall


In terms of basic story-telling, both games follow similar themes of rampant corporatism and shooting before asking questions. DOOM flirts with the bizarre prospect of mining Hell for renewable energy, meanwhile Titanfall 2 opts for a more classic ‘freedom fighting’ affair. Whilst neither story is particularly noteworthy, they are palatable given they actively facilitate the gameplay on offer. In other words, they accommodate the action and set-peices, whilst maintaining an intelligible sense of what the stakes are and who we should care about. (The latter point is often oh-so overlooked) And to its credit, Titanfall 2 carves a particularly warming relationship between the pilot and his AI titan by the end. It’s loaded with ‘your-humour-does-not-compute’ gags, but it’s a welcome handrail for the unfolding adventure.


On balance,  Titanfall 2 and DOOM flaunt a frivolous and light-hearted tone that is easy to scoff at. They appear to be quintessential products of our time; boasting style over substance. I have purposely avoided discussing some of these factors: multiplayer, graphics and technical elements and so forth, because, whilst stunning, we should expect nothing less from these departments. Yet upon further inspection, both titles posses an attention to detail that does feel overdue and thoughtful. They are, above else, well composed forms of escapism.

They also ignite some sense of optimism for the future of first-person shooter campaigns. Given Titanfall 2‘s predecessor was an entirely online affair; this single-player campaign was added almost entirely in response to prior criticism. DOOM, on the contrary, was a title that no-one particularly asked for, nor expected to fare so well.  Yet we have titles  here that seem to quell a great deal of the angst gamers have towards this genre. They offer something fresh without faring too far from the beaten track. They have confidence and heart, without relying upon expansion packs or shameless re-skins. And even as explicit products of franchising: they stand (or wall-run) on their two feet, all the same.

DOOM and Titanfall 2 provide intense and rewarding single-player campaigns that never allow combat or gameplay to stagnate. There is a technicality and ‘method to their madness’ that holds true. And whilst neither title is particularly intellectually stimulating or life-changing, they offer quite literally the most fun I’ve had with an FPS in a very long time. And there is absolutely nothing wrong or crass about achieving that.


Lost in a Forest: Firewatch Review


firewatch0122161280jpg-0d7b84_1280w


Camp Santo’s Firewatch was released last year to relatively high acclaim. It garnered a strong following for an indie release and it won two BAFTA  Games Awards last week. And it’s a relatively simple premise. One that I am admittedly late to — but one that I am still compelled to share my thoughts about.

Firewatch is a first-person adventure, gravitating around a fire-lookout working in a Shoshone National Park. Prefaced by a troubled family life — the everyman ‘Henry’ moves to escape his past — only to find things are not as they seem.

Throughout the game, the player interacts with the forest in the classic point-and-click format and reports his findings to his faceless supervisor, Delilah, via a ham-radio. But as paranoia blossoms, the player invariably finds themselves caught amongst something of a conspiracy. Suddenly, perusing this lush and inviting environment becomes increasingly tense and puzzling. And with only Delilah on the radio for company, the player is bound to isolation.


firewatch-0008


The game itself opens with a interactive text segment — allowing the player choose minor details to their backstory. Whilst this is not representative of the main drift, the gameplay is defined by its simplicity. It has more akin with those forms of text puzzles, that add weight and consequence to decisions, rather than anything technologically complex. In fact, the gameplay itself borrows a lot from other titles. It has the context-less meandering of Myst — where the player interacts with items and tries to make sense of their surroundings off the back of this. Players can unlock supply caches and stumble upon the remnants of previous Rangers. These photographs, notes and memos add more tangibility to the world than anything particularly rewarding. They are not used, for example, in the Far Cry or Tomb Raider sense to unlock greater prizes, but rather they offer humorous, non-essential supplements.

But as the story unravelles, this method works increasingly well. The heart of Firewatch is precisely this nonchalant attitude. That it defies certain conventions because it’s striving for something a little more human. Threats are introduced with a confused back-and-forth with Delilah rather than a dramatic cinematic. Supply caches are locked under the same ‘1-2-3-4’ code because, naturally, look-outs always forget the sequence. There are even items — namely books — that have absolutely no hidden meaning or relevance to the game. They add a normality to proceedings that is strangely refreshing. All those years of Broken Sword had me looking for secret keys in pinecones that were literally just part of the foliage. Whether or not this is fun, is a little more contentious. But the dialogue exchanges with Delilah typifies this well. It’s certainly the game’s strength: adding a wonderful humorous facet that offsets the lonelier or more tedious objectives. Backtracking across the forest is more palatable with her small talk and quirky jabs. And as the game gets increasingly darker; as does our relationship with Delilah. Making our trust part of the emerging struggle.


 firewatch-e3-5


Of course, for such a narrative heavy title, there is some overarching expectation regarding its pay off. With a well paced but short running time, the extent Firewatch makes for a satisfying ride its a little less clear. Indeed, the game opens with some rather heavy, personal topics — but it does little to tie up the loose ends of both Henry and what he finds in the forest. And there is a fair but of misleading throughout the middle that some may find underwhelming. But on reflection, Firewatch isn’t really about the conspiracy within the National Park. It’s not really about Henry or Delilah’s past, either. It’s about their cynicism. How this experience and bonding changes their outlook on life. To some extent, it’s also about how the player can learn from that. Even the central mystery of the game — the nerdy Brian Goodwin and his militaristic father — injects some sweet overtones about personality, youth and what constitutes for good character. I actually found the experience immensely bitter-sweet. The photographs during the end credits were especially striking; blending  player expression with linearity. (No spoilers!)

All the same, Firewatch is wrapped up in a charming art-style that really lends to its premise. It marries this character driven adventure with a simplistic, oversaturated design. Although I found an underwhelming graphical performance on the Xbox One — as always — with considerable frame-rate lag when sprinting — it served its purpose perfectly. This design brings a timeless to this adventure along with some rather memorable views, too. Its soundtrack is equally as understated –– with bass guitar segments driving tension over soothing piano chords. It solidifies both the thematic tones of this ‘tranquil paranoia’ along with its modest production values.


8d8353aa1e34e4fcbebaae5d945d2ef3


Ultimately, Firewatch is a touching experience. It’s a game about people and how people can be. Good, bad and that murky middle ground. It plays on memory, love and loss but it’s surprisingly funny, too. And for a title that I had no real expectation for –– it captivated me immeasurably.  It stayed on my mind in between play sessions and I expect it will continue to do so, for time to come.