Quantum Break

This isn’t a review, but I really like Quantum Break. It’s a qualified kind of like; it has quite a few problems. But I’m really into it overall, and I need to put some words on screen to get some thoughts about it out of my head. There may be spoilers here but I’ll mark them or I’ll put them at the end.

My first impression of the game was very poor. It looked beautiful, it ran terribly. It was barely playable on whatever the default settings were. But what I saw was interesting, and it immediately started with Alan Wake 2 teaser that was absolutely amazing. I love Alan Wake so much that the teaser could’ve kept me going through Quantum Break just for a chance to see another one. I eventually got it running smoothly.

To note, the way I did it was capping the framerate at 30fps, turning off v-sync, and disabling AA. It was disabling AA that got the most obvious benefit. I didn’t go back and try uncapping the framerate or enabling v-sync to see if they’d make any difference.

I kind of view Quantum Break as three separate part; there’s the combat loop, the exploration loop, and the TV show. Where Alan Wake often threw combat in with the exploration, it basically never happens in Quantum Break. However, the combat in Quantum Break is a lot more varied because there’s a greater variety of enemy, and your time powers give you a lot of tools to fight them. Weapon variety is limited to fast shooty or big shooty, but freezing people in time bubbles and dashing around is a lot of fun. Somehow, you can make time explode. I can’t explain it, but it’s cool. Later, there are enemies immune to your time powers and their direct effects (so you can’t freeze them in bubbles) but dashing behind them and time blasting still works. The only time I had much trouble with a fight was at the very end.

A lot of the game is exploration, surprisingly enough. Quantum Break has a lot to say, and it can’t quite say much during combat. The game goes through a lot of locales, and they’re all extremely well built with tons of environmental details. The whole game looks incredible. It doesn’t just look good either because, throughout the game, time is breaking and it gets worse as you go along. Time stops, starts, reverses, speeds up. It’s hella cool. But there in these sequences between combat, there are a ton of emails to read and radio shows to listen to. It’s overwhelming, and really wrecks the pacing. At some point, I committed to finding the collectibles but reading them later, and then I never ended up reading most of them.

Finally, there’s the TV show. Between the five acts, there are four episodes of a 22 minute professionally produce TV show. They’re not about Jack Joyce or any of the protagonists, but from the perspective of the bad guys, which is pretty interesting. It manages to make sympathetic characters of some of them, but it’s almost so deep into the background that is barely touches the game. What’s weird is the “quantum ripples”. These are things you find or do in the game that affect the TV show. However, they’re so incredibly minor that you might miss them if you’re not paying attention. For example, an early one is setting up an audiobook to read over the Monarch radios. Then in the TV show, someone hears that audiobook playing over the radios and remarks “what’s that sound?” and that’s it. Between the TV show and the huge amount of collectible stuff to read, it’s almost as if Quantum Break is trying to draw out the experience as far as possible. It’s not quite a complaint on my behalf, because some games just jam so much action in that I can’t really stand playing them for long before my nerves are shot, but it’s weird to play.

Then we get to the time travel, and here’s where I’m going to get spoilery. What in the fuck is going on with the time travel. It is Primer-esque in its complexity, and I still can’t tell what they’re saying about it. They make a big deal about The End of Time and how it’s unavoidable and it’s a direct result of the fracture. But by the end, Jack has averted or at least significantly delayed the End of Time. This means Serene’s premonitions were wrong from the start, or the timeline can be changed, which goes against every other thing that happens in the game. What I’m lost on is where one timeline breaks from the other and why. Was the End of Time a result of a timeline without Jack working to prevent it? Did the timeline change when Jack retrieved the CFR, or was it when he stopped Serene from preventing him from using it? Also, Serene, more than anyone, is convinced that the timeline is immutable. So how is it that he can make a decision at the end of every act that changes how the next act proceeds? He can clearly see the branching paths and their results before him, and he chooses a path. Why didn’t he just choose a path where he works with Jack and Will to activate the CFR and prevent the End of Time, rather than developing the Lifeboat protocol to eventually, maybe fix time.

Quantum Break’s a wild game, and it’s given me a lot to think about. I’m sort of bummed that it didn’t seem to do well, through a combination of being an Xbox One console exclusive, and the PC port being kind of a mess. I love everything Remedy makes, and I want more of this. And more Alan Wake. I want Remedy to be able to make more cool stuff.

 

Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter is a game that looked cool on Kickstarter, but I passed on backing it. Then it came out and it still looked cool, but I’d read a lot of comparisons to Zelda and notes on high difficulty, so I passed. Zelda’s not a series I have a lot of love for, and I’m not attracted to games that get a lot of buzz just for being difficult. However, when it got a lot of love during the Giant Bomb game of the year deliberations, I finally took it as a hint that it might be more than Hard Zelda.

The good news is that it is more than Hard Zelda. The action is much more varied and nuanced than classic Zelda. It requires taking a hit-and-run approach more often than not, and the game loves ambushes and overwhelming numbers. It’s a game where I had to be prepared for almost anything because it’d suddenly trap me behind a wall and drop a dozen enemies in the room.

A sorrowful tone permeates the game. The drifter regularly goes into (scripted) coughing fits between fights, leaving behind pools of blood. The landscapes are littered with skeletons and remains and the color palette is muted. It’s style is more Saturday morning cartoon than Warhammer 40K, but still evokes grim imagery. Combined with an amazing Disasterpeace soundtrack, it sets a perfect mood to explore the world, kill monsters, and die slowly.

Where it doesn’t really work is in the story and characters. The only written dialog is in a cypher scrawled on monoliths hidden throughout the world. The rest is conveyed through images; when you talk to anyone that has something to say, you hear sounds but see pictures of what they’re describing. It’s not always clear what the message is. There’s a short cutscene at the start, and a short one at the ending. Between those, if you find enough puzzle pieces in each of the four regions of the world, you’ll get another short cutscene. They’re not particularly revealing. As far as characters go, there’s one other character with any sort of agency. You’ll find them amid a pile of enemy bodies, and they’ll mark where the boss is on your map. Hyper Light Drifter is a lonely game by design, but it suffers from having so many NPCs around that do basically nothing. There’s more in this world, and they’re not saying anything about it.

This is a bummer because it feels like all of this sorrow should have something to say and it just doesn’t. It’s a beautiful, dark game with some fantastic gameplay, but there’s not much to the mystery. It’s only skin deep. But the challenge will get you through it, if you’re hooked by the combat loop, and it’s well worth playing for that reason. I don’t want to play a game that frustrates me, and Hyper Light Drifter nails difficult without getting too close to unfair.

2016 Games of the Year

10 – House of the Dying Sun

Some parts Battlestar Galactica mixed with some parts TIE Fighter makes a pretty good space dogfighter. Missions are short and to the point, and it’s got a real nihilistic feeling to it.

9 – Headlander

It’s a Metroidvania where you can’t jump. It’s pure 70’s sci-fi: weird, colorful, and full of lasers.

8 – Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

It expands the scope of the Call of Duty series in ways that I never expected. They could’ve called this a Halo prequel and they wouldn’t have been far off from how it feels. It also does a better job of building up actual characters than any other Call of Duty.

7 – Shadow Warrior 2

Sometimes repetitive, but I couldn’t stop enjoying it. It’s got tons of weapons and options for destroying endless hordes of demons.

6 – Rise of the Tomb Raider

This was a great followup to Tomb Raider. It expands upon that game in smart ways and it’s a fun action game.

5 – Firewatch

Calling this an outdoor Gone Home is terribly reductive, but it’s pretty close. The story kind of hand-waves away some of its problems, but it’s engrossing from beginning to end.

4 – Quadrilateral Cowboy

I love everything Blendo Games makes, and QuadCow is no exception. It’s got a great aesthetic and I love the retro command line puzzle solving.

3 – Salt and Sanctuary

I could never get into Dark Souls like I got into Salt and Sanctuary. That’s likely because S&S inherits as much from Castlevania as it does from Dark Souls. It’s a game that’s sometimes frustrating but I could never stay away for too long. There’s a huge number of enemies, and the memorable bosses will haunt your dreams until you finally vanquish them.

2 – INSIDE

LIMBO was okay. INSIDE is amazing. It’s short, but impossible to stop playing. The less said about it, the better, but I will say that it’s one of those games that keeps doing incredible things until it explodes at the very end.

1 – DOOM

I like all of the Doom games, even Doom 3, and I was skeptical that DOOM would be good. It spent a lot of time in development hell. It was all worth it. This is an amazing game that retains the feeling of the original while giving it a 2016 makeover.

Honorable mentions: Oxenfree, Asemblance, Batman – The Telltale Series

Games I probably should have liked but didn’t really grab me, so I didn’t spend much time with them: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Dishonored 2