They say time flies when you’re having fun. And time definitely does fly, for better or for worse, in Quantum Break – a unique melding of an action-adventure video game and an episodic TV show, starring some recognizable Hollywood talent.
Developed by Remedy Entertainment, the Finland-based creators of the Max Payne and Alan Wake franchises, Quantum Break is the story of Jack Joyce (X-Men’s Shawn Ashmore) – a likeable, if slightly rough-around-the-edges, guy who has recently returned to his hometown of Riverport. When visiting his former mentor Paul Serene (Game of Thrones’ Aiden Gillen) at Serene’s high-tech lab, Jack becomes an unwilling participant in an experiment that causes a fracture in time itself. One that will lead to the end of the world if it isn’t fixed by Jack’s troubled scientist brother, William (Lord of the Rings’ Dominic Monaghan.)
This fracture triggers increasingly severe ripples throughout the city, causing time to unexpectedly freeze or get caught in a loop. It also grants Jack a set of remarkable superpowers, such as being able to stop time in a bubble around an enemy, pump it full of bullets and then watch as a hail of hot lead wipes out the poor sap when the bubble pops.
I love a good time-travel story, and the Xbox One-exclusive Quantum Break is a meaty, twisty tale with a lot of memorable (and a few slightly hammy) characters who seamlessly move back and forth between the game and the show. But by being so groundbreaking, Quantum Break has some trouble finding its footing
Sometimes it’s a straightforward third-person shooter that feels like a less-polished version of Infamous. Other times it seems to be channelling games like Gone Home, where much of the story and character history is gleaned through e-mails and journals scattered throughout the game world. These two halves never quite seem to mesh.
Each of the four 22-minute streaming TV episodes does a great job of moving the story forward and revealing what’s going on behind the scenes at Serene’s Monarch Solutions. While you won’t mistake it for The Wire (despite the presence of the awesome Lance Reddick as a scheming Monarch executive), the show wouldn’t look out of place if you came across it on traditional TV.
It’s easy to get invested in Quantum Break’s thought-provoking plot and cool to see how closely the digital actors resemble their real-world counterparts, so putting the controller down every 90 minutes or so to watch half an hour of TV isn’t a big deal. But Quantum Break is definitely a story first and a video game second.
And that’s the thing I kept running up against while playing. I loved unearthing plot nuggets in e-mails, lab reports and such, and much of this material – such as a heartbreaking journal written by one character to her younger self and a hilariously awful screenplay penned by a Monarch employee – is really well done. From schematics for a time machine to a series of whiteboards outlining how Monarch can capitalize on historical events from 1999 to 2016, the digital props in the game’s visually stunning and densely detailed world look like something out of a big-budget film.
But as a game, Quantum Break has a few problems. Checkpoints are set frustratingly far apart, and death often leads to a lot of backtracking. Aiming and movement feel a bit stiff and twitchy, and I spent a lot of time zigzagging the crosshair past my intended target as I attempted to line up a head shot, or watching Jack do sad little bunny hops as I tried to climb what looked like an easily scalable object.
Jack’s time-based superpowers are a ton of fun to use in combat, but environmental puzzles and platforming sequences, such as a cargo ship caught in a looping time stutter after plowing into a bridge, feel like they’ve been shoehorned in simply to give players something to do between firefights.
(Speaking of which, Quantum Break joins a long list of games starring a supposedly average dude who instantly becomes a mass-murdering super soldier. It’s a familiar trope in games like this, but I wish the story had at least tried to address it.)
Quantum Break demands to be played through more than once, in part because the so-called junction sequences after each game chapter decide the fate of secondary characters, and it’s cool to see how different choices impact elements of the game and the show.
But also because there’s just not a huge amount of game in this game, and right when you start to get a solid handle on Jack’s time powers – using his super speed to zip around while chaining together time bubbles, takedowns and slow-mo gunplay – the whole thing is over, capped by an unsatisfying final chapter and an underwhelming boss battle.
Quantum Break is an innovative new direction for interactive storytelling, and with the ending leaving things wide open for more, I hope Remedy does a sequel to this innovative hybrid of a show and a game. I just hope the next one offers more to do with the time we’re given.