Quantum Break is a video game that is not comfortable being only a video game. Born from Microsoft’s now-abandoned cross-media initiative, Quantum Break is many things, only a fraction of them being a video game. It’s advertised as part television show, but it’s also part novel, part film, and part radio broadcast.
In a way, this is a shame because it is an absolute pleasure to play. It’s a game that excels at being a game, yet implores the player to spend a majority of the time either watching, reading, or listening. Maybe that’s okay, though, because all the other components are executed with similarly stunning proficiency. Still, it’s hard to not feel as if Quantum Break‘s individual parts outweigh the sum at times.
Quantum Break (PC, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release: April 5, 2016
This obvious cross-medium fracture is extra obvious because, well, a fracture is Quantum Break‘s main plot device. Protagonist Jack Joyce and soon-to-be antagonist Paul Serene cause a fracture in time during the opening minutes, and the rest of the game is spent trying to remedy it. As a result of this fracture, the world will experience random stutters where time ceases to move forward and everything’s frozen in place. The main conflict arises from the fact that both parties have very different ideologies about how to resolve it.
Serene is in charge of a mega-corporation called Monarch, a company that somehow specializes and profits off of time-travel technology. Monarch has a vested interest in getting its way. It’s classic “corporations are always bad, the little guy is always good” material.
Except, that’s not quite true. Quantum Break features prominent story junctions — opportunities when the player takes control of Serene, and makes a choice that strongly influences how the plot will play out. These always come directly before episodes of the television show (there are four in total), and they offer an unsettling look at how the other half lives.
These decisions have an unexpected heft about them. They begin somewhat light, but by the end, their collective weight accumulates. For instance, in my second playthrough, a supporting character played a suddenly-large role in working toward the game’s conclusion; in the first playthrough, that character saw hardly any screen time. However, these are different means to the same end. Different choices alter the details, but it all eventually funnels to the same closure.
Quantum Break, on paper, is not a game that should dabble in nuance. It’s a story about constant stakes-raising and heavy-handed action. From start to finish, rarely is there a moment of downtime when a critical plot development isn’t happening. It’s full speed ahead, right from the get-go.
That’s why it’s so impressive that Quantum Break is absolutely able to dabble in nuance. Most of this comes from the Monarch side of things, particularly in the television show. Developer Remedy did a fine job of writing these characters in a way that causes them all to be sympathetic to some degree. These nefarious no-good-doers have reasons for their actions, and maybe, just maybe, they aren’t all so nefarious after all.
Perhaps the greatest accolade to heap upon the story is that it made me want to consume all this extra media. Stumbling across collectibles in the game’s linear world, I wanted to read several paragraphs to take in more backstory. Having just reached a crescendo at the end of an act, I wanted to set the controller down and watch the TV show. Although I wish the narrative were more closely interwoven with the gameplay, I was intrigued enough by the always-moving story to constantly press on.
However, the gameplay shouldn’t be relegated to an afterthought. It’s the glue that holds Quantum Break together, and is very likely its single best quality. Remedy made a third-person shooter in which you will fail if you play it like every other third-person shooter. It’s built on movement instead of hesitation, and creativity instead of accuracy.
Because of Joyce’s proximity to the incident causing the fracture in time, he has been exposed to chronons; it’s an affliction that gives him time-bending powers, even in instances where time itself isn’t bending. This is how Joyce is able to trap enemies in time bubbles, shoot bullets at the bubble, and then wait for the bubble to collapse causing all the bullets to fire directly into the enemy. Or, it’s how he’s able to dash from point to point, each stoppage slowing time to a crawl (a Remedy earmark, after all) allowing for easy and efficient headshots.
Any single instance of correctly using these powers is a gratifying one, but chaining them together is supremely rewarding. Combat sequences can be quick and powerful displays of aptitude for those well-versed in Quantum Break‘s systems. Those who hide behind cover will just find themselves flanked by the aggressive enemies and likely soon dead. That Remedy was able to so enjoyably subvert the third-person cover shooter model should be this game’s lasting legacy. It’s an impressive feat.
But, as mentioned above, this is only a fraction of Quantum Break. The gameplay is excellent, the cutscenes are interesting, even the live-action stuff is surprisingly engaging. Everything about it works great individually, but everyone will absolutely notice that they’re just that: individual parts. The overarching story connecting it all isn’t enough to keep it from feeling disjointed.
It’s a disappointing realization, but not a damning one. Far from it, actually. Remedy’s keen understanding of how to make an action title shines through, and it’s every bit a game that has been lovingly crafted for years. Quantum Break won’t at all times feel like a game, as the player spends a fair chunk of time relegated to spectator. But, no matter which side Quantum Break is showing, it’s always going to be a spectacular one.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]