Originally published on Trevor Trove on April 11, 2016
TL; DR(eview) – Supported by decent third-person shooter mechanics, the standout of Quantum Break is its time-bending story, beautiful graphics, and great performances.
When Quantum Break was first announced, I remember being intrigued by the notion of combining a game with filmed television-like episodes that were influenced by the player’s actions. Then I mostly didn’t pay attention to information on the game until shortly before release, when I really started identifying Shawn Ashmore (X-Men) and Aiden Gillen (Game of Thrones) as the faces of the game in various bits of marketing and coverage. With friends who have been singing the praises of Alan Wake for years and a desire to turn on and update my Xbox One, I eagerly picked up Remedy Entertainment’s latest title.
I will avoid story spoilers, but comparisons I make to other time travel media might be considered light spoiler territory. You’ve been warned.
Past, Present, and Future
Quantum Break starts you off in the shoes of Jack Joyce (Ashmore), helping out friend Paul Serene (Gillen) with an off-the-books time travel experiment. As often happens in these situations, thing go awry quickly sending Paul back in time and giving Jack time-controlling superpowers. Aided by his estranged brother William (Dominic Monaghan, Lord of the Rings), Jack sets out to repair the fracture in time caused by the experiment. Paul, who also received powers in the accident, traveled all the way back to 1999, where he launched the Monarch Corporation. But to avoid the complications of two Paul Serene’s in the world, he turned to his confidant Martin Hatch (Lance Reddick, Fringe) to serve as the face of the organization. Jack and the Monarch Corporation approach the impending “End of Time” problem with different strategies: Jack and William believe they can repair the fracture while Paul insists time has already played out and is working to save a team in isolation that will be able to build a new world after the calamity.
Still with me? Cool.
I really enjoyed the twists and turns of the story. Remedy wisely doesn’t go overboard with the time travel aspects of the plot. This is much more influenced by Twelve Monkeys than Doctor Who, for example, but principles from both of those mediums rule the elements of this world: time is, for all intents and purposes, locked. You can’t go back and change things. This helps dramatically with the storytelling and you are proceeding through Jack’s story quite linearly. You’ll encounter other characters somewhat out of order in their timelines but the game does a great job of pacing the big reveals throughout its somewhat Shakespearean five-act structure.
Master of Time and Space
The gameplay is somewhat straightforward third-person shooting mechanics. There’s a bit of a cover-based system at play where Jack will automatically duck behind cover. I appreciated not needing to tap a separate button to hide behind a car or counter and I never really ran into any problems where I felt the enemies shouldn’t be hitting me if I was behind something.
Quantum Break adds various Time Powers into the mix like the ability to freeze an enemy in time or the ability to slow time around you and dash up to or behind enemies. Most firefights will consist of a balance between immobilizing enemies with your powers and shooting them with your array of standard firearms (pistols, shotguns, machine guns/submachine guns, etc.). By collecting “chronon sources” hidden throughout the game, you can upgrade these powers (reducing cooldown times, increasing durations, etc.). Combat wasn’t terribly taxing, playing through on Normal. The only times I ever really died were when I got reckless and stayed out of cover.* Ammo was plentiful and the ability to manipulate time left me feeling satisfied and powerful, even if not particularly challenged.
* The exception being the final boss battle as the game commits the annoying sin of throwing in new unexplained mechanics that can kill you thanks to something cheap like a bad camera angle and an instant-kill attack. It took a half dozen tries to understand what was going on and each time I had to replay through the fairly rote first-half of the battle. By the time I finally beat it, the closing moments had left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth and based on a few other tweets on my feed, I was not alone.
In between each of the game’s five acts, you’re pressed to make one of two choices that will affect how the rest of the story will play out. These are most directly linked to the live-action episodic interstitials that focus on another side of the story. While the game has you following Jack’s story, the television show component focused on some of the game’s side characters to give you a look at what’s going on at the Monarch Corporation through all of this. I thought this was a great approach to show the player the other side of the story. It would have been all too easy for Monarch to just be a faceless villain corporation like you might see in so many other games/TV shows/movies. But these interstitials humanize the game’s antagonists, following the old adage, “every great villain is the hero of their own story.”
Having played through the game making one set of choices, I look forward to exploring the replay as I choose the other set of options to see how drastically they affect these videos. Outside of the big binary choices, you can find Quantum Ripples throughout the game that will affect additionally miscellaneous scenes. I found these to be a little distracting personally as they were often nothing more than a line referencing a thing you did or didn’t find in the previous act with virtually no bearing on the overall story. As a result, these little moments just stuck out like a sore thumb when viewed against the whole.
One of the things that immediately jumped out at me was how good the game looks. Apart from the slightest bit of uncanny valley (the eyes in these motion capture performances just always look too dead), the characters were so close to resembling their performers that it often took me a second when transitioning between the game and show to figure out which one I was looking at. Beyond that, I loved the art direction and style of the game’s “stutters” – the moments where time is frozen around you as you traverse the world.
On a much more subtle note, I look forward to reading and re-reading through all of the collectible optional narrative elements. The handful I have read so far have either been incredibly entertaining (I hope some creative YouTubers decide to make a fan film of Time Knife) or insightful into fleshing out other characters and aspects of the world.
Quantum Break does a great job setting up a potential new franchise for Microsoft. As a standalone title, it has an incredibly engaging story and characters along packaged alongside a solid shooter. The game, television show, and optional hidden content all do a great job setting up a world that goes far beyond this introduction.