Quantum Break is the newest title from Remedy Entertainment, creators of the Max Payne series and last-gen gem Alan Wake. It is a game that doesn’t seem terribly interested in being a game as much as it would really like to be a TV series with an interactive component.
Quantum Break follows Jack Joyce, played by Shawn Ashmore (X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Following, and by far the most important item on his resume, Animorphs), a character that absolutely fills out the “Wrong Place at the Wrong Time” action hero trope to a T. I’ve played through the whole game and to be honest with you, I still don’t really know that much about Jack other than the fact that he seems quite at home murdering people with lots of different firearms and that he can stop or slow time at will.
Despite this obvious lack of character background, Ashmore’s surprisingly grounded, urgently bewildered performance got me to care a great deal about Jack. I’m grateful to him for that. On paper, Jack ticks all the sci fi action hero boxes: he can’t properly explain the weird shit that’s happening to him and has only the barest understanding of the complicated science behind it, but he’s a goal-oriented problem solver, he’s handy with a gun and he’s ready to fix this thing. In the hands of another actor, Jack probably would have been your standard issue, as-played-by-Bruce-Willis action hero, but Ashmore conveys this feeling of bewilderment-meets-determination in a way that feels natural as opposed to the result of sloppy writing.
Anyway, Jack is caught up in a story involving time-travel experimentation gone wrong (or right, depending on your point of view) following an altercation with his brother Will (Dominic Monaghan, The Lord of the Rings, LOST) and his friend Paul Serene (Aiden Gillen, Game of Thrones, The Wire) ahead of an experiment to do with time travel. Without spoiling the game’s finer plot points, Serene becomes the game’s primary antagonist. Able to see into the future based on choices he may make (subject only to information he has at the time), Serene builds himself a profitable, well-equipped company called Monarch and begins a brutal manhunt for Jack. Jack enlists the help of a number of other people caught up in the timehopping insanity from within Monarch and without to try and keep time from tearing itself to shreds and ending life as we know it.
If you like a good, nutty time travel story then Quantum Break should be right up your alley. Its narrative twists and dives in exactly the complicated, bizarre ways that time travel stories do. The problem is it buries a lot of its juicier aspects in further reading — documents, audio diaries, maps and emails are waiting to be picked up throughout every level and fill in a great deal of the goings-on.
Here’s the rub, however: if you were to go through and collect 100% of all this information, you still wouldn’t be getting all of Quantum Break‘s story. The reason for this is that there’s a thirty minute live action episodes of a built-in live action TV show at the end of every level. Each episode plays out according to certain choices you make (I’ll talk more about those shortly) and provide a wealth of extra background story material. You can skip these extended cut scenes to get back to the game if you want, but in doing you so you will sacrifice vital information about the story. When the game starts up again, you’ll have no real basis for where Jack is, what he’s doing next and why. Full points to Remedy for style — taking control from the player and forcing them to watch a series of long videos is a rather bold decision to make in an action game, the sort of thing usually reserved for Metal Gear Solid games. I’m curious to see how Remedy’s experiment pans out, but I suspect it will be met with impatience by most players and with open arms by only a very select few.
I do think Remedy’s tv-show-cum-game strategy might have worked a bit better if the characters involved were more interesting. While Ashmore is able to make Jack a surprisingly sympatheric hero, the same can’t be said for a lot of his co-stars, many of whom are exceedingly talented actors in their own right. Aiden Gillen, so manipulative and cunning in his role as Littlefinger on Game of Thrones, doesn’t feel very threatening despite the tremendous power Serene wields. Dominic Monaghan puts in a breathlessly energetic performance as Jack’s brother Will but is undone by a truly valiant attempt at an American accent. Much of the supporting cast are made up of newcomers, the exception being amazing character actor Lance Reddick (another player from The Wire). Courtney Hope cuts an able action heroine figure as Beth Wilder, and leads a strong cast of women, all of whom are happy getting their hands dirty and getting amongst the action. Every one of these actors is trying their best but are let down by some clunky dialogue and paper-thin characters.
And boy will you be hearing a lot of dialogue. Remedy’s signature since the Max Payne days has been a near-lethal dose of internal monologue. For Quantum Break, the inner monologue has become an aural recounting of the game’s events as told by Jack during a debriefing. There is an awful lot of talking in this game, Jack’s earpiece a near constant river of chatter. Much of this nattering is the game tying itself in knots to explain its own nutty pseudoscience in terms the average shooter fan can understand.
When Quantum Break finally puts its The Order: 1886-esque dedication to being cinematic aside, there is a surprisingly fun third-person shooter to be found hiding in there. Your ability to meddle with time is bestowed on you early and is quite powerful from the jump. Jack can throw a time stop field a short distance to halt advancing troops or a shield in front of yourself to slow down incoming fire, he can flash forward short distances to cover ground more quickly and get up in the enemy’s face and he can perform a blast move that will knock enemies flying. He’s also got an Assassin’s Creed-esque ability to focus time and figure out where his foes are before heading into a firefight. It’s all good, flashy fun and it works quite well, especially as your powers expand and upgrades make you more powerful.
While a lot of the level design, particularly in the game’s early stages, is a bit on the samey side — lots of warehouses and office buildings to shoot your way through — there are occasional flashes of brilliance. At certain key points in the story, a huge, action-movie scale disaster will occur — a ship tears through a bridge for as far as I could tell literally no reason, a huge pile of shipping containers are flung across a massive dock — and Jack must use his abilities to navigate the wreckage-in-progress as it crashes down around him. It makes these sequences feel like the old puzzle chambers in Assassin’s Creed 2, and though a bit more linear than those rooms they do feel pretty satisfying to complete. Remember the old “walk along the gross dreamworld intestine tightrope” levels in the original Max Payne? With these levels, Remedy is updating those old missions for the current day.
At the end of each act, or level, in the game you are handed control of Paul Serene. Using his power to see a into the future based on his potential actions, you will be asked to choose one of two options. Serene see the consequences of making each decision ahead of time. These moments are called junctures and your choices will alter the timeline, affecting not only the way the story plays out in the game’s next act but also in the aforementioned TV show.
Visually, Quantum Break is very pretty. Like Until Dawn pretty. The motion, facial and performance capture on display here is among the best ever produced for a video game and while it wasn’t quite able to mimic Until Dawn‘s trick of making my brain blur the line between game and live action, it came pretty close on occasion.
It’s the way Remedy show the freezing and spasming of time as it is disrupted and begins to fall apart. When anomalies called Stutters begin to appear in the game’s third act, you get to see the game’s artists pull out all the stops and create some really startling imagery, especially during the wreckage sequences I spoke about earlier. They’ve found really exciting ways to freeze, contort and deconstruct levels that only moments ago seemed utterly mundane.
There are a few moments where the Xbox One seems to bite off a bit more than it can chew graphically and, funnily enough, it’s during the game’s cutscenes. It might have just been the review build that I was playing for this review but there was a substantial amount of stutter throughout many of the in-game cinematics, though I decided I would give the game a pass on this and chalk it up to time stutters. You can have that one for free, Remedy.
Taken as a whole, Quantum Break is an exceedingly strange creature. I can see it frustrating far more players than it pleases, but those that it does please are going to be positively howling for more games like this — games that are less games than they are multi-format experiences. There’s a part of me that wonders why Remedy didn’t just make a TV show because it seems like that’s what they’d rather be doing. Quantum Break is quite fun when it hands you the reins, but every time it takes them away, it all starts to feel like homework.
Review Score: 6.5 out of 10
Highlights: Gorgeous visuals; Ashmore is great; Cool powers
Lowlights: Having to sit through a built-in TV show to get the full story is asking a lot of a player who signed up to play a game
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Released: April 5, 2016
Platform: Xbox One, Windows PC
Reviewed on Xbox One