Quantum Break, Remedy Entertainment’s time-bending action-adventure, is a game made of the squishiest pulp, by enthusiastic developers who have taken their high-concept and ran with it to the very end. It is explosive, barely coherent, high-budget bluster. And, for the most part, is rather good fun.
You play as Jack Joyce, steel-eyed everyman, who has returned to the university in his hometown of Riverport at the request of his childhood pal Paul Serene. Serene has invented a time machine and wants Jack to witness his first jaunt around the space-time continuum. Jack agrees, despite his better judgment, and predictably it all goes comically wrong. The machine explodes. Paul vanishes into the temporal void before returning as the megalomaniacal CEO of sinister corporation Monarch Solutions. And time itself is fractured, leaving just hours until the universe is frozen in an endless loop. The upshot is that Jack is given time-bending superpowers and takes it on himself to take down Serene and Monarch.
What follows is a fundamental disagreement of the nature of time travel. Serene believes that time cannot be altered and the end of the world is inevitable (“I’ve seen the end of time!” he repeatedly crows) and is preparing for the end by doing exactly what he believes he must. Jack and a handful of rebels, meanwhile, believe they can change the future and fix the fracture. Mainly by shooting everyone, because this is a video game after all. Well, mostly.
Quantum Break is nominally a third-person shooter, but the twist is that a series of 20-minute live-action TV ‘episodes’ are weaved into the game at the conclusion of each act. And, in theory, your actions in the game will have an effect on many of the show’s scenes. The concept feels like a hangover from Microsoft’s initial (and since smartly discarded) obsession with the Xbox One being an all-encompassing entertainment hub rather than a video games console. Quantum Break was its multimedia poster-boy, ‘blurring the lines between video games and TV’ as the marketing blurb would have it.
It doesn’t, of course. Those expecting a revolution in video game storytelling should look elsewhere. The TV show is slickly made but is ultimately a collection of extended live-action cut-scenes, most of your decisions have only incidental changes to the narrative and the story simply isn’t good enough to carry the burden of its ambitions. When Quantum Break gives itself the chance to be so, however, it is a very good video game.
Ever since Max Payne’s influential bullet-time, developer Remedy has had a knack for crafting strong third-person shooting with a twist and Quantum Break is the studio’s best work in terms of its core systems. Jack has a suite of time powers he can use in his skirmishes against Monarch. A dash to speed out of trouble or flank unsuspecting goons, a bubble that freezes time in a specific spot, a supercharged blast, a shield.
There isn’t anything here that you won’t have seen before, but Remedy structure and layer these powers to make for thrilling and cathartic combat. Each power has its own cooldown time, meaning you can string abilities together. Freezing a group of enemies before unloading a clip at the bubble, leaving the bullets hanging in stasis, dashing around to flank another soldier who still has his eyes on where you were just standing. Boom. Your second target crumples just as your time bubble bursts, shredding the first group. Throw up a shield to catch your breath and pick off a few more.
It’s good stuff, encouraging you to keep on the front foot and utilise those powers. You will automatically duck behind cover, but the enemy AI is aggressive enough that staying in one place for too long is generally a bad idea. Particularly when soldiers with their own technologically-enabled time powers start showing up.
It helps that the environments, which tend to be a mix of urban grime and sleek sci-fi labs, have been afforded so much care. They are full of detail and highly reactive to the carnage that erupts on top of them, mortar and debris spitting at the camera, furniture and bric-a-brac hanging in the air, frozen in time.
One of the side-effects of the fracture is that the world is susceptible to ‘stutters’, time freezing and unfreezing without warning, certain objects getting caught in unpredictable loops. These form the basis of some light puzzling and platforming, with Jack able to manipulate the timeline of some objects to forge a path or clear an obstacle. One of the game’s highlights sees Jack traversing a bridge frozen in mid-destruction, leaping between flying bits of mortar, vehicles and road-signs, you freezing platforms in place as time judders and jumps. Make no mistake: at its best, Quantum Break is an absolute cracker.
But, my goodness, does it sacrifice a lot at the altar of middling sci-fi blather. The excellence of the mechanics never reach their potential, squeezed out by a misguided focus on its narrative. Just when the game starts to hit its stride, you are expected to watch a 20-minute live-action cut-scene. You are also encouraged to spend an inordinate amount of time finding ‘narrative objects’ scattered around the world –often insouciantly evil e-mail chains from Monarch-- splintering the pacing like one of the game’s stutters.
Quantum Break does have some clever time-twisting moments that double-back on themselves like any respectable temporal story should. But it is nowhere near strong enough to justify the attention it receives. The dialogue is flat and garbled, and the plot leaves threads dangling and unexplored or just clumsily tears holes in itself.
Much of this could be forgiven with a compelling lead but, while X-Men actor Shawn Ashmore makes a decent fist of portraying a steely action hero, Jack is kind of a bore. There is none of Max Payne’s crushing guilt or Alan Wake’s psychological trauma, just the meathead orthodoxy of a grizzled bloke on a revenge trip. The villains fare better, particularly Aiden Gillen as Serene, who captures the troubled antagonist with a mixture of narcissism and internal conflict, and Lance Reddick as Serene’s sinister right-hand man Martin Hatch.
It would be easy, and not without justification, to suggest glazing over the narrative chutzpah and just enjoy the game. But Quantum Break’s narrative and gameplay have a habit of bumping into each other. This is a game with plenty of good ideas. Too many, perhaps, with none given the room to flourish in what is a lavish, clumsy but always entertaining cacophony.