It’s difficult to write a convincing story about time travel because we just don’t know what really happens or what rules apply. Quantum Break, the Xbox One’s exclusive new third-person shooter from Remedy Entertainment, stays away from the hows and whys and assumes that time travel can happen. It’s not as dumb as Superman spinning the Earth the wrong way really fast, but you do end up going around in a circle.
In Quantum Break, you play as Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore, Iceman in the X-Men movies), a rugged 30-something traveler and adventurer. I’m not quite sure what he does, although there are hints that he’s had firearm training. Mercenary? Private Eye? Serial killer? You’ll never know nor care.
The story kicks off when Jack is invited to take part in a secret experiment by his childhood friend, Paul Serene (Aiden Gillen, Littlefinger on Game of Thrones), a smooth talking entrepreneur and money man affiliated with the local university. Using a time machine developed by Jack’s estranged brother Will (Dominic Monaghan, Charlie from Lost), they run an unsanctioned after-hours test of its time traveling capabilities before its official reveal to stakeholders.
Shit soon hits the temporal fan, and Jack ends up with scientifically dubious time powers. Hunted by the big, bad Monarch Corporation, as well as a similarly time power-imbued Paul Serene and his lackey Martin Hatch (Lance Reddick, The Wire‘s Lt. Daniels), Jack finds himself in a race against time to ensure the survival of time itself.
Unlike most third person shooters, the gameplay almost does away with cover. Jack will duck behind a sofa or hide behind a column in a firefight, but it all feels rather flimsy, janky, and floaty, lacking the snap-to-cover feeling that most games in the genre have. It will bother players who expect to hunker down behind conveniently-placed cover, although if you plan on doing that, you’re playing the game wrong.
You’re given time-related powers as soon as bullets start to fly, and it’s obvious that you’re supposed to use them. Each power recharges on its own timer and doesn’t require any sort of energy or mana. The movement and powers makes the game feel like Alan Wake and Max Payne meet Infamous, with some Vanquish thrown in on top. Cover exists to give you a breather when you’re surrounded by enemies, but the game is best played on the move.
It’s also best to use a variety of powers. Time Vision briefly highlights enemies on screen. Once you know where the next enemy is located, you’ll use Time Dodge to boost a short distance while using slow-motion bullet-time to aim. You can then fire Time Stop to freeze an enemy in a bubble of suspended time, which you’ll then pump full of bullets that also become suspended until the bubble bursts, exploding and killing anyone nearby.
From time to time, there are temporal “stutters” where everything is suspended in midair while you’re free to walk around, explore the environment, and steal people’s weapons. It’s a cool concept that leads to some nice visuals, but it’s a bit empty and a major missed opportunity.The game opens up once you become more adept at stringing powers together, but the experience can get repetitive due to limited enemy types that operate on fairly basic AI. You’ll find yourself repeating the same tactics as you vanquish wave after wave of Monarch soldiers.
The environment is much more engaging. Remedy does a superb job of creating a world that feels lived-in, as if the city exists in the real world. It’s a nice touch that helps ground a game with such a fantastical premise.Quantum Break wisely avoids over-complicating the story with too many technical explanations of how time travel works – it exists, there are some pre-defined rules, and it eventually breaks – which allows Remedy to get straight to the point.
However, light exposition is not the same as lack of story. It’s just not presented through dialogue or traditional cut scenes. You’ll find whiteboard drawings, charts, journals, notes, cellphone messages, and emails that reveal more about people’s relationships and the inner workings of Monarch, so you’ll be reading a lot if you choose to go looking for all the collectibles.
The game is separated into acts, which are further separated into chapters, and the episodic structure gives it a similar feel to Alan Wake. After each act, the game hands you control of the main antagonist, Paul Serene, and forces you to make a binary choice. It’s a great change of pace that adds depth to the character. Suddenly Paul’s not just a megalomaniacal super villain, but a conflicted victim of circumstance who is trying to do the right thing the only way he can. The decisions you make as Paul affect the game’s story in small ways, and lightly impacts the events of the TV show.
Yes, there’s a TV show. In addition to the narrative collectibles, each act is bookended with an honest-to-goodness television series, with episodes that run about 22-25 minutes. The TV series gives you a break from Jack Joyce, and follows side characters who are essential to advancing the story. The show also gives you more insight into the Monarch corporation and the power struggle that manifests there.
The production values on the show are uneven, like a lower budget sci-fi show on FOX that gets cancelled earlier than expected (Being Human, I’m looking at you). Beyond the casting Lance Reddick, Quantum Break even has elements of Fringe, and I would’ve wanted to see more done with the side characters. The TV show made me more sympathetic towards peripheral characters than Jack, who is pretty much just a killing machine. You come to realize that Monarch’s employees are people with their own families and lives that just happen to work for a large corporation that doesn’t seem explicitly evil. It’s easy to see how Jack could be painted as a terrorist.
Interspersing the full length TV episodes offers a unique experience, but the forced stop in gameplay is a bit jarring and pulls the player out of any gaming groove. I suspect it’ll annoy those who just want to play a video game, though as a new father, I welcomed the stoppages because they divide the game into discrete sections. I have to applaud Remedy and Microsoft for experimenting with a mixed-media approach that goes well beyond novelizations or an extended universe. We’ve seen TV-meets-gaming projects before – notably the cancelled TV show Defiance – and they were less than stellar. Quantum Break does it relatively seamlessly given the content and source material.
Ultimately, the story is there to spur you forward, but it feels too convoluted, jumping between time periods and relying too much on collectibles for clarity. Quantum Break has some novel ideas, but there are a few too many unanswered questions and unsatisfied promises at the end. In a way, it’s a bit like time travel. Quantum Break lets you go back and try new approaches, but the end result is generally the same.
A version of this article appeared on gamervets.com. Reprinted with Permission. The repost has been edited for length.