Coming from the team behind Max Payne and Alan Wake and featuring an all-star cast, including Shawn Ashmore, Lance Reddick, Dominic Monaghan and Aidan Gillen, Quantum Break is a piece of hybrid entertainment that looks to meld videogames and television, and infuses the result with branching storylines, arresting visuals and a narratively rich world that aims to take the player on a unique journey.
You take control of Jack Joyce, portrayed by Shawn Ashmore, and begin the game having been called to Riverport University by your best friend Paul, who’s been collaborating on a project with your brother Will. Thinking you’re there to mediate, you’re soon dragged into the thick of it when their project is activated, revealing itself to be a time machine, causing a rift in time, and setting in motion the end of everything that we know.
As a side-effect of the accident, you’re granted Chronon-based powers, which allow you to control time in a variety of ways. These abilities are leant some particularly unimaginative names, with Time Vision reveals enemies and items of interest to you, Time Dodge and Time Rush letting you speed out of harms way, along with Time Shield, Time Blast and Time Stop. The third-person action sections require you to utilise all of these elements in order to make your way through, and they can all be upgraded as you progress.
Quantum Break cribs a number of its gameplay ideas from other places. Jack’s Time Vision is essentially Batman’s Detective Mode or Lara Croft’s Survival Instinct, Paul Serene’s Junction powers come straight out of Life Is Strange, while the mix of gunplay and special abilities feel a lot like Mass Effect crossed with inFamous: Second Son.
It’s fair to say that if you’re going to amalgamate a number of previous ideas it makes sense to pick from some of the best titles of recent years, but that means it comes down to the narrative structure and the TV show elements to push boundaries rather than the gameplay, building on the work Remedy did with Alan Wake.
Gunfights are often challenging, and each encounter requires the full use of your abilities in order for you to survive. From common guards to the speedy Striker units, the capabilities of the operatives put before you steadily escalate through the game and require different tactics. Admittedly, they’re largely a generic bunch clad in radiation suits or military gear, but as you begin to meet the more heavily armoured combatants things can become frenetic and suitably involving.
The game’s narrative is significantly fleshed out by the Quantum Insights located about each level, from radio transmissions, through to emails and posters. They’re generally well written, but they’re presented in a fairly mundane manner, and on a handful of occasions you’ll find yourself having to read or activate far too many at once. You have to find all of the extra information to see every scene of the TV show, which does provide some incentive, especially if you want to fully grasp all of the events that are occurring.
As with any time travelling story, there are probably some questions about people’s actions and of the permanence of those actions, but Quantum Break does a good job of staying on target through its narrative beats. Perhaps the only unnecessary part comes from some of the pseudo-scientific explanations in the extra material, that confuse rather than define.
You’ll also wonder if Jack is a computer hacking genius, or if Monarch employees are just incompetent when it comes to protecting classified information. It’s probably better not to think too hard about it, but it all seems far too easily accessible to him, whether time is frozen or not.
There aren’t any puzzles as such, but finding all of the narrative elements and the Chronon Sources can require some lateral thinking and exploration. An individual playthrough is going to be a relatively linear experience, even with the differing choices available to you.
You’ll find a number of characters live or die based on your choices, and that you’ll see some different content, but your overarching influence still leads to the same result. That’s particularly pertinent, given the nature of the game’s narrative, but it’s a little disappointing given the illusion of choice.
Fortunately, exploring all of the options available to you is easily achieved by jumping into the timeline and starting on a different path. You briefly take control of Paul Serene during the Junction sections and utilise his powers to see into the future. You’re effectively playing against yourself, but perhaps you decide to choose actions that aid Jack Joyce rather than hinder him.
Quantum Break can often be a fantastic looking game. The character animation is of a very high quality, with some of the best facial mapping yet seen, while the visual effects, particularly those within the frozen time stutters, can look quite remarkable. We’re not quite out of the uncanny valley yet, but Quantum Break is certainly leading the charge.
Perhaps the only slight shame is the locations themselves, which are somewhat lacking in character, despite how well they’re presented. There are too many moments set within abandoned warehouses or derelict buildings to create much wow factor, though it doesn’t diminish from the storytelling or the gameplay itself, and some of the later set pieces have plenty to delight visually.
The Quantum Break TV show meanwhile absolutely looks the part, boasting production values that rival many top US shows and making the most of the stellar cast. Amidst the temporal catastrophe that’s unfolding, perhaps the most unbelievable element of the entire thing is that everyone has Windows Phones!
The audio is also exemplary, from the score through to audio snippets and effects. Again, it’s during the time stutters where this is particularly evident, with slowed conversations mingling with the oppressive background audio to create a thoroughly engaging soundscape. The music tracks include the likes of Paramore’s Now and often make for a welcome change of pace too, sometimes lending a lighter touch that strikes a pleasant balance against the oft-serious tone.
There are annoyances to some of the design here though, primary amongst them being lacklustre checkpointing putting you back at the beginning of encounters for no valid reason, or, even worse, on back to the start of a cutscene which when skipped dumps you into a silent loading screen that utterly breaks your engagement. In the case of some of the key battles, this can cause some serious frustration if you have to replay them a number of times. Quantum Break can also be somewhat finicky about where you’re stood to activate specific activities, and jumping and traversing isn’t as seamless as you’d hope.
Quantum Break operates as a streaming service when you watch the TV show portions, and this struggled at times when I was playing through, throwing up a message about the content buffering despite my fast internet connection. At one point it failed entirely.
There is a way around this if you have the space to download and install the episodes to your hard drive, though at a hefty 75GB this isn’t going to be a viable option for everyone. Hopefully these are teething issues prior to release and the streaming service can cope with all of the players liable to be streaming the content at the same time. After all, the show is an absolutely integral part of the experience, fleshing out the world, and in particular a number of the supporting characters.
Quantum Break is an engaging and enjoyable narrative experience, and it makes the most of its stellar cast, pushing the boundaries of storytelling in games and presentation. However, it won’t be for everyone, particularly those who don’t like to be led by the hand or don’t want to spend an extended amount of time watching content rather than interacting with it. It also falsely makes you feel like you have a choice, but then, that’s much of its point, and despite a few missteps this is a story well worth experiencing.