‘Quantum Break’ review: Show, don’t tell

By Steve Watts



In “Quantum Break,” a time travel experiment gone wrong leads to a tear in time, as possible realities crash into each other in shattered pieces throughout the world. The game itself exemplifies the same problem. The two directions are at odds with each other in such a way that they can’t coexist at the same time, leading the whole experience to feel bisected. The narrative, story-driven TV tie-in and the compelling, cover-based shooter never merge into one cohesive whole as they should, leading to compromises in both.


Case in point: our protagonist, Jack Joyce. In the opening act, he mentions he’s familiar with guns because he’s been in some scrapes before. Conflicts serious enough to necessitate a gun implies more than schoolyard hijinks, so the revelation seems ominous and implies a greater degree of depth to explore in his past. In any other Remedy game, this would likely be a lynchpin of character development. In “Quantum Break,” it’s a throwaway line to justify why our hero can stand toe-to-toe with a paramilitary organization in combat encounters.

Jack is well-acted, inasmuch as Shawn Ashmore has room to explore the character, but there’s simply not much to him. We understand that he’s the family screw-up compared to his brother Will’s (Dominic Monaghan) twitchy, nervous intelligence, and that’s about it. His agency is strictly relegated to fumbling through this insane situation he’s found himself in, and when he does develop a motivation of his own it feels left-field and unearned.

That may be because all the real agency in the story comes from Paul Serene, played with hand-wringing megalomaniacal glee by Aiden Gillen. His character is barely one-and-a-half notes, going from cocksure but harmless bravado to outright supervillainy in almost literally the blink of an eye. Each of the choices presented in the game are from Paul’s perspective, as he determines how to manage the affairs of his evil empire.

These choices affect the game proper in some ways, but the bigger impact comes in the form of the lengthy, live-action TV episodes that punctuate each act. Your choices dictate which ones you see, along with some minor gameplay branches. The episodes are pretty nicely produced, roughly on-par with a sci-fi show you might find on network TV. But like all but the best time travel stories, it collapses under its own weight, especially given that we have to keep track of multiple versions of multiple characters, each with their own ever-changing level of knowledge about what’s going on.

The in-engine cutscenes fall just short of seamless from their real-life counterparts. The facial capture is impeccably animated with even the slightest tick, but occasionally Ashmore or Monaghan’s cheeks or lips will slip into looking melted or doughy. It’s almost imperceptible, and rare, so as a whole it’s a testament to how good Remedy’s facial tech has gotten since Alan Wake. I still never got used to Monaghan’s greased-over hair, though.


If it seems like I’ve gone on for quite a while treating this video game as if it’s a more passive media like a movie or show, that’s because the product itself feels split into distinct parts. The vast majority of time in “Quantum Break” is spent watching the lengthy cutscenes, low levels of interaction in walk-and-talk scenes between characters, and looking around an environment for small story items. Platform traversal and combat scenarios that we would commonly recognize as the meat-and-potatoes of a video game are interspersed throughout, but really only add up to a handful of hours.

That’s a shame, because what is here shows promise, and I’d like to have played more of it. Some of the powers granted by the time travel is among the most inventive I’ve seen. A time bubble, my personal favorite, not only freezes an enemy in place for a short time but also catches all of the bullets you fire into it. The result is a ludicrous spray of bullets as soon as the bubble dissipates, giving a clever double-function as a life-saving panic button or a tool to take down heavies.


The same care and attention went into the time travel effects themselves, which manifest as a strange visual glitch everywhere you look. Pockets of more disrupted areas look like reality has turned into a broken mirror. One particular story sequence that lets you freely roam as time blurs before your eyes is one of the most visually arresting things I’ve seen in this generation of consoles.

Jack’s powers are really the main gameplay hook, seemingly meant to compensate for the weaknesses in the cover system. “Quantum Break” is ostensibly a cover-based shooter, but there’s no snap-to command. It’s all contextual as you approach surfaces, and that removal of control makes for some unpredictability. The ability to quickly dash from point to point or slow down time make it less frustrating than a cover shooter without a real cover system may have been, but I still ran into problematic areas that could’ve been avoided if I’d simply been able to tell Jack when to get down.


At one point, Paul Serene emphatically states that the timeline is set and the advent of time fracturing and collapsing on itself can’t be avoided. There is only one reality, he argues. If “Quantum Break” is a game fractured between two worlds, the one reality set for us as players is the one in which it’s a shooter that often isn’t a shooter, and a story that doesn’t fully explore its narrative potential. It has intriguing ideas regarding both, but in this case, two halves don’t really make a whole.


This review is based on an Xbox One download code provided by the publisher. “Quantum Break” is available in retail stores and digital storefronts for $59.99. The game is rated M.


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