There’s a sequence in Quantum Break where your character encounters a television set placed conspicuously in your path. Turning it on reveals another episode of Night Springs, the Twilight Zone spoof that Alan Wake utilized so well. I watched the short skit (an audition to be the new Night Springs’ narrator which – in an ironic twist – is given to the one candidate who can’t remember the show’s name) and thought about how great a game Alan Wake was. It had several well-rendered levels, interesting and novel battles, hilarious (and concise) live action episodes sprinkled throughout the game, and an interesting plot that was told through terrific gameplay. Then I took a deep breath and re-entered the clippy, repetitive, surprisingly short Quantum Break.
Okay, maybe I’m being a little harsh. After all, the premise of Quantum Break is pretty sound. In the game, your character – Jack Joyce – is invited to witness the first time-travel experiment and – after a lab mishap – develops time-bending abilities. Jack’s friend-turned-rival Paul Serene steals the machine and Jack spends the bulk of the game fighting to get it back against Serene’s army of mercenaries. We’ve already discussed the cool perspective-switching the game uses. These mercenaries are nicely intelligent, too, as the flank when they can and retreat tactically when they start to lose. Jack’s powers help him keep the upper hand as he can freeze enemies, create bullet shields, and later dash around and knock them unconscious with a single punch. It is very fun to run through a group of heavily armed enemies, knocking them out like Quicksilver in the Xmen movies.
The gameplay is good for a while but starts to stagnate pretty early. Jack’s enemies are essentially bullet sponges who enter the far side of the room and battle you in various areas. The game gets a little more interesting when time freezes for large areas and you can move among soldiers and civilians in the middle of various actions. Later, you encounter soldiers who, like you, can still move through these frozen environments, but the novelty wears off pretty quickly; a gunfight in frozen time is essentially the same as your regular gunfights. Worse, Jack has a tendency to find himself in destructive environments he has to make his way through and while these scenes are conceptually cool (particularly the collapsing bridge on the fourth stage) the actual execution can be glitchy and your path through can be difficult to find; thankfully, the game reloads quickly.
By far, the weirdest choice Quantum Break makes is to film lengthy, live-action episodes in which live actors perform between gameplay acts . While Jack (Shawn Ashmore) and Paul (the awesome Aidan Gillen) fleetingly appear, the episodes are largely focused on tangential characters you briefly encounter in gameplay or underdeveloped characters from the game (e.g., the awesome Lance Reddick). You’ll learn a weird amount about the hacker who tried to keep his girlfriend safe and a random guard who was just following orders in order to provide for his family. These sequences are on par with a SciFi network TV show (not Battlestar but maybe Defiance) and – when you think about the time, money and effort that went into creating them – it’s utterly bewildering why they exist.
Given how short Quantum Break is – and the game can easily be completed in a long weekend – it’s difficult to understand why so much effort went in to these sequences. Someone please point me to the game review that said “the cutscenes were excellent but sadly too short.” Relatedly, I would like some developer somewhere to point me to any great game in the history of gaming that hired a recognizable movie star for its protagonist. The characters models here look very much like the actors, but why bother with that other than to have continuity with these bizarrely long episodes? And for a game this short, there’s a surprising amount of backtracking as many times Jack decides he needs revisit an area which is now restocked with another round of guards. Man, what I wouldn’t give to be able to travel back through time to earlier in this game’s development to get rid of these television episodes in favor of lengthier levels.
In the end, it’s hard not to miss Alan Wake, a great little horror title that perfectly incorporated live action sequences to enhance to the gameplay experience. Quantum Break, instead, bookends very traditional gameplay with exceedingly long television episodes. It is always frustrating when a game that seems to have this much invested in creativity gives your protagonist a gun (“I’ve used a gun before” he intones, which is good as he’s about to kill hundreds of soldiers), but to switch from killing dozens of nameless soldiers to live action episodes that focus on character development can get really jarring. Imagine if episodes of Fear the Walking Dead bookended levels of Dead Island, or episodes of Ray Donovan were inserted between stages of Grand Theft Auto. For Quantum Break, in the end, I’m not sure if I’m watching a show based on a mediocre game or playing a game based on a mediocre show. Either way, I’d rather be playing Alan Wake.
Speeding around battlefields like Quicksilver is a lot of fun and part of the fourth act on the collapsing bridge is a fun sequence. The acting is also really good (even if the characters are all pretty conventional).
The game is far too reliant on traditional gunplay and many of the levels are cool ideas that don’t translate into great gameplay (there’s a sequence in a shipyard that can get really glitchy). The extensive live-action episodes are entirely skippable which leads to even more questions about why they exist.
OUR VERDICT: SKIP IT
The game suffers from creative ideas that aren’t executed well, gameplay mechanics that were dated years ago, and an overreliance on extended live-action episodes that aren’t nearly as interesting as anything else on TV. Quantum Break made some weird choices along the way and it’s really weird that a game this invested in time travel seems to have learned so little from the past.