Quantum break is a mess. Its core concept, “what if we interspersed a television show in between acts of a video game?” is intriguing, but executed in a very strange way. When I first heard this idea I assumed that the video game would have limited narrative within it, and the story would be located in the TV show episodes. This seemed potentially smart. Video games are not always great at telling stories so why not outsource that function to a better storytelling medium? Games do it all the time with cut scenes, and this would be far from the first game to use live action actors in those cut scenes, but it would be structured with more room to really let the story grow and provide background to the action.
That’s not what they did.
Instead Quantum Break is a normal video game with a normal video game story and then also a television show that tells a story that’s adjacent to the videogame story. Some characters overlap and the events go on concurrently, but for the most part it’s a different cast, different (though intersecting) plot and, most importantly, different stakes. Quantum Break the video game is about a disaster caused by a time machine and the battle between a scrappy group of survivors against an all-powerful corporation while the world ends around them. Quantum Break the TV show is about corporate intrigue and building up characters who don’t really matter in the video game and looking relatively good and glossy on a low budget.
It's a bad mix. It’s a bad mix because the TV show characters are clearly not the heroes who are going to save the day (it would be gutsy but also dumb to put the player in charge of the secondary character) and because it disrupts the pacing. It’s also a bad mix because the TV show is at the quality level of a bland but professional cable TV show or straight to Netflix movie. It’s not embarrassing but it’s kind of boring and none of the main actors are overly charismatic or interesting. When Lance Reddick is in it the show is better, but Lance Reddick is in it for a couple scenes an episode and then it’s back to mediocre basic cable stuff. Watching two professional but kind of bland actors flirt does not provide sufficient reason to pull me away from my video game.
You also end up with what feels like double the story the game should have (since there are video game cut scenes in the game, and lots of collectibles with important story bits in them too.) There are entire chapters of the game where you don’t fight anyone but just walk around, reading things, talking to people, and learning about the game world. Layering that on top of the TV show was…a lot.
It would have worked much better if Quantum Break was just a normal video game with interspersed live action cut scenes.
All that being said, the game part of Quantum Break is pretty good. It’s also a little bit of a mess, without the level of polish and tightness that defines a great game, but it’s fun and stands out from the crowd. In a world where every third person shooter feels the need to be cover based Quantum Break says “Nah, I’m good” and creates a gameplay loop based on using time powers and dashing around, creating shields and freezing enemies and feeling like a super hero instead of cowering behind a chest high wall waiting for your health to come back. There is a cover system in Quantum Break but it’s janky and I didn’t really use it. Instead I rotated through the various time powers, all on their own cooldowns, and killed dudes with style; stacking bullets in pockets of frozen time and dashing behind armored enemies to blast their weakspots. In most games when you see a group of enemies clustered up (but too spread for a grenade to take them out) you have to pick them off carefully from the outside. In Quantum Break you can zip through them, killing a few as you pass, and then dashing away, like a fighter plane making strafing runs. Quantum Break does go a bit overboard by having recoil render most guns extremely inaccurate after the first couple shots in a burst, but at least it’s in the service of trying to get you to engage with the game’s systems. If you play it as a slow and methodical cover shooter you’re going to have a bad time, but if you run and gun and cycle your powers it’s a unique and interesting take on the shooter genre.
Quantum Break also has some very basic traversal mechanics (albeit at least not of the “guide your character over the obvious handholds” flavor of an Uncharted or Horizon: Zero Dawn) and some “puzzles,” by which I mean areas where you hold Y to rewind time for a specific object and then use it as a bridge or an elevator or something. These are kind of stylish, but I would have appreciated a little more to do for these sequences. We’ve had 3D time/dimension shifting puzzles since at LEAST Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, and it feels like we’ve backslid in the last 20 years. Most games consider “walk up to object Y and press button X” to be a satisfactory “puzzle” these days and it’s just not. If you’re worried about people getting stuck then include a hint system. There are much better ways than simplifying all the gameplay out.
If the combat is good and the traversal is…acceptable…then what really makes Quantum Break fun are the environments. In addition to rejecting cover mechanics, Quantum Break definitely rejects the rule that shooters must take place in a brown and grey desaturated environment. The graphics aren’t technically great, but the colors pop and the environments are convincing and interesting. Sequences where time starts to break down are especially cool, whether it’s wandering through a lab where everyone else is frozen or trying to make it through a mid-collapse structure with time freezing and unfreezing. It's some of the most creative visual design I have seen in years, and for me the game was worth my time just for the chance to explore and interact with those areas. Quantum Break realizes that it’s a video game and can put the player in fantastic and unique environments. I would have liked to see it go further, but what it does is pretty neat.
And Quantum Break is pretty neat. At least it tries something different, even if the experiment isn’t totally successful, and it has enough Remedy weirdness and vision to be a decent time. Is it an unqualified success? No. It has pacing issues, control issues, a predictable story, and frankly, not enough gameplay for its length. I felt like I spent maybe 30% of my time in combat, if you count the TV show, and that’s just not enough for a game that sells itself as a shooter.
There also came a point, near the end, when I realized that the story of one of the companion characters was a lot more interesting and meaningful than that of the main character. I kind of wish the game had been successful enough for DLC so we could have played as Beth, fighting for survival at the end of time. She has a better arc than Jack and, frankly, deserved to be the “star” of the game. What’s more interesting, a dude who gets time powers because he happens to be brothers with a genius, or a woman who spends her whole life training to stop a disaster, only to find out it can’t be stopped, but she keeps fighting and training anyway, even as her mind breaks down? Jack is a bland, if serviceable, protagonist. Beth is actually kind of interesting.
But I recently played through The Order: 1886, and while that game had cool environments and great graphics and nothing else, Quantum Break has more going for it. A better story, much more lively combat, and a world that felt much less technically proficient but a lot more lively and exciting. Hell, Quantum Break has some of the most dynamic and exciting cut scenes I’ve seen in a game, which is ironic considering the TV show is so bland.
Do I recommend Quantum Break? Not for $60, that’s for sure. But for $20…yeah, I think I do. You have to be willing to put up with some boring sections and some jank, but if you’re in the mood for a bit of a throwback third person shooter with enough personality and unique mechanics to get by, it’ll fit the bill. It’s not good enough to be a “pillar of the lineup” exclusive (and definitely not good enough to go toe-to-toe with Uncharted 4), and I can understand why Jeff didn’t like it (especially since he hates inaccurate weapons), but it’s a solid B-tier game with good production values. Plus it’s got Lance Reddick in it, and that’s never a bad thing. Never a bad thing at all.