Remedy Entertainment’s Quantum Break feels like the game the Finnish developer has been working up to ever since the comparatively meager days of the original Max Payne. Once again, they’ve brought together solid, if mildly unambitious, gameplay and the repurposed storytelling of other media and forced them to dance. While they flirted with the episodic television framework in the still-woefully underappreciated Alan Wake (included here as a freebie with its even less appreciated spinoff, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare), Quantum Break is a marriage—and a mostly successful one.
Actions taken during gameplay, elements found in your travels, and big decisions made at specific junction points influence the plot in the live-action “show” segments presented in between stages, and our understanding of the characters seen during those segments informs choices made throughout the subsequent gameplay. It’s a compelling narrative circle, but where Remedy runs into trouble is that, even by having a live-action TV show carry so much of the game’s narrative weight, there’s still way more story to Quantum Break around each corner, and the developer has used every interactive and non-interactive trick in the book to tell it. Having too much narrative is a good problem to have, but it does make for a fractured experience.
Then again, fractures are ultimately at the crux of the game’s story, which involves Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore)—the ambiguously shady, estranged brother of brilliant but emotionally distant physicist William Joyce (Dominic Monaghan, making the character’s schizophrenia startlingly real)—finding himself in way over his head when an old friend, Paul Serene (Aidan Gillen), calls him to help out with the final steps of a massive breakthrough: a time machine seemingly out of Primer. Once the machine is activated, William shows up just in time to see the thing explode, and Jack get caught in the blast. The result is a rapidly expanding, world-distorting tear in the fabric of time itself, with Jack learning he can manipulate time’s flow on a limited scale, and a second, older and colder Paul Serene showing up, surrounded by keen-to-kill foot soldiers and able to manipulate time far better than Jack can.
As a third-person shooter, the game proves itself not too far removed from its Max Payne forebears, though technically audacious beyond anything imaginable in the early 2000s. Indeed, a couple of powers bring to mind Max Payne’s bullet-time effect, minus the slick John Woo-inspired, double-wielding dives. The difference is that most of Jack’s powers focus on stopping time for his enemies piecemeal, freezing them in place for short periods while Jack either runs for cover at preternatural speeds, stacks up a couple of dozen high-caliber bullets to finish the job, or takes shelter inside a temporary bubble where time moves normally only for him. While the gunplay does nothing special (there are only three weapon classes, and the game suffers from the Uncharted problem where even unarmored enemies take several shots to die), a palpable sense of glee builds as the game starts to lean heavier on Jack slowing or stopping enemies mid-action, setting them up for huge damage. His abilities feel like a sort of God mode, allowing players to feel like they’re gleefully breaking the game by bending its physics.
The layout of the game’s stages follows suit. As the fracture grows, so do the instances of stutters in time where the world stops, where events like explosions and crashes are either frozen at peak chaos or infinitely replay at varying speeds, all while the rest of the world moves normally. It doesn’t change the mild tedium of some of the shootouts, but it does add a distinct, endlessly fascinating new flavor that the third-person shooter genre hasn’t seen on this scale before. One does get the sense that the game has been painfully pared down on Xbox One from its pristine PC iteration, judging from its strangely grainy, unpolished technical performance, but even this doesn’t overshadow Remedy’s aesthetic ambitions.
The story also pulls its weight making the increase in time stutters and stops meaningful and even frightening. The full stakes of the fracture and the existential, terrifying enormity of Paul’s plan present themselves gradually through cutscenes, found documents and video, the rather intrusive voiceover narrative, and the live-action show. The game doesn’t quite stick the landing, no matter which way the story twists and turns along the way, but the journey does have depth to be mined, as long as the player is willing to explore their surroundings, listen to the conversations being had, and watch the world react to the growing quantum-physical threat.
On paper, many of the characters are more SyFy than sci-fi, with a narrow range of evil paramilitary archetypes running around sterile corporate hallways making up the brunt of the main cast, threatening to take the player out of the game. But as Quantum Break continues to zero in on the exact nature of Paul’s plan through intriguing world building, the clichés begin to fade into the background. And even then, later acts expand the scope across time, changing characters and adding weight to their portrayals. Stronger than expected writing and a decent cast more than make up for the conceptual banalities. In this, too, does Quantum Break definitely share lineage with Remedy’s other properties. Nothing about the story of a gritty ex-cop chasing the mob, or a haunted horror writer, or a man caught in a conspiracy over a time machine sounds particularly inspired, but in all three instances, Remedy managed to make them greater than the sum of their parts.