Let it not be said that Quantum Break’s developer, Remedy Entertainment (creators of Max Payne and Alan Wake), lacks for ambition. Featuring a star-studded B-list cast that includes actors Shawn Ashmore, Aidan Gillen, Dominic Monaghan, and Lance Reddick, among others, the studio’s latest is as much a television show as it is a game—an intentional blurring of the lines that has roots in the early days of cinematic CD-rom titles like Sewer Shark and Wing Commander 3. Quantum Break feels a bit anachronistic in that way, fitting considering it’s a game about time travel.
The story begins when Jack Joyce (Ashmore) pulls up in a cab to a university where his friend, a smooth-talking huckster named Paul Serene (Gillen), is working with Joyce’s slightly unhinged brother (Monaghan) on a potentially world-changing project. Serene has called Jack to help him test his time travel device because he is tired of all the bureaucratic red tape and skeptics preventing him from achieving his dream of time travel. He doesn’t understand why these suits would cut his funding over something so trivial as the significant chance of breaking the space-time continuum and ending existence as we know it. As for Jack, we’re led to believe that he has a slightly sordid, dangerous past, despite a reasonable manner and the looks of a fugitive from a Banana Republic ad. Maybe he went to a second tier Ivy? In any case, Serene knows he can trust Jack to not wring his hands when it comes to tinkering with forces far beyond anything with which man was meant to tinker.
There’s an accident (surprise!), and both Jack and Paul are bombarded with “chronons,” which rather than melt their organs with lethal helpings of radiation, give both a certain amount of mastery over time. These powers manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Jack can, for instance, move really fast, at least relative to other humans. He can also throw up a shield that disperses bullets through some unforeseen wrinkle in physics. As the game progresses, so do his powers. It’s a natural evolution of Max Payne’s “bullet time” in which—due to Max’s drunken master reflexes—time slows down and allows him to mow down bad guys. Jack’s abilities are more varied and can be used in combination with assault weapons in fun ways. If you temporarily freeze an enemy in time and fire a storm of bullets into the time cocoon, he will be in for a truly rude, extremely fatal awakening when time normalizes again.
But Jack’s godlike powers aren’t just used for smiting his enemies, as the good lord intended. They can also be employed to traverse previously untraversable obstacles. By rewinding time, he can rebuild bridges and temporarily rearrange blockages and keep malfunctioning doors open while he sneaks through. Unfortunately for Jack, there are some who see him as a threat. A certain old(er) friend who was also bombarded with chronons has emerged as the head of an evil corporation called Monarch. The organization’s goals are shrouded in mystery, their methods ruthless, and much of the game sees Jack collecting scraps that outline a huge conspiracy. And time is running out, so to speak.
It’s the sort of thing you might binge-watch on Netflix during a rainy Saturday afternoon. Indeed, after each in-game act, Quantum Break essentially turns into a half-hour TV show. And while certain decisions you make during the game portions affect the direction of these extended live-action cutscenes, you’re purely a spectator until it wraps. It’s a bold decision and might feel more crucial if the choose-your-own-adventure options driving the show felt more distinct. For all that’s at stake, the paths presented feel limited, your actions relatively impotent. In an anarcho-Calvinist universe, even powers over space and time can only change your fate so much.
The production values of the live-action portions of Quantum Break are beyond dispute. It’s an impressive array of assembled talent, and at its best, it feels like something you might actually spend time watching outside the confines of the game. But as we all know, acting talent doesn’t always translate into quality gaming (see: Peter Dinklage and Destiny’s moon wizard). Quantum Break doesn’t have anything that heinous—not even close—but the live-action segments spend their time with the story’s secondary characters, many of whom feel contrived or like they exist solely to fill air time.
Remedy’s latest is the sum of its parts—a decent third-person shooter paired with a fair-to-middling television series—but it wants to be something greater than both. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. It’s very possible that Quantum Break is the highest evolution of this hybrid form. The problem, I suspect, is with the approach itself. As Jack and Paul learn, some things sound great in theory, but just aren’t meant to be.