People seem down on Quantum Break. People seem down on everything in games, most of the time, so that’s not a surprise, but it seems more pronounced with Remedy’s new game. Perhaps because it’s taken a long time to actually exist in our real world? Quantum Break is Remedy’s first game in over four years, and that last game was the downloadable nugget Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, so it’s been even longer since they’ve released the kind of full-priced, decently-sized chunk that’s traditionally thought of when discussing console games. You’d have to back two additional years for one of those—it’s been almost six entire years since the excellent Alan Wake came out. So Quantum Break had a lengthy birth, and there were early press demos that don’t really resemble the final product, and it’s trying something kind of new and definitely flashy with its storytelling, so yeah, there’s suspicion. People are cynical. We get it. We don’t share it, but we get it.
You can see why it’s taken a while when you play Quantum Break. They made like a 90 minute movie alongside this thing, and then split it up within the game. With real actors and everything, people you’ll recognize from The Wire and Oz and True Blood and Game of Thrones and other projects that weren’t even on HBO. Its combination of live-action episodic television, smooth third-person gun business and psychedelic visual trickery clearly wasn’t something the company could just pump out in a couple of years. There’s been a wait, that wait is over, and now that it’s finally out, here are a few things you should know about Quantum Break before installing it.
1. Yes, it’s also a kind of TV show.
I mean, you’ll watch it on a TV, but it’s not like a real TV show on a real network that you can tune into or DVR or catch on Hulu. After the first four of the game’s five acts, you’ll watch a roughly 22-minute episode of a (sorta cheap looking) drama-ish type deal. They’re sitcom-length, but this show ain’t no joke, at least intentionally—even if it didn’t find most of its cast from a prestige network so insecure it has to regularly remind us it’s not TV, Quantum Break the show would still clearly aspire to be high-end luxury TV, which means it shoots for a certain level of gravitas that only occasionally feels overwrought or unwarranted. The acting’s fine (Aidan Gillen and Lance Reddick could play these roles in their sleep) but there’s a bit of a low budget vibe throughout every episode, especially whenever the special effects kick in. It seems to shoot for HBO, lands somewhere closer to SyFy, but that’s not really a problem—it might be a slight slice of genre work, but like Alan Wake, it still has fun playing within those boundaries. And from a structural and storytelling viewpoint, the way it connects to the game can be fascinating, deepening and enriching its story in unexpected ways. I have a low tolerance for excessively long CGI cutscenes, but I looked forward to every one of these episodes.
2. Yes, the show does react to your decisions and actions.
You won’t notice this unless you play it more than once, but your decisions throughout the main game can have a visible impact upon the show. Major characters can die and disappear from the show early, others will only be introduced if you make certain decisions, and multiple story strands will travel down different paths in concert with your choices. The broad strokes generally remain the same, but there’s enough alterable details for you to feel like you’ve made a difference. It helps Quantum Break feel more like a legitimate conversation between audience and creator than most attempts at interactive movies, even if it’s still just a bit of smoke and mirrors.
3. You won’t just be watching or playing—get ready to do a lot of reading.
That’s not a complaint. The game is full of optional narrative details that fill in a lot of the backstory. I read every email and note scattered throughout every act, and they’re full of both crucial information that helps explain the main story, and weird, clever asides that flesh out this world. (If Remedy put up a Kickstarter to turn the Time Knife script into a movie, it’d be probably be funded in a day.) Sometimes it felt like there was maybe too much text, especially near the end, but it’s hard to see the overall experience satisfying me as much as it did if I didn’t take the time to explore every nook and cranny of this story.
4. Speaking of story: It’s based on time travel, but avoids some of the common pratfalls of time travel stories.
Time travel stories can be confusing and often contradictory, but Quantum Break doesn’t really qualify as either. It introduces some concrete rules about how time travel works in this world, even dipping into the science if you stop to read all the literature, and it never breaks those rules. There’s a limit to how these characters can use time travel, a limit to how far back or forward they can go, and a limit to how greatly they can impact the course of events. It absolutely does not make any sense in terms of what we know about our real world, but within the world of the game it’s all relatively straight-forward. And these limitations aren’t just introduced to explain away possible questions from the audience—they become a crucial part of the script, guiding the overall plot for much of the second half of the game. If you really dislike time travel, you’ll no doubt find something to complain about, but Remedy has mostly done a good job sticking within their own self-defined boundaries.
5. Despite your superhero time powers, you’ll mostly be shooting people.
I don’t understand why our main man Jack Joyce (who’s played by Shawn Ashmore from the X-Men movies) has to machine gun his way through all five acts when he can manipulate time at will, outside of the obvious commercial implications of releasing a multimillion dollar console game that doesn’t heavily rely on shooting. To be blunt, it’s a bummer to see guns become so prevalent in a game that gives your character non-violent tools that are so well-realized, complementary and fun to use. Joyce can freeze time, can twist it so he moves as fast as the Flash, can create time distortion fields that act as shields, and can pull off other neat tricks, but they’re mostly just used to help him shoot the bad guys to death. (You literally cannot progress from one scene to the next until you’ve killed everybody you’re supposed to kill.) I’m not fundamentally opposed to shooters by any measure, but all the shooting feels a bit out of place in a game largely about science, family, friendship and the survival of humanity. The story pays lip service to Joyce having a rough, gun-fueled and action-packed past, but never really goes into specifics, and introduces him as a regular enough guy at the beginning. To have him almost immediately know how to use all manner of firearms and not have any moral compunction about using them lethally makes less sense than any of the fanciful time travel superman jive. The actual shooter mechanics in the game are smoothly implemented, borrowing the cover-centric method so popular with third-person shooters, and Joyce moves with a grace and fluidity not always seen in those types of games. That’s to say it works as a shooter, and feels good from a mechanical standpoint. Still, it softly undermines the game’s loftier goals. There’s a lot of high-minded talk here, and all the gunfire and bloodshed drags it back down into the dirt.
Quantum Break is out today for Xbox One and PC. If you want to learn more, check out our interview with the game’s writer and director, Sam Lake.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.
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