Quantum Break Is Oddly Compelling

Playing Quantum Break wasn’t something I expected I’d be doing over the weekend. But eating dinner and with a PC and three consoles all simultaneously needing to update at once, entertainment options were few.

So I fired up Remedy’s time-bending shooter for something to do. And before I knew it, I’d already flown through the first three acts of the game.

Quantum Break is a reminder of Microsoft’s original grand vision for the Xbox. The console was as much of an entertainment device as a tool for gaming, although back executives were talking more about streaming TV than they were Netflix, YouTube or Twitch.

That vision fit perfectly with what Remedy had originally pitched for Alan Wake 2. Remedy’s Sam Lake told Eurogamer last year that Microsoft loved the idea of a game that had live action episodes and an episodic feel.

“They were like, ‘This is a keeper but… we are looking for a new IP.’ They wanted to own that. Alan Wake is ours so that was off the table, so it needed to be something else,” Lake said.

So, Quantum Break was born.

If you asked me whether I’ve enjoyed my time with Quantum Break, I wouldn’t immediately say yes. It’s the sort of game that has a lot of neat elements, all of which are followed by a ‘but’.

For instance, the combination of Jack Joyce’s various time powers can lead to some fun variations in firefights. But the gunplay is rather monotonous, uninspired, making the segments where the game takes your time powers away the dullest of all.

The live-action episodes aren’t that strong on their own, either. Martin Hatch (Lance Reddick, John Wick/John Wick 2, Destiny 2) and Paul Serene (Aiden Gillen, Game of Thrones) do their best with what they’re given, and, as Stephen found, there’s a certain satisfaction in seeing the characters replicated in-game immediately after watching the live-action scenes.

Their motivations don’t always add up, though. Hatch’s insistence, for example, on overthrowing Serene makes less sense considering Serene’s doctor openly alludes to the fact that the latter is on the way out. Apparently, fucking about with time travel for the better part of two decades has an impact on the human body.

But, no, Hatch’s ambition can’t wait that long.

There’s a disconnect between the live-action and the gameplay: often, the former focuses on characters that either haven’t been introduced, or ones that Joyce doesn’t interact with a great deal.

Sometimes the plot of the TV episodes aren’t in sync. Serene, either through the early episodes or the emails and notes you find lying around, frequently mentions that while he’s able to predict the past accurately. But not all of his visions are complete, and the future is a total unknown. Yet, despite all this, he barks at his subordinates in one of the live-action episodes for not providing enough uncertainty once time collapses.

It’s also a little dubious that an entire hospital staff, including an armed security officer, would watch helplessly as someone gets choked to death. Nurses, doctors, hospital staff, especially anyone working in the ER, aren’t known for freezing on the job.

To be clear, you can find a little more clarifying info if you investigate all the nooks and crannies. But those just blasting through the plot, or anyone who isn’t a completionist, will be left with a lot of question marks. Joyce’s powers, for instance: they’re explained by a tool tip

Storytelling shouldn’t be hidden behind collectibles.

So the live-action episodes aren’t something you’d binge on Netflix. And the choices you make between acts are sometimes tad insipid and ham-fisted. What passes for boss fights isn’t thrilling either: use powers, get behind enemy, shoot weak point, repeat.

But sitting alone, despite having a library of vastly better shooters/RPGs/action-adventures/television to explore, I kept trucking on.

For one, watching a 20 or 25 minute episode after an hour of gameplay is kind of cathartic. The TV sequences do flesh out some of the story a little better, even if they raise fresh questions of their own. And the more of a completionist you are, the more little details that change. Those tidbits are just that – tidbits – but knowing that they’re there, and the effort required to put that detail in, is nice.

The TV episodes did buffer frequently – every ten seconds or so, at its worst – so you might want to download the episodes when given the option. Again, there’s always a but.

Still, it’s nice knowing that other games haven’t tried anything like this. It’s probably not future of storytelling for video games: not only do you have to invest in a world-class engine, the writers, engineers, artists and other staff required to get a game up to a blockbuster standard, but you’ve also got to hire that same requisite talent for what is, in effect, a short-form TV series. And then you have to shoot twice as much as you normally would, because the player needs some form of agency in between acts.

The financial math for that must be nothing short of insane.

But there’s a certain compulsion, watching it all unfold. There’s no one particular fight, one platforming puzzle, or one particular scene that I could point to as being a standout. There’s no story arc to match, say, the intensity of the Bloody Baron quest. There’s no major fight that you’ll remember for days on end. And there’s a reason you haven’t seen Quantum Break cosplays around conventions.

And yet I still devoted precious time seeing Remedy’s blockbuster through. Knowing there was an episode in between each act probably helped, even if there were multiple times where it made no sense whatsoever.

So technically, I suppose, I had fun. And if you’re a fan of linear, story-driven games, or the interactive equivalent of a popcorn flick, then you’ll be entertained at the very least.

It does make me wonder, though. Quantum Break was born out of the need for a new IP, because Remedy wouldn’t give up Alan Wake 2.

Just imagine what a hybrid game/live-action Alan Wake would have been.

Maybe we’ll see that one day.

Maybe we’ll see that next year, when Remedy’s next project is due.

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