Quantum Break has its work cut out for it: not only is it almost single-handedly representing the Xbox One's exclusive library for the entire first half of 2016, it's attempting to bridge the gap between an interactive game and a traditional television show. Sure, Remedy Entertainment has always been known for playing with narrative structure in its games, but Quantum Break is on an entirely different level.
After nearly three years since its initial reveal, there have been more than a few questions regarding the game's quality. With so many delays being stacked one on top of another, many fans were worried that the finished product would be an incomprehensible mess - how could any one studio hope to overcome two years' worth of production trouble?
Now that Quantum Break is finally here, fans can rest assured that it's not some broken mess of a game. Of course, that means there's only one question left to ask: was Remedy Entertainment able to blend gaming and television like they promised, or is Microsoft's first big exclusive of the year a misfire?
Quantum Break centers around Jack Joyce, a sarcastic everyman with a penchant for getting himself in trouble. After receiving a call from his old friend Paul Serene, Jack returns to his hometown of Riverport, only to find that Paul and his brother Will have somehow discovered how to travel through time. As expected, it doesn't take long for things to go horribly wrong, and Jack soon finds himself on a quest for revenge and a way to fix time from collapsing in on itself.
The game's story is a mixed bag: on one hand, the time traveling script is fun, and actually manages to keep players guessing throughout its eight-hour runtime. Like any good time travel story, it cleverly folds in on itself, making references to earlier events and tying most of its narrative threads together. It helps that the game's characters are all well-acted, and optional collectibles and conversations manage to flesh out Quantum Break's world in a believable (if heavy-handed) fashion.
However, Quantum Break's story doesn't really hold up under any measure of scrutiny. Plot holes are a frequent occurrence, haphazardly explained away or filled with almost insultingly-cliched plot twists. It can also be hard to follow, what with numerous different time periods and versions of characters to keep track of, and the game is perfectly content with teasing characters and concepts that never make an appearance. Choices are also important and do significantly change the show, though you'll need to play through multiple times if you want to tell what's different each time.
Overall, the game's story is solid, and the ending does a nice job of wrapping everything up - it's just that Quantum Break doesn't exactly handle its narrative all that gracefully.
The story of the TV show follows an almost entirely new set of characters, all centered around Monarch Labs agent Liam Burke. After time starts to fall apart, Burke quickly finds himself in the thick of a company-wide conspiracy, all while trying to ensure the safety of his wife and soon-to-be-born child.
Sadly, the show isn't nearly as successful as the game's story. Despite the fact that the show and the game cross over frequently, the whole thing feels secondary: keeping track of an entirely separate cast is tough enough, but their impact on the story feels more like random 20-minute interludes than a vital piece of the narrative.
Ultimately, the TV show finds itself in a strange in-between: it's well-acted, and the characters are generally great, but it just doesn't have enough impact on the game itself to create any sort of lasting impression.
When it comes to actually playing Quantum Break, the game is about as straightforward as you can get: it's all about the single-player campaign, and you won't find any extra challenge modes or multiplayer options here. You'll watch a cutscene, walk through a story segment, shoot some bad guys, make a choice and watch an episode of the TV show. Repeat that same process five times, and you'll find yourself at the end credits.
The structure sounds simple, but it doesn't always come together smoothly - pacing can be an issue, especially during the early hours of the game. The first few acts of Quantum Break are more about experiencing the story than actually playing the game - and, while it's nice that the story takes its time getting everything set up, it can be a turnoff for those who just want to jump in and start shooting.
Thankfully, when the shooting actually starts, it's fun more often than not. Quantum Break's basic mechanics are extremely simple: point, shoot and the bad guys go down. There is some occasional platforming, but the game mostly relies on a linear series of gunfights to tell its story, with only a few short deviations from that formula.
Jack's various time powers are what keep the gameplay interesting - most of the time, at least. Quantum Break clearly wants you to use its powers in a very specific way, and there's no real room for adaptation. If Time Stop lets you freeze an enemy in place, why can't it freeze a grenade mid-toss? Why can't players simply slow time down enough to score some easy headshots?
As a result, Jack's time powers can end up feeling like more traditional abilities from other games, with an extra layer of fancy effects thrown on top. It doesn't help that some of the powers feel like gameplay concessions: not only does "Time Vision" not make any sense, but it feels like an excuse to throw in an already-overused mechanic.
To its credit, Quantum Break does get better as it goes on. With a fully-upgraded suite of powers at your disposal, combat is both extremely fast and highly lethal, and later encounters thrive on Jack's mobility and power - the game just takes a long time to get there.
Surprisingly, the actual shooting and cover mechanics are the weakest parts of the action. Simply put, they feel outdated. The automatic cover system only works half of the time (and you'll likely die once or twice because of it), and the lack of modern shooter tropes like blind fire or a standard melee feels like an oversight. It's not necessarily bad, it's just not as good as many other third-person shooters from the past five years.
From a presentation standpoint, Quantum Break is all over the place. The art style itself looks great: characters are well-designed, environments are detailed and the various time-based effects look amazing. Watching a truck crash through a office lobby or a tanker ship demolish a bridge is something to behold, and the game is littered with unique, similarly impressive moments throughout its entire story.
Unfortunately, Quantum Break simply can't keep up from a technical standpoint. Aliasing, ghosting, freezing, blurry textures, screen-tearing, long load times and frequent frame rate issues constantly mar an otherwise great-looking game. It doesn't matter what's happening on screen: Quantum Break is a technical mess, and a regular reminder that the engine just can't keep up.
The TV show looks good, though it's nothing all that revolutionary. As with the game, the art design and various time-traveling effects look great, and there's a surprising amount of well-done practical effects as well. You'll need a stable connection if you want to watch the individual episodes in HD, but there's always the option to download all of the episodes to the Xbox One hard drive if you choose.
Quantum Break could have been an absolute mess. Even without the numerous production delays and troubles, trying to make a cohesive story about time travel is no small feat. In the end, though, Quantum Break largely succeeds at telling an engrossing sci-fi story, even if it's not always well-told.
If there's any one thing about the experience that disappoints, it's the presentation. What should have been a benchmark for HD visuals on the Xbox One has fallen flat on its face - it doesn't matter how good the characters or environments look if the console can't handle the workload.
Quantum Break probably won't be the system-seller that Microsoft is hoping for, but that doesn't stop it from being a great game in its own right. If you can get past the visual issues and sometimes-incomprehensible plot, Quantum Break is yet another solid effort from Remedy Entertainment.
This review is based on an Xbox One version of Quantum Break provided by Microsoft.