Quantum Break is one of the most sophisticated cinematic experiences on Xbox One, with lavish production values, convincing performances, and a riveting science-fiction plot enveloping its time-bending mechanics. The developer Remedy Entertainment – known for Max Payne and Alan Wake – has crafted a third-person action-adventure game with the spectacle of a summer blockbuster and a structure akin to a TV series. While that recipe might sound familiar, Quantum Break has a few tricks up its sleeve to help it stand out from the competition.
When an experimental time-travel attempt goes wrong, time becomes unstable and threatens to erode completely. Jack Joyce (Shawn Ashmore), with his newfound time-altering abilities, plays the role of the hero and attempts to reverse the effects of this accident. But Jack's longtime friend Paul Serene (Aidan Gillen) also receives special powers during the failed experiment, and due to conflicting beliefs, the two end up on opposite sides of the fight. There is, of course, much more to it than that – the looming presence of the mysterious Monarch Corporation, Jack's troubled history with his brother, and a big cast of supporting characters each with a role to play – but it's best that you only know the basics.
If you want the full Quantum Break experience, you need to pick up the controller with a commitment to patience. This isn't a nonstop action game. The proceedings rotate between strolls through danger-free environments – designed for character interactions, cutscenes, and tracking down collectibles – and intense shootouts, with setpiece-like platforming sequences that occasionally serve as segues between the two. When guns are drawn, things are frenetic. When they're holstered, however, the pace is casual and the narrative is given room to expand. There are even times when participation doesn't factor into the equation.
That's because each act of the campaign is capped off with a – totally skippable – live-action video, each of which is approximately 20-to-30 minutes in length. Even though this is far from the first time live-action footage has been found in a video game, the way it's been implemented is unique. Part of what makes these episodes so intriguing is that they focus on the supporting characters within Monarch, which fills out the narrative beyond Jack Joyce's perspective. It sucks you deeper into this world and the psyche of these characters, and it's also one of the many reasons this is a rare single-player experience even spectators can enjoy. The acting and special effects aren't exactly on par with the best of contemporary television, but it's a commendable production nonetheless.
Leading into each of these live-action episodes is a junction point, which briefly puts players in the shoes of the antagonist, Paul Serene. It's here that you must decide between one of two paths forward, which has an impact on both the story and the live-action footage that follows. These aren't radically different changes, and the gameplay scenarios aren't affected whatsoever, but being forced to make decisions from the viewpoint of the opposition presents players with compelling moral dilemmas. It also creates a smidgen of empathy for characters that would otherwise be written off as "bad guys." Hopefully next time around – if there is a next time around – Remedy will further expand on this concept so the consequences can be more far-reaching.
As is the case with most time-travel stories, suspension of disbelief is required to get maximum entertainment out of every plot twist and development. Even so, Remedy has done a fine job keeping the details in order and as comprehensible as possible. Any vagueness in the early chapters is given context later in the game, and the mysteries and underlying conspiracies will keep your curiosities engaged from beginning to end. The conclusion isn't as eye-widening as it suggests it's going to be in the lead up, but the potential for a sequel helps to make up for it.
The story's delivery is bolstered by an all-around impressive presentation. Time shifts, bends, and breaks in the midst of gameplay, and the visual and audio effects employed to accentuate these anomalies are utterly jaw-dropping. Remedy has clearly cut no corners when it comes to a big-budget appearance, and the effort pays off in spades. Facial and body animations are among the best we've ever seen in a video game, adding emotion and humanity to these virtual characters in an authentic manner. Most of the actors – particularly Shawn Ashmore – deserve recognition for their performances, and we hope this level of commitment raises the bar for AAA games moving forward.
That being said, there are some recurrent visual imperfections that are evidence the Xbox One can't entirely handle Quantum Break's lofty ambitions. These are things like motion-blur behind NPCs, light screen tearing, and low-res shadows. But, other than the screen tearing, these blemishes are often overshadowed by the chaotic visual splendor unfolding on the screen. There are so many striking things happening in concert, things that by are designed to represent the appearance of time glitching out and breaking down, that most folks won't even notice when anything is amiss. Same goes for the 720p resolution, which is hardly detectable thanks to softened edges and artistic flourishes that help to conceal aliasing.
As a cover shooter, Quantum Break carves out its own identity with time-manipulation powers that fall somewhere between Max Payne's bullet time and the conduit abilities from the Infamous series. It's a ton of fun to temporarily freeze enemies in time-bubbles and subsequently unload a cluster of bullets into their chests, and dashing through the room while time practically stands still is empowering and hugely satisfying. The downside, however, is that Jack acquires almost all of his powers within the first couple hours of the game, and soon after that it kind of feels like you've seen and done it all in terms of combat.
Blowouts between Jack and Monarch's militarized forces take place in capacious environments filled with plenty of walls and clutter to hide behind. There are two elite enemy types that require specific flanking tactics to take down, and they keep you on your toes when in attendance. Other than that, the severity of the threat is determined by how many enemies attack at once and how many bullets each enemy type can absorb before hitting the pavement. To survive the often overwhelming odds, it's essential to use all abilities available to you to control the flow of the room. The game isn't long enough that this process overstays its welcome; it just would've been nice to utilize these powers in new ways later in the game – building on environmental interactions seems like an obvious approach to further evolve the formula.
Outside of combat, gameplay is fairly restrictive. If the game doesn't want you to use your powers, pull out a weapon, or walk with haste, you won't be able to do any of those things. If the game doesn't want you to climb over a box or onto a ledge that appears totally climbable, you won't be able to scale that object. Even the cover system is assisted, as Jack will instinctively crouch behind concealment when in proximity. None of these design decisions are problematic or surprising given the linear, story-driven nature of the game, but sometimes it's all just a little bit too limiting.
When Jack is roaming the threat-less corridors and rooms between firefights, the focus switches to expository narration and dialog exchanges as you scour the surroundings for collectibles that shine some light on the circumstances around you. Interacting with these emails, documents, voice recordings, and TV broadcasts can be time-consuming because of how lengthy the contents can be. But if you're trying to get the most out of the story and best understand each character's motives, you'll want to make these documents a priority. You can peruse them later from the timeline menu, but the details make more sense in the context of progression, as they usually provide commentary on recent events. It's just a shame Remedy didn't reduce the frequency and length of these extras, especially emails, because as it stands, pacing can take a substantial blow if you're determined to consume every morsel of information.
But it should be said that Quantum Break isn't a very long game, so you don't have to worry about the campaign overstaying its welcome. If you're watching the live-action episodes during your playthrough, you can expect to see everything in approximately seven or eight hours. If you're skipping the episodes and focusing purely on gameplay, it's a five-hour game. Because the junction points only lead to subtle story alterations, it's worth noting that there's not much incentive to replay the campaign beyond finding all collectibles and unlocking all ability upgrades.
It's a good thing, then, that those 5-8 hours are immensely enjoyable. Despite our criticisms, this is an expertly-crafted game whose biggest weakness is favoring story over gameplay just a bit too frequently. There's definitely room for growth in a few areas, but there's nothing that's overtly broken or unrefined. What Remedy has concocted here is a fantastic kickoff for what we hope blossoms into a successful series. Quantum Break is great as is, but what's really exciting is that if feels like it's on the cusp of something even greater. If only we could look into the future to see if Quantum Break 2 ever comes into existence...
Quantum Break's commitment to delivering a rich, layered narrative isn't always conducive to gameplay, but that doesn't diminish how engrossing this is an entertainment experience. The combination of intense time-bending action, gripping story, and cutting-edge presentation make this the kind of game that sucks you in and doesn't let go until the credits roll. While it's not quite as inventive as it thinks it is, Quantum Break is fresh, ambitious, and a heck of a lot of fun.