I loathe to consider it an actual genre, but most of us are well-enough acquainted with third-person games by now. Stop-and-pop your way to the end like a game of human whack-a-moles. We know what they’re about, so we’re not likely to be surprised. Quantum Break is also not so different as to make it surprising either, at least not to the degree it may have been hoping.
Despite an experimental narrative style, this is still a story you’ve heard before.
Almost ad nauseam, you’ll be told, “time is ending”. The mistakes of a time-machine entrepreneur catalyse a temporal mission to undo them. It’s a story concerned more with plot than character, too preoccupied with the technicalities of time and its own fiction to spend enough with the people who occupy it. Despite strong conviction from the actors therein and the catastrophic urgency it wanted to inspire, I was never sold. The immediacy expressed so earnestly by everyone felt like artificial dramatising, so as to validate a sense of importance that wasn’t reciprocated.
Much of the allure comes from the advertised TV-video game novelty. That charm may fade, however, against the story’s unending quest to try and prove itself, which ironically made it unconvincing.
Quantum Break is a sort of storytelling cross-breed with its own routine: play, make a choice, watch a 20-minute episode. Whether the televised intermissions between gameplay prove a wall-breaking stop in flow or a welcome recess from combat will depend on the preference of the player. I for one saw them as a refreshing breather from near-relentless fighting, and an intriguing trial in cross-media narratives. For whatever reason, people are much more willing to watch live-action shows than long cutscenes, and Quantum Break takes advantage of the opportunity to use a more passive story approach.
The option to influence the live-action episodes is one of the more touted features, primarily done through “junction points” by Aidan Gillen’s villain. Influence is certainly the correct word, as differing choices don’t change the outcome so much as swap the playing pieces to the same effect. So it is largely an illusion of agency, and that’s the position most games are in. It’s too expensive and time-consuming creating entirely separate branching paths; as you’d essentially be making two different games. Telltale, Bioware, Quantic Dream; many of the ‘choose your own adventure’ developers utilise this technique. The most important thing is that the player believes they have agency, even if that agency is small in truth.
If you want more context, reading the optional emails placed throughout is almost mandatory - and many of these essay-length expositions. Some of the conversations are even quite endearing, and unfortunately so. To have so much of the story relegated to text, instead of an interactive manner unique to the medium, is going to discourage people who want the story elaborated, but also don’t want to read numerous documents of substantial size to do so.
Its concept of quantum chaos is also the staple of its combat. Despite being a game with cover, you’ll spend little time behind it. The AI is too aggressive for you to remain idle, and your powers simply aren’t suited for sedentary fighting. With the ability to rush, stop time, and create shields and time-blasts, you’ll be in constant locomotion. Anyone who’s played action games over the past several years will likely appreciate the change in pace, though that pace doesn’t develop much either. With so few powers and enemy types, your strategies will barely vary, and little remains to differentiate one fight from the next. What started as a revitalising dose of fluid momentum will eventually succumb to repetitious inertia.
The potential for puzzles would seem like natural progression, but Quantum Break doesn’t so much have puzzles as inconvenient obstructions; objects looping in time or mechanisms that need slowing down to let you through. Even these aren’t many. I was expecting more elaborate challenges - though I get the distinct impression this was a missed item on the to-do-list due to time constraints.
Many of its weaknesses are made easier by sheer presentation. If you’re after a popcorn game with an unconventional layout, watching the universe tear at the seams with special effects - you’re playing the right TV series.
Like it’s founding tenant, Quantum Break is a varying wave of flows and pacing. It’s an impressive spectacle of temporal distortions and flashy particle firefights. While some will be content in the showmanship and energetic scurry of its combat, others will feel the onset of drag.
Whether you consider Quantum Break a game with episodes, or a mini-series with interactive segments ultimately doesn’t matter - it’s an experience. It may use an unproven formula, but that blueprint is also the main attraction that piques one’s curiosity, even if my own started to waiver amidst a story too interested in its own keywords to talk about anything more depth-inducing. With a dire need to be amongst the blockbusters, it’s an inoffensive, non-threatening tale with big-name actors who try so seriously to make it otherwise. And while not an one interesting story in itself, Quantum Break has an interesting way of being told.