A physics experiment goes horribly wrong, granting everyman Jack Joyce incredible time-bending powers. He can deflect bullets, teleport across rooms, freeze or reverse time, and unleash deadly bursts of energy—abilities that come in handy when he learns he’s on a mission to save the world. But the evil Monarch corporation, led by his former friend Paul Serene, has other ideas, and Joyce finds himself being hunted across the fictional East Coast city of Riverport by a ruthless private army.Quantum Break is a story-heavy action game by Max Payne creator Remedy. As well as a ten-hour campaign featuring the kind of cinematic combat the Finnish studio is known for, there’s a live-action TV show that runs alongside it. Episodes play between acts, and the scenes change—sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly—according to decisions you make and things you interact with. It’s an interesting idea in theory, but you quickly realise that your impact on the outcome of the show is negligible, and that the game attached to it is a disappointingly average shooter.The main characters of Quantum Break may frequently find themselves stuck in time, yet developer Remedy Entertainment appears to have no such problem. The team behind Max Payne and Alan Wake has successfully managed to evolve its signature style of cinematic shoot-’em-up for its latest release; seamlessly melding digital gunplay and TV-inspired storytelling without compromising the quality of either side of the experience. While I wish the combat stakes had been raised a little higher in its second half, Quantum Break remains a stylish and often-exhilarating third-person shooter wrapped up in a tautly paced tale of time travel.
Consisting of five gameplay acts interspersed with four breakneck-paced episodes of a live-action TV-style show, Quantum Break opens – as so many great sci-fi stories do – with a catastrophic accident in a research lab, one that creates a potentially world-ending fracture in time and imbues (or perhaps, infects) both the hero and his chief antagonist with time-bending powers.The conflict between Joyce and Monarch erupts, inevitably, in gunfire. Quantum Break is primarily a third-person shooter, and you spend a good portion of the game firing guns at people who are also firing guns at you. But it’s not really a cover shooter, at least in the usual sense. Joyce crouches automatically behind objects of a certain height, but firing a gun makes him stand up, and you can’t pin yourself against surfaces or blind-fire. This is, I think, to encourage you to keep moving and take advantage of his time powers, rather than playing it like Gears of War.Joyce’s dash ability lets you basically teleport across the level for a short distance—and if you aim your gun at the end, time will briefly slow down to give you a chance to line up a headshot. Or you can toss a bubble of energy to slow an enemy down, then fire into it to create a throbbing, fiery mass of bullets that are simultaneously unleashed when it bursts. A charged attack lets you toss a large ball of energy that can kill a group of enemies instantly, and you can freeze time for a few seconds to help you flank. And if you’re low on health, you can pop a shield that will deflect bullets for a few seconds. There are more, but those are the ones I used the most.They look amazing, especially the way the level fragments and ripples around you when you use them, and I like how you can experiment by combining different powers. But once the initial buzz wears off they feel slightly gimmicky, and fail to make up for the fact that Quantum Break is, really, a fairly basic shooter. The enemies in particular are amazingly unimaginative: the shotgun guy who charges you, the brute with a weak spot on his back, the sniper with the big, obvious laser sight. But I did enjoy fighting the guys who can teleport around the level, and later there’s an enemy that makes your powers stop working if you get near them. Both complement the game’s combat, while the others feel like they’ve been drafted in from the mercenary army that supplies soldiers for every third-person shooter.The only problem is that Jack goes from unassuming everyman to heat-packing superhero in the space of the first few hours, and his relatively rapid ascent to gun-toting Time Lord is to Quantum Break’s slight detriment as a whole. Since it seems to be in such a rush to give you all these neat powers up front, it leaves nothing new in reserve for the entire second half, which means the initial freshness of these frozen-in-time firefights starts to feel somewhat stale long before you reach the conclusion after 10 hours.
Some measures are taken to spice things up along the way, such as the introduction of enemies that can teleport like Joyce, and of course the obligatory tank-like troops who turn up to soak up an obnoxiously above-average amount of bullets, but for the most part your tactics remain the same right up to and including the final confrontation. While there is a superficial upgrade system that incrementally improves Joyce’s existing powers, I wish the introduction of the powers themselves had been spread out over Quantum Break’s duration to offer a more gradual sense of character progression. Failing that, it’s a shame there aren’t more interesting new ways to use his powers in the later levels in order to evolve the action a bit more in the second half. As it is, it’s a case of too much too soon, and it eventually becomes a touch repetitive.This combined with blurry edges, pop-in, and fuzzy shadows does a disservice to the otherwise impressive visuals. And the inconsistent frame rate makes moving and shooting feel frustratingly cumbersome when the screen gets busy. It’s a disappointing PC port, and I have no idea why the game costs £50 on the Windows Store in the UK while Xbox One players can get it for £45 (the prices are consistent on the US store). If Microsoft wants to improve its reputation with PC gamers, they’re off to a terrible start.Quantum Break has some genuinely brilliant set-pieces and a better story than most action games. But overall it’s an unremarkable shooter that tries to distract you from its lack of ideas with dazzling production values and polish. It’s a lavish, passionately made thing, but more concerned with the plot than the game holding it all together. And while the TV show concept seems new and exciting, it’s really just a series of long, high-definition FMV cutscenes presented as something more. Despite all this, Remedy fundamentally knows how to make an exciting action game, and Quantum Break has its moments. But they’re overshadowed by dumb platforming, uninspiring enemy design, and a lacklustre PC port.