There was a point in my time with Quantum Break that sealed the deal for me. I had just barely a half hour to spare on a busy weekend, and I wanted to play the game. I wanted to shoot up digitized enemies with sweet time-manipulating superpowers then log off at the next checkpoint. But I couldn’t. I had to watch TV first.
The Xbox One exclusive Quantum Break from Remedy, the Finnish studio remembered for Max Payne and Alan Wake, wants to be more than a game. It wants to be the future of fictional media, telling a compelling story — at least one it hopes is compelling — via two forms: a third-person shooter, and a live-action series. In between chapters of the game, 22-minute “episodes” filmed in live-action reflect some of the biggest decisions you as a player make in the game.
It’s ambitious, admirably so, but the result is a disjointed experience that distracts than engages. Quantum Break might be a good game, even a good TV show, but it’s hard to tell because of the inconsistent feel. It’s the golden age of television, but Quantum Break isn’t the future. In fact, it’s barely keeping up.
An original sci-fi story, Quantum Break follows troubled Jack Joyce (portrayed in-game and in live-action by X-Men star Shawn Ashmore) dragged into a conspiracy after a time travel experiment gives him time manipulating superpowers. Jack is pursued by the powerful Monarch Solutions, founded by his former best friend Paul Serene (Game of Thrones star Aidan Gillen), and ventures to uncover the truth about his estranged brother (Dominic Monaghan) who foresaw the dangers of the experiment.
If you’re worried about Quantum Break as a game, it’s fine. The shooting is solid, if lacking some punch. It’s definitely not Max Payne. The time superpowers are fun, but there isn’t enough variety and it generally amounts to freezing targets so you can shoot them. If you want to play a third-person shooter, you could do worse than Quantum Break.
As for the show, it’s cool, if shapeless. It’s not quite prestige drama — given its talent like The Wire alums Lance Reddick and Aidan Gillen, you’d expect as much — rather, Quantum Break is like a Sunday afternoon on TNT. When I palyed the demo, director Sam Lake explained he wanted the game to be, above all else, compelling in its story and characters, but Jack Joyce and Paul Serene feel copied and pasted from other mid-2000s action movies.
What bugs me the most about Quantum Break is how it fails to live up to its staggering potential. I was first intrigued by the idea, then I soured, and then I actually tried it for myself. I immediately started seeing the cracks right then; I couldn’t sit and watch the first 22-minute episode due to session time constraints, a hilarious twist in my demo experience. But I thought it was an anomaly, and I hoped Quantum Break would break ground with something unique. Surely I wouldn’t always have a train out of Penn Station to catch every time I play, right?
Weeks later as I’m actually playing, I see the clock and get pissed again. It’s bad when I want to play and the game actually stops me from doing so.
Even when time was a luxury I could afford, something was missing in Quantum Break that felt unified, as if the show and game elements never felt properly together. Maybe there’s science to it; there is in fact a disconnect between the passive action of watching TV to the more engaging playing a game, and to endure that in one “package” is strenuous to our nervous system according to our own Neel V. Patel. I didn’t feel exhausted, just hindered from trying to play a game when sometimes I literally couldn’t.
In fairness, the game does allow the option to skip episodes. But in doing so, arguably, Quantum Break wouldn’t be Quantum Break. With respect to the creators, artists, and directors who intended for a hybrid experience, I wouldn’t have the proper fill if I ditched literally half of what gives Quantum Break its identity.
Maybe Quantum Break is better solely as a game, or solely a TV show, but it wants to be both so I met it on its terms and unfortunately, it doesn’t live up.