When Quantum Break was first announced at an Xbox One event in 2013, I hated Remedy for not announcing Alan Wake 2 instead, and swore I’d never play it, ever, slammed every door in the house, and sulked in my room, blasting a NKOTB mixtape because I was a teen in the ’90s and I don’t know how I’m supposed to have a proper dramatic adolescent meltdown in the new millennium. If I’d repurposed that existential crisis energy into something more useful and invented a time machine and travelled through from then to now and back, I’d have already known that I was stupid and impulsive and wrong, and maybe I’d have done things differently. Or maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t even matter what I did or didn’t do three years ago, because the future was always going to be the same and for one reason or the other, I was going to play the game, anyway. It’s complicated. It’s also kind of like the plot of Quantum Break.
The point is, I’m so sorry, Remedy. I don’t hate you anymore. Let’s hug it out.
But first, a public service announcement. One of Quantum Break‘s big marketing blurbs is that – sooomewhat like Alan Wake – it’s part game, part live-action TV show. The actual content of the TV show is determined by the events of the game, and the decisions you make as you go. You can download it as a separate 75 GB (!) package, or stream each of the episodes as it happens – which requires an internet connection. I suppose you could skip them, but I’d recommend not skipping them because… because. I had no real problems streaming on my rubbish 5Mbps DSL, but I can’t speak for anybody else. Consider yourself warned.
So Quantum Break is a game about a time machine experiment that’s, uh-oh, gone wrong because, you know, that’s how time machine experiments go. It’s the rules. I’m not going to tell you anything else about this, except that it’s one of the most intriguing, clever, and vividly realised time-machine-experiment-that’s-uh-oh-gone-wrong narratives ever, and even manages to preclude most of the more inconvenient but otherwise almost obligatory paradoxes inherent in the genre – presumably because a legit CERN quantum physicist consulted on the project. Plus there’s a whole heap of corporate conspiracies, family drama, and some mad time manipulation razzle-dazzle to keep things interesting while you save the world.
What’s perhaps most interesting about Quantum Break’s story, though, is that it’s so… ambiguous. There’s a lot of blurry space between the characters and the ongoing plot developments in the game, and it can be sort of hard to choose sides. I’m not sure there are unequivocal “good guys” and “bad guys” so much as a bunch of people with their own crisis contingency plans and fluctuating levels of self-interest. In fact, most of the TV show is presented from the perspective of Monarch Solutions, an entirely too rare glimpse into what’s really going on over at Evil HQ – and it’s going to make you stop and think about stuff. Besides, you can’t not love Aiden Gillen.
In the end, you’ll probably question everything you did, and you should – because Quantum Break is definitely worth more than one play. Those decisions I was talking about before? So here’s how it works. The game is divvied up into five acts, with four 20 to 30-minute live-action TV show episodes in between, also featuring Hollywood celebs like Shawn “Iceman” Ashmore, Dominic “Merry” Monaghan, and Lance “That Guy with Inscrutably Questionable Motives from Fringe” Reddick (who play the same in-game characters). It’s obvious that a lot of cash was invested in the TV show, but there’s no revoking its late night, fifth season X-Files rerun vibes. That’s not a criticism (I mean, not from me). Basically, when an act finishes up, you’ll have to decide between two options going forward. The next TV show episode reflects the immediate consequences of that decision – apparently there are 40 possible permutations of the TV show episodes, which explains the extravagant download size – but those can also impact the game later on. In my second play, for example, one act featured a completely different supporting character and a lot of different collectible thingies to the previous play because I decided on the other option. So that’s rad.
What’s not so rad are the clumsy controls. It’s mostly not terrible, and it’s definitely, like, a thing with a lot of third-person games – including Alan Wake, gasp – but the lack of precision was annoying during shoot-outs, and immensely frustrating in the game’s final sequence. This is somewhat mitigated, however, by a decent cover system and your time manipulation powers – like the Time Stop, which freezes time in a bubble around a target so you can cram it full of bullets, and the Time Dash, which lets you zoom around in superspeed – don’t require twitchy aim.
Visually, the game is astounding. What Alan Wake did with the dark, Quantum Break does with your perception of reality itself – time is something that “just is” until it isn’t, and wandering around a single moment glitched in time is an impressive experience. Dynamic smudges, ruptures, and warp effects combine to create a uniquely uncanny, big budget cinematic aesthetic that’s unlike anything you’ve seen in a game before.