‘Quantum Break’ (2016) review: A stutter in time

“Quantum Break’s” premise is a fascinating look at the dangers of messing with time

Time travel can be so headache-inducing. It bends the laws of physics, boggles the logical processes of the mind (paradoxes, anyone?) and has the tendency to cause far more harm than good. In most movies or games, it’s a rare occurrence when the actions of a time traveler actually changes the final outcome of the future; generally, it precipitates whatever event was trying to be changed.

For Remedy Entertainment’s “Quantum Break,” however, that’s just fine. Chaos, not comprehension, is the goal here. The main character gains time-related super abilities at a breakneck pace (not surprisingly), the antagonist can see disparate visions of the future that clash with each other and the universe as we know it is about to come to a screeching halt thanks to — you guessed it — man’s hubris.

What makes “Quantum Break” more interesting than the typical science fiction fare, though, is the story’s functionality within in the game. The inter-connectivity between characters, time and outcomes is an intriguing look at both human weakness and strength. Afflicted with the same gift, and seemingly both trying to save the world, our hero and his best friend-turned-nemesis smartly play of the idiom “two sides of the same coin.”

The start to “Break” is simple enough: an introduction to the main characters before everything goes horribly awry. Jack Joyce (portrayed by Shawn Ashmore of “X-Men” fame) is visiting his best friend, Paul Serene (“Game of Thrones'” Aidan Gillen), in city called Riverport, where Serene is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough unrivaled by anything before it. Serene has requested Joyce’s help in pulling off his latest attempt to manipulate “chronon” particles, a particle discovered by Joyce’s older brother, William, that anchors the entire universe to the moorings of time itself. As you can probably guess by now, nothing goes according to plan. Explosions happen, dousing our primaries in life-altering chronon particles and kicking off the game’s main story line.

Broken into five acts with live-action episodes (we’ll get to these later) serving as movie-like intermissions, “Quantum Break” comes across as a stylize mashup of “Alan Wake” and “Max Payne,” both past creations of Remedy. A science fiction story at its heart, the game centers around Joyce using his newfound powers to save the universe from what affectionately has been called The End of Time. You see, the catastrophe that happened in Serene’s lab did more than just grant him and Joyce the ability to ignore the constraints of time, it broke all temporals bonds.The world is slowly grinding to a halt as the “stutters” become worse. Only Joyce and Serene can function properly when time goes haywire. What follows is their battle on what’s right and how to save the world.

For fans of “Max Payne” and “Alan Wake,” you’ll find something to like here. The shoot-’em-up style, including “Quantum Break’s” version of Bullet Time, pull heavily from the “Max Payne” series. Your ever-expanding list of powers are paired with a constant game of duck and shoot as your time gifts only last for so long and can only be used so often. (Even time powers have cool downs?!) Your main abilities focus on five aspects: the ability to “teleport” short distances (basically moving during a stop in time); the creation of a time-shield, one that freezes time within in a small area around you that protects you from harm; the ability to throw that same time-bubble forward to capture an enemy; slowing down time with a large radius; and, of course, the gift of being able to throw a frozen time bubble like a bomb. Other abilities stem from these, including what amounts to super speed. As the game progresses, you have the choice to unlock these powers and power them up how you see fit.

Despite the neat abilities, “Quantum Break” most closely resembles a typical shooter. Hordes of bad guys appear, always armed to the teeth with the latest lethal weapons, just itching to show you how it works. A combination of time powers and basic run-and-gun with serve most players well, especially late game once some of the enemies are able to ignore your abilities altogether. (Because it wouldn’t be fair if only the good guy could mess with time, right?)

Several points to make here: For one, though the game handles it shooter aspects well enough, the entire premise detracts from the science fiction elements. Really, it’s not enough you can basically teleport and throw time bombs? You have to know how to use every auto rifle you stumble upon? It’s a bit much, to be honest. (In general, the game moves at a breakneck pace introducing you to new abilities and weapons; you have all of maybe 10 minutes before you learn something new and become even more powerful in the first act.) Add that to insane number of enemies you have to contend with, and we’re talking near-endless at times, and you have to wonder how any corporation other than “Resident Evil’s” Umbrella could approve to pay for all this security. By game’s end, you may find yourself just a bit bored thanks to the repetitive nature of the firefights.

But even if you are always finding yourself in a gunfight, there are few better games for that to happen in. The set pieces in “Quantum Break” are phenomenal. Expansive and detailed, you never feel like you are in the same place twice, despite being only a 10-hour game. When stutters in time appear during a fight, your entire immediate environment is affected. Careening tanker ships crash onto land again and again; random civilians seem like they’re having spasms as time loops; blood freezes in time as exits your enemies’ bodies, a shimmering red explosion suspended mid-air. It’s a strange and well-done effect.

The gem of the game, though, is how the story is told. Again, five acts with four TV show-like episodes in between each one. Before each of the live-action segments, about a half-hour a piece, you get to play as Serene and make a choice; these “Junctions” offer two distinct paths for him to follow. The game shows glimmers of the future for each choice, giving you some insight into what your decision will cause to happen. Your choice will directly affect the live-action episode that follows, and some late-game material will change, especially in regards to some of the side characters. The choices aren’t easy to pick between; maybe you want to choose the path that seems to help Joyce more, but maybe it makes it easier for Serene to complete his task. How about being logical, considering you’re playing as Serene? Does it make sense to take it easy against the only person who stands in your way? Paradoxes, right?

To be fair, the game isn’t nearly as open-ended as other choice-driven games (think “Until Dawn”), but it does offer variety and backstory for the villains, reminding us that they, too, have reasons for doing what they do. A little bit of humanization tends to go a long way, and putting some context behind what at first seems like malevolent choices adds a really nice touch to the game. (These junctions serve as the game’s only replayability factor; though the game ends the same way no matter what you do, it does allow for some different dialogue and cinematics.)

The episodes themselves are fantastic, rivaling prime-time television in their production and casting. The action is intense and nonstop, and the actors portray a sense of urgency once they realize that the world may be coming to an end. Saying too much more would ruin them, and they are well worth watching, given how much story they explain. (A side note: You can either download the episodes or stream them. The download is massive, some 75 GB, so that’s something to consider. Streaming is subject to buffering if your Internet isn’t up to snuff. If possible, downloading is the better option.)

In the end, “Quantum Break” may not be much of a shooter, but it is an excellent science fiction tale. Its merger of both video game and television mediums is a clever stroke of creativity, one that enhances the story in a near-unique way. It comes rushing out the game, introducing all major characters, story arcs and abilities in no time flat, and while it does a bit flat near the end (the curse of repetition), there’s more than enough story to keep you interested until its mind-boggling end.

Four “Wait, so if you traveled back to…” stars out of five.

Editor’s note: This version of “Quantum Break” was reviewed on Xbox One. It’s also available for PC. It’s rated M for blood, intense violence and strong language.

For more gameplay videos, visit here to see the entire playlist.

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Above, a scene from "Quantum Break." (Photo credit: Remedy Entertainment)

Above, a scene from “Quantum Break.” (Photo credit: Remedy Entertainment)

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