Back in the day, gimmick shooters were a dime a dozen; we can probably thank Half-Life 2’s gravity gun for that. You had your Psi-Ops, your Singularity, your Ghosthunter, your Fuse, the list went on and on. Eventually the shooter genre started gravitating toward iterations on working concepts rather than shoehorning in gimmicks, but every so often a developer will try something new and wild. Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake did that by turning a shooter into a plot-focused experience to critical acclaim, and now they’re trying again with Quantum Break.
Much like Remedy’s last offering, Quantum Break is ostensibly a third-person shooter but actually focuses much more on narrative. You play as Jack Joyce, a regular dude with iffy hair whose life starts heading south when he visits his friend Paul Serene at a university in Massachusetts. Paul’s been working on a super-secret project; you won’t be surprised to hear that it’s a time machine and you’ll be even less surprised to hear that the machine’s maiden voyage goes very poorly. Long story short, Jack now has Marvel-style time-control powers, Paul now has Marvel-style villainy and we now follow Jack as he evades the machinations of an evil corporation led by Paul.
Those time powers form the most significant chunk of the gameplay. Jack’s proximity to the time machine when the accident occurred has gifted him with several unique abilities. You’ve got your super-speed dodge, your time shield and some sort of time-based kinetic explosion. Not really sure how that last one works, but there you have it! Jack also has the power to hide behind chest-high cover, so naturally there’s plenty of that laying all over the game’s environments, and the power to shoot at goons with several varieties of firearm.
I’m going to be honest, Quantum Break’s gameplay isn’t the reason you’re going to be playing this. If it weren’t for the excellent graphics and focus on plot this would be a fairly standard third-person shooter. One fairly egregious issue is the fact that while this is a cover shooter, meaning you don’t press a button to actually get behind things; it’s all automatic when you move Jack next to an appropriate object. If you guessed that this means there will be plenty of times when Jack stands around like a doofus getting shot when you wanted him to get his head down, you win a prize!
As for the fancy time powers, they look cool but aren’t varied or interesting enough to change up the action much; the time blast is basically a grenade, the time shield is fairly flimsy under the kind of sustained fire that would merit its use and the time dodge mostly just makes it way too easy to change cover without risk. There’s the odd puzzle involving time manipulation, but not only are these infrequent but the game’s not really interested in using them to challenge the player.
Instead, you’re probably going to be more interested in Quantum Break’s plot. The game’s writing and acting about on par with your average superhero drama, so while the story isn’t going to strain anyone’s cerebellum with unprecedented depth, it’s Shakespeare if you compare it to the vast majority of video games. There’s also the live-action aspect, one of the game’s selling points; you’re periodically given the chance to briefly play as Paul and make villainous decisions that affect the plot of the game. Those choices, in turn, change how the following live-action scene plays out; these clearly had some love put into them, as evidenced by the presence of actors like Shawn Ashmore, and while there are plenty of jump-cut cop-outs when it comes to anything potentially expensive, they’re well made and help keep the action moving.
Your instincts when hearing “decisions that affect the plot of the game” are accurate, by the way; while the choices you make do change how scenes play out to some degree, you’re still funneled to the same ending just like every other game that makes that claim.
Basically, the gameplay isn’t going to hold your attention, so Quantum Break is banking on its presentation to do that. It actually does a pretty good job, too; along with the plot remaining fairly interesting throughout, this is one of the nicer-looking games on consoles. Graphics and animation alike are solid, while the time powers serve largely as impressive-looking particle-effect-spewing centerpieces. As mentioned, the live-action segments are well done for what they are as well; one quibble is that by default they’re streamed rather than being included with the game, so if you don’t have a decent Internet connection it’s possible to run into buffering while watching. Sound and voice acting are equally decent. It’s clear that the aesthetic side of things is where the most attention was paid while putting this game together, and that investment pays off.
While the mediocre shooting makes it difficult to recommend Quantum Break at full price, I can say with confidence that the impressive presentation will make it worth a look after a price drop or two. A couple console generations ago, gimmick shooters like this were fairly common, but lately that hasn’t been the case. Ironically, Quantum Break feels like a glimpse into gaming’s past that’s been given a modern touch-up, and if that’s what you’re looking for you should have a pretty good time.