When the Xbox One was unveiled, Microsoft talked up the power of their cloud servers — instead of games being confined to an install or a disc, supplemental features could be streamed. We heard a lot about how this could lead to bigger multiplayer arenas accommodating more players, or extra social features accessible in-game. Microsoft got a lot of blowback for their original always-online policy, but they couldn’t totally abandon the original bet — that streaming extra content could be an important tool for developers to create fresh experiences.
That strategy made the Xbox One more of an experimental console than its been given credit for, but since that announcement, we haven’t seen too many starkly innovative uses of streaming. Quantum Break changes that. The game has been occasionally compared to the old FMV games of the Sega CD era, but that’s inapt — Quantum Break is really a TV show/video game hybrid, and the final result is something we’ve never seen anything similar to. But, it is an experiment, and like most experiments, things rarely go perfectly on the first try. The hybrid idea at the heart of Quantum Break is worth exploring, but the game and show themselves have shortcomings that make that $60 price tag a big ask.
Quantum Break puts you in the shoes of Jack Joyce, a supremely everyman main character in the best way — he’s relatable, occasionally makes dumb choices, and as a character never gets in the way of your enjoyment of the game. He’s not memorable, but he’s not a stumbling block to fun, and hey, sometimes that much isn’t a given. Jack’s been summoned by his old friend Paul Serene to help with an experiment at 4:00 in the morning. Unsurprisingly, it’s not above board. Things happen, time gets broken, and the adventure gets underway.
I won’t get too much into the story, but I’ll say this — it’s hard to write a time travel story that doesn’t collapse under its own faulty logic when you bring in the ability to tinker with the past. Quantum Break has managed the trick well, even managing to introduce novel time travel rules that make sense within the confines of the game. It deals with all the same time travel themes — fate, predetermination, the pitfalls of trying to change the past to make the future better — but they’re all investigated in ways that feel fresh and well-conceived. It’s not necessarily a story that will stick with you once you’re done, but it’s satisfying for as long as the ride lasts.
The game is separated into acts, which in turn are separated into three parts. The third person shooter gameplay follows Joyce, and this makes up the majority of Quantum Break. After Joyce’s part, you gain control of the game’s antagonist in a short bit where you’ll make a decision between two story branches. Which branch you choose will affect the narrative of both the game and the TV episodes, which start right after you make that choice.
I had mixed feelings about the TV episodes. The production values are high — they come off seeming like any other network television drama. It helps that they were able to bring in top talent like Shawn Ashmore, Dominic Monaghan, Aidan Gillen, and Lance Reddick — the star power brings legitimacy, but the episodes really are well-acted. The writing can be uneven at times, but the cast does well with what they’re given. The actors and actresses in the show lend both voices and likenesses to their in-game counterparts, which helps make the experience feel unified.
The TV show/video game hybrid idea is an interesting one, but I’m not sure how many people are going to want to play games in this way. A lot of people just want to sit down and play a game for a few hours. As well as the show is produced, it gets a little tedious to play the game for an hour or so, then sit through a 20-minute episode, then get back into gameplay. But, I can see the other side, too — the episodes coming in as a nice break in the action, or providing a good stopping point for anyone who can’t or doesn’t want to game for hours straight. I expect the reaction will be polarized, but I’m reluctant to absolutely call the format good or bad. For what it’s worth, the episodes can be skipped, and I think the story would still make sense if you did.
What I think didn’t work was the content of the episodes themselves. They focus on minor characters who, regardless of which branches you take, never end up having that big of an impact on the game’s story. There are a few scenes here and there that focus on the major characters, but the emphasis on characters who end up tangential hurts the pacing of the game/show. Seeing the effects of Joyce’s in-game actions from other perspectives in the show was a cool idea, but some of those characters needed to be more tightly woven into the overall narrative. A few characters even get forgotten completely halfway through.
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