Few games use live-action cutscenes as emphatically as Quantum Break. It's one of the game's defining elements. Between each of its five gameplay-based chapters, you have the opportunity to watch roughly 20-minute-long episodes, which are entirely optional but designed to offer insight into the antagonist's state of mind. The rest of the pitch is that--by making narrative decisions between chapters--you can influence the story, which involves time-travel, an evil corporation, and a bit of brotherly love.
There's no getting around it: blending a "TV show" and a game in one package is a risky move, and unfortunately, one that doesn't pay off here. Both aspects of Quantum Break offer things worth getting excited about: combat is often explosive and chaotic in just the right way, and the show does a decent job of establishing intrigue that fuels your investment in the story. But the disparate parts don't gel well together because your influence over some events creates expectations that fail to pan out in the bigger picture. Your choices can have an effect on facets of the show and game--characters interact in different ways, and some minor events play out differently--but by and large, this isn't your story to mold. Quantum Break isn't the sort of experience that warrants a second playthrough, even though it confidently insists that it is.
Jack Joyce, the time-bending lead character played by Shawn Ashmore (Fringe, X-Men), is one of a few characters played by well-known actors, and for the most part, each member's professional acting chops are put to good use. Lance Reddick (The Wire, John Wick) delivers a great performance as Martin Hatch, whose motivations are open to interpretation right up until the very end. There are a number of other, lesser-known actors who deliver great performances as well, which goes a long way to distract you from the show's shortcomings. From the goofy henchmen costumes with massive insignias to the repeated use of the same prop cars during a chase--from shot to shot--there are obvious flaws to contend with.
Of course, Quantum Break is intended to be played rather than merely watched, but even if you skip its optional episodes, the best aspects of its gameplay are suppressed by frequent bouts of mundanity. Combat is the unequivocal star of the show here. At the start of the game, you're imbued with the ability to manipulate time, which allows you to slow down combat, speed up Jack's movement, create shields that freeze bullets upon impact, or cast Time Blast bombs near unsuspecting enemies. It doesn't take long to develop a flow, to understand how to link one ability to the next by managing each move's cooldown timer. You can thrust yourself into danger to establish line of sight on an enemy and protect yourself with a shield while you open fire. When your defense runs out, you can quickly zip into cover and cast a Time Blast or resort to your firearms while your abilities refresh.
There's no one right way to fight, and there's great enjoyment in experimenting with your abilities, not to mention witnessing the environment react to your powers as the scene shifts, cracks, and glitches out around you. Quantum Break is a great-looking game with some truly impressive character models that bring its actors to life, and the time-based special effects are a constant source of amazement. There's also an incredible amount of real-time destruction on display, which not only looks great but also keeps you moving during combat as enemies regularly destroy your hiding spots.
Quantum Break's basic shooting mechanics, however, are less impressive. You frequently rely on a dynamic-cover system; walk up to an object and Jack will automatically duck behind it. While it's possible to blind fire your Time Blast ability from cover, you can't use your guns with the same amount of freedom; you don't have the option to shoot while crouched. Instead, you're forced to stand up and expose yourself to enemies, and usually, take damage. While it's true that gunplay isn't the star of the show in Quantum Break, it deserves better treatment than it's received. There are times when enemies deploy devices that disrupt your powers, leaving you no choice but to defend yourself the old fashioned way. If you're flanked while in cover during these moments, prepare to get hit from multiple angles when you reach for your gun.
While it's true that gunplay isn't the star of the show in Quantum Break, it deserves better treatment than it's received.
When you aren't engaged in combat, you're usually exploring environments that offer narrative clues like documents and emails. These offer a wealth of supplementary information, sometimes pertaining to characters who only get screen time during the show. As a resource, they're valuable, but they are so dense that pausing to read every one in order to understand semi-interesting side stories is a tiresome effort to undertake.
Strutting between action sequences can be a welcome break, but not when you're funneled into woefully ill-conceived platforming challenges. In these sections, you have to awkwardly scale objects and leap around while fighting Jack's sloppy movement every step of the way. Your path in these moments is so tightly controlled that Jack doesn't even attempt to climb objects that he's not "supposed" to; he clumsily stumbles against them instead. During some of these moments, you need to use your time powers to arrange the scene in a way that allows you to get from point A to point B. The catch: your alterations only last for a short period of time, forcing you to wrestle with floaty movement under pressure.
Sadly, Quantum Break's gameplay is essentially divided equally between combat and hapless environment traversal. Given that the entire campaign can be completed in less than 10 hours--live-action episodes included--the distribution of activities feels that much more disappointing. Even if you go back and change your decisions--such as preventing a character from dying--your path essentially remains the same, albeit with a few minor elements remixed to hint at your agency over its plot.
By the end, you know the most important parts of the story. Replaying it to witness slightly altered events in the middle would require you to retread well-worn, sometimes boring territory for little payoff. Getting to the end of Quantum Break can be an interesting ride at times, but no matter how impressive the combat is, or how great the game looks, there's no getting around the fact that it's driven by a story with limited appeal and hindered by disappointing design decisions.