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Quantum Break is a mad dash back to the future

Man out of time

The long-awaited Quantum Break straddles the line between traditional action-adventure video game and binge-friendly cable drama, combining two mediums together in an effort to produce something novel. On one level, the Xbox One exclusive from Remedy Entertainment is a third-person shooter familiar to players of games like Uncharted or Tomb Raider. On another, it’s a TV show, complete with four 22-minute "episodes" that appear at critical junctures in the story, and feature different scenes depending on your in-game choices and discoveries.

Featuring recognizable talent including Shawn Ashmore (X-Men), Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones), and Lance Reddick (The Wire), Quantum Break strives to become a groundbreaking synthesis of art forms. It’s a mostly uncomfortable marriage, but it’s propelled forward by a compelling plot. Even if its reach ultimately exceeds its grasp, Quantum Break still represents a noble attempt to freshen up a familiar genre. (Mild spoilers follow.)

A temporal meltdown that blesses you with superpowers

You play as Jack Joyce (Ashmore), a young man with a suspiciously thin back story who goes to meet his friend Paul Serene (Gillen) in a lab at fictional Riverport University. Serene has been working with Joyce’s mysterious older brother, William, to build a time machine. When Paul and Jack activate the contraption in the game’s opening moments, they trigger a "fracture" in time — a kind of temporal meltdown that blesses Jack and Paul with superpowers, while also setting into motion events that will cause time to end and humankind to be annihilated.

quantum break

Fortunately for humanity, William had the foresight to create "the countermeasure," a pointy little McGuffin that you’ll spend most of the game chasing. Jack wants it to reverse the fracture; Paul, who emerges as the game’s villain, wants it for his own dark purposes. As Jack, you hunt through space and time for the countermeasure, aided by a cast of friends that changes depending on choices you make in the game. You’re pursued at every turn by Monarch Solutions, a murderous mega-corporation that Paul founds during a trip back in time following the fracture.

Luckily, you have those super-powers, which serve to bend time to your will. You can create a bubble of stopped time around enemies and then pump it full of bullets, stacking up the damage when the bubble bursts. You can hurl a blast of temporal energy like a bomb. And you can zip through your environment as if you were the Flash, dashing across the battlefield faster than the bullets whizzing by your head. Best of all, you can combine these attacks in powerful ways: it’s highly satisfying to dash behind an enemy, freeze him in a time bubble, then unload your clip.

TV episodes arrive with a thud

The novel maneuvers funnel into a somewhat conventional third-person shooter, and the game moves briskly through its five acts. Quantum Break slows down only for those TV episodes, which arrive with a thud at the end of each act break. Remedy’s original pitch for the episodes was that where the game focused on the heroes, the show would focus on the villains. But the "villains" it showcases turn out to be rank-and-file employees of the malevolent Monarch corporation. Largely unaware of the company’s diabolical plans, they wind up hatching a do-gooder plot of their own.

The trouble isn’t that Remedy has inserted TV into a video game — it’s that it has inserted bad TV, with cliché-ridden subplots involving office romance and a Man Who Will Do Anything To Protect His Family. The dialog never rises above serviceable, and the production values scream "basic cable." I usually love extended cut scenes — after an epic shootout, I’m always happy to relax for a few minutes before I have to start murdering people again. But Quantum Break extends those scenes beyond all reason, and I won’t be the last person who found himself checking his watch as they played out. A key problem is the severe tonal shifts between the game and the TV show — the game is almost entirely adrenaline-fueled combat, while the TV show lurches between jokey and saccharine. That is focuses on tertiary characters who have little bearing on the video game makes concentrating on each episode a test of the will.

quantum break

And yet you shouldn’t skip the TV episodes, even though it’s possible to do so. For all their flaws, the episodes sketch out the broader world of Quantum Break, and it’s a rich one to contemplate. The creators consulted with a lecturer in physics who did work at CERN to build the foundation of their time-travel narrative, lending a degree of narrative coherence to a subject that famously ties fiction writers into knots. It’s all still hokum, of course — no piece of fiction about a man who can suddenly generate and manipulate "chronon particles" can say otherwise — but it’s internally consistent hokum, and I enjoyed collecting the various emails and tape recorders strewn about Quantum Break to piece together its unique theory of time. (You have to walk in a circle inside the time machine or else it will not work!)

Internally consistent hokum

The major question hanging over the world of Quantum Break is whether it is possible, even theoretically, to change time. There’s a poignant moment involving a character who, knowing that 9/11 is about to happen, tries dozens of ways to stop it, only to fail on each occasion. And yet the game hints that certain changes are possible, opening up a new world of possibilities — and setting itself up for a sequel.

After a single playthrough of Quantum Break, I found it hard to avoid the conclusion that the various parts add up to less than their creators hoped for. The choices you make turn out to be less consequential than promised, and the shifts between gaming and television are too jarring. It’s an ambitious project tethered to earth by compromises, and can’t help but feel disappointing as a result. And yet if you find yourself compelled by its story, as I did, you’re likely to overlook all that, happy just to play in a world where time stops at the press of a button.

Quantum Break is now available on Xbox One and PC.