Dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov once said, “Fundamentals are the building blocks of fun.” It’s something I wish the good people at Remedy Entertainment had heard before they started working on their new third-person sci-fi shooter Quantum Break (Xbox One, PC) because the game’s flawed fundamentals are what keep it from being as much fun as it could’ve been.
When Quantum Break begins, we find ourselves on the campus of Riverport University, where our friend Paul has used a black hole to create a time machine. But after this proto-T.A.R.D.I.S. explodes, and we’re caught in the blast, we find that we’ve gained the ability to manipulate time. Which is good because we also find that we’re being shot at by guards who seem a bit too heavily armed for a college.
For the most part, Quantum Break is a third-person shooter, though one where you can also temporarily freeze people in place and then shoot them, move quickly in a single direction, and momentarily create a personal shield. You can even briefly stop time to scan the surrounding area like you’re Batman in Arkham Knight or Lara Croft in Rise Of The Tomb Raider, though it does require you to stand still.
It is during Quantum Break‘s shootouts that you’ll first notice problems with the game’s fundamentals. Specifically, the controls, which are just slightly off and too loose, even if you adjust them in the menu. You’ll also find that your running feels a bit stunted as well, since you insist on crouching down anytime you’re near anything you could duck behind for cover.
This is especially odd when you consider that the cover mechanics in Quantum Break are so basic, especially compared to such similar games as Gears Of War 3, Mass Effect 2, and The Division. Besides just automatically going into cover, instead of letting you decide when and where to take it, you also can’t run from cover to cover, or vault over cover, or blind fire. Which is a real problem if, like me, you play a lot of cover-based third-person shooters, since your natural inclination will be to duck behind barriers, and to expect certain things to happen when you do.
Quantum Break tries to compensate for the poor cover mechanics by being rather liberal in recharging your time-based powers. But this just makes some of the gunfights rather easy, since you can just stop people in their tracks whenever you want. Which is why, when I ran into a heavily armored guy with a Gatling gun, I dispatched him faster than I could say “Gatling gun” by just freezing him in place and emptying my gun into his stomach. Though it also doesn’t help that your enemies are kind of dumb, and not only don’t duck for cover, but some of them don’t even notice when you behind them and stand there long enough to reload your weapon before you shoot them.
Of course, having nearly unlimited time powers and cover to duck behind isn’t helpful when you start fighting soldiers who can also move superfast, since they can easily come up behind you. But then, these battles are problematic in their own way because all you have to do is stand there and wait for them to stop moving, and then freeze them in place.
When not shooting people from the third-person perspective, Quantum Break has two other kinds of action. Or inaction, as the case may be. After each act, the game switches to a different time, where you find that you’re now Paul, and you just kind of walk around for a couple minutes before making a decision. Granted, it’s an important decision, one that will impact what follows, and you can even watch a short cut scene in which you see the immediate effect of your choice on the story, but it’s still mostly just walking and talking.
The thing is, the decisions you make as Paul don’t just alter the course of the game, you also see their immediate influence during the next section, which are lengthy, live action cut scenes that feature the game’s impressive cast, which includes Shawn Ashmore (Iceman from the X-Men movies) as Jack, the character you control during the shooting parts; Dominic Monaghan (The Lord Of The Rings, Lost) as your brother William; Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger on Game Of Thrones) as Paul; and Lance Reddick (The Wire, Fringe) as Paul’s right hand man, Martin.
And here’s where the next fundamental problem with Quantum Break crops up. While the game has cut scenes in the other sections that are done with the game’s engine and art, having these other scenes be live action is rather jarring. Especially since they have the low-budget look of a lesser SyFy Channel show; more Defiance or Helix than Battlestar Galactica or The Magicians. And while I do appreciate that you can pause, skip, and even rewind or fast forward these videos — something games usually don’t let you do with lengthy cut scenes…but should — that just makes it even more annoying that you oddly can’t pause the in-game cut scenes that begin every act.
Or rather, it would if the story had held my interest. As someone who’s seen his fair share of time travel stories, nothing in Quantum Break came across as especially original or remarkable. It wasn’t cliché or rote, mind you, but it also wasn’t unique, intriguing, or thought-provoking either. It was just kind of…whatever. Which is why, after watching the first lengthy cut scene, I found I wasn’t really invested in the story any more, a serious problem for a game that’s so story-driven. And it only got worse as the game progressed, as the parts where I was Jack became more and more about the story and less and less about me running from one gunfight to the next.
Quantum Break is also rather short…sort of. While the entire game will take you around ten hours or so to complete (though, obviously, your mileage may differ), because of the live action cut scenes and the Paul parts, the actual time you spend playing is like half that. It’s The Order: 1886 all over again. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the game was good enough to play twice or three times, but it’s not.
The unfortunately side effect of having less-than-stellar action and lengthy bits of inaction is that I quickly found myself losing all enthusiasm for Quantum Break. In fact, by the time I got to the end of the second act, I was so disengaged and uninterested that I stopped playing for four days, and only continued out of some sense of obligation. Maybe if the combat and the controls were better, and maybe if the story was more unique and not so ubiquitous, this would’ve been a much better game. But unless the good people at Remedy go back in time and fix this game’s fundamentals, the story, and the balance between the action and action, Quantum Break will never be a game that makes anyone dance a happy jig.