Version tested: Xbox 360
Is it possible to copyright a game mechanic? Many have tried. At the dawn of videogame time, Magnavox sued Atari for copying its rudimentary tennis game to create Pong. More recently, social game developer Zynga, creator of FarmVille, sued rival Playdom for allegedly stealing the 'Zynga Playbook', a document outlining valuable concepts, techniques and best practices for developing successful online games. While the first case was settled out of court and the second continues today, as yet unresolved, the line between inspiration and plagiarism is a fine one, yet to be legally clarified with regard to videogames.
Nevertheless, to describe Quantum Theory as merely "inspired by" Gears of War would be untrue. While it's tiresome to draw attention to the great many ways in which Tecmo Koei's game apes Epic's multi-million-selling third-person action series, it's necessary. The game is, in terms of its raw mechanics, nothing short of a direct copy.
Peel away the visuals for a moment - the hulking player character and his squadron, whose boulder-like torsos throb with testosterone, first cousins all to Marcus Fenix and his cronies – and in the hands, each game's buttons map directly to one another. Raise one of your three equipped weapons – selected via the d-pad – and the reticule will tighten over your shoulder with easy familiarity. Run hunched while under fire and the camera drops, wobbling behind you, providing a war correspondent's view of the action.
The cover mechanic, too, is lifted note-for-note from Epic's games, as you snap to the nearest waist-high wall or column, sticking to the surface till you click away into a lunging roll towards the next piece of protective masonry. Dodge left or right and you'll tumble with rare speed for a man of your character's bulk, while the R-bumper reload stops just short of Gears' timing mini-game to expedite the process.
Quantum Theory's environments, while far less detailed and robust than those coaxed by Epic from its own Unreal Engine, share the same shadowy grime as their inspiration, the identikit enemies glisten with the same off-putting wax finish. While Quantum's foes lack the variety or imagination of their Gears of War counterparts, they share the same ugliness, lacking that attraction-in-hideousness found in entertainment's greatest monsters, from H. R. Giger's Alien to the Elephant Man. No, these are childish embodiments of our fears, weak in Epic's game, weaker still in Tecmo-Koei's pathetic dilution.
And yet, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it seems unlikely the Gears of War team will appreciate the compliment. For while Quantum Theory ably copies the basic implementation of its inspiration, it resolutely fail to mimic the greater whole.
In part, its failings are in the details. The weapons, while covering all bases from shotgun to rocket launcher, lack kickback and appeal. Aiming is too twitchy and, when combined with the jerky animations that show foes sticking to and exiting cover, frequently exasperating. The level design is consistently poor, with wide-open areas lacking focus, and corridors devoid of potential strategy. Invisible walls sometimes save you from falls, while at other times their absence leads to unexpected drops to death, an abusive sort of game design that leaves players unsure of the rules and boundaries of their environment.
Beyond this, Quantum Theory's failings are of scale and, perhaps, budget. Gears of War matches its polish with a steady stream of set -pieces to pique interest and offset the repetition at its core. Quantum Theory cannot offer such thrills, limiting set-pieces to awkward shoot-outs with sky-high gun turrets and padding the experience with room after room of the same three types of enemies. The game's central conceit, which has you infiltrating giant towers with the aim of bringing them down from the inside, encourages uninspiring, repetitive internal environments, a problem the game's art team fails to overcome.
Sometimes you'll be unable to progress because the graphics are still loading in; worse still, sometimes you'll be prevented from moving on after clearing a room simply because the designers are sending another group of the same enemies to your position. Only when this second or third wave of opponents has been dispatched will the next doorway open up. "Only one left? Shame." remarks your gravel-voiced character when you've reduced the numbers in his vicinity, in direct contrast to the your own feelings on the matter.
There's a single collectible in the game: futuristic CCTV-like orbs, known as 'Watchers', float, static in the environment. Destroy these and you unlock access to the things it has seen, rendered as information held in a menu option. There's modest enjoyment to be had in searching out the Watchers – principally because you have to squint into the sky to find them, rather than hunting behind the bins and pillars where such collectibles are usually found. However, the pay-off for finding them is so mild - the developer expecting you to be so enthralled by the game's mythology as to want to read up on its every detail - that there's little incentive to go back through the game in search of those you missed.
Quantum Theory's solitary innovation, which is only properly made available to you after four or five hours of play, comes when the rest of your squadron is killed, and you couple up with a lithe, anime-eyed girl. Holding down the L-bumper will hoist her into the air, throwing her towards any target you mark. If thrown on target, she'll then dispatch them with one swipe of her sword. The idea makes the game immediately more interesting, introducing the first true opportunity for tactics as you throw your companion across a room to divert attention or draw the fire of enemies.
Likewise, follow up a melee attack with an additional button press or two when she joins you, and together you can execute longer hand-to-hand combos, a simple idea that lends some non-Gears-inspired texture to the game. But the teamwork mechanic lacks finesse and, without the option to play as this sidekick, she is relegated to the role of humanised weapon, only slightly more interesting than the shotgun or rocket launcher you carry.
There is limited enjoyment to be had here, but it is far more faint that the echoes of Gears of War that resound throughout the game. The resulting tribute only illustrates just how much skill it takes to mould a handful of smart mechanics into a slick, enthralling journey, and how, just as Western developers are ill-advised to try to copy Japanese successes, the reverse is equally true.
3 / 10
Quantum Theory is available now for PS3 and Xbox 360.