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.