This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Quantum Conundrum and also Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor.
So let me tell you about Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor. I picked it up 'cause the back of the box said the Kinect had "finally found its hardcore game" and I interpreted that as a challenge. But I've always thought Kinect combined with the controller could work, in the same way a man with no arms or legs could still join in everyday life if you strapped him to a luggage trolley.
The tutorial went by all right - move the vehicle with the controller and use Kinect to operate the cockpit levers - but the moment I got into an actual mission, fucking Christ! It was like jumping to Expert Freebird on your first morning of Guitar Hero lessons. Twelve or thirteen different characters shouted conflicting orders into both my ears as enemy shells slammed into the hull and the Kinect started gettin' bored and acting up, to the point that holding the controller any farther forward than lodged uncomfortably under my rib cage caused my character to repeatedly headbutt the windscreen. "This game is un-fucking-playable," I said aloud. "Shame on you," came a reply, "playing games is your job, regardless of their quality. If you have any self-respect, you'll stick with it."
So anyway, Quantum Conundrum is a game available on Steam that comes to us from Kim Swift, ex-Valve luminary who brought us the gameplay behind Portal. Making the decision to leave Valve strikes me as right up there with turning down the throne to Narnia, but then call me an idealist, and I guess I probably wouldn't want to spend my whole life making new hats for Team Fortress 2 either. But it means that an immediate comparison is drawn between Quantum Conundrum and Portal, both being quirky first-person physics puzzlers with repetitive environments, a voiceover of ambiguous motivation, and an almost fetishistic approach to the concept of science; although Quantum Conundrum takes a slightly more circuitous route that overlooks The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.
You are a small boy who's been sent to stay with his inventor uncle, Professor Quadrangle, but arrives to find him absent in all but voice and needing you to rescue both him and the house from a strange dimensional flux. And after a few dialogue lines, I realized that the eccentric, morally questionable genius with a prominent Q in their name was voiced by John de Lancie of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame. Blimey, that's about as typecast as you can possibly get.
So the puzzles are driven by a handheld device called the Portal gu - oh, wait. Actually, a sort of Power Glove thing that allows you to shift between four alternate dimensions (read: screen filters) that alter the physical properties of the objects around you. It's kind of like a glove-mounted cocktail dispenser except it alters the physical properties of things other than your own legs. There's the piña colada dimension, where everything is light and fruity; the Black Russian dimension, where things sit much more heavily and you start clutching your head complaining about your ex-wife; the absinthe dimension, where everything floats off into the sky to come crashing apocalyptically down the following morning; and the slow motion dimension, where this analogy kind of breaks down. Combining these four states of matter, you must use the available loose objects to depress switches, bypass hazards, and transport yourself to the exit door. But unlike Portal, the nature of the four dimensions makes it a lot easier to find multiple solutions to complex puzzles. And by that I mean, hope you've played a lot of Feces Tetris, because it's time to stack shit.
Since you're all so crushingly obvious, you're probably thinking: "A comedy puzzle game by a Portal creator voiced by Q from Star Trek? My money could not exit my wallet fast enough." But slow down, moneybags, because I don't actually like Quantum Conundrum. And considering the decent writing and talent, it had to work pretty hard to reach that point.
Quantum Conundrum is a game that wouldn't have gotten very far into its elevator pitch. Four words in - "first person precision platforming" - and the CEO will be hammering on the call button like it will somehow make his heart start working again. Jumping on really obnoxiously small platforms from a first-person perspective where your feet exist in some hypothetical netherplane is like successfully penetrating a really splintery glory hole, blindfolded, and with a ten-foot run-up. But QC just loves making us jump from one flying piece of small, uneven furniture to another to cross its deadly pits. What's especially obnoxious as that you need to get through each level without dying to 100% the game, and you might glide through 90% of the puzzles in a level like a diarrhea surfboard before dying fifty times at the end trying to jump onto an inflatable sofa held aloft by a giant fan and crossed fingers.
On that note, if you are basing a precision game around a physics engine, then it would be nice if that engine could be relied upon to do the same thing each time. There's one bit where you have to use zero gravity in slow mode to make four boxes hover at the right height to make stepping stones, but they only fell in a pattern that would allow such a thing about 20% of the time, usually rolling merrily around for a while like D20s on a fat nerd's primary flab shelf. An object thrower might have flung end tables in a consistent arc ninety thousand times, but the moment I activated slow motion to jump on one it caught on a ledge and went spinning off into a ring of hungry wolves. Sometimes buttons wouldn't work 'cause the power would get most of the way along the wire to whatever it was supposed to activate and then stop and zip right back. That's right, my frame rate was so bad that it was literally interfering with the speed of light.
"Wait a minute," I hear you rudely interrupt, "if you suspected your frame rate was sticking its cock up the physics engine, did it not occur to you to lower the graphical settings?" Of course it occurred to me. Just a shame it didn't occur to Airtight Games, 'cause there are no graphical settings. I suppose they must have felt that motion blur was vital to the game's message. It's possible they'll have patched in graphical settings by the time this goes to air, but if you're gonna release a game three days before my deadline, then it'd fucking better be ready for prime time.
All in all, what charms the game has are critically undermined by dull, samey environments and a practical element flawed on both a design and runtime level. Portal worked in first person because the puzzles were based around one's own perspective. Environmental platform puzzling like this is better suited to a wider viewpoint and ideally a physics engine that doesn't breathe with its mouth open. And nobody fucking needs motion blur, except maybe people who have to censor footage of streakers in marathons.
I was hunting around the Steam forums for a solution and I found a poststating that anyone who doesn't know how to edit Unreal Engine .ini files or doesn't have access to a top-range PC powered by the ghosts of dead Microsoft-certified systems engineers has no business playing PC games. This review is dedicated to you, anonymous forums poster, because you're a cunt. What are you? You're a cunt, yes you are. You live in a cunty cottage and you drive a cunty car.
Eccentric morally questionable wanker: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
They should just rename the Kinect "Stand there playing pretend while we stand here pretending this was a good idea"
So was Quadrangle's house designed by Sarah Winchester
Extra: Escapist ExpoEdit
So me and a bunch of my Escapist chums are attending a bit of a get-together this year we're calling "the first Escapist Expo". September 14 to 16 in Durham, North Carolina, Check the website for more details. Hope to see you there! Yes, you! No, not you, the pretty one.