Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (version tested)
Developer: Saber Interactive
Publisher: Namco Bandai
There's a moment, playing through the Inversion multiplayer preview build with eleven other journalists with itchy triggers, when Saber's latest game has me in the palm of its hand. Bullets are flying everywhere, zipping past my cover-hugging stubble-merchant from the floor, the walls and ceiling. Eight of us have stumbled upon one another and are locked in mortal combat in a room where gravity seems to have lost all sense of itself. Flashing pulses of anti-gravity spit across the screen. One player has been crushed to the floor by a red beam from a well-aimed Gravlink; another is floating helplessly in mid-air.
It's just a shame that, for the two 15-minute matches we get to play, such moments are few and far between.
Part of it has to do with the size of the maps. For a free-for-all multiplayer match, there's simply too much sprawl. Although having created the Gravlink in an attempt to be progressive, the dynamics of Inversion's gameplay are best suited to old-school, relatively small arenas. The reason for this is simple: you can walk on the walls and ceiling.
For those of you yet to read my previous Inversion preview, here's a brief recap. The Lutadore - a fiendish race of alien enslavers - have found a way to harness the powers of gravity, and are hell-bent on subjugating the human race. Enter our central character: ex-cop Davis Russel, yet another stubbly hero, who's been chewing far too much gravel. The Lutadore have had his wife killed and daughter kidnapped, but when he stumbles across some alien tech called the Gravlink, he too becomes able to affect gravitational forces, and takes the fight to the invaders, along with his buddy.
Most of that has absolutely no bearing on the multiplayer whatsoever, but there are a few things to take away from it. Yes, it's all fairly generic Gears-lite stuff, and that extends to the multiplayer. But, crucially, so does the Gravlink, and it's through the gameplay potential of the manipulation device that Saber are hoping Inversion can find something of a unique footing for their title.
The weapons and loadouts we were privy to were all fairly generic and underwhelming, to be honest, with the exception of the double-barrelled shotgun, which pleasantly reduced oncoming foes to piles of chunky kibbles with a quick flurry. The machine guns felt a little flat and underpowered, the variety sorely lacking.
But this is where the Gravlink comes into play. Each player starts with one charge, but there are energy refills scattered throughout. Hit someone with a blue pulse, and they float from the ground, rising uncontrollably into the air. Hit someone with the red, and increased gravity crushes them to the floor. Both can be disorienting if you're on the receiving end, but, after a small delay, you're still able to fire. You just can't move for a little while.
When it comes to free-for-all, this proves particularly satisfying when used indirectly to bump off several players at once. Hit someone with a successful Gravlink blast, and it's not long before the vultures move in. A quick grenade toss and you have yourself a double or triple kill. It's hard not to feel smug.
The potential is also there to remove traditional cover-based tendencies. Instead of boring turn-based shootouts - fire, duck, fire, duck, fire, duck, reload, fi... - the impetus leads you to find a better vantage point quickly by scaling the walls and raining aggression down from on high.
But sadly, in the levels we played at least, there's simply too much space. Having to trundle for half a minute to get back to the action after respawning is irritating. You want to be in the thick of things within seconds, the Gravlink too good a hook to not be deployed for maximum anarchy in modes where it's everyone for themselves. The fact that Saber have emulated the leaden physics of Gears makes sense for the setting, but it also makes run-and-gun strategies less entertaining than perhaps they should be. Considering the extra plateaus of combat, it's a shame that everything feels just a little lethargic.
But there's still time ahead of the revised June release to tweak and maximise the Gravlink's potential. It's a simple mechanic, sure, but Saber have a solid shooter on their hands already, if a little unremarkable elsewhere. If they can find a way to really push the anti-grav elements, make the most of those multiple plains of warfare, and integrate the Gravlink into proceedings as much as possible, they could really turn things on their heads.