Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developers: Saber Interactive
Publishers: Namco Bandai
Ah, the gravity gun. The term almost makes you grin, etched as it is into the memory banks thanks to Half-Life 2's brilliant Ravenholm level. It's impossible not to feel a certain swell of optimism about a game that's looking to occasionally, and quite literally, flip things upside down, exploiting and manipulating the forces that keep us rooted to the spot, and bending familiar physics for a somewhat diverse gameplay palette.
In short, we tend to get a bit excited whenever the words "gravity gun" are mentioned. The phrase readies us for fun.
Namco Bandai proudly announced that their gravity-warping shooter - Inversion - took its cues from Gears of War throughout the game's development period, holding up Inception as another (rather misleading) basis for comparison too. The former's influence is clear to see: Inversion is a weighty third-person shooter; it offers a range of modes including SP, co-op, MP, and a horde mode of sorts; the main antagonists - the Lutadore - can look and sound a little too much like another aggressive alien race beginning with L; it's a game that has more testosterone than a protein shake that's been stirred with a sweaty jockstrap.
Hothead cop Davis Russel, along with outstandingly one-dimensional partner Leo Delgado, are driving along one day on the way to Russel's home, revelling in some cringe-inducing banter, when all of a sudden gravity wells start popping up in the middle of the street, cars begin floating, and a bunch of unsavoury types turn up and enslave humanity. One shootout and a cutscene later and Russel and Delgado find themselves in a prison camp, with Russel having sworn revenge on these alien usurpers for killing his girl and kidnapping his daughter. One prison break later, having nabbed some alien tech for safety, and it's time to take the fight to the Lutadore.
The twist comes in the form of the alien tech itself. It seems that the Lutadore are able to manipulate gravity at will through devices called GravLinks. In gameplay terms, the GravLink allows players to send debris and enemies floating helplessly into the air, later on dealing out the ability to crush enemies to the floor, and fire floating objects that have been harnessed...much like a gravity gun. Furthermore, there are occasional pockets of gravity that allow you to flip yourself onto the walls and ceiling, creating multiple battlefields, and potentially widening the scope for assault. You'll also come across zero-g zones that require you to pull yourself across floating objects, usually using them as cover too, to get from A to B.
There's a general rule of thumb when it comes to making video games: if you have an Interesting Gameplay Element, always try and make the most of it. That might not necessarily mean that it should be overused, but it should be well thought through, finely balanced alongside other gameplay mechanics, and allowed to shine. It doesn't even have to be unique, but the creative fermentation process should yield new flavours, new variations on a theme, if the end product is to stand out.
By the looks of things, Saber got bored of their own gravity mechanic after about an hour.
First and foremost, it quickly becomes apparent that Saber are far more interested in having you shoot things in the same fashion that any TPS fan would have done thousands of times before, rather than exploring their potential unique selling point. The game's armoury does at least provide some semblance of variety when you get you hands on a Lutadore weapon, but there's not really a huge range of firearms from which to choose. The enemy AI leaves much to be desired, with the game preferring to flood you with numbers rather than intelligence, and the bosses are all tests of patience rather than skill. It's much worse if you're playing by yourself too, as Leo's AI seemingly evaporates whenever he's confronted by anything larger than a foot soldier.
All of this would be far less disappointing, though, if Saber had realised that their best weapon wasn't a weapon at all. The GravLink is so sorely underused that you might start crying just out of missed opportunities. For starters, your GravLink's power is limited, much like a gun is only useful if you have bullets. This means that there's no real room for experimentation or playing around with the mechanics. Moreover, by the time you've fired off your third round, you've pretty much seen all that the GravLink has to offer. There are precious few attempts to apply its powers further, no real effort to have you interact with your surroundings, and indeed there are never situations that can't be better solved with a gun. The brave thing, of course, would have been to rob the player of firearms completely for a small part of the game (or better yet the whole thing), but Saber seem content to have their most interesting feature waste away as an understudy to functional, but completely unspectacular gunplay.
The multiple frames of battle are underused too, and much of this is down to the incredibly limiting jump points. Allowing the player to flip gravity and jump onto the ceiling at will would have been far more ambitious, more fun, and allowed Saber to flood the player in a multi-sided anarchic free-for-all. Sadly, the rigid cover system and poor AI wastes this potential. The zero-g sections, far from offering the freedom that was perhaps intended, is all too reminiscent of certain painstaking parts of Dead Space, with you gliding from rock to rock. It doesn't change the gameplay much at all - you're simply floating rather than walking.
It's as if Saber decided upon the gravity mechanic, then went and discovered Gears of War, and lost all focus and concentration, remembering at the last minute that the GravLink was what had gotten them this far in the first place. It feels like a gimmick when it should be the star - a criticism that also applies to the game's multiplayer elements.
As I mentioned in my previews, the difficulty with the multiplayer aspect of Inversion is that it copies everyone else blindly. The modes you'd expect - Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture The Flag - are all in there. Here, in a sphere where human intelligence can outstrip the poor AI of the campaign, one would expect some heated encounters when it comes to multiple angles of attack. But the levels are too large to make use of that, and the GravLink's powers are often rendered pointless as floating players gun down their gravity-manipulating assailants.
Belying its cool cover art, Inversion turns out to be a thoroughly apathetic affair. In a saturated genre, a game like this simply cannot afford to be so utterly unassuming and expect to get noticed. The action in Inversion makes Spec Ops: The Line's look masterful when it really wasn't, and the latter had a fantastic plot and phenomenal cinematic treatment to balance out its shortcomings. Inversion, sadly, has no such luck, and what we're left with is a game so stuffed with poorly developed plagiarism that it borders on parody.
- Gravity manipulation is always fun
- Looks ok, and the cover art is wicked
- Co-op can ease the boredom
- GravLink is criminally, horribly underused
- Every aspect of the game as been done better elsewhere
- If the last week is anything to go by, everyone's already deserted the multiplayer
The Short Version: Perhaps the most galling thing about Inversion is that it has a gameplay mechanism to elevate it out of mediocrity, but Saber unwillingness to let us have fun with the GravLink means that all we have left is a woefully apathetic shooter that's inferior in almost every way to its genre peers and competitors.