Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Inversion: Turning the Shooter Genre on its Head - Gravity Can Be Such a Downer When It Comes to Videogames...

Gravity hasn't really been toyed about with since Half-Life 2 redefined the shooter with Eli Vance's patented Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator.

But Inversion, a game already confirmed to be coming to OnLive, decides to toy with Newton's favourite law on a far more expansive, invigorating scale. We bet Sir Isaac never dreamt of gravity-whipping some nasty chap from behind cover before gorily eviscerating him in a bubble of floaty entrails. Well, probably not.

It's a gimmick, certainly - but has the potential to be so much more. We've all been there: enemy hordes manically rushing us, only a scant few cartridges left in the chamber... But what if we tossed said baddies, flailing, into the air with a flick of our Gravlink? How about pinning others to the floor with a surge of high gravity? Or summoning lava from a nearby volcano for a fiery demise? All these things are possible in Inversion.

Inversion's plot goes like this: An army of what can only be described as sophisticated cavemen - the gravity-manipulating Lutadores - suddenly emerge from... somewhere. It puts something of a downer on the day for cops Davis Russel and Leo Delgado, especially when they kill said hero's missus, cart him off to a prison camp and abduct his precious daughter. Every daughter - and son - on the planet in fact, so the quest begins to seek out Russel's lil' Leila while extracting bloody revenge on the Lutadore scum.


Saber's last project may have been Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, but their primary influence for Inversion - gravity notwithstanding - is surely Gears of War. Whether Russel is roadie running, impaling Lutadores on his retro-lancer-by-any-other-name, directing Delgado about Dom Santiago-style, buddying up to whack open a blocked door or even selecting weapons via a HUD that could have been lifted wholesale from Team Fenix, it's hard to shake the parallels.

Thing is, that isn't such a bad thing - and while in overall terms Inversion doesn't feel in any way as slick as Epic's shooter classic, it still feels surprisingly solid. Cover crumbles, Russel dashes about with more élan than dump truck Marcus and grenades arc their way towards targets with satisfying regularity... and that's before the gravity-bending antics kick in.

Starting off without the Gravlink, Russel and Delgado quickly acquire a backpack each. Although you'll be drip-fed new powers throughout the adventure, your core powers revolve around low gravity (a blue stream) and high gravity (a red one). Blast away with low and you'll throw objects, baddies and scenery alike into the air; switch to high and you'll pin stuff to the ground.

You'll also be able to manipulate objects, and - in some specific cases - interact with the environment. You can also blow it to bits; at one point we jumped behind a gun turret and, in a Red Faction-rivalling moment, systematically mullered an entire gigantic building.

There's some neat tech underpinning all of this, even if Inversion's never going to win best in show on the visuals front. The underlying physics are seriously impressive - a particular standout bit being a romp through a tenement block in the midst of some temporal tremor. Furniture slides about, windows rattle, fridges open and topple over, partition walls explode in dusty showers of masonry... the city of Vanguard feels like a veritable playground of particle-packed destruction, a theme that pervades whether we were exploring crumbling mines or spooky graveyards.

A decent amount of foes onscreen, some mighty draw distances, loads of dynamic objects. A night-time thunderstorm prison break scene early in the game is proof positive of some seriously savvy programming. We're hoping for more imagination though; although being able to dump a pile of debris that's dangling in the air over a chasm to form a makeshift bridge, drag hulking cargo containers about to form makeshift cover or lob a barrel at somebody's bonce is fun-ish, we can't help but think there's even more fun to be had messing about with gravity.


Certain sections - though scripted and not organic like the rest of the gravity trickery - see the entire map get flip-reversed. One minute, Russel will be walking past a skyscraper on the sidewalk, the next he'll be walking along it. This nifty inversion of the game space serves a mainly cosmetic function, but half a dozen times after it first occurred we were still making suitably awestruck sounds. It's a neat ahem... twist, for sure. There are also specific antigrav 'flying' sections, though they feel linear and too restrained currently. Still, they serve to break up the action reasonably neatly.

Inversion is a crackerjack of brilliant, but currently awkwardly executed ideas then, a potpourri of innovation that sometimes appears a little too chaotic. Firefights are often absolutely mental. You're being tossed into the air as you flatten somebody into the floor; you're desperately flailing for that shiny red explosive barrel to throw at the sub-boss.

The emergent gameplay that stems from its mechanics can also be riotous. Can't be bothered selecting your sniper rifle to headshot that far away guy on the bridge? Just use your Gravlink to blast said bridge to its component atoms. It's all a bit too chaotic for its own good at this point in time, but the odd refinement here and there could well work wonders.

Issues abound then, but a little Namco-coloured bird tells us that Inversion is struggling to hit its current February release date, meaning there's still time for much-needed preening. Inversion might not reinvent the shooter, but it's yet more compelling proof of the almighty Russian talent pool that - behind the Gears copycat moments - boasts some killer ideas of its own. An interesting curio this, and worth keeping a cheeky eye on.


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