Inversion has a sparse tutorial of hint boxes and tips, but it doesn’t really need them. Upon seeing a block of cover you’ll instinctively know to press A to hunker up behind it. If you want to break into a hunched roadie run you know to just hold it down. Pressing LT to aim and RT to fire feels as natural as walking, and by the time Terraformers burst out of the ground and spew out bulky, subterranean foes, the fact you need to throw a grenade down its mechanical throat to stop the advance of spawning enemies just seems par for the course.
Inversion stops short of borrowing Gears Of War’s active reload, but by and large this is Epic Games’ template lifted wholesale. The Lutadore enemies are chunky, muscular and hairless, speaking in a gruff pidgin English with only the odd aggressive verb distinguishable. There’s one point during the campaign when you get into something that no one could deny is a clear analogue of a Grindlift. The standard assault rifle has a large blade affixed to its end – we can only imagine the conversations that must have gone on around the possibility of it being a chainsaw instead – and even the music that plays over the pause screen is reminiscent of Gears’ ambient tones.
However, it’s when Inversion does need a tutorial that things begin to diverge. Inversion’s central gimmick is the Gravlink, a fancy bit of sci-fi tech that enables super cop Davis Russel and his overly clichéd foul-mouthed partner to shatter Newton’s laws of motion. Use it when it’s shining blue and you can create pockets of low gravity that hurl enemies up from out behind cover, or launch objects into the air that can then be grabbed and flung at foes, a la Half-Life 2. When it’s burning red, the Gravlink intensifies gravity, which can be used to bring enemies to their knees or tear down hanging objects, creating new chunks of cover to hide behind when making a slow approach to a machine gun emplacement, for example.
The Gravlink is gradually upgraded throughout the narrative, and by the end its once-limited use is far less so, with players able to pick up and launch much larger objects, or even scoop up globules of lava and sling them at foes. However, the Gravlink’s full potential is realised too late on in the game – the larger breadth of options should have been made available to the player in the first act rather than slowly dishing them out over the course of the game. It’s a confused device too; Saber Interactive seemed to find difficulty in intuitively mapping the Gravlink powers to the pad. Confusing combinations involving the analogue stick and bumpers can be difficult to wrap your head around when boss battles often necessitate quick switching between offensive and defensive capabilities.
The other gravity-defying concepts encountered are similarly undercooked. Every so often the ground will peel upwards beneath your feet and you’ll be thrown into the air for a zero-g firefight. In a manner similar to Dead Space and Dark Void, players navigate these free-floating zones by gliding between highlighted sections of levitating scenery. Early in the game these are little more than fancy looking platforming sections, but later they become Inversion’s action highlights. Vast caverns cluttered with suspended chunks of machinery and concrete become freeform cover shooter playgrounds, where crazy female Lutadores with lightsabers for hands swim and dive towards you at great speed, enforcing the need for constant movement. It’s both thrilling and unique – the moments when Inversion most deviates from the Gears Of War template and actually starts to feel like its own game. Again, however, these moments are underdeveloped until the final third of the campaign, only truly realising their full potential during the final few hours of a story that lasts around ten.
Those moments spent walking on walls or ceilings aren’t much better. Once or twice you’ll find yourself fighting enemies upside-down on the ground below like some kind of Escher–meets–The Wachowskis action flick, or you’ll turn a corner and be greeted by the sight of a street many storeys below, watching the tiny dots of enemies fighting it out on a different physical plane. It’s fancy stuff, but completely scripted – you don’t initiate this tumbling of the world, you simply step into vector shifts that jump you onto the next plane of the environment. It’s not quite the ingenious level design we had hoped for.
None of this is to say that Inversion isn’t worthy of praise. There’s certainly plenty to criticise – poorly placed checkpoints, recycled boss battles, repetitive gameplay – but in terms of its use of Havok’s physics engine and Saber’s own Saber3D v.S2, there’s a great deal to shout about. Inversion is, surprisingly, an incredibly polished and well-constructed action game; the physics are particularly impressive considering the gravity-shifting gameplay, with debris blasted off of walls and ceilings or even pearls of water floating into the air when a pocket of low-grav is created. And then there’s the lighting, which is arguably the year’s best so far. An early battle against a flying drone in an underground cave sees the enemy blinding you with long shafts of intense light that filter through the columns in the rock, while energy weapons gained later in the game will cause white-hot sparks to shower from enemies and cast long shadows across the meticulously detailed walls and ceilings. Early on in the game we even spent a minute just shooting a hanging lamp, watching the shadows from its spotted shade twist and turn across the walls. It’s the kind of aesthetic effect that you forget how much you appreciate until you see it occurring so flawlessly in real-time.
If only the gameplay was as well realised as the engine that runs it, Inversion would be far more recommendable. Regrettably, as it stands, Saber Interactive has created a mechanically robust game, but one that doesn’t do enough with the ideas it can lay claim to as its own. It’s a solid and technically sound game for sure, but Inversion is standing on the shoulders of giants, and their monolithic presence is felt more significantly under Saber’s foundations than the ideas the developer come up with itself.