E3 2011: Inversion Hands-on (Multiplayer & Singleplayer)

Inversion is a Frankenstein’s monster of a game. Not in the sense that it will eventually turn on its creators, or teach us all a tragic lesson about the nature of humanity. In the sense that it’s made up of the best parts of other, more popular games.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The most obvious influence is Gears of War, which informs the third-person perspective, the fire hydrant physiques of the characters, and the fact that the A button is used for practically everything. The game’s developers, Saber Interactive, ought to be a little more careful about their borrowing — some of the game’s art looked like it had been lifted from Gears of War almost unvarnished.

The game is at its best, unsurprisingly, when it’s at its least derivative (which, to be fair, is still very derivative). Gravity, in Inversion, is literally the name of the game. The player character has the power to manipulate and invert gravity, making it lighter or heavier depending on his needs. In practice, this plays out like the Singularity attack in Mass Effect (lower the gravity to make enemies float out of cover) or the grab-and-fling mechanics in The Force Unleashed and Half-Life 2 (objects in low gravity can grabbed and, well, flung). Far less sporting are the high gravity attacks, which basically pin onrushing enemies to the ground, to be gunned down at your leisure. Occasionally, the level design works in mind-bending gravatic set-pieces (think Prey), like two areas joined at 90 degrees, each with their own gravity. Walk onto the wall, and sideways becomes down. Before you do, though, toss some sideways grenades to clear the area.

Taking a page from Red Faction, Inversion also places a lot of stock in destructible environments — physics technology, without a doubt, is at the core of the title. In the singleplayer demo I played, I was able to leash floating debris with my gravity tool and send it flying at a variety of rickety structures, bringing them (and the enemies they supported) crashing to the ground. Otherwise, the game was a pretty bog-standard 3rd-person cover shooter.

The most clever ideas are reserved for multiplayer, where the gravity mechanics are really given a chance to shine. I had a chance to participate in a multiplayer round set in a multi-story building with a hollowed-out center. The central area was completely zero gravity, enabling players to float effortlessly between different floors with Dead Space-like ease. Though taking the shortcut had some tactical advantages, it also leaves you exposed — you can’t circle strafe in Zero G.

It’s hard to evaluate a multiplayer mode when all the people playing it are terrible, especially if you yourself are one of the most terrible. I kept using my gravity powers when I should have been using my guns, and vice versa. Nevertheless, the added depth was a welcome addition. I was more intrigued by unseen, creative gametypes, like a King of the Hill mode called “Hourglass” in which holding the hill turns the level’s gravity upside down. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

I generally like games based on physics tech (cf. Portal), and Saber deserves some credit for picking an idea an trying to build a game around it. I wish they hadn’t borrowed so liberally from other titles, but as they say, if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best, and Saber certainly did. With E3 2011 soon coming to a close, they should hope that people forget the game’s derivative qualities and focus on its gravity antics.

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