Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Inversion (PC/Xbox, 2012, Russia): Here’s What They Missed
July 1, 2012, 1:22 am
Filed under: Inversion (PC/Xbox, 2012, Russia)

I believe I have identified a rather serious missing link in the videogame-reviewing-food chain. (Alright, I’m sure I’m not the first, but I can be as self-important as the next bloke.) There are some cooperative-shooters out there whose campaigns are ideally played with another human being. While these titles can be enjoyed by friendless basement-dwellers with an (often frustratingly brain-dead) AI filling the shoes of the cooperative partner, these generally subpar titles really shine when slogging through the firefights and sitting next to another experienced player on the couch–or cuddled up to someone thousands of miles away online. Suddenly, the cooperative experience transforms these titles from turkeys into glorious golden turkeys. (In retrospect, I guess that makes games like the “Army of Two” series, which forced cooperative play and eschewed a solo option altogether, sort of gutsy.)

The problem, however, is this: Critics writing about early review copies of these games are usually stuck playing them solo; as individuals, they really have few options to experience the game as mostly intended. Then–surprise, surprise—we find essay after essay decrying how stupid the AI partner in the game is, how this wrecks the entire experience, and followed by the all-too-familiar caveat: “Stay away from this clunker at all costs.” Unfortunately, these reviewers rarely, if ever, consider how their perception of the game might change if they were playing it cooperatively. I guess in some ways, it’s not their fault; if the publishers were to somehow create communities of reviewers who could jump the cooperative gap, then the published opinions of some titles might be a little different. But that doesn’t seem to happen (except maybe with massive titles like “Borderlands,” where cooperative play is front and center.)

Pondering this issue, I started to enumerate the titles (both big and small) that, I think, fall into this category. I won’t be exhaustive about this, but on the big list is “Resident Evil 5.” Based on the plethora of middling critical reviews (again most of them lamenting the mentally challenged AI partner Sheva Alomar), I was expecting to be disappointed. To the contrary, I played the game as intended, with a very clever and quick real life cooperative Sheva, and it was one of my favorite games of 2009. Certainly the game had its flaws (some major ones at that), but it was a rollicking good time with my real-life partner. Period. Those critics didn’t play the same game I played.

On the much smaller list, the steampunk-failure-of-a-game “Damnation” (2009) comes to mind. This title proudly wears the badge of “bad game” (see my review here), but since my partner and I had no other cooperative titles to play at the time, we hunkered down and braced ourselves for what we thought would be a frustrating, laughably bad time. That wouldn’t happen, however. As we cooperatively played through the cheesy campaign, we both found ourselves having way more fun than the embarrassing  41 Metacritic score would suggest. Once again, reviewers mostly played the game solo with a brain-dead AI partner (clearly evident from the content of the reviews), which made an already bad game much worse. However, goofing our way through the campaign cooperatively helped to alleviate many of the sore spots we encountered in this title, while providing a genuinely good time. Again, I didn’t play the same game all those grouchy, lonely reviewers played.

There are other examples, but I’ll assume I’ve made my point. So let’s move onto what I think is the latest victim of this oversight—Sabre Interactive’s multiplatform title “Inversion” (2012), which unsympathetic critics called gimmicky and bland, overwrought and lightweight, and sentimental and underwhelming (actual contradictory words from actual contradictory reviews). Don’t get me wrong: As a “Gears of War,” Unreal-Engine-Wannabe, hold-the-door-for-me-bro , cover-based, sci-fi, third-person derivative shooter, “Inversion” is thoroughly average. However, those unhappy critics most assuredly played the game all alone, sitting in their mama’s basements. But since the entire campaign can be played in real-time with a real, 3-D human being, does that change things? I can answer that question confidently: It increases the fun quotient exponentially—a fact that the vast majority of reviewers never bothered exploring, considering, or apologizing for. Their loss. But even worse, it’s the game’s loss because many will read their reviews (a limp Metacritic score of 52) and make purchasing decisions based on only half the picture. And as a cooperative narrative experience, this title simply shines. I’ll explain how after discussing the simplistic, but serviceable, storyline.

At some point on near-future earth in some semi-futuristic enclave called Vanguard City, you are Davis Russell, a spikey-haired plainclothes cop who is best friends with cop-colleague Leo Delgado. Davis just wants to get home during his lunch break to give a birthday present to his daughter, since he is working the late shift and may not make it home for his daughter’s party. The ever-present Leo rides along. In no time, a car careens towards them in the wrong lane, and then they encounter waves of citizens fleeing on foot from Mad-Max-looking aliens (called Lutadores) which have invaded the city…from somewhere. They clearly didn’t arrive from spaceships in the sky, though. They just…appeared.

A few skirmishes later, Davis and Leo realize they are no match for these invaders, and they are overpowered and captured—but not before the two pals reach Davis’s family home, where they find Davis’s wife dead amidst rubble, and his daughter…missing…maybe. Methinks this game is going to be a tad bit depressing.

The early narrative finds you and Leo cooperatively escaping the filthy Lutadore prison (where they are putting humans to work digging a large hole for some unknown purpose) after several weeks of captivity. The Lutadores are muscle-bound brutes who speak a very broken English and carry very large, alien guns. Oh, they also have tech called a Gravlink that allows them to create and manipulate small gravity fields, giving them the ability to float cars, buildings, and people into the air, as well as increase gravity around items to make them fall to the ground. (This is the main shtick of the game, and needless to say you and your partner both get access to this tech pretty early on to upend the Lutadores.) Paradoxically, the tech seems much too advanced for these alien dopes to have developed it, but all Earthlings are in the dark. All children are being gathered and transported to someplace unknown underground. The Lutadores are in control of Earth in no time flat.

Besides the fact that no one can figure out where the hell the Lutadores came from, there’s another oddity. Every once in a while, small flying robots appear (and sometimes large ones too, all with armaments), and they seem to be in conflict with the Lutadores—you witness multiple skirmishes occurring between the two forces. Of course, if these flying robots spot you, they will shoot you down equally. But this tech is also not of Earth design, so there is something very complicated going on.

It’s a great setup that cannot be easily sussed out right away. Davis and Leo must simply fight their way blindly through the wrecked landscape really not knowing where to go or what is happening. But after liberating himself and his partner Leo from the prison, Davis is single-mindedly focused on finding his daughter, convinced that she is alive. At several points along the journey, your cop pal Leo is strangely reticent and suggests the search might be fruitless, but he gladly tags along to help his best friend anyway. His reticence foreshadows a major twist at the very end of the game, which I will share, but later (only because it is such a high point), and with a spoiler alert.

From that point, you basically play a watered-down, covered-based, “Gears of War” clone (complete with “revive me bro” mechanics), battle after battle. Some of these are interior fights in wrecked apartment and office buildings, and others are outside in well-drawn town squares, cemeteries, parks, highways. The Gravlink, the aforementioned fancy, glowing backpack that allows you and your coop pardner to change gravity fields, adds an extra dimension to warfare. You can float enemies out of cover for clean headshots, drag items on top of foes to crush them where they stand, and even pick up the rusted hulks of cars and toss them like bean bags down the highway, mowing over clusters of Lutadores. The gameplay is well-paced and rather well-balanced. Again, it’s all particularly average—BUT experiencing the campaign with another actual person considerably adds to the fun. Additionally, there are parts of the world where gravity has become unhinged—there simply is none. So, you may find yourself fighting a battle on the ground, and then suddenly the gravity will shift, and everyone (both you and your targets) will tilt upward onto the side of a building, where the battle continues in sideways fashion. It’s downright clever, and appropriately disorienting. In addition, there are sections of the game where you have to float from point to point, soaring through the air and grabbing onto ledges, chunks of levitating sidewalk, or other midair flotsam to steady yourself. Of course, you often must shoot it out with Lutadores or robots during these sequences too, with massive wrecked skyscrapers jutting at impossible angles in the distance. What’s not to love?

The guns, of which there are 5 or so (you can carry 2 at a time, as well as frag grenades) are sufficient.  (Standard issue shotgun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, etc.) One interesting gun is the Lutadore Lavagun, which is basically a flamethrower. Coating everything and everyone in sticky, boiling lava is satisfying. Other one-use-only heavy guns (like rocket launchers) are lying about. Targeting is fine. Enemies, which typically show up in groups of 4 to 8 (and often in small waves), are suitably agile, dodging behind cover to avoid getting shot, and bum-rushing you to add variety. Discussing and implementing tactics with your partner works fine, just as well as with any other cooperative TPS I’ve played. Or you both can rush in with guns blazing, reviving each other when necessary. (If you go down, a timer of 30 seconds commences—if your partner doesn’t reach you by then, it’s game over. But save points were liberal, and the game never really stalled in this respect.) Button placement is okay; I personally had a harder time getting used to the Gravlink controls, which are dependent upon the L&R bumper buttons (on the Xbox 360 version). Also switching between light gravity mode (which floats items so you can grab and toss them—just think the “HalfLife 2” Gravity Gun, same thing) and heavy gravity mode (which drags and pins items to the ground) requires a downward push on the right thumbstick, which I found to be a little funky (I would change modes accidentally quite often). But nothing too frustrating. Trust me, you’ve experienced far worse. Anyway, the Gravlink backpack you wear glows blue when in light mode and glows red when in heavy mode. Plenty of visual indicators to stay alert. Also, the back button served an interesting multifunction: When pressed, it shows your next objective marker in the distance, the direction your partner is in, and also your partner’s health level (all of it fading).

Lastly, there are some fun special moves as well, and here’s how they work: You are shooting at a Lutadore, who ducks behind some cover (cover by the way is destructible). He digs in, so you hit the general area with your Gravlink to float him off his feet and out of cover. As he floats into the air, he is likely to nail you with a few bullets. But instead of simply shooting him dead in midair at a distance, you pull him towards you with the Gravlink at lightning speed across the battlefield, and suddenly he is floating a few feet in front of you. Again, at this distance, he’s likely to put his shotgun in your face, but all you have to do is the hit B button, and in a fancy finishing move, you crush his skull on the ground. Gotta hurt. Problem is this: They can do the same thing to you. So if you suddenly find yourself floating in midair during a heated battle, it pretty much is a death sentence.

LENGTHY SPOILER ALERT: I mentioned there were a few plot points I wanted to reveal only because they add ammunition to my argument about how fine a game this actually is. If you plan on playing the game and want the biggest narrative impact, then stop reading now. Otherwise: There are two major plot points that, for me, took this game from ho-hum-adolescence to aspiring-adult (not full-grown, but aspiring). The first occurs a bit more than halfway through the campaign. Eventually, Davis and Leo fight their way into a massive high-tech facility underground, and none of it seems to be of Earth design. Thinking this is where the Lutadores originated, they travel deeper and deeper, while encountering more and more high-tech robots. They are confused. They board a massive transit system (which they believe is carrying human children prisoners) connecting an innumerable string of hubs on a map. The facility seems infinite in size. How could something like this exist right under their feet here on Earth with no one knowing about it?

LENGTHY SPOILER CONTINUES: Out of the blue, they enter a huge area, hit a button, and a large metal blind rises that reveals the truly unbelievable: They are not on the planet Earth at all—indeed, they are on a massive ship in deep space. The ship is composed of a series of planet-sized glass domes, each its own habitat. They then realize that what they’ve known as “Earth” their whole lives is actually just a dome they’ve been living in attached to a ship. It is suggested that the ship may indeed be millennia old. They don’t know what this spaceship is, who built it, why, or what the destination is, but they infer that the Lutadores came from their own isolated dome (which has sort of gone to pot) and invaded their Earth dome. That’s why no one saw them arrive, since they sort of just walked through a back door, so to speak. Additionally, the flying robots are apparently cogs in a large automated system designed to keep the whole ship running smoothly, and to keep the dome inhabitants ignorant of where they are—and to quietly eliminate anyone who accidentally discovered and tried mucking around in the interior of the ship. Hot damn! Love it, love it, love it.

LENGTHY SPOILER CONTINUES EVEN MORE: After their shock is over, Leo and Davis move on with their daughter-saving mission (ultimately, entering into the Lutadore dome, which is like a living hell—like the lava-filled hell from the Bible, that is). And that is actually the second narrative point that makes this game noteworthy. At the very end of the game, following a tiresome boss battle that requires you (Davis the-daughter-hunter) to run around in circles with your coop partner against a Lutadore maniac, you must grab the freak and throw yourself down a massive shaft. You are gone. Your pal, Leo, remains alone standing at the precipice. And in a voiceover, as the camera pulls back, we hear him say, “Well, at least I didn’t have to tell Davis the truth.” A flashback then occurs showing the moment early in the game when the two cops reach Davis’s home and find his wife dead. Only this time, we also see Leo walking into an adjacent room and finding Davis’s daughter dead, covered by rubble. He closes the door, whispers a short eulogy, and of course says nothing to Davis, unsure how to break the news. Instead, he decides to just quietly follow Daddy Davis on his pointless mission to locate his daughter, even though Leo knows she has already succumbed. To that, I say: Wow. Very poignant and very moving. Quite damn fine. Never saw it coming. During the entire game, we were naively searching for someone who had died very near the start of the game, and one of us knew it all along but didn’t have the strength to communicate it. I love that kind of thing. SPOILER DONE.

Of course, not all the negatives cited by critics are unfair. There are many sore spots in the game. For example, the “locked into an arena” boss fights are terribly repetitive. And what I mean is that you kill one boss only to encounter the exact same boss in another arena later on, and none of the dynamics have changed—same guns, same attacks, same defensive moves, same same. It becomes very rinse and repeat, and it smacks of laziness (or running out of ideas). Next, early in the game, there are an absolute ton of cutscenes, so the playthrough proceeds thusly: You play a small battle, then cutscene. Play another 10 minutes, then cutscene. Then play another 15 minutes, cutscene again. Many reviewers griped that this created a fragmented feeling to the game, but personally, I didn’t mind the little breaks, and also the luxury of being able to take a breather and watch part of the story unfold. (But maybe I’m just old.) Also this pacing seems to change as the game progresses, with a decreasing number of cutscenes once the narrative has been established and less explanation is required. Next, your partner, whether his shoes are filled by computer or real person, is terribly chatty. Leo pipes up very often to tell Davis he needs to enter that door, or hike up those stairs…guidance you might need to give to a blind person, but the kind of direction most of us don’t require. On the contrary, during the (frequent) boss battles, Leo will also pipe up to tell us what special moves we need in order to win: “Hey D! Grab those little robots with your Gravlink and throw them at the big robot!” Ah, since I had just emptied an entire ammo clip into the boss without any effect, his guidance was warmly welcomed.

Suffice to say, none of these negatives (or any others cited by reviewers) truly seem to add up to the lackluster scores that abound for this title. Again, playing through the interesting campaign with a live partner cranks the fun up considerably—something that many reviewers clearly didn’t bother doing. What’s not to enjoy about creating and grabbing a massive lava blob and lobbing it in the air at your partner, only for him to curse you out? Instead, most critics wrote reviews bitching about how often their AI partner would die and how tiring it all was. That’s a fair critique, but it is only half the picture, folks. Also, I feel compelled to mention that this game really does feel like a journey, especially given the large variety of environments you and your partner skulk through—from a pre- and post-invasion Vanguard City, to a prison, to underground tunnels, a high tech facility, and finally deep space—by the time the game is over, it feels like you’ve been somewhere, if you know what I mean. And I love that feeling.

Worth $60? Eh, probably not. But easily worth half that or more. This is a game made with heart, that much is clear.  If you rent it, rent 2 of them, LAN your systems together (yes, the game supports LAN…well, the 360 version supports SystemLink, which involves directly connecting two consoles in a LAN configuration. I’m not sure about the PC version. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that at least someone on the planet is still implementing SystemLink technology on Xbox 360 games [an option that is disappearing very, very quickly] so I am not required to have an overpriced Xbox Live account, or suffer my unreliable internet connection, just to play a damned cooperative campaign. Money money money.

POSTSCRIPT (SPOILER REVISTED): Regarding the “Oh my God, we’ve been living on a spaceship our whole damn lives” moment in “Inversion,” the very top of the credits to this game say “For Robert Heinlein.” I’m not sure which of Heinlein’s stories Sabre Interactive filched for their game—or if they did at all. This dedication may simply be one of reverence. If anyone else knows, please enlighten us.

But for me, the reference is much less literary. What I mean is this: Has anyone ever seen the absolute abortion of a sci-fi television series “The Starlost,” made for Canadian TV in 1974 and starring the illustrious post-“2001: A Space Odyssey” Keir Dullea? The show is something bizarre to behold, and included filmmaker Douglas Trumbull as special effects designer, and even Harlan Ellison as writer and show creator. (Unhappy with production values or whatever, Ellison left in a huff before shooting even began and had his name replaced with the name “Cordwainer Bird” in the credits. Smart guy.) Anyway, the entire premise of the show is exactly what occurs in “Inversion.” Dullea and his gang are from a backwards farming community called Cypress Corners, thinking they are simply living on planet Earth and doing their groovy 1974-thang. But then they find a high-tech door (behind a tree or something) that leads them into the interior of a massive spaceship where they discover hundreds of dome-habitats strung together and sailing through deep space. The crew of the ship is all dead due to some strange mishap, and the ship is on a collision course with a sun (as it has been for the last 400 years). It is up to the country bumpkins, traveling from dome to dome, to wrap their heads around their new reality and also save the day, week after week…well, for 16 weeks anyway, which is how long the show lasted.

My point: Every story under the sun has already been told in some form.


2 Comments so far
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Holy crap. Those spoilers were indeed fantastic (especially the last one). This storyline could have made a great film! Having said that, I read them not knowing there was a PC version, and thinking I’d thus never play it, so I’m kind of regretting doing so. Still, I’ll probably play it anyway. Thanks for another great review.

Comment by Mark L

Hi Mark. Thanks again for reading. Sorry the spoilers blew it for you, narratively speaking. (I did mention early on it was a “multiplatform” title. I usually only head the posts with whatever platform I played it on–which I should probably rethink?) Anyway, since it got such middling reviews, you should be able to pick it up for next to nothing. But like I said, if you wait even a little longer, you may be able to get 2 even more cheaply, give one to someone who you could LAN it with on PC, and enjoy the game as I think the developers really wanted you to. Another interesting thing to me: This game appears to be western by all accounts–but one gander at the credits shows that it is Russian through-and-through. There’s something about that I really like.

Comment by wkduffy

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