In a world filled with so many derivative and generic titles, it’s tempting to shower even the slightest hint of innovation with utmost praise. One must still remain careful though, since even the greatest ideas are nothing without good execution. Inversion is the latest game from Namco and Saber Interactive, and it’s attempting to breathe some new life into the shooter genre with its unique gravity-based gameplay. Will this game truly turn your world upside down, or will you come to appreciate gravity when you’re tossing the disc out a window?
Inversion is set in a world a lot like our own. The game follows Davis Russell, a cop within Vanguard City. He’s heading home one day with his partner Leo when the city suddenly comes under attack by an alien menace known as the Lutadore. They’ve managed to harness the power of gravity and are now using it to tear the city apart. They also kidnap Davis’ daughter among many other civilians, so naturally our personality-deficient hero and his equally flat partner set out to rescue her and put a stop to the invaders. But what surprises await our heroes? What are the Lutadore here for? How did they manage to control gravity? More importantly, who cares?
Inversion’s story is drenched with cliché and is generally uninvolving throughout. Davis’ missing child is little more than an excuse to move the story forward, and the handful of soldiers and survivors you meet along the way are the very definition of forgettable. The writing is more miss than hit, with many lines being either so macho or so ridiculous that you wonder if the game has turned into full-on parody. A certain “manly” conversation within an APC is sure to make you laugh, and after killing the first Lutadore you encounter, Leo walks up to him and states that it has no ID and is “definitely not from around here.” Thanks, Leo; Any other bright observations? All of this doesn’t mean the developers haven’t tried, however. There are a surprisingly large amount of cutscenes throughout, many of which either waste your time detailing objectives you already figured out by then, or try and fail to inject some emotion and personality into our heroes. At the very least, they can all be skipped. Finally, there is a chest-slapingly stupid plot twist late in the game that has nothing to do with any of the game’s central themes and isn’t even properly explained. It comes out of left field and defies logic, yet its amusing nature actually makes it the most memorable aspect of the game.
Of course, the aspect of Inversion that everyone’s probably wondering about is its gameplay, and how (if at all) it attempts to stand out. At its core, the game is a meat and potatoes third-person cover shooter. Levels are arranged in a linear fashion with very basic combat arenas and no alternate paths, making for a pretty restrictive experience. That being said, it’s still possible to get lost within some areas, as they’re often cluttered and have very obscure doors and exits. The cover system itself is great, allowing you to easily sprint into cover and switch to other spots. Aiming feels a bit stiff, though, and it’s not helped by a lack of feedback when hitting enemies. It must also be said that the arsenal is as standard as they get, comprised of basic weapons like assault rifles, shotguns, and sniper rifles. Enemy AI is basic but gets the job done. Surprisingly, your AI partner is actually quite smart, even if there are other issues I have with him that I’ll get into later.
But enough of that! Let’s talk about the game’s unique hook; gravity. Early on Davis and Leo acquire a device called the Gravlink. As the game progresses, you’ll earn more powers for the device, eventually allowing it to switch between low-gravity and high-gravity, which makes objects lighter or heavier, respectively. It’s fairly easy to use, but some questionable design choices hamper the fun. Firstly, it takes too long to gain all these powers, meaning for the first two hours you’re stuck with simply the ability to levitate individuals, which gets old fast. Grabbing and throwing objects is probably your most useful skill, which you acquire right after that. The finisher attack you can perform after grabbing an enemy is useless however, as throwing them at an enemy or object is quicker and instantly kills them anyway. The biggest problem is that you’ll never have to use these powers in combat. In fact, most of the game can simply be played as a standard shooter, and the very few instances where you are forced to use the powers are unimaginative, such as clearing debris by lifting it or bringing down a pillar to make a bridge. It seems like a waste of a creative mechanic. In fact, the game as a whole is a lot less smart than it thinks it is.
The game also sports several zero-gravity sections, where you and the enemies float in the air and have to glide from cover to cover. These sections are easily the highlight of the game and make for some thrilling and unique shootouts. The absolute opposite of those would have to be the boss fights, which are at best tolerable and at worst infuriating. Some of them pit you in very claustrophobic arenas with little to no cover, and considering Davis is quite fragile, this is a big problem. Even worse, none of the bosses have any checkpoints despite being fairly lengthy and many have cheap instant-kill attacks that are nearly impossible to see coming, let along dodge effectively. Worse still is that these bosses are shamelessly recycled throughout the entire game. By the time you come to the fifth and final fight against a Slave Driver late in the game, you might just give up and quit. A shame, as these fights ruin the game’s otherwise decent pacing. Other annoyances include Davis’ aforementioned fragility, some annoying melee based enemies, spaced-out checkpoints, and your AI partner. He rarely goes down, but when he does you’ll have to quickly revive him or else fail the mission. If you get downed though, your partner won’t even try to revive you and it’s game over for you. Because of this mind-boggling design decision, it’s recommended you play co-op if you can, as both of you are allowed to revive each other. (NOTE: the co-op is online only, despite being advertised as including split-screen)
The game’s inconsistent framerate and screen tearing hurt this one a fair bit. The game can sometimes feel sluggish and stiff when a lot is happening, which doesn’t do it any favors. Texture pop-in is also very noticeable whenever a level loads or cutscene starts/ends, and the cutscenes themselves transition clumsily into gameplay with a black screen. It’s a real shame, because Inversion actually looks quite nice. Environments are well detailed, often large in scope, and incorporate some terrific lighting and shadows. The character models are similarly good-looking and also sport convincing animations. Couple that with the impressive environmental destruction, and you have a game that looks like an AAA title even if it doesn’t run as smooth as one. If only the art direction received the same attention. The game seemingly takes artistic cues from Gears of War, Infamous, Dead Space and Half-life 2, but in the process fails to establish an identity of its own. Even the most beautiful areas look drab and generic, and you’ll be hard pressed to remember any set pieces or environments after the credits roll.
Inversion’s sound design is decent. Some of the guns give off fairly muffled or weak firing sounds, but the explosions sound like explosions, and gravitational powers sound like what they probably would sound like. That said, the sound mixing is off, making many effects sound quieter than they should be. This is especially noticeable when Davis and Leo lift a garage door, and when they release it, it sounds like a pin dropping rather than a heavy thud. Some sound effects will occasionally get cut off, too. The voice acting is surprisingly good even when the writing isn’t, though the Lutadore’s speeches get incredibly annoying, as their gibberish mixed with English really get on one’s nerves after a while. The game’s soundtrack, at least when I noticed it, fit the mood well and provided a good backdrop for the action. The menu theme is especially pleasant and may even be worth tracking down an mp3 of.
The game is of average length, taking 7-8 hours to finish. Of course, considering how frustrating the game gets in its later chapters, there’s a chance many players won’t even see the game through to its conclusion. The campaign is only sporadically enjoyable throughout, and there’s really no compelling reason to return to it after you’re done, as there are no substantial secrets to find and the gameplay is not flexible or engaging enough to make a second playthrough worthwhile. The campaign can be played in co-op, which may alleviate some of its frustrating aspects, though it can’t be played in splitscreen. Finally, there is also a co-operative survival mode that can also be played solo, but its very basic design means it probably won’t extend the game’s value by much. Inversion might be worth a rental for those who are curious, but it’s impossible to recommend the game at full price.
At the end of the day, Inversion will have you experiencing more ups and downs than its gravity-defying protagonist. For every decently fun gunfight or zero-g section, there’s a frustrating boss or cheap death to counteract it. That’s not helped by the fact that even in its best moments, the game simply doesn’t provide you with any truly creative ways to use its unique gravity mechanics. Couple that with technical issues and a dull story, and you’re left with one of the year’s more disappointing titles. Inversion is not a bad game, but contrary to its aspirations, it never truly gets off the ground.
(Reviewed for the Playstation 3 platform. Review copy generously provided by Namco-Bandai. Thank you!)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Lasting Appeal: 4/10
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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