Once intended for release on the original Xbox sometime in the early 2000s, Saber Interactive’s much-delayed FPS Timeshift seemed rather disappointing when it finally made its next-gen debut, to lukewarm reviews and very little fanfare, in the fall of 2007. A tepid Halo knockoff built around a gimmicky but occasionally satisfying time-manipulation mechanic, Timeshift was the sort of fleeting diversion one might enjoy but quickly forget, a few hours of distraction found at the bottom of a GameStop bargain bin. These cast-offs are a true gamer’s bread and butter; they’re the in-betweens, total non-events, lost to most between the cracks of a year’s AAA release dates. Which is to say that if you only bought a handful of games in 2007—the stacked year, you may recall, of Grand Theft Auto 4, Uncharted, Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, BioShock—it seems pretty likely that, unless you are prone to making extremely poor decisions, Timeshift was not among them.
Saber Interactive now return, nearly a half-decade later, with their much-delayed third-person shooter Inversion, a tepid Gears of War knockoff built around a gimmicky but occasionally satisfying gravity-manipulation mechanic, and it seems about as likely that this is a purchase most will skip. The rest, I imagine, know more or less what they’re in for: unremarkable visuals, predictably dopey A.I., uninspired level design, and the requisite host of flaws and glitches characteristic of these sorts of budget productions. Saber, to their credit, never seem exactly content with their reputation for producing forgettable trifles, and one can sense in Inversion a concerted effort to stand out among legions of lookalike B-list contemporaries. The game blunders the broadest strokes, but minor details betray an almost absurd degree of attention and care: Bodies, shot just so, burst apart spectacularly, the limb-severing physics presumably the work of an ambitious programmer left to his own devices. This does nothing to mitigate the game’s fundamental flaws and has literally no effect on one’s enjoyment of the game, and in fact you might consider its inclusion a basic waste of resources that ought to have been more usefully redirected. But it’s a gesture I can’t help but appreciate; it shows that somebody cared enough about their failing project to at least doodle in the margins.
No amount of doodling, however, can distract players from how poorly Inversion’s most basic game mechanics function. Saber have borrowed liberally and transparently from Epic’s beloved Gears of War, but it becomes apparent very quickly that they’ve only managed to mimic the game’s least attractive features. Gears of War, it should be said, was never exactly a model of narrative wit or ingenuity, and so you can imagine the emotional and intellectual depth of a game that actively aspires to that level of character and story development; we’re talking about writing so dimwitted and unimaginative that it can’t even think up bad action-movie quips of its own. Our heroes, two meathead cops who are essentially walking guns fleshed out with the absolute bare minimum of backstory, barely manage to mutter more than militaristic directives at one another, and though the game tries inexplicably hard to make us believe in their journey, we ultimately care less about them than we do about the pigs in a round of Angry Birds.
The by-now tiresome Gears of War cover mechanic is executed here about as well as one can expect from an action title this indifferent to quality control, but the same can’t be said, unfortunately, for any of the more active gameplay mechanics. I always found the guns in Gears of War frustratingly underpowered, but Inversion’s muted gunplay makes Marcus feel like Megaman by comparison. Nearly every weapon Inversion places into your mitts feels featherweight, which, when you consider that the game asks you to spend nearly 97% of its running time shooting seemingly endless waves of meatbag baddies, makes for one tedious shooter.
But the game’s most egregious fault is the deplorable mishandling of its one novel mechanic, a bodysuit/gun/whatever widget that ostensibly gives your avatar the ability to control gravity. How this is supposed to work is that shooting a given space causes the gravity in that area to either reduce or increase dramatically according to your preference at the time. How it actually works most of the time is that it does nothing. Or at least nothing particularly useful: reducing the gravity might free up a rock or a barrel or some other nondescript doodad, which you can then throw at nearby enemies (or, more often, thin walls that have no need to be there except as an excuse for you to use the suit, which is stupid and self-defeating), and lowering the gravity rarely has any function beyond bringing to the ground certain items like railings or makeshift bridges that have been so obviously placed just so for you to control that doing so means literally just going through the motions. Saber had an interesting, novel idea with the gravity angle, one that, in their hands, goes either underused or badly used. A mediocre shooter buoyed by one neat gimmick is still little more than a mediocre shooter. But a mediocre shooter that completely botches its one neat gimmick is just a bad game.