The work of PlatinumGames, Vanquish is extraordinary. You merely have to glance at the skybox that hangs over the action to appreciate the creativity underlying this game. The colonial planet of Providence shuns a traditional linear plane for a cylindrical design where its infrastructure curves in a three-dimensional arc. Human craftsmanship exists from every angle. To your sides, highways extend upwards like giant rollercoaster rides. Buildings and grasslands reside both above and below your feet, and even dams sit at an angle. The sci-fi genre affords all sorts of liberties, but Vanquish is one of the few games that makes the most of this and does something interesting with its setting. It’s a stage that defies traditional barriers, at times reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Moreover, it’s also a superb action game that presents you with a myriad of interesting challenges. The unique, cylindrical structure that is Providence is more than just gloss. Rather, it’s an arena that allows for action on different, interesting fronts.
“The sci-fi genre affords all sorts of liberties, but Vanquish is one of the few games that does something interesting with its setting.”The story does its best to do the world justice but you’re never sure whether you’re supposed to take it at all seriously. The age-old conflict between Russia and America is back. Though it never came to fruition in real life, the Cold War seemingly still circles the imagination of the industry. What might have eventuated? In this futuristic envisioning, the world is on the brink of an energy crisis and a Russian revolutionary wants control. There’s more to the story than initially meets the eye and while it’s certainly not Mass Effect, nor Heavy Rain, Vanquish is one of the few games that can get away with its B-movie plot and hackneyed characters.
You play as Sam Gideon, a man with a penchant for nicotine and an A.R.S. suit covering his frail human skin. The Augmented Reaction Suit is Platinum’s answer to contemporary games. The slow-mo antics of Max Payne? It’s here. The cover-centric fights of Gears of War? Check. This is a student of the genre. It borrows from the best, but it never compromises its core aim: unadulterated entertainment. Numerous titles come with features that look good on the back of the box, but few can match Vanquish for its intuitive and streamlined action. It’s fast and frenetic with battles ensuing amidst a hail of gunfire. Spend the entire game behind cover and you’re missing the point entirely. You’re meant to wade into the fray, for it’s all about enjoying the sheer chaos of it. Pace-perfect battles are orchestrated by catchy sci-fi music and framed by expressive visual touches. Yet, tellingly, it also has a surprising amount of depth to it.
By holding the left bumper on the Xbox controller, Sam performs a slide. This slick, fast move is a wonder to behold, but it also has an important gameplay function. Struggling to fight enemies head-on? Why not employ the move and reach a position from which to flank your foes? Unable to cope with the waves of enemies? Why not bring Sam’s world into focus by using his ability to augment time? Bullet tracers tear the screen, rockets veer towards you, but suddenly you’re able to pick apart the obstacles. Both the slide and the slow-mo are superbly implemented features, the latter of which kicks in whenever you’re dying, thus giving Sam a fighting chance. Cleverly, none of the suit’s auxiliary functions can be used for too long. Keep sliding and the suit will eventually overheat. Enter slow-mo and you’ll soon be snapped back to real-time. You need to decide when to use your powers, and rather than bogging you down with buttons to learn, these features enhance the experience. Vanquish is a jack of all trades, yet it’s a master of them too. The pace of the game is never spoilt, and in the end, it always places the onus of victory squarely in your hands.
The weapons have also received some thought. Shotguns, heavy machine guns, rocket launchers and disc launchers – to name a few – all make an appearance, but it’s their particular strengths and weaknesses that keep things interesting. The rocket launcher takes time to lock-on to an enemy, but the ensuing blast is devastating. The heavy-machine gun is powerful but rather inaccurate, while its smaller version (the assault rifle) comes with better range but less firepower. As you pick your way through each battle you’ll gradually learn what works depending on the situation, and the inventory is well-balanced enough to ensure you’ll never simply run with one gun the entire campaign.
In true gaming fashion, boss fights make a regular appearance. To the game’s credit, these encounters shine. They’re huge, impressive beasts that hunker before you and demand to be quelled, accompanied by crumbling scenery and a striking health bar at the top of the screen. You’ll pray for the health bar to reach zero not for a sheer lack of enjoyment, but because you’re so desperate to succeed. Each boss comes with a move that can kill you in one stroke, and you’ll find yourself moving swiftly between cover, employing the suit’s powers and slowly draining their health. There’s nothing revolutionary at work, nor does there need to be, for Vanquish refines and hones the tropes of third-person shooters. It doesn’t necessitate that you simply mash the trigger. It asks that you learn its skill-set and apply it during the action proper.
Broken up into five different acts, the story moves in a seamless fashion from one location to the next. The sights on offer are as memorable as they are diverse. During Act 2, an on-the-rails sequence seems fairly humdrum at first. But, suddenly, the cylindrical world takes effect and the opposing freight train is literally flipped upside down, changing the parameters of the action. Midway through Act 3, you traverse a crumbling highway, but thanks to the arc of Providence you’re battling vertigo, not just the combatants. The game’s ability to throw fresh and interesting ideas at you from seemingly every turn makes it a joy to play. Each act shifts the scenery, but it’s not for purely artificial reasons: it impacts on the gameplay too. The world is not merely a backdrop, but a character in unto itself.
Let the curtain roll
Games take years of toil, so it’s hardly surprising that the developers want their names to be seen. Still, a credit sequence is often an endurance test. We watch, not for our own enjoyment, but in the hope that there’s a final cutscene or snippet of gameplay waiting to be sampled. In Vanquish’s case, however, the developers have come up with a brilliant, interactive idea that’s well worth finishing the game simply to sample. We won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say, even this remarkable game’s credit sequence lives up to its campaign.
If Vanquish does have one fault, it’s the lack of multi-play. Quite apart from multiplayer, it’s perfectly suited to co-op, the sort of game that begs to be showed off to friends. Sadly, your partner will only be able to watch the action as opposed to experiencing it, but online leaderboards rank your progress and encourage faster, more precise playthroughs. Additionally, there’s the option of undertaking specific challenges unlocked after the completion of each act, but the complete absence of multi-play, whether at home or online, is disappointing.
Nonetheless, you can’t fault Vanquish for what it has. Impressive set pieces and an overarching scale lend a sense of importance to your battles. The background music is resolutely arcade at times, but strangely appropriate. The story is B-movie, all gruff-talking bad guys and nicotine. It’s loud, brash and fun, yet it’s also underpinned by intelligent game design. The levels are immaculately crafted, while the pace is frenetic. Load-screens are shrewdly masked by cutscenes (and when they do occasionally appear, they’re mercifully short) and when the screen teems with action, even the framerate holds up. It’s a mere seven hours long, but Vanquish is that rare title that benefits from its brevity. Were it any longer it’d risk being diluted, dulled, nullified. The game that stands is an absolute thrill-ride, brimming with verve and excitement. And as the adage goes, the star that burns most bright is the star that dies twice as fast.