There appears to be a growing gulf this generation between Western gamers and Eastern developers, and I would posit that it is largely being driven by the West’s love affair with shooters, and Japan’s inability to really grasp this increasingly crucial genre. There have been efforts of course – underrated 2004 cover-based shooter Kill.Switch and more recent flat attempts such as Lost Planet 2 or Quantum Theory – but none of these titles have especially managed to resonate with the American audience they’re trying to appeal to.
Vanquish, however, is different. It takes the standard third person cover-based shooting gameplay, mixes it with a dash of the same sass and tongue-in-cheek humour so prevalent in developer Platinum Games’ previous release Bayonetta, and invigorates the genre with a couple of unique slants on the overused ‘bullet time’ mechanic. Though visually it may come across as an unremarkable space marine shooter replete with dropships and robots, there’s a sense of self-awareness and the ridiculous that courses through Vanquish’s veins that make its generic-isms a little more palatable.
Vanquish stars Sam Gideon; a DARPA technician who smokes and gruffly quips in his best attempt to mimic Solid Snake. But the real star of the show is not Sam, but rather his ARS suit – a robotic exoskeleton that resembles a cross between Master Chief and Iron Man. Perhaps most significantly, Sam can rocket-boost along the floor on his knees, which can be used to slide between cover, combined with slo-mo for a ‘fly-by’ attack or just zooming up to an enemy before kick-somersaulting their face whilst flipping away and firing. ‘High-octane’ barely seems to do the gameplay justice, and the ARS’ relatively narrow range of abilities proves to be quite versatile when paired with different weapons and deployed against the various foes.
The ARS’ powers are governed by an energy meter which depletes and recharges according to Sam’s action at any given time – take too much damage, stay in slow-motion too long or execute a punishing melee attack and the meter will empty, leaving Sam vulnerable and unable to utilise the suit’s abilities until it recharges when undamaged for a short while. What this does is encourage the player to get inventive with their attacks; hanging back and shooting from behind cover works as well here as with any old shooter, but it’s much more effective and satisfying to zip between cover, disable or destroy enemies with grenades and execute slo-mo headshots that even Max Payne would be proud of.
The weapons line-up incorporates the usual suspects but turns out to be surprisingly dynamic and balanced, particularly on the higher difficulties. Less common weapons such as the rocket launcher or sniper rifle tend to precede specific scenarios, and elsewhere are the usual suspects such as machine guns and shotguns that help make up the numbers. All weapons can be upgraded in the field by either collecting occasional tokens from fallen enemies or picking the same weapon up again, which grants them benefits like more power or more ammo. Sam’s own default machine gun is particularly useful, although the other weapons prove their worth when fighting more uncommon and unusual foes and bosses.
Whether it’s the plot, combat or set-pieces, Vanquish tends to move along at a blistering pace, and Platinum Games have done an excellent job of keeping the level design varied and interesting. It takes place on orbital space station ‘Providence’, and features a mixture of ruined cityscapes, futuristic facilities and ad-hoc military installations. There’s a tremendously impressive sense of scale, with outdoor battles often featuring dozens of troops and explosions a-plenty in vast environments that really convey a sense of scale in the same style of the titular ring-world in the original Halo: Combat Evolved. There’s very much a sense of entertainment to the level design, with environments traversed and discarded with nary a second thought, and sequences such as a hover-train or a collapsing bridge used to great effect at breaking up the game’s core cover-shooting.
Powering all this is an incredible graphics engine which handles this illusion of small-scale battles with aplomb and flawlessly keeps apace of the game’s blistering velocity. Characters are superbly well animated and of particular note Sam does a wonderful balletic pirouette as he springs out of his rocket slide. The camera keeps up with all of this beautiful chaos and does a great job of tracking Sam when he’s leaping, boosting and punching all over the place. Talking about Vanquish’s technical feats justifies a ream of admiration, and rarely do action games come more capable and visually arresting.
The plot in Vanquish is fairly token, delivering little by way of surprises and having some very bland characters at the helm. A resurgent Russia attacks the space station, so Sam and Lt. Col. Burns lead the counterattack, although there’s a little political scheming along the way between the Russian and US leaders and Sam typically locks horns with his allies when they don’t see eye-to-eye. Sam and Burns are presented as tough guys who could have easily stepped out of Escape from New York, and they generally shoot first and don’t bother with questions. There’s an element of the ridiculous to proceedings, and while the plot is borderline ignorable, it’s entertaining and at least drives the game toward its next action sequence.
While Vanquish excels in most areas, not everything works so well. It’s a relatively simple game, but for gamers used to third-person shooters, playing on Hard difficulty from the beginning is certainly the most satisfying and rewarding path. This will also extend its lifespan, which falls at around 6-8 hours; perhaps a little short for a single-player shooter, but the action here is so concentrated that any more levels and the pacing could have been all skewed. That there are no multiplayer modes is both a blessing and a curse; it means Vanquish is overall a much briefer shooter than most, but its core mechanics would not have worked well in a multiplayer environment, so this is understandable. The controls are generally flawless, although they can be a little fussy such as not allowing the camera viewpoint to switch to Sam’s left shoulder, or sometimes not quite sticking to cover as well as it should.
‘Awesome’ is a word that gets bandied around a lot, but consider how often people consider its literal meaning – to genuinely inspire awe. Few games manage such a feat; either due to ambitions outstripping the finished product, or perhaps technical hindrances diminishing the effect. Vanquish manages in many ways to be quite literally awesome though; from the bombastic battles you partake in, through its outstanding technical performance, brilliantly ridiculous cutscenes and superb twists on an established genre. It’s a relatively slight, shallow experience, but it delivers more concentrated action and entertainment in those few hours than most of its peers can muster in two or three times as long. Kick-ARS indeed.