It’s usually a disaster when a Japanese development studio intends to produce a game in line with the tastes and sensibilities of a Western audience. Quantum Theory being the latest horrific example, much is lost in translation and the game usually winds up an intolerable mess. Vanquish suffers no such delusions because it lacks those ill-conceived aspirations. The fundamental difference is that Shinji Mikami and his team at Platinum Games viewed the Western model as inspiration for recreation rather than a formula ripe for emulation. Rather than simply copy the cover based third person shooter model, they have borrowed and built upon it, and made Vanquish’s brand of action a creation all their own. It’s surely not perfect, but its one hell of a good time, and its skill based sense of gratification is quite unlike anything else in the current gaming landscape.
Platinum Games’ (and Clover Studios’) overdeveloped sense of style is their calling card. Be it Okami’s cel-shaded watercolors or Mad World’s deliberately muted pallet, Platinum’s salient signature on a genre is easily identifiable. Vanquish is no different. A giant space station that would embarrass Mass Effect’s Citadel and a great futuristic aesthetic seek to intrigue, but Vanquish’s most instantly recognizable and uniformly ridiculous asset is player character Sam Gideon’s slide ability. At any time, Sam can fall to his knees and boost slide across the floor like a rock star. It’s an arresting maneuver, evident by it being the focal point of all the discussion surrounding Vanquish at E3 last June. It looks crazy, but it’s also the most visible example of why Vanquish isn’t just another Gears of War clone.
Other standard measures are included in Sam’s move set. Three weapons, out of nearly a dozen, and a grenade are selectable at any given time. Your usual rifle and rocket launchers are present, but they’re joined but the energy-bursting LFE Gun (a personal favorite) and other unconventional weapons. Of particular interest is the weapon upgrade system; if Sam finds a weapon he already has, and the weapon’s ammo is full, it’ll get upgraded. Upgrades vary by weapon, but extended range or magazine size is usually the norm. Weapons can also be downgraded should Sam die and have to restart at a checkpoint. At first this might seem unfair, but it meshes with Vanquish’s constant interest in forcing the player out of his or her comfort zone in the name of skill development.
Sam’s pretty quick on his feet. All the thrusters covering his Augmented Reaction Suit render him extremely agile, and allow him to hop into, out of, and over cover with ease. A dodge roll grants a few frames of invulnerability, but the best move in his set is the ability to slow down time, dubbed AR mode. Whether it’s engaged manually via trigger or automatically at low health, a considerable portion of Vanquish is played with time at a crawl. Sam is still subject to the laws of motion, he doesn’t actually move any faster than anyone else, but when you’re literally surrounded by enemies and have enough bullets whizzing around to embarrass a Cave shooter, you’re certainly going to need it.
Sam’s slide boost, AR mode, and melee abilities are governed by a single meter. Acting as a catch-all, it ensures the scales are never overly tipped in your favor. It’s also sort of tied to your health, with AR mode automatically engaging when you’re getting slaughtered. There’s also a good bit of strategy with the meter; if its manually activated Sam is free to pop out and let it recharge at any time, and managing it through combat employs a wonderful sense of desperation. Accidently burning the whole meter or getting shot to pieces results in a cool down period, which, despite being only a few seconds long, can feel like an eternity in the heat of battle.
Sam’s melee attack can’t be understated. The thing blows the entire meter, which seems overly punitive until one considers the immense power behind it. Most times I used it as a last resort when an enemy snuck up on me, but some decent strategy could be applied as well. Either as a well planned finisher or an act of desperation, it’s an essential part of Sam’s complex game.
The boost slide could have been some aggressively stupid gimmick used in place of actual substance, but instead it serves as a metaphor for the entire game. Vanquish is fast and frantic, but at the same time it requires an incredible dedication to precision and perfection. A campaign run on normal clocks out at a paltry six hours, but Vanquish is not a game where gratification begins and ends at the start and finish of a single campaign. Getting behind Vanquish and making the most out of what it offers is to strive for perfection. Much more akin to Arcade games of days past, pleasure is derived from efficiently repeating the process, not simply beating the game.
This would have been a problem had Mikami and Co. not made playing Vanquish such an incredibly alluring procedure. No matter what you’re doing, even if you’re screwing something up, Vanquish looks cool and you feel like a badass. The exploding space colony bits help and the future-chic art direction isn’t half bad, but there’s something about the way Sam Gideon moves that screams style. Better yet, the healthier your proficiency, the more attractive the on screen activity becomes. Combat is essentially rendered into an elaborate dance sequence with significant attention to improvisation. Weaving Sam in and out of cover and through various states of time, all under complete civil unrest where one wrong move is your undoing, renders Vanquish’s combat one of the most hectic and potentially out of control spectacles of the generation. No, it’s not a long game, but with combat this rewarding and indisputably dense, it doesn’t have to be.
Games where the entire purpose is essentially a test of player skill might not sit well with gamers accustomed to modern design. While it does boast a wave-spewing challenge mode, Vanquish doesn’t have tacked-on multiplayer or half assed unlockables hastily drawn into its blueprint. It’s requires a fine appreciation of its mechanics and the utmost dedication to master them in order to fully exploit it’s, for lack of a better term, fun factor. It’s far better structured than Mikami’s underappreciated (and overly punitive) God Hand, but the fundamental premise is the same; play until you’re perfect. Unlike God Hand, it’s technically proficient and aesthetically pleasing enough to encourage mastery of its mechanics and seal the deal.
Equally impressive is the level design. Vanquish’s constant flourish is its incredible finesse, and the levels are designed in a way to fully exploit Sam’s abilities. A meticulous attention to detail has gone into every piece of architecture, and Sam’s ability to freely flow anywhere, often at moment’s notice, is a testament to the strength of Vanquish’s design and the uncanny responsiveness of control input. In a span of no more than five seconds, it wasn’t uncommon for me to boost over to a friend and revive him, boost backwards and pick up a gun, dodge roll into AR mode, unload on a foe, flick the camera around and switch weapons, open fire on another guy, and then slide back into cover before dropping out of AR mode. Variations of that adrenaline draining sequence were repeated for most of the game. It’s an exhilarating process, and, as stated before, looks fabulous in motion.
Not all levels are composed of simple combat arenas. A train sequence in Act 2 was particularly exciting. Rather than have Sam leap from car to car, an opposing train car moves up, over, and around him. In one of the most expectation defying sequences of the game, the train car almost inexplicably starts rolling overhead. It’s an impressive spectacle, but in terms of gameplay this sequences also changes the cover points and dynamics of combat, and is great example of thinking outside the box approach to a combat scenario. Other sequences involving changes in elevation, vehicle escorts, sniper battles, lasers, and elevators also overcome their seemingly basic trappings and evolve into a far greater challenge than one might anticipate.
Your opposition also leaves a distinct impression. Giant screen filling robots hell bent on destruction are practically a given, what’s not is when these guys start showing up semi regularly toward the end of the game. Like Bayonetta, Vanquish excels and tossing out what at first seems like the hardest thing ever and then, before you know it, you’re taking down two of them at the same time. Most of your opposition is generic red robot fodder, but similar designs shouldn’t be confused with simple AI. They’ll routinely flush you out of cover and occasionally make last-ditch efforts to charge at you and explode. In summation, as is Vanquish’s general approach, AI favors quality over quantity.
Vanquish’s lone conceit is its story. Again like Bayonetta, there’s entirely too much narrative jammed in-between the action sequences. It’s not exactly irrelevant (and it’s certainly more coherent than Bayonetta’s weaponized nonsense), but it’s far too well produced to be so plodding and derivative. It’s sort of weird to see the return of nuke-happy Russia in a videogame and it’s somewhat watchable, but the end result is far from captivating. The likable Sam Gideon walks a careful line between annoying dick and confident badass and his dynamic relationship between Burns is occasionally rousing, but the overly aggressive Russian separatist villain and stupid politics are pure filler.
While the context is vapid, the world Platinum created is quite impressive. The sense of scale is staggering, and the desaturated, unnatural color pallet works in its favor. Vanquish’s look confidently throws reality out the window, and, at times, the HDR visuals are absolutely breathtaking. Far more striking was Platinum’s ability to maintain this world in the midst of an incredible amount of on screen activity. Vanquish rarely dropped a frame, which seems like a monumental accomplishment in the center of its constant bullet hell bedlam. Sound effects were also pretty crisp, with each gun boasting its own distinct call and a fair amount of well delivered, if not slightly nonsensical, dialogue.