Like A Ballet, Only With More Exit Wounds
Thanks to games like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect 2, interactive storytelling has taken some big steps forward in 2010. Indeed, it seems that many developers have recently been putting a great amount of effort into immersing you in dark and engrossing worlds, and gaming is overall better because of this. Luckily, PlatinumGames recognizes that not every new shooter on the block needs to be as emotional as it is bombastic, and the result of their latest collaboration with Sega is all the better because of it. Vanquish flips the bird to many recent shooter conventions, going for a sort of old-school approach to shooting, and it comes out the other end feeling surprisingly fresh because of this.
All of the crazy action happening onscreen is backed by equally ludicrous game play. Vanquish takes the stop and pop formula that has been the hallmark of almost every recent third person shooter and flips it on its head. Instead of holing up behind cover and waiting for the right moment to poke your head out, Vanquish encourages you to throttle around the stages like a missile, leaving an awesome wake of destruction behind you. Sam's ARS, or Augmented Reaction Suit (gotta love those acronyms,) comes complete with boosters on the feet, a fast dodge roll ability, and a bullet-time-esque slow motion feature to make navigation fast and intuitive. The boost ability is especially helpful; when activated, Sam will slide to the ground feet first like a baseball player going for a base, only unlike the baseball player, Sam will just keep going. This maneuver makes flanking and moving from cover to cover feel far more intuitive than it has in similar games.
The unique movement mechanics are backed by a more traditional, but perfectly functioning set of shooting controls. Pointing and shooting feels fast and responsive, and the melee attacks are a brutal reminder of the power that the ARS grants its wearer. However, the opposing Russian forces are numerous and unrelenting, and even the ARS needs a break once in a while. This is where cover comes into play. For all of the offensive powers that Sam has at his disposal, he's pretty weak in the defense area. Luckily, it's fast and easy to duck behind cover and wait for his health to regenerate. Using the boost boots to hurdle into a piece of cover is even faster, and way cooler. All told, the controls keep up with the insane action admirably, which is an impressive feat given how chaotic some of the setpieces can be. From massive boss battles to upside-down-on-rails-shooting segments to escort missions that are actually (gasp!) fun, Vanquish never feels like it's running out of ideas to put your shooting and dodging skills to the test.
In fact, certain segments of the game are so action heavy that Vanquish will start to feel less like a shooter and more like a traditional action game. Dodging plays a very important part in the game, especially later on. It starts to feel like a weird mishmash of Bayonetta and Gears of War, which may not sound immediately compelling, but it is. The fluidity and speed of Sam's movements coupled with the precision accuracy required for shooting make for an intoxicating combination that's fairly simple to pick up but almost impossible to put down. The addictive nature of the game is due in part to the great controls and mind blowing setpieces, for sure, but the well balanced difficulty levels also play their part. Normal difficulty is, more than likely, a bit tougher than you're used to. Vanquish is a game that will push you to approach each encounter at the top of your game. Nowhere is this embodied better than in the boss battles. Upon first glance you may think a few of the later encounters borderline impossible. Careful observation and even more precise manipulation of the controller will prove otherwise. While many of the bosses have attacks that will kill Sam instantly, they also have tells that will reveal when and how they will use these attacks. This focus on pattern memorization coupled with the instant kills can make Vanquish feel a little old-school, but in a very good way. The challenge is just high enough that you'll feel wholly satisfied by the end of a level.
Speaking of the levels, these too reflect the game's focus on speed. On a first play through, many of the levels can be completed in anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes. This isn't to say that Vanquish is a terribly short game, as there are a large number of levels and the time necessary to complete the adventure clocks in at around 6-8 hours. Once you've completed the game, though, you can go back and try to speed run your way through it for extra posterity. After you discover the nuances of the controls and the weaknesses inherent to each enemy, speeding through the game a second time becomes an enticing proposition.
Luckily, Vanquish looks as amazing as it plays. The fact that the framerate remains consistently high despite all of the action occuring onscreen, and that the game looks so darn good throughout, seems like a minor miracle. PlatinumGames has proven in the past that they know how to finesse a graphics engine to produce some gorgeous results, and Vanquish is no exception. Playstation owners will also be pleased to note that none of the bugs or graphical hitches that plagued Bayonetta's release on the PS3 are present here. This is a silky smooth game no matter what console you choose to run it on. The audio is similarly over the top, with most characters possessing hammy voice overs that suit the wacky and violent nature of the game surprisingly well. The music will hardly be noticeable under the cacophony of gunfire, explosions, and screams, but in some of the quieter moments you'll notice a pleasant, pounding techno soundtrack that fleshes out the high tech world nicely.
If you've grown tired of the gauntlet of cover-centric shooters that have been pouring out non-stop, or if you simply crave an addictive and fast paced challenge, Vanquish will certainly satisfy your needs. The dodging, shooting, sliding, and bullet-timing blend surprisingly well to form a beautiful and deadly ballet. Like peanut butter and chocolate, these seemingly disparate elements meld to create something fabulous. It may not be the longest game out there, and with no multiplayer modes to speak of, you should steer clear until the price drops if online play is your one true love. That said, you'll be hard pressed to find a more addictive and entertaining shooter in 2010. Vanquish is just plain awesome.