The best third person shooter, ever
Shooting games. Next to the RPG, this genre most clearly proves the split in design mentality between the east and the west. Both in the east and the west, shoot’em ups (or shmups) began proper with Space Invaders.
To contrast, in the west, we fell in love with the art and pacing of games like R-type, and created the sub-genre of shooting games known as “euroshmups“; A focus on visuals, a predilection for horizontal scrolling, and a lessened focus on pure hardcore skill and more on story and design elements. In the shmup community, these games are barely considered part of the genre. As such, popularity for western-developed shooting games has declined rapidly. For all intents and purposes it has died outright.
In the east, where the arcade scene survived for much longer, the focus on skill and high scores reached perfect furious crystal clarity: The goal is not to beat the game or see its “story” to its conclusion. The goal is to be amazing at it.
Shooting games in Japan are considered, as in the west, a niche product, but it is large enough a niche to warrant studios like Treasure and Cave pouring all their effort into the genre, pushing it further and harder than anyone would honestly deem necessary. If you want proof of how strong these developers are in their pure craft, head to the iPhone app store and download a copy of Espgaluda II or DoDonPachi Resurrection; Shooting games by Cave that make better use of the raw hardware than any iPhone game before it (strong claims, but I stand by them). Blisteringly hard, and deeply satisfying on an almost Zen-like level, these games act beyond their visuals and media, becoming exercises in pure game design on a level the west has barely -if ever- attempted in the genre.
Meanwhile, in the west, we abandoned the traditional shoot’em up, and starting -for real- with Quake, began “our own” shooting genre, one the east would not pay real attention to for years and years to come; The first person shooter. Shooting games with an emphasis on immersion and complexity of tactical space, and an early innovator in skill-based player versus player combat, the genre became immensely popular in the west, while the multiplayer-shy Japanese audience simply wasn’t buying it.
While the west kept innovating the genre towards adding further tactical complexity with the advent of the cover based shooter, Japanese publishers were slowly starting to realize that to keep international sales high, they needed to capitalize on a genre they did not fully understand.
So let me tell you about the single best third person cover based shooting game I have ever played.
Vanquish is a Japanese-made third person cover based shooter produced by the godfather of the genre, Shinji Mikami. It’s Mikami’s first game in 4 years, and his first with Platinum games, a studio created by ex-Clover developers when Capcom chickened out of Clover’s artistic niche output. If a third person shooter directed by the creator of Resident Evil 4 and Killer 7 developed by the dudes responsible for Viewtiful Joe, Okami and God Hand isn’t enough to get you at least vaguely interested, Vanquish is probably not for you in the first place. If else, just go buy it. Or read on as I spend way too many words trying to sway you.
From its opening moments, Vanquish hits you square in the face. The short sharp tutorial teaches you the basics of the game as well as its idiosyncrasies over the span of minutes. You spot the game’s visual direction, with sharp, angular surfaces, an abundance of greebles, a rock solid framerate, hard techno, one-dimensional characters that can not wait to get you shooting at things. Having played 3rd person cover based shooters before, this looks and feels familiar, but not. The aiming is slightly different, the camera movement is slightly different.
The game has an immediately apparent “edge” that strongly differentiates it from its genre predecessors. This is a game that has been honed to the degree of a Katana blade; and the thousands of folds this game has undergone have created a game of absolute world class craftsmanship. Aiming is smooth and precise, movement is fast and tight, the stickiness of the cover system is spot on, guns are loud fast and satisfying, and the game’s core gimmicks, the ability to “boost” around the world at hyper speed or jump into a heightened-senses state of slow motion, are satisfying as all hell to execute. It takes fundamentals defined by games like Gears of War and raises the bar considerably.
The story is not the point. You could criticize Vanquish for not building a strong narrative, but here the goal is not to beat the game or see its “story” to its conclusion. The goal is to be amazing at it. There’s a story here to be sure, but it’s barely an excuse for its characters to go into space and shoot the holy hell out of some robots and spout one-liners. That is not to say it’s offensive; Sam Gideon, the player character, is a constantly smoking smirking jerk who is never less than entertaining to listen to or watch as he pulls of chains of unfathomably stylish bullshit. He is, for all intents and purposes, a male Bayonetta without the sexual vulgarity. He exists to wear a crazy high-tech suit and blow shit up while looking cool. And he totally does all those things non-stop throughout the entire game.
Vanquish is fast and demanding. The familiar movement of running around the battlefield is augmented with lightning fast evade rolls and the ability to squeeze a trigger and turn into a howling rocket-man sliding on your knees across the entirety of the battlefield in seconds, or turn moves like evading or vaulting over cover into gorgeous slow-motion style moves offering you the ability to land mid-air across-the-map headshots with a sniper rifle. Getting into and out of cover is executed with a button press, with the stickiness and distance of the “snapping” perfectly judged.
I have never played a cover based shooter where I felt so in control of the cover mechanic. The closest would be Splinter Cell Conviction, with its “point and click” approach to moving from cover to cover, but compared to this that mechanic seems like training wheels to support poor fundamentals. As you squeeze the boost trigger in cover and Sam slides stylishly around the corner and into the next barrier at hyper speed, a timed press of the cover button putting you right where you wanted to be, not only does it feel good, it feels skill based. It feels like you did it. It helps that movement is coupled with stellar animation work across the board, from facial animations during cut scenes to Sam’s sense of righteous flipping out, looking awesome climbing up a ladder not to mention grabbing an incoming missile mid-air before pile-driving it back into the gun from whence it came.
Small adjustments to the template winds up having a strong effect, such as the way the camera pulls back to give you a bigger view of the battlefield if you run towards it, or how switching weapons while holding down the trigger simply switches the kind of bullet coming out of your gun. It’s just expertly tuned.
No weapon is unsatisfying. No weapon is anything less than an absolutely destructive force. Firing a bullet into this world causes -without fail- explosions of some sort, and you will constantly be firing bullets. Always. Enemies go down wonderfully, losing bits and pieces under fire before exploding gloriously. The game pits you against a variety of robots and cyborgs, and for some reason going in I felt worried that this would somehow make for a boring shooting experience. I don’t know what it is about shooting games in the past that have indoctrinated me to believe I have to be shooting people to feel good about gunplay, but there you have it.
The robots in Vanquish are brilliant opposition, with tight AI, group behaviors, endless walls of incoming fire and a superb sense of scale from the lowliest grunt – who can destroy you easily up close and are as likely to duck behind distant cover to take pot shots at you as they are to leap terrifyingly at you in groups for a melee kill – to the absolutely epic bosses. The game is hard as nails from the outset, with the very first gigantic boss countering your ability to hide with instant death rays and missiles that evaporate your cover altogether. You quickly learn to appreciate your freedom of movement, because you need to keep moving constantly to survive, exercising the ability to drop into slow motion for a few precious seconds of calmness as you pick targets and reorient yourself.
Vanquish feels amazing to play. If you ever wanted a third person shooting game with the deeply rewarding skill mechanics of a bullet hell shoot’em up, or the controller-clenching intensity of a game like Ninja Gaiden or Platinum’s own Bayonetta, this is it. It’s absolutely transcendental.
Even if Vanquish was a sub par game to play, it would still look like something you never saw before. From screenshots it’s easy to think its steely grays will become monotone, but what the game does with that art direction in terms of density is unparalleled in the 3rd person shooter genre. There are more individual details going on at any given moment here than your mind will be able to cope with. From the loud, fast, harsh techno soundtrack to the myriads of characters constantly fighting, the way the air is constantly burning with tracer fire, the way entire gigantic space ships will almost casually crash into the middle of the battlefield, or how the intense sound scape fades into a dreamy muted reverberating echo as you drop into blue-tinted slow motion and individual bullets streak past you in a way that seems almost gentle, there was not a moment where I did not look at what was happening on the screen wondering what the hell’s kind of glorious shit I was even looking at.
The game even innovates in tactical space in a sense western games dream they had. One standout set piece has the player board a low-gravity train, taking fire from another train as it spins and loops overhead. When that train went up above me it made me wonder just why the hell I hadn’t seen that before, like the first time I massed Pikmin to move a crate out of the way. Another level has the player fight on a massive conveyor belt between two forcefields, the cover constantly scrolling across the battlefield as combat commences. Vanquish feels fresh and cool and always new.
The characters propelling the game forward are simple caricatures, but it ends up working in the game’s favor. When Steve Blum’s one-note gruff army dude spouts movie references and roomba jokes over a drone of machine gun fire, techno music and explosions, it’s hard not to crack a smile, or like I did, laugh out loud. The characters are guns with voices, and every effort is made to focus the player back on the immediate need to shoot more bullets into robots and look cool while doing it.
Vanquish does not let up. Ever. Literally the moment you are given control you are met with a hail of gunfire and an imperative to find cover, and fast. This continues literally until the conclusion of the game. It’s total sensory overload, and actually makes taking breaks a necessity to get the most out of the experience. It’s not the longest experience, clocking in at around 7 hours, but it’s profoundly replayable. It’s a third person shooter that inspires the same instinct to excel as a fighting game.
Or check out the demo. Regardless, please give this game a shot. I have a deep, fundamental fear that this game, which shows up out of a country known for making sub par third person shooters with no big fanfare, will slip the west by. To see fervent expectations for Gears of War 3, which seems content to do what it always did, while Vanquish gets written off as a wannabe, it breaks my heart to little pieces.
I urge you to play the demo at the very least. THIS is the game that moves the genre forward.