Better than the real thing
So I can envision in my head a meeting between Shinji Mikami of PlatinumGames and the president of Sega, whom I presume answers to the name “Supreme Asshole Man.” I envision Mr Asshole Man giving Shinji and his friends permission to have their crazy niche action game about the librarian stripper with the guns on her heels and old arcade games in her heart published by Sega. But in return, SAM demands that Shinji make a game custom-built to succeed in America. A third-person, cover-based shooter based on all of the things that Americans like (most of which involve bullets in the hearts of Russians.) And then Shinji Mikami said “okay!” And he made that third person shooter, and it was called Vanquish. And that Vanquish went on to sell a fifth of what that niche stripper game did at retail.
While I normally wouldn’t shed a tear over the financial failure of another bloody third person military shooter, this game is rather different. Vanquish proves to me that PlatinumGames is so talented, so strange, that they can make even the most rote concept a spectacle.
And Vanquish approaches these ideas with what is either a very knowing and careless attitude, or unintentionally bad, straight-laced attitude. I can’t quite tell. The dialogue is the kind of improbably melodramatic speech that normal human beings wouldn’t say under any condition outside of an anime. The main character is a cross between the Master Chief and Solid Snake, right down to the button on the countroller that lets him pop a cigarette. Other characters include the perky girl with the short skirt, and the salty commander who responds to all facets of life with pessimism. Then the game’s big plot twist takes a turn for the political, with about as much intelligent social commentary as a Sylvester Stallone movie. The dialogue is so unnatural that I can’t ever invest in the plot or characters, and yet it’s just cheesy enough for me give it a pass.
It’s also very easy to forgive Vanquish for all of those pratfalls and poor imitations, on account of how the gameplay of Vanquish kind of surpasses all of those American shooters.
This is probably the best third person, cover-based shooter I’ve played to date. Better than Gears of War. Better than Uncharted. Better than Red Dead Redemption. Better than Mass Effect 2.
Now, don’t take any of that as a personal insult if you feel strongly about any of those games. (And if you are taking that as a personal insult, you need to re-evaluate your virtues.) Mass Effect has a more interesting fiction. Red Dead has numerous other gameplay systems coupled with shooting. Uncharted has the parkour climbing that Drake looks so sexy doing. Gears of War has more doo-rag. Vanquish does one single thing, and it does that one thing better than anyone else in the world, which is to hide behind cover and shoot things from a comfortable distance.
Any given war scenario will pit you and your squad of soon-to-be-dead Marines against a fleet of Russian automatons. These automatons come in various sizes (sometimes with transforming capabilities) but they all have the one common objective of riddling the sky with hundred of bullets, hoping that one in a thousand will headshot you. So battle is already something of a fireworks show made of lead, and that’s not assuming one of the handful of scripted events is happening. On the very first mission of the first level of the game, a spaceship will crash right at your toes. That’s as good a mood-setter as any.
Your character, whom I should perhaps tell you is named Sam Gideon, is using a futuristic space suit with semi-strategically placed rockets. These rockets allow him to do an accelerated rockstar slide across the battlefield at a blistering pace. While doing this rocket slide, you can slow down time to aim at enemy heads…or flying rockets and grenades. Whatever you think you would look cooler shooting at while in slow-motion doing a rockstar slide.
Despite being all kinds of superpowered and nasty, you will still need all kinds of skill to overcome the game’s many challenges. In keeping with the PlatinumGames tradition, there are big bosses. And PlatinumGames has no problem rematching you with these big bosses…or throwing two giant bosses in a room and making you deal with both at once. And both of these bosses may or may not have an attack that sows the Earth with hundreds of grenades. You can equip three different kinds of guns at once, but you’ll probably want two of those guns to be the two different machine gun variants on account of all the ammo you’ll need to take one boss down.
This is a game that loves its spectacle, and its challenge. You know how in Kinect games, the console will periodically ask you to take a break because it thinks you’re tired? I think Vanquish needs that warning more; this game is the kind of sensory overload that could do some retinal demage.
I would suggest that some segments of the game should have more checkpoints. There are a couple of really challenging boss fights in particular that I wish the game would cut me and slack with. My biggest issue with the entire game is an odd one; when you get too liberal with your suit powers, you’ll overheat and need a few seconds before you can use them again. (This also happens after your suit automatically triggers bullet-time when you are near death. The kids still call it bullet time, right?) I can understand that, but why does your suit overheat after using a melee attack? It creates the embarrassing scenario where I found myself rocketing away from smaller enemies that attempted to bayonet-charge me.
The game is about 6 hours long, which might be a little sparse for gamers on a budget. There’s no multiplayer, and the alternative game mode is the all-too-popular horde mode concept. So your best source of replay value is competing on the leaderboards with all of your no friends that are playing Vanquish.
Which is a shame, because I think everyone that has an affinity for cover-based shooters should look at Vanquish. It’s a very singularly-focused game that has one gameplay style, and one style that it does better than just about anything on the market right now. And I don’t think you can properly form an opinion on any other third person shooter until you give Vanquish a whirl. There’s something rather…unlikely about the impersonator outdoing the real deal.