icemael's Vanquish (Xbox 360) review

Sophisticated, intense, beautiful.

Vanquish is no ordinary third-person shooter. It has most of the things you would expect from a game in the genre these days – walls you can attach to for cover, regenerating health, a limited number of weapons you switch between with the D-pad – but whereas games like Gears of War and Uncharted are about being a badass right from the get-go, Vanquish is about becoming one.
 
You see, in Vanquish everything is limited. You can boost across the battlefield at breakneck speed, but doing so will quickly drain your energy meter. You can make everything slow to a crawl, but that drains energy as well, and you can only do it in very specific situations (right after a dodge roll, while jumping over cover or while boosting). You have incredibly powerful melee attacks, but with one exception they all consume every ounce of stored energy. Normally the meter starts refilling as soon as you stop using energy, but if you let it reach zero your "augmented reaction suit" (experimental power armour being tested by the main character, Sam) will overheat, delaying energy regeneration and temporarily impairing virtually all of your abilities. Keeping an eye on and managing the meter is tricky – especially since the enemies are numerous, fast and aggressive from the very beginning – and early on you will often find yourself overheating and getting your ass kicked. It is only later, when you're capable of boosting and slowing down time until only a split-second worth of energy remains, terminating the energy-consuming activity you're engaged in, quickly dodging enemy attacks until you have sufficient energy and then using your suit's special abilities again, that you can truly feel like a badass.
 
It is this raw challenge, coupled with a plethora of nuances (such as the way the properties of your melee attack change depending on what weapon you have equipped, the possibility of cancelling out of a boost with a dodge roll to skip the little animation that otherwise occurs when you stop boosting, the option of making your rolls cover more distance by pressing the boost button and the roll button simultaneously, and the way you can detonate your grenades in mid-air by firing at them), that makesVanquish 's combat system so great. The game encourages you – forces you, on the higher difficulty settings – to push your character's abilities to their limits but severely punishes you for overstepping them even a little bit, making mastery intensely satisfying. Important to this mastery is, aside from the energy system, the different weapons and knowledge of when to use them. In addition to guns commonly found in other shooters – assault rifles, shotguns, sniper rifles and so on – Vanquish has a number of more curious killing tools. To mention some: a gun that locks on to multiple targets and fires laser beams that bend around cover, a circular saw with blades that bounce between foes when fired, and a gun that fires a large energy blob capable of travelling through enemies and other obstacles. They’re all suited for different situations, and great fun to use.

But enough about Sam's abilities – let’s talk about his enemies! They're all quick, resilient, very aggressive robots. The smaller ones attempt to overwhelm you with numbers and can become lightning-fast suicide bombers if you leave them seriously wounded, while the bigger ones – usually armed with cannons, laser beams and giant, homing, instantly-killing missiles – will try to grab and squish you if you get too close (something that can actually be used to your advantage: a melee attack only consumes energy when it's completed, and it's possible to initiate a punch combo, have an enemy interrupt it with a grab so that no energy is lost, get out of the grab with a QTE-induced counterattack and then do it all over again). Grenades and cover-destroying blasts force you to stay on the move, and the most effective way to win – getting right up in the enemies' robotic faces – is also by far the most risky. And the bosses! Sturdy, transforming one-robot armies that often return in duos later in the game – the fights against them are easily the most challenging and exhilarating parts of the experience.

Vanquish's presentation plays no little part in that exhilaration. The augmented reaction suit looks incredibly slick: it's very detailed, has lots of independently moving parts, and just generally looks exactly the way you'd want a power suit from the future to look. When it overheats, you see and hear heated air emanate from the red-hot energy core mounted on your back. When you switch weapons you see your current gun fold itself into some sort of core, which then rapidly unfolds into a new firearm. It has tons of neat effects like this. The enemy designs are top-notch, too: the robots’ shapes, movements and sounds are similar to those of wild animals, and they feel far more alive than most organic enemies found in other games.

And then we have the environments. The entire game takes place on a gigantic, circular space colony you need to save from the robots. The colony is so big that your immediate surroundings almost always appear flat, but you can see it curve over your head if you look up. It’s a very cool concept indeed and is at its best in a segment where you find yourself on a train so fast, you can see the track bend upwards right ahead of and behind you. The ring-shaped station is home to a wealth of different locales, and though practically all of them have white steel and gray concrete in common they do enough differently to feel distinct: you’ll fight in neon-lit shopping districts, green parks, living areas ravaged by the antagonistic machines and engine rooms hidden from the public, and it all looks spectacular (the very best of the environments are the animated ones: high-speed trams, bridges that collapse as you move across them, docking bays where gargantuan spaceships crash down around you…).

Last but not least, we have the special effects. At any given moment there is an abundance of them on the screen. Floating particles, lasers, explosions, sparks – the game is a veritable phantasmagoria of them. It looks especially amazing when time is slowed. You can see every individual enemy bullet fly through the air, and even shoot them out of their trajectories with your own. It’s truly impressive stuff.

Like Shinji Mikami's two previous games, Resident Evil 4 and God HandVanquish is at the peak of its genre. The combat system is sophisticated, the battles intense, the enemy design superb and the presentation exceptional. Vanquish is heartily recommended to anyone who likes third-person shooters, or indeed action games in general.
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