High Octane Brilliance
Platinum Games are a developer with a knack for creating games that are outlandish, mesmerising, and unique, and Vanquish is no exception. The game has you don a space-age DARPA battle suit and take on the role of Sam Gideon, an elite soldier fighting the robot military of an evil Russia, who has devastated San Francisco using an enormous space laser. Wrap your head around that and you’ll get a feel for the general tone that the game is trying to set, not just in its narrative, but also in its visuals, sound, and gameplay.
Vanquish is a third-person cover-based shooter, and based on that description alone you may think that you’ve seen this game a million times before, but Vanquish is also the exact kind of game that proves there’s always room for turning a genre on its head. Its stand-out mechanic is probably the ability to dash through environments at high speeds by using the rocket jets built into your armour. In many other games of this ilk, you often become reliant on using the same piece of cover for an extended period of time; restrictively glued in place, systematically gunning down enemies in similar situations. The mobility that the power slide mechanic in Vanquish offers means that you can spend more time out of cover, be more daring in your attacks, and have more opportunity to move around the battlefield. It’s consistently exhilarating and allows a sense of freedom that no other cover-based shooter offers.
The game also has a rather inventive take on health and death mechanics. Should your health drop too low, instead of immediately asking you to hunker down while you wait for the red hue to disappear from the edges of the screen, Vanquish instead has you enter bullet time, allowing you to effortlessly dodge out of the way of oncoming fire, and easily lay waste to enemies. This creates exciting situations where it’s often when you’re just on the edge of defeat that you can escape the line of sight of a particularly powerful foe or quickly gun down a few pesky enemy combatants. After this period of bullet time you’ll go into “overheat” where you’ll be unable to boost, and will have to wait for your “temperature bar” to refill. Meleeing enemies and using your boost for too long at once will also cause you to overheat, and if you run out of health while your battle suit is still blowing off steam, then it’s game over.
In general, even without bullet time, standard enemies drop fast, but the firing does require precision, and the game isn’t afraid of breaking out large hordes of robots or frequently introducing much more powerful machines for you to take on. As is the case with many of its features, the game’s arsenal also isn’t quite what you might expect. Available firearms range from the customary assault rifles and shotguns, up to more unconventional weapons, like the lock-on laser and the disc launcher.
You are given the opportunity to switch weapons often, and of course, picking up the same type of gun from the environment that you are currently wielding will refill your ammunition for that weapon. However, should you have the maximum possible ammunition for a weapon when you pick up a weapon of the same type, your firearm will rank up and move one step closer to an upgrade, while dying will move it one step further away. This can somewhat discourage you from regularly switching between guns, but the sense of your tools of destruction getting steadily improved over the course of the campaign is satisfying. The game also manages to quench the thirst of anyone who can’t get enough of points-based rewards systems by totalling up a running score as you make your way through the story.
There is one rather off-putting thing about the game’s bosses and stronger combatants though; some of them have one-hit attacks that will immediately kill you regardless of what other damage you’ve taken. This only happens on occasion, but it’s frustrating enough, and its happened to me enough times playing the game that it seems worthy of note. It’s something that flies in the face of the sense of empowerment the rest of the game is trying to convey and it just seems annoyingly at odds with the whole experience.
However, whether you’re being obliterated by oncoming lasers, or showing that pile of Russian rust-buckets who’s boss, the animation in the game is always stunning. From the way the arm of your battle suit literally transforms into different guns as you switch between weapons, to the series of flips Sam does when you finish a power slide, the world and characters move with detail and elegance, even when the game is slowed down to bullet time. It’s also impressive just how many particles and objects the game is able to display on screen at once, and how jaw-droppingly large the scale that fights take place on can be. This seems to come at a bit of a price though, with the game displaying in a sub-HD resolution.
The game’s story also isn’t terribly compelling. It’s amusing hearing your right-hand man Lt. Col. Burns constantly speak in an angry bark of military orders, and to witness the sporadic spats between him and Sam, but they both feel too one-dimensional without that feeding into any major comedic pay-off. Knowing the kind of wonderful madness Platinum Games can come out with after playing Bayonetta, and seeing that Vanquish skirts the edges of topics that Metal Gear Solid has touched, it just feels like wasted potential.
It should also be noted that despite being sold as a boxed on-disc game, Vanquish isn’t particularly long. Depending on your philosophy on buying games, this may or may not be a problem, but keep in mind that its not difficult to finish this game in 5-6 hours on the normal difficulty. While there are five extra “challenges” in which you are tasked with eliminating waves of enemy robots as quickly as possible, and while the game is worth replaying, outside of these modes there is no co-op, competitive multiplayer, or other additional content. However, the in-your-face action of Vanquish probably means that you’ll want to play the game in short bursts rather than experience the whole thing all at once.
Taken as a whole, Vanquish is a game light on content that doesn’t feel committed to its story, and has a few other issues. Ultimately though, this is a shooter that through smart design choices and skilful technical feats manages to separate itself from the competition, and provide an empowering and liberating experience throughout. You've never seen a third-person shooter quite like this before.