With intense, divisive titles like the brutally monochromatic MadWorld and the absurd, hypersexual Bayonetta already under its belt, a certain intensity has become expected from developer PlatinumGames, genre be damned. The Shinji Mikami-directed Vanquish makes good on this expectation, crackling with kinetic, sensory-overloading energy that, in some ways, flies in the face of the more measured pacing generally associated with its cover-based, third-person shooter ilk. It’s a game that knowingly puts an Eastern twist on a very Western style of game design, which leads to a head-cocking combination of self-serious action-movie braggadocio and post-modern non sequiturs that captures the cornball tendencies of both East and West. It also helps foster a visual style designed to stun and an exciting, relentless gameplay experience that, despite its length, will leaving you feeling at least a little exhausted.
The oddly referential nature of Vanquish kicks off with a premise that reads like Halo meets Red Dawn. It’s a far-flung, high-tech Earth where a Cold War revival between the US and Russia goes hot when a rogue cell of Russians--along with perhaps the single largest army of soulless, communist robots in a video game--overtake a massive, ring-shaped space station orbiting Earth that was previously under US control, and which is home to a crazy, categorically irresponsible death ray. With this fun new toy now in their possession, the Ruskies fry San Francisco, and threaten New York next unless the US surrenders. You enter the conflict as Sam Gideon, a DARPA agent fitted with a suit of experimental super-soldier armor that kind of makes him look like a combination of Ultron, Master Chief, and the orbital frames from Zone of the Enders. He also has the kind of forcefully cocky attitude and lack of respect for authority, man, that lead him to drop wry one-liners about eBay in the heat of battle, or feel totally comfortable smoking. In space. It’s unsurprising that Sam ends up at odds with the gruff, half-mechanized leader of the squad of otherwise characteristic-free space marines that he’s tagging along with. The little shouting matches between the two play host to some specific and familiar post-9/11 language, and Vanquish briefly flirts with Kojima territory with its adorably naive navel-gazing over the horrors of war. For as sincere and serious as it seems like it’s trying to be about ideals like sacrifice and duty, its glimpses of robot dance parties suggest sillier intentions, and yet I can’t tell if Vanquish is winking when it delivers midnight-movie-worthy lines like “We won’t let New York become the next San Francisco!” I guess it doesn’t really matter, I laughed anyway.
It’s his anachronistic nicotine habit that clearly pegs Sam as a facile Solid Snake pretender, but I’m going to let a lot of that slide, just because his awesome gear makes him so much goddamn fun to play as. Aside from making Sam particularly resilient, the suit enables him to perform a rocket-powered slide-tackle, allowing him to move from one piece of cover to another, or put some space in between him and the laser-filled hordes of Russian automatons, with bracing speed. It’s sort of like the roadie run from Gears of War, but with a greater degree of turning control and much, much faster. The suit also lets you slow down time to better line up your shots--Russian robot design, it seems, falls prey to a recall-worthy weakness to headshots, and the massive mechanized bosses you face on the regular are freckled with conveniently glowing red weak spots. Between these two abilities, plus the usual cover-based opportunities to ever-so-briefly retreat from battle, you’ve got a certain deal of control over the pace of the battle, yet the fundamental movement speed is so blinding that it never moves too slowly. Both of these suit abilities tap into a shared energy bar that, if depleted entirely, can take several seconds to cool down and use again, which, in the hot-and-heavy firefights of Vanquish, can be several seconds too long. Managing your energy levels is something to keep in mind, but on its normal difficulty, the game is forgiving enough that you can have some fast-and-loose fun with these abilities.
Sam also has what may be one of the best guns in video games, because it is, essentially, all guns. Any gun that Sam finds, either in strategically placed weapon lockers or out on the battlefield, can be scanned in and then immediately equipped. You can store up to three of these patterns at a time, switching between them, and two flavors of grenades, with the D-pad, but there are well more weapons than that, including basic machine-gun, heavy machine-gun, sniper, and shotgun varieties, plus a suite of exotic, high-powered lock-on weapons, making for lots of on-the-fly decisions about what to keep and what to drop. I found that, of the basic gun models, I relied on the heavy machine-gun first and foremost, but ammo for weapons like the rocket launcher, pulse cannon, and laser array tended to be a little more scarce. Being aware of ammo for all the weapons you're carrying pays dividends, as the game features a simple upgrade system that increases the rank of a held weapon whenever you pick up that same weapon again, provided you are already maxed out on ammo.
Sam's gun also looks spectacular as it rearranges itself from one weapon configuration to another, though the action tends to be so intense, and the third-person angle is such that you don't get to see that slick little touch too often during battle. That's OK, though, as Vanquish makes looking spectacular a big priority in just about everything it does. The battlefield itself is never terribly large, with a very simple, linear path laid out to take you from one encounter to the next, but you're constantly reminded of the almost unfathomable size of the space station, with arching vistas that make Halo look like a townhouse, and set-piece events like a huge space cruiser crashing dramatically into the ground right beside you. The glowing power source on the back of Sam's sleek, scaled suit helps it look even more high-tech than all of the grey steel that surrounds him on the space station, and the insect-like design that permeates the Russian armaments gives them a great alien quality. And, not to sound like a broken record here, but it all moves awfully fast. In a way, that speed is the biggest issue with Vanquish. Aside from making it an experience that can be too intense to take in for long stretches, the game seems to blow right by at around five hours.
Its weird, half-hearted political gestures aside, Vanquish is the kind of video game that reminds you that these are video games. Perhaps more than any quality, video games allow for visceral thrills unfettered by the real-world logistics of physics and general plausibility. Sometimes a game just needs to look cool and make you feel like a space-age badass, and Vanquish accomplishes both with vigor.