If there’s one inveterate species of this generation it would be the third-person shooter. Whether it’s the gritty gray aesthetic and chest-high walls commercialized by Gears of War or stylized action from Uncharted, there haven’t been any candidates to question why forward momentum should be limited to convenient cover placement. If there’s any developer who can change that way of thinking it’s Platinum Games’ delightful foray directed by Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil series, God Hand, and more). By focusing on speed, mobility, and over-the-top battles throughout, Vanquish succeeds at providing something many gamers have been vying to notice for years in this genre: nuance.
In the near future, Earth’s resources have become incredibly scarce, leading to the US building a cylindrical space station as a means to harvest alternative energy from the Sun. After a Russian ultra-nationalist group with an army of robots take over the station and use it to devastate San Francisco, their leader, Zaitsev, promises the same fate to New York unless the American government declares absolute surrender. In retaliation, the president (a lookalike of Hilary Clinton) orders a legion of space marines and Sam Gideon, a DARPA researcher retrofitted with the cutting-edge Augmented Reaction Suit (ARS), to reclaim Providence. Gideon must also find his boss and designer of this space colony, Dr. Candide, who feels responsible for the destruction of San Francisco.
Despite initially showing promise as an intentional B-movie plot set in an interesting locale, Vanquish never quite understands how to balance tones. The opening scenes show promise at self-awareness: mad Russian/Cold War-era pastiche set in space, the gruff marine leader Lt. Burns' stereotypical tropes, and ludicrous set pieces waged against Russian mechs. The writing often seems to understand this and elegantly infuses so much dialogue with ‘bro-tastic’ bantering for the sake of mocking it. Although there are healthy shares of fun moments here, anything regarding plot twists and politics feel contrived. “The American government has been betrayed by one of its own,” apprises Candide in a video message delivered to Gideon in the opening cut scene. Given that only one politician is introduced by name throughout the entire storyline, you’re not exactly grasping for straws here. What’s even stranger than delivering little exposition to most plot developments is how much is given to patriotic platitudes for every key antagonist as the campaign begins to crawl towards the finale.
It’s a shame to say detractions can be made to the main character as well. Throughout the whole game, I truly tried to like this chain-smoking protagonist: he has a cool suit, there’s legitimate dissension between him and Burns since he goes out of his way to protect endangered marines, and his cocky persona fits in perfectly with everything else. Despite having qualities that make certain moments stick out, Gideon has no actual character development from beginning to end. And putting up with such an unfitting, grisly voice can be a chore.
Despite these complaints, the story somehow finds a way to…work—in the loosest sense imaginable. The problems noted do make this sci-fi story feel typical for a video game, but some credit is certainly due for diving unabashedly head-first into the litany of clichés at its disposal and toying with them often enough to make eye-rolling laughter a habit.
Fortunately, the silly narrative dragging everything forward is just there in service of the true focus of Vanquish: stimulating gameplay. Despite having all the similar trappings you’ve come to know in a third-person shooter, nuances demand for you to flout previous comforts to get the most out of what the game has to offer. Tossing players into the fore against a horde of machines has never been so exciting thanks to the ARS’ abilities:
• Boosting (LB button) causes Gideon to lie like a posing model and activate thrusters that zip him across the battlefield.
• AR mode slows down time and is triggered by nearing death, aiming while performing a tactical evade, or aiming while boosting.
• Melee attacks provide devastating power thanks to them being fueled by the suit.
Absorbing these innovative concepts to make a standard shooter look closer to a bullet-hell/beat-em-up action game is what makes everything come together. Condemning the wall-hugging archetypes is one thing; it’s another to flay those perceptions entirely by giving players the ability to boost instead of run or make time crawl to shoot a grenade in mid-air.
These powers, as great as they may be, don’t come without a set of checks and balances. Sam’s ARS is also equipped with an energy gauge that informs how far the suit can be pushed before it has overheated and placed in temporary disuse. Success doesn’t come by frolicking into the fray, but by the assiduity of understanding the suit’s breaking point and pushing it to the last sliver. Since only the basics are given through tutorials, hands-on use is demanded in order to learn every trick available—many of which I don’t want to spoil here. For example, one of the most surprising weaknesses discovered early on is melee having such strict rules emplaced. Since one-hit punches (with varying animations depending on which of the multitudinous weapons are equipped) result in an instant overheat, it can be a death sentence to even attempt in crowded fights; however, if a certain weapon is equipped while brawling enemies no energy is wasted. Some may find it annoying to only have one weapon unshackled to this rule, but I personally found that to lend to the design allowing a more heuristic approach than most games today. In fact, I’m encouraged to make another playthrough just because I didn’t know a certain move until after finishing the campaign.
The correct usage of this distinct focus wouldn’t do much if the game’s basic mechanics aren’t as hermetic as this space station. The most notable compliment would be the tautened controls that make aiming and weaving through the battlefield feel as precise as they should in order to always maintain players are in command of the outcome. Outside of the frustrating moments of being surprised by a (mini-)boss’s one-hit kills that even penetrate cover, there wasn’t a time where I blamed the game for my doom. Level design should also receive due respect. Despite organic environments looking a tad plain, inorganic venues, which are used much more often, truly heighten the sense of scale on display by tossing in dozens of set-piece moments. And when these crazy fights seem to start turning one-note, changes in pacing like a sniping section or a vehicle escort mission occur at just the right moments to break up the monotony.
Even outside of what you control, the technical proficiency witnessed during gameplay lends one of those rare occasions of improving its effectiveness. Another of the suit’s features is the Battlefield Logic Adaptable Electronic Weapons System (BLADE); rather than have Gideon pick up a weapon, this experimental device can replicate a maximum of three weapons scattered about. Not only acting as a slick weapon-changing animation, the speed allowed by switching weapons during slow-motion moments congeals perfectly with the game’s fast-paced design. The details also extend to the well-crafted space station and the overall smoothness of each fight. Even when a fusillade of bullets, rockets, and more are flying in every direction, the frame rate rarely drops. Extending also to the game’s aural technical proficiency, the meticulous audio feedback works great in tandem with fighting since so many low-volume queues are established for every devastating attack from certain enemies. Although great technical design in sound and graphics isn’t new, they further emphasize how finely-tuned each ancillary component bolstering gameplay really is and how wonderfully those parts mold together.
The artistic demands for visual and audio categories don’t necessarily meet the same standards across the rest of the title, but nonetheless hold some great qualities. It’s easy to criticize how claustrophobic the sub-level areas of this metallic station look in the beginning, but become a passing memory after witnessing the complexity engulfing each battleground later on. Keeping with a tempo distinct to the action, the synthetic, rock-inspired soundtrack offers a bunch of great electronic beats. Most of the praises in these secondary categories have one central theme: the sharpness of what’s been seen and heard while playing instead of watching. With most cut scenes feeling rather pedestrian compared to the gameplay and any English voice actor sounding plain or annoying, the bland respites are another reason to impel you back into the action. If there’s one saving grace for enjoying cut scenes it would be the variety of different language tracks that sound better.
Another impressive facet would be AI. Even though the glut of fighting has to be completed by you, friendlies provide the expected amount of distraction and offer ammo if you revive them in time. The only complaint against them would be how often they’d stumble into my line of fire, resulting in Gideon constantly yelling “Get out of the way!” Outside of rare mishaps, enemy AI is keen to incessantly barrage you and oftentimes attempt to flank your position. The greatest annoyance in the gameplay, unfortunately, is found in the repetitive amount of similar enemies. There’s a great amount of alleviation to be given for the wonderfully-crazy designs of mini-bosses and silly ideas like a boom box that turns into a piece of cover, but typical skirmishes revolved too often around two types of normal infantry with different weapons and one special typically in the background. It says something when the only difference between the final fight and the boss battle in the first act is having two flying villains instead of one—which results in an outrageous difficulty spike.
The sensation of seeing so much of what the gameplay will offer in the first ten percent of the game carries over to weapons as well. Despite all weapons being available so early on in the game, a semi-permanent upgrade system supplies a wrinkle that heightens the exploratory nature of the combat mentioned earlier. Weapon levels vary from bigger magazines, more ammo to carry at one time, and more. In order to upgrade, you either collect holographic crates which instantly level-up the equipped weapon or scan a weapon you already have full ammo for to gradually rank up. The latter option is more interesting because it demands one to save favorites whenever possible in order to reap greater rewards from it later on. The basis for them being semi-permanent is because dying results in punitive downgrades to weapon levels, bringing another firm set of checks and balances into the picture.
The greatest detriment to Vanquish would be the length of the experience. From beginning to end on Hard difficulty my first time through, the aggregate time counted was roughly seven-and-a-quarter hours—having died roughly fifty times. Replay value is moderately bolstered by the arcade stat-tracking setup that covers a litany of information and the tactical challenges unlocked after completing each act. Tied in with online leaderboards, your campaign scoreboard (popping up after each chapter) tallies numerous details that rank with everyone else online. Tactical Challenges are another ‘horde mode’ addition, but the painful challenge can be so aggravating yet so addicting. This also may seem like a cop-out excuse to many, but I honestly believe this game warrants extra playthroughs based on how well-made this game is from top to bottom and how many unforgettable moments demand revisiting.
For a genre that seems hungry for any kind of break from the norm, there’s really no stylishly-crafted third-person shooter that trumps this confection of Eastern and Western gameplay ideals. It may be easy to disregard many of Vanquish’s thrills for the lack of up-front value, but the reason it succeeds so well is by feeling like an adequately-timed thrill ride that pares as much filler as it can. If you come in anticipating it as a wonderful desert, compared to the full-course meals everywhere else, expect one of the most exhilarating shooters of this generation.
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