Vanquish PS3, Xbox 360
FUN FACT: I generally don’t get along with third-person cover-based shooters. Yeah, yeah, Gears of War was alright, but the genre has pretty much been at a complete standstill since then. One competent but uninspired sequel and an army of laughable me-too clones later, and it feels like we’re no closer to seeing what this relatively new style of shooter can really do. So, eyebrows were raised (one per person) when it was announced that Platinum Games, the fine men behind such wonderfully imaginative games as Viewtiful Joe, God Hand, Okami and Bayonetta were going to be working on Vanquish, a cover-based shooter that appeared to bear all the very laziest hallmarks of its genre. The teaser trailer we were given showed a faceless space marine in a suit of armour, shooting robots with a machine-gun in a ruined urban environment. In space.
Even with the mighty Shinji Mikami at the helm, people weren’t sure what was going on. For a team of developers that had repeatedly blown our minds with some of the most interesting, clever and occasionally ridiculous worlds we’d ever seen in video games, Vanquish seemed like a step back.
Thank goodness, then, it’s one of the most exhilarating games released all year.
The year is 20… something. The future, anyway. And the Russians have decided to start blasting away at America using some space-based weapon they’ve captured, because they’ve run out of food. In a clever twist, the Russian leader is bald. So, the US military sets off to get the station back, accompanied by one Sam Gideon, ex-American football player turned DARPA guinea pig, kitted out in the prototype ARS suit which lets him boost around and activate bullet-time. Or do something with the synapses in his brain. We weren’t really listening. Point is, you go to a space station to shoot robots whilst wearing a suit that gives you super powers. Whee!
Vanquish is a very fast game. Not just because of your ability to boost all over the place, but because of the way that the shape of the battlefield is constantly shifting, forcing you to think on your feet and adapt to each moment as it comes. It’s certainly not a game for strategists; imagine Halo at a million miles an hour, and you’re not far off. Enemies pursue you inexorably, advancing on your position with every chance they get; stay still for too long, and you’ll quickly find yourself getting surrounded. What’s more, you can’t constantly rely on the ARS suit to bail you out. Being naught but a shitty prototype, the suit’s generator overheats quickly and requires a bit of downtime if you manage to redline it. Which you will, a lot. It’s a little irritating at first, but you soon get used to the suit’s limitations and learn to work with them. Besides, the game would get dull pretty quickly if you could boost and use bullet-time constantly.
The suit’s generator also powers your melee attacks, depleting entirely upon each use and requiring a full recharge before you can start smacking up robots again. There are reasons for this, though; for one, it actually makes you think about how and when to go in close. You’ll most likely get a kill out of it, but it might not be worth exposing yourself to enemy fire. Secondly, the melee attack varies depending on the type of weapon you’ve got equipped, and once you develop an understanding of how each attack works and the situations in which it’s appropriate, you can do a lot of damage with them.
The weapons themselves are pretty varied, and each one comes with its own set of quirks. Some of them actually seem downright useless at first – the shotgun and disc launcher spring to mind – but once you’ve spent a few hours with the game, you begin to understand that every weapon in the game has its place. Indeed, conversations with other people who’ve played the game will often reveal uses for certain weapons against certain enemies that you hadn’t even noticed or thought of. The disc launcher, for example, seems a bit weak until you realise it can be used to remove the limbs of some of the larger enemies, opening them up to a severe ball-smashing from your shiny, government-funded fists. So, while you might see all of the game’s weapons in the first 20 minutes, you need to give them a chance before you understand what they’re really about.
The game’s weapon upgrade system, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. Throughout the game, you only ever pick up the weapons themselves – that is, there are no ammo clips littering the floor. Upon picking a weapon up, if you didn’t already have it equipped, it gets swapped into one of your three available slots, with full ammo. If you did have it equipped but you weren’t full on ammo, the ammo gets replenished. But if you already have the weapon and it’s full on ammo, the weapon gets an upgrade; usually increased ammo capacity, or firepower. On paper, this kind of works – it solves the problem some games have of making you feel like 90% of the ammo pick-ups you come across are useless, for starters, since every weapon in Vanquish carries an incentive for you to pick it up, regardless of the situation. In practice, though, it’s kind of annoying. If you’ve developed a fondness for a certain weapon, you’re going to want to upgrade it, right? Except, the only way to do that is to not use it. Very occasionally, you’ll see two of the same weapon lying on the floor, so you’ve got one to replenish your ammo and another to get the upgrade. But for the most part, you’d better keep that weapon out of service – whilst it takes up one of your three valuable weapon slots, mind – if you want it to get any better. It’s counter-intuitive, and a bit poo.
More deserving of praise, though, is the game’s pacing. It effortlessly guides you through your mission which, despite having a gently fluctuating difficulty curve, remains consistently bloody exciting the whole way through, punctuated with the occasionally incredible set-piece. Even the relatively sedate sections are constantly throwing new situations at you, and forever making sure you’ve learned and understood how the game works; even the bog-standard enemy grunts will tear you up if you’re not paying attention and using your surroundings effectively.
Even the game’s script manages to raise the occasional smile – while it’s clearly the same alpha male power-fantasy rubbish you’d associate with the likes of Marcus and Dom, Vanquish at least decides against taking itself too seriously. On top of that, Robert Burns – the commanding officer of the Marine Corps forces that accompany you throughout the game – is a brilliant side-character, helped in no small part by the fact that he’s voiced by the ubiquitous and brilliant Steve Blum.
Unless something entirely terrible happens, Vanquish will be a making appearances in a lot of Game of the Year 2010 articles soon enough. It’s a fresh, unrelenting take on a stale genre that has you grinning from beginning to end. Complaints have been noted about the game’s lifespan – you can finish a playthrough in around seven hours – but with an experience as replayable and dense as this, such complaints seem petulant. This is a game that deserves the attention of anyone who ever enjoyed pretending to shoot things.