Since SEGA first pulled back the curtain on Vanquish some ten months ago, it has garnered attention with its fantastic visual style, rock solid TPS mechanics and direction by the famed Shinji Mikami. It has been called an epic by some, too short by others and just a plain old TPS, to name a few. But which of these, if any, is Vanquish?
You have to be very careful going into a game that you have predisposed feelings for. Wanting to like or dislike a game before hand can be detrimental to the final verdict. That being said, I went into the game like I had never heard of it before in my life. I’ll just say this now before I bombard you with page after page of comprehensive review: Vanquish is brilliant.
You are thrust into this deep space, futuristic, apocalyptic world. Planet earth has been ravaged by its inability to sustain the constantly climbing human population. This strain of resources and services has resulted in what has been a part of nearly all video game plots this year in some fashion: war. Not just any war either – a world war.
The game kicks off with the city of San Francisco being destroyed by a powerful microwave ray. The opening scene is so cinematic and emotional, it reminded me of any number of pre-apocalypse movies like 2012 or The Day After Tommorow. Anyway, you soon learn that this attack was mounted by Russia, who has declared war on America and threatens to destroy New York City the same way they did San Francisco unless, and they are very clear on this, they receive the US’s unconditional surrender. The president of the States is a woman known as Elizabeth Winters and she will remind you a lot of Hilary Clinton. Not only that, but she is the first female president, making the reference even more likely. Combine that with her manner of speech and her appearance and you’ll be convinced that this character was inspired by the former first lady. What’s the joke though? Perhaps they believe if the US had a female president, a world war would ensue?
Elizabeth then organizes a task group consisting of a powerful defense group, DARPA, and the military. The goal of this group is to claim the space colony from which the attack on San Francisco was mounted. Enter Sam Gideon, our protagonist. He is with DARPA and utilizes a powerful weapon called the ARS or Augmented Reaction Suit. I’m sure you’ve seen the suit by now. Sam is a likable guy with a dark past and a smoking addiction. Despite the outset, he has an ulterior motive for engaging in the mission, but that’s a story component so I won’t spoil it. He has a cute sidekick who is an intelligence from DARPA, and you’ll grow to like her as she’ll always be around and somehow manages not to be a complete turn off, like most characters in backing roles like her’s are. You’ll also be accompanied by Col. Burns. Burns is a war hero who has done a wealth of good to the States in navy and military affairs and the like. Numerous conflicts will raise between Sam and Burns because, apparently, DARPA does not take orders from the military and vice versa.
The plot is well done and enjoyable. It lends itself finely to the technologic and futuristic world in which the game takes place. It is also fairly easy to follow and understand. Over the years, I’ve found that games that incorporate political or governmental issues into their plots have a tendency to be confusing and convoluted so kudos to P* Games there. It also features a nice plot twist towards the end which does a good job shocking you because of the people involved. The ending is a little confusing and gives you the impression that you aren’t finished with the game, but then the credits rolled. So at this point, while the ending wasn’t the best, I would certainly be confused if we didn’t eventually hear of a Vanquish sequel.
The visuals in the game are lovely. Everything is rendered well and shine with a subtle, subtle luster that makes the entire screen look cohesive. What I found most amazing is how so many items could be rendered on the screen and not even a tiny silver bullet faltered in quality. Enemies are practically exclusively machines or robots of some sort. Not to imply that they aren’t diverse and interesting, but they’re all robots which, now that I think about it, fits in with the theme. The character models are tight, and while the facial designs aren’t all that wonderful (except no for the main protagonist), they are interesting enough. The HUD is particularly clean. The environments, and this was a big deal for me, are a little too cohesive. The color palette, a decidedly dreary gray, silver and white ensemble, changes very little for the first half of the game. Some areas look so similar to other places you’ve been it’s scary. Honestly, the look is pretty cool and entertaining, but it is just too strong at first. A walk in some of those green fields we saw in the early promos would have saved the game. Plus, the repetition of these stoic, contrasting colors contributed to the eyesores I’ll tell you about later. They change things up a few hours in, though, and the environments begin to vary, which I fully appreciated.
As far as appearances go, Vanquish has the ability to be quite overwhelming. Huge groups of enemies (I’m certain I have seen at least twenty or more in certain instances) pour into massive, thriving battlefields and fire off hundreds of bullets, rockets, missiles, lasers and every other projectile you can think of. Mechanical mounds that were cover spots moments ago sprout legs and assault you. Huge gyrating foes fire off nukes that etch ever so slowly towards you, blaring louder and louder with their warnings. Defeated enemies explode in a bright display of sparks and fifty explosions are happening at any given time. There is so much happening at any given time, it is almost comical or ridiculous. This flawless sense of immersion has the ability to leave you in a euphoric state of shock with your eyes as wide as the sockets allow. Even changing weapons initiates an entertaining transformation sequence. After even a short stint playing, you may experience eyesores. Not to imply that anything is ugly onscreen, but that the culmination of what you’re seeing may literally cause your eyes to hurt.
While Vanquish is by no means a long game, I found myself taking numerous breaks in between play sessions just to allow my eyes to reccissitate from the thrill. It’s like some kind of substance in how it hurts good, but in an addictive and possibly degenerative way. The game gives liberal warnings when it begins about the possibilities of seizures and epilepsy issues. While many games have done this, this is honestly the first time I was actually concerned with the warnings, as I can easily see something like that transpiring. From a gamer’s perspective though, it is freaking awesome.
The music in the game is interesting to say the least. Ambient techno and techno-pop tracks help create an exciting and urgent atmosphere. I had heard some serious instrumental arrangements during some important cut scenes, but the orchaesral pieces were used in effective moderation. The majority of the soundtrack fits into an edgy, techno, almost rave or clash sound. While it was enjoyable in the context of the game, I don’t think it would be very enjoyable otherwise. I tend to stray towards a more techno-pop sound, as far as my personal musical taste, but the soundtrack was just too thumping and straightforward for me. What is important though is how the game wears the soundtack, and in that aspect, the game delivers. The developers have managed to create an atmosphere so cohesive, it’s easy to get fully immersed in it. Between the plot, visuals and soundtrack, Vanquish is an airtight package wrapped in gold and with a diamond bow on top.
The gameplay continues this winning streak by being rich and varying. You control Sam and the powerful AR suit. The controls are easy to grasp. The face buttons are for melee attacks, taking cover, rolling and throwing grenades. You change guns with the D-pad and you aim, shoot, reload and boost with the shoulder buttons. It takes a little while to adjust to the each buttons function, but you’ll be invincible once you do. Boosting is essentially sliding while being propelled by numerous rockets firing in sync. It is awesome. An AR bar limits your boosting, as well as all the other awesome functions of the suit. This bar is important because it keeps you from exploiting the hell out of the suit. You’ll learn to avoid exhausting the bar completely, though, because if you do this, you’ll have to wait for the suit to cool down and this takes a valuable stretch of time. Reversely, it only takes the bar a few seconds to refill if you don’t exhaust it completely, so basically using the boost is a fine balancing act. I liked the AR bar because there is truly an expanse of other things you could be doing besides boosting.
AR mode also pulls on this bar and should be used in conjunction with boosting for the optimal robot massacring experience. Basically, AR mode is a slow motion mode similar to Witch Time from the other P* Games title, Bayonetta. This slow motion is an absolute godsend. Remember earlier when I talked about how overwhelming the game could be? When you initiate AR mode, everything stops except Sam and he moves slowly. It also seems to consume the bar slower than boosting, which is weird. You can only activate this mode after a dodge or evasive motion, which practically forces you to be stylish. After some time, you will cling to AR mode for dear life. A room full of multitasking robots seems just that much less threatening with it.
You can also shoot the projectiles in AR mode. Many times rockets and missiles will close in on your character and the sheer number of them sometimes is unbelievable, but if you go into AR mode and simply shoot them, you can escape unfased. Melee combat is an important component of the combat. When an enemy gets too close, you can punish it with a melee attacks. These attacks do a tremendous amount of damage but at a cost – they fully exhaust the AR bar. It is weird, but in some instances you are able to use AR mode immediately following a melee attack, but I think this is limited to the drop kick. I find that melee attacks are best used when a larger enemy is nearly dead. You can take cover while you wait for the suit cool down, but for the most part he’s pretty worthless.
Taking cover is a breeze and there are numerous ways to use cover, depending on how tall the object you’re using is. Some cover spots are just a foot or so from the ground and in these instances he goes prone. What’s really fun is boosting between cover spots. He does it so quickly the enemies barely notice. Of special note: when taking cover, if you press the boost button Sam will fire up a cigarette. He takes a few pulls off of it and then throws it over his shoulder. The light of the cigarette fools some enemies into believing it’s a grenade or something and they react to it. This seems like it was just added in for a taunt of some sort though since it has no real bearing on gameplay. Not only that, but they didn’t introduce it in the tutorial so I had to learn myself.
The grenades are neat. There are two types: an explosive grenade and an EMP. The first is pretty much a regular grenade with a long light tail to show you where it went. After a second or so it explodes, damaging everyone around it. They are fun to use on toughies. In many instances where the enemies are cluttered or grouped closely together, you can blow them all to hell and it’s satisfying. The EMP creates a large shockwave that stuns all enemies in the vicinity of it, and leaves them that way for about four seconds. This is enough time to boost up and melee something, or go AR mode for even more unfair assaults. What I liked most about the EMPs were that they worked on boss enemies too. I hate when games give special priveledges to bosses for the sake of difficulty (looking at you RPGs). After you’ve spent so much time building up a strategy, it sucks to find out it won’t work on the important enemy. Aiming and shooting are pretty tight mechanics. I don’t see how remarkable aiming and shooting could be as it’s so standard nowadays, but it works really well here. I had to turn down the sensitivity a few points from default, but had no problems with the standard scheme.
The mini map shows you enemy and friendly locations as well as ammo and weapon spots. I used them pretty often to find the ammo. Friendlies are the soldiers that are with burns that support you in combat. When they are knocked out, you can revive them for rewards like ammo and weapons. You have to be quick about it though because if they are hit again, they will die and they’ll be gone. Burns himself picks up a good deal of the slack, using powerful weapons and explosives. Unlike the soldiers, he can’t be knocked out. From time to time you’ll find upgrades. Upgrades give you numerous buffs. Some increase the ammo capacity of a certain gun, others increase the attack power, etc. Whichever gun you use the most is the one that will get the upgrade when it drops, which means if you want to power up all the guns you’ll have to switch constantly. I liked the upgrades because instead of gaining experience and leveling up or something of that nature, you were constantly powered up. It forms a kind of instant gratification, an idea that you’re always getting stronger and not just when you’ve collected X amount of experience points.
There is a small variety of guns in the game, no more than ten. They are varying and effective though. You’ve got staples such as the machine gun, the shotgun and the sniper rifle and then you’ve got more unique, futuristic entries like the disc gun and target seeking laser. There aren’t tons of guns, but the ones you have are competent. You’ll also be able to kill machines in more practical ways. You can activate machines and turn their tremendous fire power against them, after you’ve killed the initial wielder, of course. You can also activate traps such as barrels of chemicals to blow them away easily. Oh, and before I forget, there is one collectible, a small golden statue. Whenever I find them I shoot them and they change colors and bounce away. They also count these at the end of the level, but, unfortunately, it didn’t seem like they did anything.
In terms of value, Vanquish is a game that is clearly about the journey and not the destination. It isn’t long or drawn out at all, and you could very well finish it in one sitting if your eyes are up for it. That being said, it is entirely enjoyable, fun, fresh, wonderful and amazing. Few games will pack as much fun into such a short amount of time. On top of that, the repay value is practically endless. Can you do it faster? Flashier? With a higher score? There is a leaderboard you know.
Not only that, but it also features two hard difficulties, again like Bayonetta. You’ve got hard and very hard. Frankly, Vanquish is a hard game on normal. The idea of hard mode makes me nervous and thinking of very hard makes me want to cry. I can only imagine how long it would take to clear these. Reaching the level of skill necessary to fell these obstacles would probably take you a long enough time, if not actually completing them certainly will. As far as the big debate pertaining to the games length, I will say this: my first playthrough on normal mode took just six hours. Personally, I died many times and spent a small amount of time figuring things out. Also, I didn’t particularly rush through the game either. However, it is not hard for me to believe that a second playthrough on the same difficulty would take four hours. I honestly don’t want to meet the individual who can do it in four hours in one sitting though. Scary.
In closing, Vanquish is amazing. This game could possibly be the second Game of the Year contender from studio Platinum Games in 2010, the first being Bayonetta. Those people honestly deserve some kind of medal for this game. Vanquish is like a five hour long skydive. It is simply stunning – everything they promised it would be and even more. The only complaint I have is that the game is short. That’s it. Sure I would have loved more of it, but this entry taken for what it is is phenomenal. It is a masterpiece, a work of art, a benchmark in modern gaming, etc. Regarding the length, consider this simile: Vanquish is like a roller coaster ride – it’s exciting, thrilling and a rush of adrenaline and endorphins. Sure it’s over pretty quickly, but you’re only going to get right back in line.