Saturday, November 13, 2010

Vanquish Review

A slightly modified version of this was originally posted at on 11/4/2010.

There was a moment early in the game when I realized that Vanquish was not just a standard third person shooter.  That could have been when the Argus robot broke through the ground into the area, but that, technically, happened during a cutscene.  No, this was later in the chapter, when a ship crashed into the battlefield.  It may have been scripted, but literally crashed into the stage.  The sheer spectacle of Vanquish starts early, and doesn’t let up.

Vanquish was made by Platinum games and masterminded by Shinji Mikami (of Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, etc.).  I say masterminded because Vanquish is Shinji Mikami’s attempt to created a game caters to the Western market, while still managing to be undeniably over the top and Japanese.  Some parts even get as far as being downright insane.  The ship crash is one of the lesser events to happen.

In Vanquish ,Russian nationalists take over an American space colony, using the energy transmission system it contains to wipe out San Francisco, and threatening to do the same to New York should the US not surrender.  You play Sam Gideon, an engineer for DARPA, and lead tester for the ARS (Augmented Reaction Suit).  When the military launches a counterattack, DARPA sends Sam to rescue the developer of the ARS and colony transmission system, covering it up with the excuse of testing the suit in actual combat.

Really, the story is rather meaningless, doing nothing more than setting the stage for the long string of set pieces that make up Vanquish’s gameplay.  There is a bit of a plot-twist near the end of the game, but it comes so far out of left field that its very much a “huh?” moment, as well as the obligatory sequel hook, of course.  The ingame dialogue that moves the game along is rather bad too.  At least the VAs seem to understand that, with veteran VA Steve Blum (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo) hamming it up as the ultra-gravelly voiced Sergeant Burns.  I am unable to find a full voice cast for some reason, but Sam himself is voiced by relative unknown Gideon Emery, also speaking in full gravel mode.  Ellen Ivanova sounds familiar, but I can’t place the actress offhand.

A cover based third-person shooter, Vanquish pulls its primary inspiration from Gears of War, with a healthy addition of Devil May Cry speed and style, with homages to other lesser known games.  The basic gameplay is the  same as Gears, players run around a battlefield, taking cover behind various objects, mostly conveniently placed waist-high walls to avoid enemy fire, popping out to shoot at enemies.  Sam, however, is sleeker and more mobile than his Gears counterparts.  There are not a huge number of enemy types, so the majority of differentiation is in enemy equipment and numbers.  The encounter design is built around using certain enemy types in limited spaces to make things more challenging.

Where it differentiates itself is with AR mode, and the “slide”.  AR mode can be best described as bullet-time.  When activated, it slows down time for the player, allowing them to better tune their shooting, or getting out of danger.  The slide, with a press of a button, Sam activates jets in the ARS’s legs to do what can best be described as a “rockstar slide”, propelling him around the battlefield at speeds that make the roadie run look like a snail crawling backwards.  What the combination of both of these systems does is allow the player to be significantly more mobile.  So mobile in fact, that a skilled enough player doesn’t actually need to play this cover as a cover based shooter.  The slide serves several gameplay functions as nearly every other function can be followed through after it.  It can be used to escape danger, dodge enemy fire, and move quickly into cover or melee range.  It allows for a game that is faster paced than other third person shooters, and everything feels incredibly tight.  Those tight controls are needed because the action sequences always very intense.  Even the first firefight after the opening cinema is visually overwhelming, the player needing time to simply adjust to everything that they’re seeing.

Everything works the way its supposed to, but there one of the related design choices serves to put a bit of a wrench in Vanquish’s usually frantic pace.  That choice would be the heat gauge.  Those three functions:  AR Mode, sliding, and melee are all connected to this meter.  AR mode and sliding both drain the gauge at a constant rate, while a successful melee attack drains it completely.  When the gauge is completely empty, it ends up taking several seconds to completely recharge, leaving the player without any of those abilities, almost requiring the player to take cover until it recharges.  Even more so, when Sam takes too much damage, AR Mode is automatically activated to allow the player an opportunity to take out the enemies and/or find cover, and there isn’t any way to end this manually, the player has to wait for the gauge to deplete.  While it isn’t an insurmountable problem, it often breaks the game flow, forcing the player to slow down, or even stop, during sections that are often frantic and overwhelming.  It also leads to many extra deaths due to AR sometimes not being available when its needed.

The other place Vanquish shows off is in the overall visual style.  Going hard into the near future setting, the inside of the colony itself shows off stark white building-scapes, accented by harsh lighting, and of course lots of explosions.  The enemies are robots, usually appearing in a shiny red, the majority of them being reminiscent of Mass Effect’s Geth, with a separate type being the more bruiser type.  Boss take several forms, from massive transforming quad-leg tanks to a veritable junk-robot (more effective than one might think).  There aren’t many enemy types, but I don’t really hold it against Vanquish, as many other shooters had limited types.  The character models are well made, especially the stylized faces, and they need to be since they’re often shown during the cut scenes.  The ARS that Sam wears, that is definitely one of these most impressive things in the entire game, all white with black trim, lots of interlocking pieces, and a sweet helmet that folds open whenever Sam needs to take a smoke (which is often).  While the overall background doesn’t change throughout, the spectacle of looking at the inside of the space colony is very impressive.

The cityscapes are stark and sterile, it ends up being the battles that add that gritty feeling that all other shooters have.  Unfortunately, aside from specific objects, usually cover points, the battlefields themselves are not interactive.  The setting’s artificiality is especially on display during a section in the late game where Sam passes through a park area, and all the foliage looks unnatural.  As well, the onscreen UI is functional, but rather ugly, and ends up taking up a lot of the right side of the screen.  Many times the player is likely to take deaths because there they simply do not have as much situational awareness as they should.

If there’s anything holding Vanquish back, it’s the selfsame style that gives it most of its character.  It’s a Japanese game trying to emulate American games.  It gets the core gameplay right, and adds on it to make things fresh, but most of the design screams of the old “this is what Japan thinks Americans want” notion.  Vanquish is more successful at it than most, but it still can’t get away from that feeling of being a Japanese game.  Sam and Burns are the biggest examples, playing off the bulky Space Marine aesthetic, but going over the top with it.  Burns is too big to be realistic, with as little actual armor as he wears.  Sam is the badass former College athlete, scientist, engineer, and world class cigar chomper.  How does that make sense?  The words “shit” and “fuck” are thrown around with almost reckless abandon, often at least somewhat out of context.  As well, Vanquish can be rather short, potentially as short as 4 hours, on the lowest difficulty, though a highscore system was added, potentially as means to add replay ability.  There is no multiplayer, but I don’t consider that a negative.  Vanquishes  primary gameplay conceits, slide and bullet-time, would not work in a competitive game.

My opinion, Vanquishes good aspects outweigh the bad, and I consider it a buy.  The gameplay is fast and furious, emphasizing a more active role in combat.  The story may be nonsensical, but it doesn’t really have to make sense.  Aside from the length, the only thing that I can see people having an issue with is the over the top Japanese styling.  Given the genre, third person shooter, this can be rather off putting.  Not to me, but others might, so my suggestion is to play the demo first.  If you like it, then you should like the full game.

Score:  9/10

Pros:  Fast gameplay
Great graphics
Slide and bullet time make it feel different from other third person shooters
Incredible set pieces

Cons:  Nonsensical story
Heat gauge can break game flow
Might be too over the top for some players

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