It was dubbed “Gears of War on crack.” It was designed to be a fast-paced, super-intense third-person shooter that is simply more over-the-top than any other game in the genre. Platinum Games already has the technically impressive Bayonetta on its resume for 2010 and provided Vanquish delivered, the studio would be doubly successful this year. Headed up by noted and borderline legendary creator/director Shinji Mikami, Platinum assembled quite the talented team and made certain to dedicate all resources to the single-player campaign. The result? A damn fine game punctuated by thrill after thrill, supported by responsive and reliable control, and bolstered by a slick sci-fi atmosphere that envelops you from the get-go. The story isn’t much to get excited about, the acting can be questionable, and there is some frustration involved, but other than that…Vanquish kicks ass.
You might be surprised at how good this title looks. I may be deluding myself but I think the final product is sharper and more refined than the demo that dropped last month. Some might want to complain about the lack of richness in the environment but one thing to remember- futuristic science-fiction settings are typically colder. There’s more metal, more uniform-ness, and not a heck of a lot in the way of natural color. Besides, the detail and special effects really impresses throughout; up-close character modeling is excellent as cut-scenes thrive on accomplished presentation. The gameplay visuals may not be beautiful but they offer great immersion and a surprising amount of scope and feel. The backdrops will vary, too; you’re not involved in a ceaseless firefight in the exact same vistas, which was one of my initial concerns. Special effects are a huge highlight, too, as the corresponding sound and impact will kick you right in the nuts.
…that latter point is supposed to be a good thing, by the way. The sound works to emphasize the action, with the aforementioned impact effects reigning supreme; getting nailed with a rocket or missile makes you wince and melee attacks are most satisfying. Really, the effects carry the entire production and do an unbelievable job at combining with the graphics and spectacular effects. The voice acting is sort of up and down but they end up on the positive side of analysis, if only due to the cocky gruffness of Sam and the relatively well-voiced Elena Ivanovna. I also like Victor Zaitsev but other primary characters get a little tiresome, and the writing isn’t good enough for the lesser actors to shine. The soundtrack is just as frenetic as the action so it fits, but it’s a little too repetitive and often takes a back seat to the effects. Normally, this would be a bigger problem but because the action takes center-stage at all times, the effects drowning out the music isn’t as big of a downfall. Still, it’s an issue worth mentioning.
While Vanquish may exist within the skin of a third-person shooter, it feels like a very different animal. Due to the sheer speed, it almost feels as if somebody gave Bayonetta a gun. Sam Gideon is a typically over-confident elite soldier who wears a special Augmented Reaction Suit (ARS). It allows him to slide for extended periods of time, execute powerful melee attacks, and coolest of all, pump enemies full of lead during a unique bullet-time mode (AR Mode). When dodging, if you hit the L1 button you’ll enable this mode, where time slows and you can really light up one or multiple foes. Even general moving and snapping into cover is quick, and the smaller, faster enemies can leap all over the place. They’re usually not the problem, though, as the bigger, super-enhanced enemies with massive firepower represent your primary concern.
With a game like this, you need pinpoint control and a reliable camera, or all is lost. The good news is that everything comes together nicely: despite the speed, control remains responsive and accurate and you always have a firm grasp on Sam, and the camera usually keeps up. There was one instance on a train, when another train – equipped with plenty of enemies, of course – actually ended up being above me, and aiming during that situation was an exercise in frustration. Furthermore, there are times when that super-fast sliding can cause issues, because you might slide into something that the camera doesn’t quite see. This happened numerous times but if you understand your surroundings, this shouldn’t occur too often. Besides, I should admit I was trying to get the basic controls and/or camera to fail. But both proved surprisingly resistant to my efforts and that’s big plus.
The combination of action and strategy is also impressive, and one of the game’s biggest highlights for me. You can carry up to four weapons at once, and each can be switched out for other firearms you find, or upgraded. In other words, picking up the Heavy Machine Gun multiple times will result in multiple upgrades and the same goes for any weapon. So if you want to really focus on one or two weapons – which might not be a bad idea – for a set of missions or even an entire act, you’ve got to find the right pick-ups. This requires you to be more accurate with your shots so you’re not running out of ammo and dropping weapons so often. On top of which, because your suit can overheat due to excessive sliding, AR Mode utilization, or melee attacks, you really want to conserve and execute your special abilities until the time is right. Your suit will overheat when low on health, too, and the AR Mode kicks in automatically when on the brink of death…such a nice feature.
Ever mission in every act is just plain loaded. There’s always something to shoot and you’re always in imminent danger of being utterly trashed. This means you’re always entertained and yet, the quest doesn’t feel tiresome because you’re constantly on the edge of your seat. Platinum also does a good job in terms of variety and diversity; they do some pretty sick things with this formula, and you won’t normally be doing the exact same thing two missions in a row. Still, I have to say that the continual onslaught of enemies can start to wear on you and if you’re low on ammo and your allies aren’t helping much, you will feel quite outmatched. It’s a terrible feeling but it is avoidable if you hone your skills. This does bring me to one of the game’s biggest downfalls, though- your allies don’t seem to do much of anything, besides fall down and require assistance. I would wait and watch to see if they’d kill something, and three or four allies would sometimes let one weak foe stand there and fire forever.
Then there’s the story, which – although it isn’t the focus, obviously – doesn’t really excel in regards to dialogue, writing, drama and pacing. Russia has their finger on the trigger and at the start, they prove their technological superiority by leveling San Francisco and threatening New York. And so, they demand the unconditional surrender of the US. …but we don’t negotiate with terrorists and so all hell breaks loose. There are a few interesting twists here and there but that’s about it. And as I hinted at before, I wasn’t always convinced by the voice acting, the sound effects can drown out the music (which can get repetitive), and the camera isn’t 100% perfect. I also felt myself getting a tad bored when yet another barrage of powerful enemies with crazy firepower attacked, and my allies made a good show of helping…but I still had to handle things myself. But at the end of the day, the action will leave you breathless.
Vanquish is technically proficient and does a lot of things extremely well. What it does best is give the player a continual sense of urgency and immersion, two traits that are often difficult to maintain. The special effects in terms of both visual and audio are fantastic, the control is better than functional, the enemies offer a significant challenge, and there’s a fair amount of variety in the campaign. As you probably know, it doesn’t have multiplayer but then again, it doesn’t need it. The game is certainly longer than the 4 hours you may have heard from other sources; it’s much closer to the 10 hours the developer has claimed. It’s not perfect but Vanquish is one hell of a ride, and one well worth taking.
The Good: Awesome action. Great control. Super sweet weapons. Slick presentation and style that will really grab you. Surprising variety. Some strong performances. High production value and ceaseless entertainment.
The Bad: Allies aren’t very effective. Continual feeling of being outgunned can get tiresome. Average story with some weak performances.
The Ugly: Cheapness; i.e., enemy accuracy is too perfect.
10/19/2010 Ben Dutka