Review: Vanquish (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Vanquish
Genre: Third Person Shooter
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: 10/19/10

Platinum Games is coming to the end of their deal to allow Sega to publish games for them, and for the most part, they’ve given Sega their money’s worth. Madworld was a slick and stylish action game with more focus on style than substance, but it did its job just fine. Bayonetta, released earlier this year, was a straight up Devil May Cry clone with a ton of fantastic action, replay value and slick style to spare. Infinite Space was an ambitious, if ultimately lackluster title, but two out of three ain’t bad. The fourth title in the four title publishing contract, Vanquish, looked poised to be the most successful game of the lot, at least here in the States. Designed with a Western aesthetic in mind, the game takes elements from Gears of War and blends them with, as noted at E3, the Japanese anime Casshern. As noted back when I got a chance to play a demo build earlier this year, it was looking to be an impressive piece of work. To say this was my second most anticipated title coming out of the show this summer would be an understatement (the highest anticipated title comes out soon, if you want to guess), but the question is, does Vanquish carry that initial child-like glee it first inspires across the whole game?

In short, yes, though it’s not without its shortcomings.

Vanquish places you in the role of Sam Gideon, former football player turned DARPA researcher, who has been tasked by the US Government to prevent a war and save a scientist. It seems that the Russian government has taken control of a US superweapon and kidnapped the scientist who helped create it, Francis Candide, with the intention of using it to basically turn the US into a hole. After testing the weapon on San Francisco, Gideon is dispatched to put a stop to the Russians, take back the superweapon, and rescue Candide, at the behest of DARPA and with the assistance of the US Government… though things are pretty much not at all what they seem from the beginning. Vanquish has a story that fell straight out of an eighties action movie, and whether or not you enjoy what it’s doing is going to depend entirely on whether or not you’re in on the joke. The dialogue is often clichéd and silly, but never boring, and the story unfolds in exactly the way you would expect it to from the first few minutes. It’s certainly an unexceptional story if one is looking for quality storytelling, but it’s pretty hilarious as a satirical homage to the pre-Die Hard action film, and hey, the Russians are the bad guys for crying out loud. Platinum Games has almost never taken their storytelling seriously, and this is straight up no exception to that rule, so, y’know, be aware.

Vanquish is a slick and stylish looking game, and it’s apparent that a great deal of attention went into the visuals. Gideon moves incredibly fluidly, and his animations and transitions all flow together nicely at all times. The various enemies you face are also well animated, in life and death, and while the majority are robots, and therefore look fairly identical, there’s enough variety to the types to not make the designs boring. The environments are varied and interesting looking throughout the game, and the game is constantly throwing major set-piece scenes at you that are visually interesting and full of things that blow up real nice, the special effects are bright and well implemented, and the framerate remains solid throughout the game. The audio is also rather nice, though in this case it’s not going to be for everyone. The voice acting is, for the most part, rather good, though some of the characters, such as Gideon, are acted in a very scenery-chewing fashion. While this is quite obviously the intention, but it might put someone off to hear such hammy dialogue and acting. The music is a solid rock techno sort of soundtrack that is inoffensive and keeps you invested in battle with little effort, and the sound effects are wholly appropriate and make the experience of blowing up numerous robotic enemies fun and satisfying throughout the game, which should make up for the voice acting if you’re not a fan, at least.

Vanquish pretty much works in the same fashion as most recent third person shooters do, and if you’ve played Gears of War or some reasonable facsimile in the past few years, you won’t be surprised at how this works in the least, At least at first. The left stick moves Gideon around while the right stick controls your aim, the right trigger fires whatever weapon is presently in your hand, and the left trigger allows you to zoom in and aim at the enemy you’re attempting to plug. You’re allowed three weapons at any time, which you can switch with the up, right and down directions on the D-Pad, while the left direction switches between fragmentation grenades (which blow things up) and EMP Emitters (which short out electronics). The A button allows you to dodge around, the B button allows you to melee strike enemies, the Y button tosses out the aforementioned grenades, the right bumper button allows you to reload on the fly, and the X button interacts with the environment. Gideon can press up against cover when you’re in close proximity, also by pressing the X button, you can pick up weaponry from ammunition caches and downed enemies with the right bumper, there are several different weapons to choose from, and so on and so forth. For the most past, fans of the genre will pretty much be able to jump in within minutes and learn the basics with little to no difficulty, which is to the game’s credit.

This is because Vanquish adds some interesting gimmicks to the mix to make the game more than just another clone. Gideon’s suit, dubbed the ARS, comes with a little gauge in the bottom right that’s useful for two things. The first is Boost, or rocket sliding, essentially, which allows Gideon to rocket around the battlefield lightning fast, allowing him to move from place to place in an instant by sliding to wherever you want him to go with a press of the left bumper. You can transition from cover to cover very quickly, allowing you to flank enemies in an instant or to get away from a potentially dangerous situation, which is vital to your survival. The second option, AR Mode, effectively amounts to bullet time, as Gideon’s reflexes are amplified to massive levels, allowing him to aim at enemies and take shots as they slow to a crawl. Now, this will kick in automatically, assuming you have energy left, when you’re near death, giving you a chance to escape from a firefight and catch your breath, but you can also kick it in with the left trigger after a dodge, allowing you to evade an enemy and counterattack while they’re still getting their bearings, which is fun. You can also combine the two, by rocketing up to an enemy, pressing B to vault off of their face, then kicking in the bullet time to slow down time while you’re in the air, allowing you to pop off shots at the surrounding enemies. When in cover, the left bumper instead allows Gideon to have a smoke, just because. Enemies will occasionally aim at the tossed cigarette when Gideon’s done with it, allowing him to pop up and blast them in the face while they’re distracted, again, just because. This is all, honestly, pretty great.

There’s also the matter of the BLADE system, which is what manipulates your weaponry. Instead of simply picking up and dropping weapons (though, technically, that IS what you’re doing), the BLADE system analyzes the weapon in question and simply adds it into the BLADE system’s memory, allowing up to three weapons to fold in and out of the system at will. The novelty of this is that the system remembers the concept of the weapon even when you’re not carrying it, which allows for weapon upgrades to come into play. You can upgrade weapons either by finding upgrade kits, which give a weapon an instant upgrade, or by collecting copies of the weapon when at full ammunition, which gives it one mark towards upgrade, upgrading after three of the weapons have been collected. Upgrades can increase the total ammunition count, the fire rate, the damage of the weapon and other things, allowing you to build up your favorite weapons and make use of them throughout the game, which is useful for those incredibly challenging boss fights that require you to throw everything you have at them. The same upgrade system also works for your grenades, though you can only upgrade them by acquiring grenade packs, though the end results tend to be worth it. Upgrades carry with you throughout the game, meaning that if you max out a weapon in, say, act two, it’ll still be maxed out in act five, though on any difficulty beyond easy, dying also de-levels your upgrades as an added punishment, so it’s in your best interests to not do this thing.

Vanquish can be completed in around five to six hours, making it a bit on the short side, though it’s a blast all the way through. There are multiple difficulty levels to go through, from the fairly easy “Easy Auto,” which is fairly simple and allows for automatic target acquisition, to the unlockable “God Hard,” which, aside from being a shout out to Clover Studios property God Hand, is rougher than a sandpaper enema. The game also tracks your scores via a leaderboard for competition with friends, and features unlockable challenge missions to go through, each of which is harder than the last. There are also plenty of achievements to unlock, and there are Pangloss statues, little gold statues that look kind of like an Oscar, to hunt down and shoot throughout the game if you’re a completionist. There are also a whole lot of achievements to earn, many of which you’ll have to complete the game a few times to unlock, so, again, completionists will have a whole lot of fun there.

(Aside: the Pangloss statues are apparently meant as something of an in-joke based around the satirical Voltaire work Candide, or, The Optimist, which is supported both by the disillusioned scientist Candide mirroring the disillusioned protagonist Candide from that work, and the fact that the name Pangloss was the name of Candide’s mentor in Voltaire’s piece. I have no idea what this means, conceptually, except that someone on staff thought it would be interesting to make an allusion to a play most of the audience has never heard of by way of a plot that reads like Red Scorpion, but it’s interesting to note that in the world of Vanquish, it is very hard to argue that this is the best of all possible worlds when things start with thousands of people being microwaved to a point where they literally explode and end with someone committing suicide. If, indeed, the whole game is meant as something of an allegory to this work, with Gideon taking on the role of the titular Candide from Voltaire’s work and the Candide from this game taking on the role of an ultimately disillusioned Pangloss, that’s certainly an interesting way of doing things… though it could just be someone on staff incorporating their love for Voltaire into the game and hoping someone would read Candide as a result. Either way, it’s an interesting Easter Egg, if nothing else.)

While Vanquish is generally full of awesome set-piece battles and is a blast to play through once, it’s hard to recommend the game for someone looking for replay value, as unless the lure of multiple difficulty levels and such appeals to you, there’s not a lot to bring you back. Bayonetta offered the lure of upgradable weaponry and hidden stages and boss fights to plow through, but aside from the challenges, Vanquish offers none of this, as your upgraded weapons don’t carry over from one game to the next and there’s little hidden content to be found. While favorable comparisons can be made to something like Gears of War, as this game does make some interesting improvements on the formula, one thing that Gears offered to make it a worthwhile venture was online multiplayer, something Vanquish lacks. While AR Mode makes this somewhat challenging to implement in theory, simply removing that option and allowing players the ability to run around without it or finding some other method to allow a multiplayer component, even a co-op online play mode or something similar, would have added some life to the product beyond its somewhat short main campaign. The game also isn’t as unique as some of Platinum’s other works, and while it’s a fantastic experience, it’s a fantastic experience that may feel a bit familiar at times, though not to a point of being derivative.

Vanquish makes a solid case for itself thanks to some fantastic gameplay and aesthetics, but its shorter than average story mode and a lack of reasons to go back to it might hurt it if you’re looking for something to sink some time into. The story is cheesy on purpose and presents a decidedly eighties action movie aesthetic that’s amusing if you’re in on the joke, and the visuals and audio are generally great all around, though the voice work also plays off of the cheesy aesthetic of the storyline. The game is familiar enough mechanically that fans of third person shooters should be able to learn how it works without a tutorial, but offers enough interesting additions thanks to Boost and AR Mode to make it feel like new. There are multiple difficulty levels to plow through, achievements to earn and hidden objects to find, and the ability to compare yourself to your friends on the leaderboard is a nice touch for the competitive players out there. However, aside from the story mode and a handful of challenge missions, there’s nothing to the game to bring you back, and the storyline is fairly short all told, which could put a damper on the game if you complete it and find yourself with nothing left to do. Vanquish is a fun and intense ride from start to finish and there are plenty of good reasons to pick it up and play it, but unless the multiple difficulty levels make you want to come back for more, you won’t be spending much time with it after it’s done.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: CLASSIC
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: CLASSIC
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: CLASSIC
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Vanquish is another quality title from Platinum Games and a fine way for them to close out their partnership with Sega, if that’s indeed the case, as it’s a fun Gears of War inspired shooter with its own twists that’s fun to play, if not replay. The story is corny in a good way and anyone with an appreciation for crappy eighties action films will love it quite a bit, and the visual and aural aesthetics are generally top notch across the board. The gameplay is well implemented and fluid, and the standard third person shooter mechanics the game is built around are augmented well with Platinum’s own additions, such as the Boost system and the AR Mode, which help the game feel like its own thing. There are multiple difficulty modes to tear into, challenges to complete, leaderboards to compete against and achievements to earn for those looking for a reason to come back, and in those respects, Vanquish does a solid job of compelling the player to come back for more. However, the story mode is a little on the short side, there’s no online play to speak of, and the aforementioned reasons to return aren’t really compelling enough to inspire a return visit for most, and the game feels a bit familiar in many respects, cutting into its originality somewhat. While Vanquish is still an outstanding game all around, it lacks the depth and variety of Bayonetta, leaving it as one of Platinum’s better works, but not their best, and while it’s easy to recommend for fans of the genre, anyone looking for the most bang for their buck might find it good, but disappointing.

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  1. Mark B.

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