We are breathless and visibly trembling, we feel out of sync with the real world – it seems quiet, slow, empty – and we’re dying to tell someone about the absolutely mental stuff we just did. We’re halfway through Vanquish and it has peaked, doing so with a level of style, spectacle and sheer, cast-iron testicular fortitude unmatched by anything in any other game we’ve played before. It’ll slide a bit downhill between this point and the end. But it will be sliding on its knees, and will leave a huge, sexy shower of sparks in its wake on the way down. Yes, even when Vanquish runs out of ways to up its own considerable ante, it runs out with style.
And when it’s at its best, it is the best. The first half consists of almost nothing but ever-escalating, heart-pounding, pure-adrenaline action sequences. It’s not just action, it’s triple-A action. We can think of no other game that has made our heart pound, our eyes pop and our big, fat stupid faces laugh quite as hard as Vanquish did for those three hours.
So, how does it get to be so good? Well, it’s like a perfect marriage of East and West and of old and new. It makes you feel like classic hardcore Japanese 2D shooters make you feel – pumped up, excited and like you’re the baddest mofo in the galaxy – but at the same time manages to be not just contemporary, but fresh and progressive, too. It’s not that there’s much, if any, actual originality here, it’s that PlatinumGames has taken fistfuls of the best ideas from the greatest action games of the last 30 years, boiled them down to what really makes them the best, then carefully ensured that every idea fulfils its potential while not one is leaned on too heavily. Lessons of the past have been used to create a game that takes a step into the future.
There are, for example, QTE-ish bits in Vanquish, but PlatinumGames has really thought about exactly what benefits there are to that kind of gameplay and has very strictly only used them with those benefits in mind. So, for a start they’re only used very sparingly. You do not have to press a designated button within a set time limit just to move what is essentially a cut-scene onto the next bit and to avoid having to start a whole section again. No, your hero, Sam, will often just do his own action hero thing on his own without the need for pointless prompting. Only when there’s an opportunity for a direct, tangible link between the action and the prompts do you get them. So if there’s something that requires a feat of physical power – such as making a run-up to a huge leap – you might be required to bash the daylights out of a single button for a bit. It works because bashing a button is a feat of physical power when you’re the kind of guy who sits on his ass playing games all day. Similarly, you might be told to move the stick in a series of different directions to dodge the devastating blows of a powerful enemy. Again, it makes sense because it’s not far removed from what you’d normally do in-game. And that’s about it for Vanquish’s QTEs – there aren’t many and they’re only called upon when they can add something.
And the same goes for all of Vanquish’s features – the sliding it got from mech games, the cover system it got from Gears Of War, the bullet time it got from Max Payne, the giant bosses it got from Lost Planet and the crazy storytelling it got from Metal Gear. Every one is an important and perfectly fitting piece of the Ultimate Action Game puzzle, but the balance between them here is such that none of them ever get overindulged.
The cover system is a particularly interesting one. Our initial impression of Vanquish was that it was a cover shooter, only fast. But it’s not. In fact, the more we played it, the less we used the cover system. We know this because cover use is one of many stats tracked by the game, and by the last few missions we were in cover less than 2% of the time. Cover points are liberally scattered throughout the game, but we gradually learned that snapping to cover wasn’t always our best option. Sometimes, though, it was vital, and that’s the cool thing about Vanquish – every option you have will, at one point or another, be the best thing you can do, or perhaps even the one thing you must do.
When we did use the snap-to cover system it tended to be purely because we were hurt and wanted a safe place to recuperate for a few seconds. After the first couple of missions we all but completely stopped using the ‘pop-out and shoot from cover’ method, preferring instead to leap out then immediately hold the aim button which, during an agility stunt, activates a bullet-time mode. This is extremely useful given how relentless and fast-paced Vanquish is, but it does use up your ARS suit’s limited power. The time you spend waiting for your suit to recharge is often the time you die, so there’s an excellent risk/reward dynamic at work, whereby you really have to make that bullet time count. This method of coming right out of cover and staying there for as long as we dared reminded us more of Space Invaders than a modern cover shooter, particularly as a lot of the cover is destructible and won’t protect you from heavier enemy attacks. There’s that perfect marriage of old and new we were talking about earlier.
It’s also worth mentioning that bullet time is automatically activated if you take too much damage. At first we thought that this was to give you a chance to evade danger, but it’s cleverer than that. Yes, it is a lifeline, but it’s also a punishment of sorts because, while you can deactivate bullet time if you activated it manually, you can’t when it auto-starts, so it will run out and overheat. That can put you in serious danger if you’re under heavy fire, as it then takes a long time to cool down and recharge. Early in the game there’s usually plenty of room to retreat, but you’re often pretty much surrounded during later missions, so your only option is to kill everything before your suit blows a fuse. If you don’t, you probably won’t last as long as it takes to recharge. Basically, make a major error and you’re suddenly forced into a kill or be killed situation. Once you learn that this is how it works, these situations become desperate, exhilarating, last-ditch battles and the relief when you survive one gives you a huge rush.
That just leaves one more major feature of the ARS suit to discuss. Our main man Sam can slide along the ground at high speeds either on his knees or on his ass, depending on what weapon he’s using and what direction he’s going. We can’t really pinpoint why but this is awesome. You’ll probably use it a lot just for the sheer hell of it at first. But, as with everything else in this game, you’ll soon learn there’s a time and a place for it. Use it at the right time and it’ll give you a vital edge in combat. Use it at the wrong time, and you’ll probably end up dead.
It’s generally handy for getting around quickly, but it uses up the same ARS juice as your bullet time so you need to be more selective with how you use it. It’s also possible to activate bullet time during a slide, but this is quite hard to do properly and is very seldom of any significant use, at least as far as we can tell.
By now, Vanquish is probably sounding like a pretty hardcore game, and it certainly is one. But we should point out that it’s not hardcore because it’s especially difficult. It’s not the easiest game ever either, but according to the stats tracker we only died 26 times during the campaign, which isn’t that punishing. Plus those deaths were mostly pretty spread out and there was nothing we would call a difficulty spike or a brick wall. That’s another major positive for Vanquish actually – it never once annoyed or frustrated us, which is quite an achievement for such a demanding game. It can certainly be very harsh, but it’s always fair and you can always see where you’ve gone wrong if you’re honest with yourself.
So yes, it’s not really the difficulty that makes Vanquish hardcore, it’s the fact that you have to put a fair bit of effort in to get the most out of it. The learning curve, while both steady and fair, is long and steep. It took a few hours before we felt like we were playing it something like the way it was meant to be played. We made a point of experimenting and attempting difficult moves throughout our first playthrough and intend to replay the game in order to improve our skills and scores, and anyone who shares that kind of mentality will go gaga for Vanquish. Anyone playing it like a regular cover shooter might find it just seems like a regular cover shooter, though. Quite a short one, too, if you’re not bothered about skills and scores. But the point is it’s aimed squarely at people who are.
That’s the main thing – Vanquish’s gameplay – out of the way then. It’s multi-faceted, streamlined and deep. It’s relentless and hardcore, but fair. It is, in short, fan-bloody-tastic. So how then does its presentation measure up? Again we get the best of both old and new and East and West, although appreciation of what PlatinumGames has done in this department may vary according to personal taste. Vanquish has a traditional Japanese art style, which is very much rooted in manga and anime. It’s striking, somewhat cartoonish and unapologetically grandiose. It’s rendered beautifully and bolstered by superb visual effects and we love it. However, those with a preference for the darker, grittier, more realistic look of, say, Killzone or Dead Space might be a little turned off.
It’s a similar story with the audio. Again, the quality is unquestionable. Everything makes a lot of big, meaty noise and there are some brilliant surround-sound effects when bullets and shells zip past. It’s a beautiful cacophony, never an ugly din. But the music, like the art style, has its feet planted firmly in the golden age of Japanese shooters. It’s 100 per cent hard techno and it pounds away gleefully whenever there is action, and that’s almost all the time. A perfect fit if you ask us and, apart from anything else, it tells your heart how fast and how hard it should be beating at any given time, but it might not sit comfortably with those used to the licensed, orchestral or ambient soundtracks fashionable in 2010.
That just leaves the story and characters, which, out of all the things in the game, are the most glaringly non-contemporary. It’s very hard to tell whether it’s taking the piss or not, which in itself may well be the intention. We certainly enjoyed the story, but we’re not going to lie to you… it is crap. Think Modern Warfare 2’s plot but more over the top and less convoluted. It’s told through characters whose dialogue seems to consist almost entirely of clichés like “Do you want to live forever?” when leading an attack and “This should be fun!” when finding a good weapon. The gravel-voiced men clash over points of military protocol and the pretty, big-eyed girl remotely offers help and a little feminine sentimentality from within the safe confines of a tubular cage made of holographic touch screens. You’ve seen it all before, right? If perhaps not delivered with quite this level of exaggerated conviction. We’re not sure whether we were laughing at it or with it, but we were definitely laughing. Quite loud sometimes, too.
Whether it’s tongue in cheek or not (and we think it is – ARS suit!?), it would be missing the point of Vanquish to fault it for its cheesy story and characters, but we thought you ought to be warned. The only real disappointment we had was that the second half of the campaign didn’t deliver quite what the first half promised it would. There’s no denying it has replayability, but for only half of such a short game to be as good as it absolutely can be is a shame. Only a little bit of a shame, though, when you consider what great things Vanquish does achieve. So many developers try to mix various elements of other games together, but we can’t recall ever seeing it done as assuredly as it is here. We’ll say it again: when it peaks it’s the best action game ever, but it peaks just a little too briefly.