As a gamer raised on a steady diet of western first person shooters, RPGs, and action adventure titles I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I first popped Vanquish into my Xbox 360. Sure, I’d played a demo at E3, but demos can never give you a full impression of how the finished product will play. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long to have those questions answered. This is because right from the tutorial, Platinum Games’ latest creation makes one thing very clear: the next 6+ hours you spend with their game will be some of the most intense and fast paced of your gaming life.
Vanquish puts you into the combat boots of Sam Gideon, a former college football standout who has been recruited by DARPA to be a test subject for their new super high tech ARS suit. After the Russians take control of a U.S. controlled space station/colony/weapon and use it to target San Francisco, you, and the rest of the American military must prevent NYC from being the next target.
That’s right about where you need to stop in terms of story, as that’s really all there is to discuss. The game is carried along by a shallow filled with characters who never get past the male badass soldier stereotype. To further add fuel to the lame storytelling fire, almost all of the dialog is poorly written and the characters are voiced with by mediocre voice actors. The only saving grace of the story is the fact that it is told through beautifully rendered cutscenes which suck you into the moment, if not the world.
Luckily, everything that the game lacks in character development it more than makes up for in supremely well executed gameplay. Sam’s suit is equipped not only with thrusters which allow him to speedily slide around levels but also the ability to slow down time for a brief period. Surprisingly, the bullet-time fits extremely well into Vanquish and doesn’t feel tacked on at all, something which is rare these days. Both slowing down time and boosting with thrusters draw on the same limited power supply, meaning that you can’t simply boost around levels with impunity and expect to survive for long.
This is especially true because ARS slowdown will trigger automatically if you’re low on health, allowing Sam the opportunity to get out of harm’s way in one piece. However, should you overheat the suit, bullet-time can’t trigger, making it significantly more likely that you’ll die. The combination of all of these factors forces you to maintain a tight balance between using Sam’s suit and keeping some of it in reserve for a rainy day.
The ARS suit, however, is only one facet of the impressive agility that Platinum games has imbued Sam with. The protagonist can hurdle over barriers, slide into cover, and roll out of away from incoming enemy fire with ease. The controls are incredibly tight and, combined with the agility imbued from the ARS system really gives you the feel of being in control of a human weapon.
The fact that the controls give you such a sense of agility becomes incredibly important once you exit tutorial and hit the battlefield because Vanquish throws a nearly overwhelming amount of robots at you. This results in firefights where you’ll initially be on the verge of being overwhelmed as you scramble into cover under a hail of robotic attacks, both melee and otherwise.
As you regain your wits, fights will force you to use all of Sam’s skills, your own situational awareness, and a keen sense of when to stay behind cover and when to attack in order to succeed. The pacing of the game is such that you almost always feel as if the challenge posed is just shy of too much to handle. This keeps Vanquish moving at a breakneck pace and ensures that there is literally never a dull moment during the (admittedly short) 6 hour campaign. Even some cinematic sequences force you to keep stay on your toes as they occasionally contain quick time events which must be completed in order to survive.
Fortunately, in order to prevent you from becoming too bogged down with waves of miniature enemies, the developers have sprinkled boss battles throughout the game’s various stages. These pit you against larger enemies whose attacks must be avoided, as one hit from them can kill Sam instantly. The boss battles provide a nice change of pace as they force you to consider how to best take down significantly larger, and deadlier, enemies while still maintaining the need to stay on your toes lest your laziness results in Sam’s death.
If there’s one knock that can be leveled against the otherwise excellent function of Vanquish it is that the mission structure doesn’t show a whole lot of variety. Sure, there is the occasional on rails “protect this vehicle” mission, but outside of that most all of your objectives will be “clear this area of enemies to open the door”, once completed, this door opens into another area which must be cleared of enemies. The structure doesn’t become terribly mundane because the action is so intense, but a little more variety would have been nice.
What don’t disappoint in the least are the visuals. Somehow, even though you are bombarded with a constant stream of enemies and bullets the game never once slows down under the strain of the combat. This becomes all the more impressive when you slow down and can see individual bullets fly past your face. Equally breathtaking is the fact that at most points in the game you can look up and see much of Space Colony 1 rendered in stunning detail.
Most of this area isn’t explorable, but the areas that you do actually get to fight on display a level of polish which is certainly on par with anything else on the market. Even though the environments usually are overwhelmingly metallic they provide more than enough eye candy for you to feast your eyes on during the campaign just from their size and detail.
In addition, there are also some amazing additions in the form of vehicles which populate the area and must be cleared of enemies or disabled. From massive robotic tanks to giant robotic spider mechs which you have to take down, your fight to save America will force you to fight both on and around some awe inspiring machines.
These types of cooler than cool moments are scattered throughout Vanquish and are essentially why the game is both so fun and so lacking at times. In the combat, the high-tech nature of Sam’s suit allows you to pull off some athletic feats while blasting enemies in firefights whose intensity is rarely matched. However, when it comes to the story, it seems as if attempts to make some of the characters witty and badass instead just made them boring and comical. Nonetheless, even a poor storyline can’t keep gun-fighting this fun down, thus making it impossible not to recommend Vanquish for every fan of shooters.