A pistol-whipping, demon-summoning witch who hides her nudity by dressing in her hair (Bayonetta). A ridiculously violent, Sin-City-inspired beat ‘em up set in a futuristic game show and featuring a protagonist with a retractable chainsaw arm (Madworld). And now, Vanquish gives you a chain-smoking, gravel voiced scientist in a robotic ‘Augmented Reaction Suit’ – which allows him to slow down time, has rockets built into its arms and legs and a weapon capable of copying any other – taking on a Soviet-controlled army of robots.
It’s fair to say that developers Platinum Games aren’t exactly renowned for their subtlety.
What they are renowned for is taking a ridiculous concept, pushing it so high that you forget exactly where the ceiling should be, and not letting you pause for breath until the end credits roll. Want a shooter that leans more towards realism? You’re barking up the wrong ‘bot – stick with your Bad Company’s or your Call of Duty’s. Want a game that (famously) lets you throw a church at a boss, or pits you against a building-sized, transforming robot in the first ten minutes of play? Platinum are your guys. They do utter insanity, and they do it very well.
See this badass? He’s you.
Vanquish sees you taking the role of Sam Gideon, a college football superstar turned researcher (!) for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The game begins with an impressively disgusting opening cut-scene – in which an ultra-nationalist Russian force (‘The Order of the Russian Star’ – yes, really) takes over a US space station and use its energy satellite to microwave the residents of San Francisco – the American President forms a crack team of war veterans and space marines to recapture the station. Sam is sent along with them and is reluctantly teamed up with Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Burns who, with his hulking form, gruff demeanour and humungous robotic arm, looks like the sort of guy who wedgied Marcus Fenix back in basic training. And in the vein of, say, every mismatched partners story ever told, they dislike each other immediately – but put their differences aside and ship out to take on the Ruskies and their automaton army.
Sam Gideon and Burns, who’s sporting the one expression he wears for the entire game.
Reading that plot description you’d be forgiven for thinking it sounds like something straight out of a Michael Bay movie, and on the surface you wouldn’t be completely wrong. American heroes, giant robots, massive explosions and logic firmly seated in the rear? Sure, it has more than a few elements that have pervaded Bay’s body of work. The difference is that while sitting through ‘Transformers 2’ feels akin to your intelligence being kicked in the crotch for two and a half hours, Vanquish transcends this by going so far over the top as to verge on parody; the dialogue is laughable, the characters fall into three archetypes (badass, robot, cannon fodder) and all the plot you need happens during the opening cut-scene – it’s basically just a set-up to get you into that suit, onto that space station, and start launching enemies, rockets and set-pieces at you. And you won’t care for one minute because it works wonderfully.
When Vanquish was first announced, it was easy to dismiss it as just another Gears of War clone; a science fiction third-person cover shooter featuring yet another cast of grizzly, sweary space marines and substituting robots for Sera’s infamous Locust horde. It hardly seemed like something we hadn’t seen before, never mind something worth getting excited about. Fifteen minutes with this game puts that well and truly to bed, as not only is it a very different animal, it’s actually the anti-Gears; if that game is all about your strategic use of cover, patience and tactical flanking, Vanquish actually punishes you for that style of play. It wants you to take those great big guns it gave you and go bugnuts crazy on the enemy’s metal ass. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the Augmented Reaction Suit (ARS) comes equipped with rockets. You think the Gears ‘roadie run’ is an improvement of the pace of a big, heavy character? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
The game places you in a series of absolutely huge arenas, and this boosting ability enables you to zip around destroying enemies by the shipload or, should you need, to make a hasty exit if you bite off more than you can chew. And speaking of running into trouble, this is where the suit’s secondary ability comes into play; by activating the ‘Augmented Reality’ mode, it creates the illusion of time being slowed down to a crawl and allows you to take out (or escape from) multiple bad guys. Both the rockets and the AR Mode have a limit on their use however and continuous use will cause the suit to overheat (as does the suit’s melee attack feature, which looks cool as hell and is a one-hit-kill on most of the smaller enemies), leaving you temporarily exposed to enemy fire, and it’s in this situation more than any other where you find yourself actually needing to use the cover. Good reaction times are absolutely essential in play, as the right triggering of the AR (or correct button-bash for a randomly thrown in QTE) can prove critical for surviving some of the set pieces – and what set pieces they are. Pushing the current-gen to its limits in terms of onscreen action (and with nary a hint of slow-down), you often find yourself facing down dozens of enemies in varying sizes and armed with numerous weapons, on more than one occasion while squared off against a boss. And while it might not be the sort of music that you’d listen to on your own time, there’s no denying that the pulsing techno and kinetic beats of the soundtrack only add to the supercharged atmosphere; it’s hard not to get excited while playing this game.
Not pictured: boredom.
So what doesn’t it do?
Well, probably the biggest criticism that’s been (perhaps fairly) aimed at Vanquish is not that it doesn’t do certain things, but rather doesn’t do them for long enough. With a campaign which clocks in at an average of 6-8 hours, it’s no shorter than the average C.O.D. game, but with no multiplayer modes whatsoever to fall back on its left a lot of people feeling it’s frustratingly short. It’s not something I necessarily agree with, as for this type of action-oriented experience I’d prefer something that relentless and breathlessly exciting than something that relies on back-tracky item collection or other such un-needed padding, but I can understand the complaint, especially in a day and age when multiplayer is almost standard issue in shooters of any kind. Considering that this was released within weeks of the Earth-conquering Black Ops – which is bound to have gamers rabidly playing it on a daily basis until the next C.O.D. release – certainly gives some weight to that perspective, and while the unlockable ‘Challenge Mode’ offers some replay value, you can’t help but wonder how much fun it could have been to deathmatch against a bunch of your buddies while zooming around one of the game’s vast settings on those rocket-powered pins.
Vanquish is also guilty of a slight repetition towards its very end, as it starts to run out of new adversaries to surprise you with. Rather than presenting entirely new challenges, it perhaps slips into mixing in different groups of enemies which you’ve seen before, or doubling up on bosses rather than introducing new ones – the epic transforming Argus from beginning shows up again before long, with a second model in tow for emotional (and heavy fire) support. As an experience overall however I think this is a minor gripe, and when brand new villains like the Crystal Viper – who only shows up in the last 3rd of the game – do eventually appear, it will have you grinning like a lunatic all over again and reminding you just how much fun the game really is.
It’s like the ending of ‘Iron Man’ except, y’know, exciting.
So while it’s not quite perfect and some players might feel short-changed by the length and absence of online play, the good – and in some instances GREAT – more than outweigh the bad. It won’t take forever for you to finish it, but I can guarantee almost every second of it is a joyous blast.
This review was originally featured on rustyshark.com