Review: Vanquish

Vanquish Cover

Following the re-publication of my original Bayonetta review, here’s another piece I wrote for the now defunct ‘badgercommander’ site. This one is of another title from Platinum Games, Vanquish.

Last week I sat down and played Halo: Reach for the first time. The presentation is extremely slick, the multiplayer runs remarkably smoothly on my shitty connection and still succeeds in looking nice. You’d expect it to: the number of bodies working on this at Bungie was in the hundreds and the development time was well over two years. This is what you expect from a AAA title. Money spent on this game means that the visuals and presentation are always going to outstrip any other title that doesn’t have the same budget. Money = Polish.

This makes sense until you encounter Vanquish. The entire time I was playing I really couldn’t fathom it. How the fuck does this game play so well and look so good, yet be built on a comparatively small budget and in a shorter time scale than anything I would consider its peer?

Everything in this game exudes quality and craftsmanship. The highly detailed ARS suit of the protagonist positively ripples in time with every step, slide and shot taken. The mechanical Russian behemoths he is fighting have articulated parts upon articulated parts, some of them barely noticeable until you look at the screenshots. Vanquish has its version of Bullet time (the justification for this is that when in danger the suit pumps its wearer full of adrenaline to the point where reactions are pushed beyond a standard human’s), which should be yawnsome but instead it is the first time in far too long that the conceit has felt fresh. This is because Vanquish feels like a true progression of the original Max Payne effect, rather than a tacked-on feature. The game knows that at any point you might be triggering your ARS suit and as a result the environment has to look good at all times. Bullets trail overhead and ricochet off surfaces, dust rises up in gentle pirouettes, explosions spark and plume from dying robot enemies as debris blows lazily in the wind.

Scenes where there are robots launching guided missiles at you from multiple angles is all par for the course for Sam Gideon, ex pro-fooball star. I did not make up the main character's name or back story. I wish I had.

Scenes where there are robots launching guided missiles at you from multiple angles is all par for the course for Sam Gideon, ex pro-football star. I did not make up the main character’s name or back story. I wish I had.

Graphics aren’t everything, I’ll agree, but they certainly leave an impression and happily the visual appeal is matched by the top-notch game play. The main gist of this is to move from cover-to-cover taking out enemies similarly to Gears of War, but to draw that comparison is a bit like comparing an elderly lion to an adult Tyrannosaurus Rex. The cover system in Gears of War is essentially the same from arena to arena with only a few sections where the developers really do anything interesting or different with this approach. In Vanquish the cover system — and its potential overuse — is countered by the fact that you can never stay still for more than a few seconds, as you will be overrun by something bigger and nastier if you stand still for too long. This is where the knee slide comes in: a turbo boosted air-guitar pose that causes the background to warp and allows you to slow down time simultaneously and explode Ruskie’s heads in a glory of twisted metal and smoke.

All this should lead to you being over-powered, flitting fluidly from target to target as a lubricious death dealer. This doesn’t happen: as you use the slide it drains your energy and leaves you vulnerable to one-shot kills, particularly on harder difficulties. The game never discourages you from trying something risky (there are some levels where it is absolutely essential) but your enthusiasm for this ability will be tempered by a swift death if you become careless in its application.

The power slide in all its glory

The power slide in all its glory

Balance is the key word in Vanquish. This philosophy is applied to the abilities, the enemies and also notably the weapon selection. Although you will find yourself using the assault rifle a fair bit, the sniper rifle, rocket launcher, lock-on laser (you can target multiple enemies behind cover) and disc launcher all enjoy moments when their respective strengths shine above and beyond the other armaments. All weapons can be upgraded by finding green upgrade cubes or collecting an ammo pick-up for a weapon in your possession with a completely full clip. This adds strategy to which weapons you use in each skirmish; do you use the rocket launcher to take out the mace-wielding monstrosity in front of you, or hold off and level it up for the inevitable boss encounter? All of these upgrades are predetermined, like an old side-scrolling shooter, and don’t have you flipping between different menus to assign experience points.

The story is a bit of joke and as cheesy as a quattro formaggi pizza with extra feta. Then again it was safe to assume this would be the case, given Platinum Games’ pedigree. I simply didn’t care because I found myself using a Commie metalhead as a punching bag whilst wearing a suit that looks as though the Guyver and Michael Wilson’s equipment from Metal Wolf Chaos did the nasty and produced a sleek, dynamic baby that was brought up by the Master Chief.

Every moment in this game gives you pause for thought, every level is gorgeous and every firefight is inspired. What should be another ho-hum arena or on-rails section always springs something new on you, and the solutions to overcoming it may not be something you notice until subsequent play-throughs. The game has multiple difficulties that genuinely feel worthwhile playing and improving at – like learning the perks to certain weapons as well as their contextual close range attacks. It also works because replaying a level is fun simply to try and figure out new ways of approaching a problem. Escaping an insect-bot that is hurling machinery and bits of buildings down a broken highway at you is fun; doing it by powersliding between cover, missing descending masonry by inches, is exhilarating.

While playing this game I imagined the gaming spectrum as a nightclub. Crysis is trying to chat up No One Lives Forever. Dante’s Inferno is eyeing up Demon’s Souls for a fight later. D.S., in turn, is ignoring the evil eyes as D.I. is beneath it. Sleep Is Death is hanging out in a little corner sipping on a Bloody Mary while exchanging niceties with Braid, Portal and Civilisation V. Surf’s Up is desperate to impress Skate 2 and Hydro Thunder by drinking as much as it can, despite being under-age. The Last Remnant and Lost Odyssey are off in another, darker, corner, looking down in disdain on the rest of the crowd because they just don’t ‘get it’. Super Mario Galaxy and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess are snogging passionately while their friends Super Mario Sunshine and Metroid: Another M pretend to ignore them and make uncomfortable chit-chat. Uncharted is telling Heavy Rain that it has depth and soul while next to them Project Gotham Racing consoles Blur over the umpteenth pint of Newcastle Brown. The dance floor is littered with games like Space Chimps, Assassin’s Creed I and II, Singularity, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock and Crash Time III. The soundtrack is a constant parade of John Williams-inspired scores and forgettable techno.

Everything is proceeding along at an almost banal pace until about midnight, when the musical equivalent of Machine Head fused with Venetian Snares kicks in. Brooktown High looks up from its drink in time to utter “Holy Shit” as Vanquish and Bayonetta appear out of nowhere and start busting moves left, right and centre. Vanquish skids and air-guitars across the varnished wooden floor and Bayonetta kicks out the jams whilst breakdancing. All eyes are on the blatant disregard these two newcomers are showing for what is considered acceptable. ‘Posers,’ Splinter Cell: Conviction mutters to Metal Gear Solid 4. They nod to each other in agreement but their stares reveal nothing but envy. At this point Vanquish slides past Kill.Switch, giving it two fingers before ‘accidentally’ taking out Gears of War 3 (who isn’t even supposed to be out at this time) with a flip kick.

Vanquish is that fucking good

It’s just that fucking good.