Platinum Games and Sega's Vanquish plays as if the designers decided to take the arcade action titles of the late 1980s and early 1990s and reform them for the modern era by jettisoning the 2D platformer template in favor of a Gears of Warstyled design. The game plays so well and is so convincing that it's as if the transition was inevitable. That's not immediately apparent going in, however, as the over-the-shoulder shooter has exploded in popularity over the last few years with many being more than a little derivative. It's only with Vanquish's old-school arcade heritage in mind that its nuances can truly be appreciated.
At first glance, nothing about Vanquish really stands out
well, aside from the gorgeous visuals. But nothing about its gameplay stands out. You have a third-person shooter that uses the same sort of cover system introduced in kill.switch and refined and made famous in Gears of War, except that now you can slide along the floor using boosters and slow down time using a sleek Augmented Reaction Suit. It's easy to be dismissive with a description like that, seeing as how it seems to indicate nothing more than a few perfunctory abilities having been tacked onto an already popular system for the sake of a few bullet points on the back of the box, but hands-on time changes everything.
To say that Vanquish is a hyperactive Gears of War isn't really true, though it certainly feels that way in the beginning. The cover system, allowing for quick cover transitions along with generous object hot zones, is silky smooth, better than in most games, and the weapons have a satisfying, heavy kick to them. The sci-fi setting is wonderfully realized, going far beyond the sanitized destroyed environments of Halo and provide some rubble-laden yet beautiful vistas that put many titles to shame. Not only does the game put you in a war, more importantly, it feels like a war. Debris is everywhere, structures are constantly falling, aircraft skirmish in the background - it's awesome. But this isn't Sera, it's Earth, a future Earth where Russia has preemptively struck the U.S., prompting an assault to retake a space station-cum-weapons platform to halt Russia's barrage. So while it would be easy to dismiss the upstart as a knock-off with some superficial similarities, that being the core mechanics and story of two peoples under attack in mass-scale warfare, that would be missing the point.
For starters, in Vanquish, cover is simply a tool within a varied arsenal of combat options. As Sam Gideon, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) operative, you have access to the ARS which, in addition to enhancing strength and maneuverability, can store weapons into its memory using the BLADE scanning and recall system. Three weapons can be stored at a time, with a fourth slot reserved for frag and EMP grenades, which include everything from the mundane (heavy assault rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher) to the exotic (multiple lock-on laser, EMP launcher, giant saw blades). There is also a clever two-tier upgrade system that includes a gradual upgrade and a one-time upgrade: weapons scanned that are already in memory and with a full ammo count are given a mark towards an upgrade while other times enemies drop green cubes that upgrade whatever weapon is armed, with the upgrades ranging from increased damage to increased clip capacity. This will force you well, those fellow compulsive players out there who love maxing everything to try all of the weapons as you'll want to max as many out as possible. I found this to have the additional bonus of helping me to realize that there were optimal weapons for some situations that I wouldn't have ever considered, with the appropriate gear drastically cutting down on encounter length. An interesting twist is that, on Normal or higher, the weapons actually downgrade whenever you die; however, potential problems for this are mitigated by the fact that there are often multiple weapons nearby which allow for you to reupgrade, or often surpass the previous level. Becoming familiar with the weapons whenever the AR Mode (slow motion) reaction kicks in, either due to low health or engaged while evading, adds another dimension as learning the recoil, timing, and damage of each weapon in conjunction with the slower reaction time becomes crucial in blowing through encounters and racking up points. And points are important.
I think Vanquish's most telling sign of its intentions is that your score is prominently displayed on the right side of the screen by default. Scores are tallied on a variety of factors in addition to in-mission kills, such as the number of deaths and friendlies wounded, and can even be negative if performance was sufficiently poor. This is because Vanquish isn't a game to beat but a game to master. It's truly an old-style action arcade game, and in that vein, you can expect some ridiculously frustrating encounters and little more than a feeling of satisfaction as a reward. The best example of its lineage might be Contra: round after round being fired off in all directions, massive bosses, enemies that have weak points that must be damaged before going in for the kill, and life after life lost. That also brings with it some of the more unfortunate aspects of the age, such as a seeming lack of imagination for key encounters: 'Oh, you found that one difficult? And the boss before, too? Well, here is two of each.' The game has some of the most amazing setpieces I have ever encountered mile-high bridges buckling and breaking apart, vehicles flipping overhead, five-story tall mechs bristling with missiles and taking on squads of soldiers so having to fight another battle of just clumped together minibosses was a bit of a letdown.
The difficulty spikes are definitely here as well, including one weird, constantly shifting arthropod-like mech who has a dash one-kill attack that will ruin your score. And that is just one instance of the many 'Argh!' moments Vanquish has in store, so prepare to be frustrated. Deaths are largely not an issue, score aside, except for when the random deathblow lands out of nowhere you don't know what it was, where it came from, or where it hit you, but something definitely blew you up. In fact, I was more frustrated with some of the lengthy fights even if you have the optimal weapon, or best you could hope for, some encounters drag on than dying, but frustration is definitely a part of the experience. But what's more surprising is how often you don't die, as the game will literally have dozens of projectiles, from gunfire to giant rockets, flying at you nonstop, as if you're a ship in a traditional shooter. It's downright intense. Cover is also negated in many respects by the enemy's homing weapons, or those explosives that are so powerful that they go through or whose explosion engulfs the entire area, so boosting from spot to spot becomes a crucial tactic. Combat is spiced up some by a few lenient context-sensitive events and the ability to commandeer turrets and some vehicles, including an AT-AT-like walker that proves to be deadly effective and a lot of fun. The sudden moments of slow motion only serve to punctuate how the chaotic the encounters are, as they only offer a few precious seconds to wrangle some semblance of order out of the surrounding mayhem. When the game gets going and starts firing on all cylinders, there's little else like it.
As arcade oriented as the game is, the actual scoring system is pretty basic. At around seven hours, including cutscenes, the game ends with five unlocked Tactical Challenges and the ability to replay the campaign missions. Vanquish is actually very reminiscent of Sega's own titles back in their arcade heyday, but there is something missing here, primarily that being neglected opportunities to expand and enrich the scoring system, either through secondary methods or combos, which is something that Sega took full advantage of to make a three-level game infinitely replayable. I think the neutered melee combat is one area that has a lot of unfulfilled potential, as it is often neglected due to every hit leaving your armor overheated and you vulnerable while robots rush in for suicide charges. Those are the situations when the game feels too limited and you want for a bit more, just that one last bit that would not only keep the action going.
Many of the areas are definitely worth replaying, though, and the tactical missions are good fun, even if they are just a variation of Horde mode but with questionable AI helpers. But the key element to the overall time is "including cutscenes," because there are a lot of them. Unfortunately, many of those aren't very good. Aside from a few so-so character models, the cutscenes look great and are exciting and do a great job of getting you pumped
until the characters start talking. By the end of the game, I actively disliked Sam. Not only did I not like Sam, but I didn't like a single character in the game. The story, something of a futuristic throwback to the Cold War, is interesting in itself, but the dialogue, character motivation, and plot twists range from bad to nonsensical. The biggest offender is Sam, who ends up being some pulp Solid Snake Jr. whose personality wholly consists of grimacing and smoking. He goes so far as to point out the fact that he's smoking in a cutscene we get it but at least the smokes actually help by distracting the enemy. While the nicotine won't hurt you, his stilted, groan-worthy one-liners will. In short, he's a low-rent action hero from a B-grade 1993 action flick. The script as a whole is poor, with several bad jokes and jarring references to eBay and Roombas. None of this would much of an issue if it wasn't for the fact that there are just so many cutscenes that they often feel intrusive, breaking up the game's flow. The last thing I want to do is get yanked out of the action just to watch Sam do something cool that I'd rather be doing. Just stop talking and get back to the sweet, sweet action.
Vanquish comes so close to being great but just misses the mark. I actually wasn't too fond of it at first, but it slowly grew on me as I came to appreciate just how interesting and unique its design truly is. A secondary scoring or combo system would've been just the kind of reinforcement to give it the legs it needs, but as it stands, you're still looking at two solid playthroughs and five standalone Horde-esque Tactical Challenges. Not bad at all. With some amazing visuals and setpieces, and a strange throwback design in the mold of a modern third-person, cover-based shooter, Vanquish manages to be nothing if not unique and well worth your time.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)