Where to begin…
The SC-01Providence space colony has been hijacked by the Russian Star, an extremist faction bent on using the colony’s microwave energy array to fry their enemies unless they surrender unconditionally. Unwilling to give in to their demands, the President of the United States sends hundreds of thousands of soldiers off to their deaths in a desperate attempt to take the colony back. Lucky for her, Sam Gideon (DARPA researcher extraordinaire) is on the case. And lucky for Sam, he was on the one ship that managed to make it through the Russian defenses in (almost) one piece.
Sound like the start to a cheesy action movie? You betcha.
There are more ridiculous scenarios, unnecessarily high testosterone levels and moronic one-liners in Vanquish‘s first ten minutes than you’ll find in both entries to the Epic Games series it’s most likely to be compared to. Combined. From close-quarters knife fights meant to promote anti-smoking policies to lines like “Thank God I’m an atheist,” the script is pure schlock from beginning to end. And it’s absolutely glorious.
Vanquish has an terrible plot, obnoxious characters with nonsensical motivations and some of the weirdest dialogue this side of Deadly Premonition. We’re talking an Army of Darkness level of camp. And just like the third (technically second, if you count Evil Dead 2 as a remake) chapter in Ash’s epic battle against the Deadite scourge, it’s an absolute blast. It would have been easy to simply leave the story as bland filler, prompting players to continually skip the cutscenes to jump back into the action, but by cranking the Stupid knob as far as it’ll go the developers have instead created something worth watching multiple times. Preferably with some popcorn and/or a drink or two.
So the story is absolutely awful, but in a good way. Of course being the next Carnosaur doesn’t equate to a free pass. People still have to play the game, which is an experience that can be best summed up in one word: “HOLYSHIT!” Yes, that’s one word.
If you can imagine the basic “stop n’ pop” framework of Gears of War built around the insane speed and “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” experience you’ll find in Sonic the Hedgehog, you’ll get the basic idea. Sam’s ARS (Augmented Reaction Suit) allows him to rocket along the ground at breakneck speeds, while also granting him the ability to enhance his reflexes, resulting in the whole “bullet time” mechanic everyone’s intimately familiar with at this point. Both of these key suit functions are fairly interesting on their own, but it’s really the combination of abilities (coupled with lots and lots of shooting) that makes it all shine. Vaulting over cover, slowing time and pulling off a head shot with a sniper rifle (while still vaulting), then transforming the rifle into a machine gun and boosting toward another piece of cover the moment your feet hit the ground (while spraying bullets at commie robot heads in slow-mo, naturally) before finally sliding to rest behind your desired bullet-blocker and jabbing a healing syringe into a wounded soldier isn’t just insanely cool to pull off, it’s encouraged. In some cases, similar tactics are downright essential because if you play Sam as if he were Marcus Fenix, you’re bound to see a lot of Game Over screens.
It’s not all “zip-zip, bang-bang,” though. The ARS is a sweet piece of gear, but it has its limitations. Boosting or slowing time will start to raise the suit’s temperature, so if you don’t ration its use it can overheat and leave you high and dry in your time of need. Thankfully it doesn’t take long at all for the suit to cool down between bursts (maybe a second or two), but if it’s overheated it’ll take considerably longer. On top of that, Sam also has a melee attack that’s guaranteed to do some major damage if it connects. The trade-off is that landing a speed-enhanced blow like this will instantly overheat the suit. So why even use it at all? Well, it looks cool for starters, and you can still use the time-slowing effects in those brief moments between kicking a bot in the teeth and touching the ground. This means you can kick off of a robot (most likely destroying it), then slow everything down and spray bullets in a second target’s face while you’re still rebounding from the hit. Handy.
Visually, Vanquish is kind of like being forced to eat beets (yuck) before you’re allowed to go to town on a massive ice cream sundae. Or a huge cake. Whatever you prefer. The overall designs for pretty much everything are borderline generic, with Sam’s ARS and a boss or two being the only real exceptions. However, there’s almost too much detail to take in at times, especially during an intense firefight with particles flying all over the place and explosions going off left and right, and it never slows down. Unless you want it to, anyway. So while much of the art direction may not feel unique, it’s still hard not to be impressed by the extremely well polished plate of Mostly Bland with a side of Slick Animations that Vanquish brings to the table.
Of course, much like you’re bound to expect, it isn’t perfect. Insanely fun, yes, but not perfect. For starters, Sam’s arsenal is a little on the small side, with eight different guns to choose from. Eight may sound like a decent amount, but the real issue is that you’ll most likely find your preferred standbys (i.e. assault rifle, rocket launcher and sniper rifle) and just stick with them throughout the whole game. That’s not to say the more unconventional weapons are useless, but chances are you’ll only grab them for specific encounters or if one of your other guns is empty. And while being able to upgrade your favorites as you progress through the game is handy, it also further discourages playing with other toys.
Another less-than-stellar aspect is the repetitiveness of the enemies. There are only a handful of grunt types, a few larger “mini-boss” robots that all look somewhat similar, but with different weapons and a couple of different bosses. Some bosses make several appearances throughout the game, too. There are also a few unfortunate technical snags that get in the way, such as the occasional threat of overshooting your intended piece of cover or attempting to aim at an enemy with miscellaneous soldiers running back-and-forth in front of the camera. But ultimately these are all just nitpicks in what is really a very solid and entertaining experience.
Vanquish will probably take somewhere in the neighborhood of five or six hours to complete. Possibly more if you’re trying to find those hidden trophies, playing on a harder difficulty setting or just plain suck. Even so, once the game is over there’s still plenty of reason to keep playing: You’re given a score at the end of each chapter, with bonuses given for fast completion times and penalties for deaths, so you could find yourself in a tug-of-war with your buddies to see who can rack up the most points in a given level. Each completed act also opens up a special challenge mission, which is basically a single player horde mode featuring multiple areas with their own special enemy loadouts and increasingly tough waves of commie bots. And again, the compulsive desire to get the high score looms large. But if that’s still not enough you also unlock a new difficulty (God Hard) that not only throws heartier badguys at you, but also does away with your ability to upgrade your weapons.
You want action? Vanquish. You want speed? Vanquish. You want inappropriate camera angles every time the one female support character starts talking? Vanquish. If insane action, crazy fun and a lovably ludicrous story sound like your idea of a good time then do yourself a favor and play this game. You may even want to keep a pen and paper handy in case you want to make sure you can remember some of the terribly fantastic dialogue.
Things We Liked: Crazy insane action. Pulling off the kind of over-the-top moves usually reserved for cinematics and QTEs. The story, cutscenes and characters are so stupid it could only be intentional. And hilarious. Plenty to keep score-happy players busy. “Let’s shove some tungsten up this tunnel’s ass!”
Things We Disliked: Overall bland “uber-Sci-Fi” visual design with a few exceptions. Not much incentive to experiment with different weapons. Not a great deal of enemy variety. Soldiers seem to get in the way a bit too often.
Target Audience: Action junkies. Fans of “bullet hell” games that also know their way around a third-person shooter. People who can appreciate an intentionally terrible plot/characters/acting/dialogue/etc…
(Vanquish – Developers: Platinum Games. Publisher: Sega. Available for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 – Xbox version reviewed. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)