The squad of marines pushed forward as enemy grunts shimmered Soviet-era red from cover points along the hillside. At the peak, a giant robotic crab tossed wreckage indiscriminately, forcing me to rush between cover while pumping bullets into robotic soldiers never shy about disregarding their own safety to invade my personal space.
Quick melee attacks cut them in half easily enough – the trick is in making sure to finish the job, least their broken carcasses scurry along the ground hoping to detonate as close as possible.
About halfway up the hillside, a tower collapsed and spread more debris and smoke over the battlefield while a horde of enemy reinforcements broke through an opening to thwart my advance.
All that cover may make it seem worth stopping for a smoke break until the dust settles, and Sam Gideon is always willing to steal a few puffs whenever the moment presents itself, but sitting to wait the war out from a safe vantage point is rarely an option. Momentum encourages players to keep moving with a beat that begins the moment Sam crashes aboard the orbital space colony at the center of a fresh Russia vs. America conflict, and Vanquish uses every last enemy capable of carrying a weapon to keep your ass moving.
The achievement for surviving the first stage of the invasion is dubbed “Space Normandy” for good reason. Platinum Games has married the gritty realism of battle typically assigned to games based on the Second World War with the anime lasers and sheen of influences like Neo-Human Casshern to create a third-person Sci-Fi D-Day.
Along the way it becomes clear that the rumored irrelevance of Japanese videogame design continues to be greatly exaggerated, with Vanquish offering a level of exquisite mathematics that make trigger fingers tingle with a workout unmatched by heavier North American releases.
It’s a far cry from the first reveal for Vanquish, which seemed to strut a fairly standard cover based shooter with “me too” enthusiasm. The first images of Sam in his ARS suit (Augmented Reaction Suit) drew obligatory comparisons to Halo’s Master Chief, and while Vanquish has taken a road all its own, one similarity did catch my attention.
I continually found myself thinking about Bungie’s formula that sought to give players intense bouts of action, and then replicate that experience repeatedly across an evolving battlefield. That intent is at the core of Vanquish, with a rising series of pocket battle sequences that build upon the established rules of this destructive playground to make “just five more minutes” the game’s most likely catchphrase.
Every area in Vanquish is abundant with two essential elements – cover and ammunition. Barricades and wreckage provide points of temporary relief from enemy fire, while ammo crates and kiosks keep a steady supply of bullets at hand. Enemy soldiers will occupy cover points, working to pin down players and flank where the opportunity presents itself, backed up by larger and more aggressively agile enemies that roam the stages with flamethrowers, spiked maces, drills, and a never ending supply of missiles that make sticking to any cover for very long a health risk.
Fortunately Sam is wearing everything he needs to survive these encounters, in theory. His suit slickly creates the weapons scanned for use, with three available to carry at anytime along with two types of grenades – those of the exploding variety and EMP types handy for temporally putting bad robots to sleep.
Vanquish essentially offers two types of weapons, traditional battlefield familiarities such as the light and heavy assault rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher and sniper rifle, as well as science fiction fare such as lock-on lasers and the energy based life-gun – the one weapon in the game that admittedly seems rather useless. Call me old fashioned, but I favored the heavier feel of rifles, which offer a very satisfying pinging noise when hitting the cold steel of enemies. There were moments where I was able to steal enough time to use the sniper rifle, but the continual arrival of larger enemies meant the rocket launcher was usually a better choice.
Vanquish’s robotic enemies tend to come in two varieties as well, cover favoring grunt soldiers and larger and slower humanoid robots are often present, but occasionally armored saw tanks, transforming robot dogs and silver assassins arrive, dramatically increasing the pace of battle and making any hope of grabbing and holding cover a fantasy.
These elements create the formula that makes the ARS suit both the player’s best friend, and only means of survival.
Gears of War led plenty to suggest that more bullets could be the answer in creating memorable action experiences. And while Vanquish certainly subscribes to that theory, the game also lends weight to the idea that the speed at which those bullets travel is also a significant part of the equation. Bullets and missiles fly at Sam in the blink of an eye, meaning any lapse in momentum is often a death sentence. There is a reprieve however, with the ARS suit responding to heavy damage and activating a familiar bullet-time reaction that slows the action and gives a few precious seconds to dispatch nearby enemies or grab temporary cover to heal. A few enemies along the way will meet this with a one-hit kill policy, which is when the rest of the suit’s abilities become important conversation points.
The ARS suit also allows players to initiate that bullet-time reaction manually, fire rockets from your knees to boost across the environment, and initiate melee attacks that litter the ground with robotic scrap. Because melee attacks, boosting, and bullet-time all work off the same gauge, you can expect to spend plenty of time waiting for it to recharge. And this is really the reason cover exists within the game, which achieves clarity when the controller is in your hands and you rocket slide into a piece of cover only to lunge over it and activate slow-down while pivoting to blast three enemies in short order, quickly grabbing for more cover afterward to buy time for the recharge and opportunity to discover even slicker tactics.
The play of it needs a balanced hand to survive, dodging bullets in real time and using every last second of slowdown to take out enemy positions. The controls deserve attention here, because while Vanquish can seem a bit intimidating at first, the straightforward design changes the emphasis, moving away from a game like Bayonetta and strings of button combos toward a mix of evasive and offensive techniques players discover and create patterns with on their own in the heat of battle.
Occasionally quick-time events break in, at times triggered during battles against larger enemies – get close enough when firing at a giant arm or head and suddenly Sam enters a sequence where players target weakspots or in one glorious instance pound the X button to rapidly punch a robot’s head clean off. These sequences don’t appear frequently, but offer some short and stylized instances meant to look slick.
Even the story managed to surprise after I went into Vanquish expecting a complete write off in that department.
That doesn’t mean to suggest that Vanquish is a narrative masterpiece, though the return of Russian villains warms me with nostalgia. Vanquish is filled with gruff soldiers and typical action dialogue as Sam spouts wise with a smoke hanging from his lips, but the focus isn’t on the overarching series of events, which take a backseat to the immediate action at hand. The real focus is always on the push into the heart of the colony. Though Sam does have a running concern about the marines keeping him company along the way, this is a battlefield narrative that prefers to use cinematic sequences to unleash increasingly ungodly enemies with little warning.
My run through the game clocked in at just over six hours, on par with recent releases like Halo: Reach, offering up a more satisfying block of time than a number of other action titles I’ve never finished over the last year.
Finishing the game unlocks the God Hard Mode for gamers willing to grind their fingers down while chewing more bullets, and additional challenge missions also become available to give players waves of enemies to survive.
The bottom line is that I’m relieved that my initial doubts were unfounded. Vanquish sunk the hooks in deep and dragged me into the battle with a natural exuberance that kept the focus on the battles, never detouring or sacrificing the original premise to stretch itself thin. A great example is boss encounters, which can be hard to differentiate given how the game can drop any enemy into the stages and both intimidate the player but also have already provided everything needed to survive. The key is in stress testing the ARS for oneself, finding a balance between slowing down time to score a few critical shots while leaving enough on the gauge to boost escape the response.
The fourth release since Platinum Games emerged from the ashes of Clover, Vanquish struts a style that feeds the niche God Hand faithful, but also a technological prowess that challenges anyone else to hit action notes of this caliber, leaving plenty of other recent releases feeling slow by comparison.
*A copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review