Anything your suit can do, my suit can do better.
There was a time, not too long ago, when it was easier to tell certain kinds of stories. In times of war in America during the 20th century, you could get away with any kind of ridiculous, over-the-top narrative as long as the bad guys were Nazis or Russians and you doled out some good old-fashioned patriotic schlock. You didn’t have to buckle to the pressures of political correctness or racial sensitivity. Now I’m not making a case for the Cold War era being better than our own, but as a writer I can appreciate the freedom of being able to create something silly, camp, and exploitative, and not only be accepted, but lauded for it.
[image1]That’s the chord that Vanquish strikes, and not just in the hammed-up story. It’s the whole package – the impossible stunts, hordes of robots, one-dimensional characters delivering one-dimensional dialogue, and the constant sense that Platinum Games knowingly built their game to sucker you into enjoying every damn minute of something so obviously pulp. It’s rare to find a game with such personality, that’s so aware and embracing of its own outlandishness that it brazenly dares you to dislike it.
As DARPA agent Sam Gideon, you are part of an offensive to retake the Providence space colony from an evil Russian maniac (Why is he evil? Because he’s Russian, of course!) after he nukes San Francisco into oblivion. Sam gets teamed up with super-gruff Marine Lt. Colonel Robert Burns and is backed up by his lovely assistant Elena as she directs the infiltration from the cozy safety of a parked spaceship.
The cast is wisely kept small. You don’t want character development getting in the way of blowing all kinds of shit up. The only other characters of any importance are the crazy Russian antagonist Zaitsev and first female president of the US who looks very much like a certain Senator Clinton (purely coincidental, I’m sure).
[image2]Sam and Burns bicker back and forth out of mutual distaste for each other’s background, a routine that never evolves and yet never quite gets stale, either. Perhaps it’s the fact that each of their voice actors are so overly raspy with their performances that it’s endlessly entertaining to listen to these two hyper-macho dudes trying to out-Solid Snake each other.
But enough about all that story and character crap. Only one thing really matters in Vanquish, and that’s ridiculous, logic- and physics-defying action. You know it, I know it, and Platinum sure knows it. Sam’s experimental AR suit is a temporal Swiss Army knife, able to boost rapidly around the battlefield and slow down time for precision aiming. Both mechanics are governed by an energy meter that replenishes when neither power is in use, but still needs to be juggled carefully because it can overheat. The push-and-pull flow of speeding up to get to cover or flank enemies and then slowing down to pick them off is incredibly thrilling and dynamic, and makes Vanquish feel unique in an oversaturated genre.
These mechanics are usually governed by a simple button press, but if Sam is close to death, then AR mode (the slow bullet-time power) kicks in automatically as long as you have juice in the meter to give you a last gasp attempt to grab cover or dispatch your aggressors. It’s a handy trick that will get you out of a lot of jams, but there’s no way to turn AR mode off once it’s been triggered automatically. Oftentimes, you will be in cover with energy to spare, but it will continue draining until the suit overheats – and then you'll be stuck for precious seconds without your biggest edge in battle (and still on the verge of death, mind you).
It can be tough with all the bullets whizzing around, but a player would do well to stop and admire the scenery in Vanquish. The graphics are by no means unprecedented, and pretty standard fare for close textures and character models. The backgrounds and vistas, though, are extraordinary. Some of the set pieces for the shoot-outs are more impressive than the action itself, like a running gunfight on a rapidly collapsing highway or a dizzying skirmish on trains corkscrewing around each other through a high-speed tube.
[image3]The gunplay is simple and sweet, which is a good thing since the highlight of the gameplay is in the boosting and slowing. The suit has a weapon “replication” function called BLADE (acronyms… sigh…). You’re not actually carrying around an arsenal of guns – the suit instead carries up to three memories of gun blueprints, going through some slick Transformers-esque animations when you switch from one to the other. “Picking up” a new weapon will override the memory of a previous one. As far-fetched as that sounds, it’s a more plausible system than the usual “stuffing-an-entire-arsenal-in-your-pants” approach of most shooters.
Vanquish has an on-the-fly upgrade system that works really well to keep the action in the fore. If you have max ammo on a current weapon and you pick up another copy of it, you’ll make progress toward an upgrade. Do it three times and the weapon goes up in rank, which gives it more power, higher capacity, faster reload times, etc. Enemies will also sometimes drop a rare upgrade cube when they die, which instantly ranks-up your current weapon. There’s no need to enter a menu screen for upgrade purposes (or for anything, really), so you never have to pull yourself out of the game.
The bosses are great fun, especially the first time you go up against the giant robot in the first act. It’s kind of disappointing, however, that the rest of the bosses never quite reach the same plateau of thrills that the first boss sets. Most bosses also show their shiny metal asses too many times, which takes away from the imposing feeling they have and relegates some to simple mini-boss status.
If you play on Normal or Hard, be prepared for a tough mission. Vanquish gets pretty damn difficult in spots, even on Normal mode. You will have to die a few times to get a feel for different arenas and enemies. Beat it once and you unlock God Hard mode, which, true to its name, is a challenge that even Kratos himself might shy away from.
[image4]The biggest knock against Vanquish is highly significant, though, and one you would already be acutely aware of if you’ve been following the game through its release. It is really short – though not quite the four-hour romp some naysayers like to cite. The final game time doesn’t count cut-scenes or attempts that end in death, so the actual time you spend to finish the game is more like six to eight hours, depending on your style.
Fellow GR contributor Jesse Costantino recently pontificated on the validity of a short game. While it’s a great and thought-provoking discussion to have, my job right now is to decide whether or not a game is worth playing at $60 for you, the hard-working gamer and/or kid who’s begging for money from your hard-working parents. And given that simple charge, the length of Vanquish is a serious strike against it. With no multiplayer, the only ones coming back frequently after beating it once are Achievement/Trophy whores and high-score junkies fighting for the leaderboards. I gotta think those are minorities in the overall gaming population. Perhaps a rental is in order.
But even so, this is still one hell of a stylish and compelling game for as long as it lasts. Other than the length and lack of replay value, it does pretty much everything that’s important right, without getting bogged down in pretending to be something more sophisticated than what it really is. It’s silly, it’s outrageous, it’s campy – and it’s perfect at being so. And in that way, despite its futuristic sheen, Vanquish is a child of the '80s more than anything else.