- CLR [rating:3.5]
Release Date: October 19th, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360 (Version Reviewed), Playstation 3
Developer: Platinum Games
Director: Shinji Mikami
Genre: Science-fiction Cover-Shooter Action
ESRB: M for Mature
The Best of All Possible Wars
What do an 18th century novel, a modern-day game guru, and a futuristic space opera all have in common? Oddly enough, a single word: Vanquish.
Over the last year the dream-team comprised of former Capcom and Clover Studios employees, Platinum Games, has released four games through a partnership with Sega, and with every release has defined themselves as a studio to be on the lookout for, and possibly full of madmen. 2009’s Madworld was an interesting though fairly flawed take on ultra-violence that was released exclusively for the Wii, a console known primarily for family games and/or shovel-ware. Infinite Space came out on the DS and mixed the genres of JRPG and Starfleet Simulation in an unprecedented manner, and Hideki Kamiya’s Bayonetta literally had you fighting God by the end. Every release by the studio seems an attack on audience expectations of propriety, genre stability, or even religious beliefs.
Vanquish, helmed by Shinji Mikami, the man most responsible for creating and then abolishing the survival-horror genre, is no different. Like Bayonetta it’s an all out assault on the senses, combining incredibly fast action with explosive visual splendor, but also seems intent on defying the concept of acceptable depth in action games. Surprisingly, it’s also a satire heavily inspired in equal parts by Voltaire, Anime, and macho 80’s action movies!
So it’s the future, and Hillary Clinton, by which I mean “Elizabeth Winters,” finally gains the presidency but unfortunately for her, the world’s had both a population explosion and an economic implosion. Events turn to the melodramatic when evil wetsuit-wearing Russians take over America’s 51st state, the mega space station Providence, with an army of robots and then shoot a microwave death-beam at San Francisco. With New York next on the “targeted radiation stimulus package,” the U.S. Marines lead by Lt. Colonel Robert Burns (Steven J. Blum), a bionically enhanced war hero carrying a minigun, invade Providence to take it back from the reds. Yet he’s not who you’ll be playing; that role falls to Sam Gideon (Gideon Emery, who seems in a “gruffest voice” contest with Blum), a chain-smoking DARPA researcher equipped with a highly advanced cyber-suit making him capable of impossible feats. Providing intelligence from a nearby shuttle is Elena Ivanova, who backs Sam up while he assists the military with their operation, and attempts to rescue the scientist responsible for both the cyber-suit and the micro-wave cannon being used to destroy American lives. With 8 hours left on the clock and failure not an option, these two men, as well as hundreds of expendable soldiers storm the colony and wage war!
Obviously the plot’s a bit ridiculous but when playing a Mikami game that should be expected, as his last effort, God Hand was an underrated spoof primarily focused on punching various clichés in the face. With Vanquish Mikami has openly stated that the action Anime Casshern was a primary influence, which when making an action game, probably isn’t a bad thing as that series has its fair share of spectacle. The narrative is delivered well enough, and at first glance is a simple bit of mindless fun that serves the function of moving the player along. But as you take over enemy strongholds and hard points, battling endless swarms of robots great and small, a sharper bit of storytelling starts to emerge.
Sam’s main objective, aside from dismantling death-droids in clever new ways, is to rescue one Professor Francois Candide. At first this seems a simple bit of name dropping, but then you’ll find that the game’s collectible items du jour are statuettes of a Professor Pangloss, which if you remember 10th grade Literature, was the name of Candide’s mentor, one who proscribed a rather specific optimism. Taken out of context, this seems to be nothing more than intellectual pandering for the literary set by writers Hiroki Kato and Jean-Pierre Kellams.
However if you take these to be hints, an entirely different picture begins to emerge; the game actually has something on its mind other than pure shooting action (though there’s plenty of that). Throughout Sam’s journey, there are many jabs towards the way the U.S. wages war and causes much of its own misery due to foreign policy decisions, and occasional silly pokes and clever banter at the sheer ridiculousness of the situations occurring around the characters. At one point, when Burns appears after being presumed dead, it’s not treated as out of the ordinary at all, as if it should have been expected. All of these traits give the game a very ironic edge aligned with Voltaire’s famous novel, which was itself an adventure story that lampooned the society of the time. It is merely an edge however, and for the most part the tone is played pretty straight, albeit a bit over the top.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, as the meat of the actual game here is very good indeed. Primarily a cover shooter, but every single genre element is improved upon or subverted in some way. The basics of solid friction on the walls you’ll attach yourself to, perfectly tuned character movement and aiming sensitivity (that has 3 levels of variation), highly aggressive enemy AI, and frequent use of destructible cover are all present and accounted for standards. Where Vanquish shines and moves beyond the norm is the armor Sam wears into battle.
Proving that clothes really do make the man, the “Augmented Reaction Suit” is a very impressive piece of hardware, and it turns many standard cover-shooter concepts on their head with two main abilities: slow motion, and boost sliding. Both abilities require moving out of cover in order to trigger them manually, and give the player a very aggressive set of actions that prove a perfect match for the largely defensive “wait behind chest high walls” mentality of other cover-shooters. Both of these abilities, as well as powerful melee attacks, draw from one power source though, and much of the game’s strategy involves learning to balance use of these actions with proper concealment techniques. The rocket-powered knee-sliding is especially fun and keeps you moving at mach speed in battle while bullets buzz over your head.
Literally, since the engine used to drive the game impressively renders every bullet in mid-air. This is a very rare occurrence for any game (most treat bullets as invisible objects to save memory), but is pretty important at selling the game’s time dilation mechanic, since you can trigger slow motion on the fly. Considering the insanity of every firefight you find yourself in, the speed at which you can move, the heap of particle effects splashed about accurate bullet rendering should probably slow the game down, but it never actually does. The result is remarkable fidelity of speed, which never breaks its pace as you blast your way from ‘bot to boss.
Speaking of bosses, you’ll often find yourself engaged with extravagant enemies that force you to exert your use of gunplay and cyber-suit abilities to the extreme. Many encounters are very well designed, and are introduced at a very solid pace, to ensure that you’ll still be seeing mostly new enemies as you progress. The “BLADE” weapons system helps you to combat such opposition and add another layer of strategy. While the acronym is basically techno-babble to explain your gun turning into different guns, it’s also a unique upgrade mechanic which rewards not using a weapon by making it more powerful, which of course then promotes that weapon’s use. It’s an interesting system that forces a lot of experimentation and tension as dying can set your weapon back a few ranks.
Despite all of these plaudits, Vanquish isn’t perfect, and annoyances and problems do occur. I encountered a few crashes, and two different progression breaks where enemies did not load into an area, or friendly AI wouldn’t move forward (forcing reboots). Cinematics cannot be skipped, so if you die repeatedly at a checkpoint that forces one, be prepared to watch the scene in its entirety multiple times. Several of Sam’s coolest moments are completely non-interactive which is a mistake common enough in shooters, but is rather aggravating here considering the game generally promotes dramatic displays of derring-do.
Perhaps the other great mistake is that though the game certainly conveys an ironic, satirical tone, it doesn’t do enough with it. In part, this is due to the game’s pace which like its protagonist, rockets along at the speed of sound and often leaves you breathless. The constant frenetic movement certainly keeps things exciting, but it does burn out a campaign that will be aggravatingly short for some (I beat it on “Hard” in about 9 hours). More importantly, though several subjects are lampooned and touched upon, it has no fundamental philosophical argument to make, other than perhaps the rather obvious “It’s bad to shoot giant lasers at cities” or the very trite “The ends do not justify the means.” It seems quite odd indeed to make allusions to great works of literature then not bring a new angle to the proceedings.
Unless of course the joke is on us as players, participating in a war that we cannot fail unless we turn the console off. It could be said that every video game is always like Pangloss’ optimistic worldview, since unlike real life, you can simply try again upon death, and all victories are pre-ordained given enough time and persistence. Maybe the commentary is about the knowledge that any story that depicts war will inherently make the subject appealing, and thus an obvious anti-war sentiment is optimism to a fault. Perhaps this interpretation is misplaced though, and I’m simply reading far too much into it. Still, by using Candide as a touchstone, Vanquish can spur one to such questions, even if it offers no resolutions.
Playful philosophical ponderings put aside, Vanquish is still a very fun game. It takes a well-worn formula and does nothing but improve upon it, while offering a visual Tour de Force and decent dose of irony. If you’re a virtual adrenaline-junkie who is looking for your next fix, Mikami and Platinum Games’ take on the wholly American shooter may be just the rocket-propelled game for you.