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Sonic Speed Review: Vanquish X360

October 29, 2010

Platinum Games have certainly clawed out a name for themselves in the Hall of Game. First came Infinite Space, Madworld, Bayonetta, and now, last in that four-game contract they signed in blood to SEGA, Vanquish; a third person shooter overflowing with Japanese flair and bubbling with what I suspect is a parody of the unassuming serious attitude the west takes to the first-person side of this genre.

In typical Platinum Games fashion, the game opens with the destruction of an American megacity by microwaves or other such sci-fi nonsense, it’s okay to just salivate at the lovely graphics through the entire first cutscene as you can catch up on the entire plot in the game’s manual. Within a few hours (or, seconds, on the players part, the world is plunged into World War 3, the American space-station Providence is invaded by Russian robots (and I still don’t understand where Russia got the money to build all those things when their country is meant to be starving, in recession and having just suffered a coup d’état) and it’s up to the United Space States Marines to save the day, lead by one of about four lead characters, Lt Colonel Burns. Oh, and Sam Gideon.

Meet Sam, the protagonist of the game and the guy whose abilities with his ARS suit (Augmented Reaction Suit) makes this third person shooter such an entertainment blitz. The ARS is Platinum Games’ version of the MJOLNIR, except it’s sleeker, fitted with the BLADE system that allows Sam to scan weapons and pop them out of his right arm Transformer-style, has six or seven rocket boosters stuck on the legs and is a lovely shade of white (see what I did there?).

There’s some more backstory with a super-genius that created the suit and the microwave super-weapon  and a pretty young genius on whose part I congratulate the developers on barely sexualising at all, even though she doesn’t really do anything that’s not in a panicked tone and is pretty much dependant on Sam it’s good to a heroine not in a body suit and/or mini-skirt, but the story itself nearly always takes a backseat to the consistent action the game keeps up. Constant action, of course, isn’t enough to say a  game is ‘good’, or, I suppose for the sake of this review, ‘fun’. What Vanquish has done has taken everything we know about the shooter genre, times it by Japan and stuck it on fast-forwarded. You’ve got all the usual abilities and orthodox button layout – shoot, melee, cover, sprint – but the ‘Japan’ element of the equation has resulted in, well, Vanquish. It’s a cover-based shooter, sure, but you don’t stay in cover for long. Either you stay on your metallic toes or eat some Argus laser. But, you don’t sprint around, you slide. By holding the appropriate emote Same drops to his knees and slides at eye-watering speeds in your given direction, getting into and out of the fray and causing wonderful damage in the space of about five seconds. Sliding forwards and kicking a giant Russian-robot monster in the jaw and then rolling into cover and buying yourself some time so your suit can cool down before repeating the three-step, satisfying tactic never gets old. The speed and its seamless execution around the other game mechanics, such as familiar but always welcome bullet time is Vanquish’s greatest strength.

As aforementioned, most gamers are likely to be seasoned in bullet-time by now. But it’s nice to see Vanquish has brought a touch of new flavour to it. This mechanic is the heart of the game and the choices you make with it will decide if you survive to the next mission or not. By evading and then holding the ‘slide’ emote has Sam enter a state of heightened reaction, so everything on screen slows to a crawl. It’s hours of fun just bagging enemy heads in this state, and then when the suit hit’s about halfway before it overheats, meaning you lose the ability to slide and enter the bullet-time, you hit the left trigger and zoom away on your knees, then release and watch Sam spin his legs in the air and land smoothly back on solid ground and ready without any lag at all to start blasting bad-guys once more. It’s not a new concept, but this shooter staple has had the bar raised.

You have the option at different points in the game to level up your weapons. By the end of it I had found my favourites to be the heavy machine gun, sniper rifle and shotgun, with the rocket launcher also levelled up, but there were plenty more options to go for. It’s too bad there couldn’t have been a visible difference with the weaponry power, but the levelling up always went towards magazine capacity or lock-on time. As it was, you probably wouldn’t need the weapons to be much stronger, as I didn’t reach any real trouble with a bad-guy until the last of the five acts, when a not-so-gobsmacking conspiracy raised its ugly head – this penultimate battle was much harder than the finale. In Vanquish’s defence however, I only played on Normal. When you’ve finished the game you acquire ‘God Hard mode’, which I have tried once and never will again. This level of difficulty is strictly for the hardcore or clinically insane and requires patience beyond my mortal abilities. The game can be completed for the casual gamer within a few days, and for this age in gaming that’s a respectable amount, and if you want to lose your hair you can extend the play-time and reduce your lifespan with the higher modes. I still went back to play a few Acts again just for fun, especially those with the more outstanding boss battles or moments. Most of the time you’re partnered with Burns and a dozen or so Marines, which mostly do nothing so you don’t have to worry about any stealing your kills and cover, but every so often Sam goes off by himself for some lone-hero time, but I found I liked these moments better, especially when they tied in with the story and Sam exploded out of nowhere to save the day.

The story itself is nice and substantial. It’s got a World War, a conspiracy, a betrayal, a discussion on moral choices and a small cast of characters that, combined with their near-constant chatter through the in-game dialogue, means you have time to connect with them even with the small focus on characterization. It took me two games to really like Master Chief, so hats off to Vanquish. The in-game dialogue isn’t irritating, but both Burns and Sam sound like they’re constantly trying to out-growl each other, and all characters good or bad are just archetypes. Sam’s the hero, Zaikev’s the sleazy bad-guy… though the latter does have a twist you only see towards the end that provides him one extra dimension of depth. But the core of Vanquish is Sam’s ARS suit and the swiftness in which it whirls you around the battlefield.

On the downside the battlefield, while a nice change from the various shades of brown that’s been inflicted on us, only really goes out of its way to look different from itself on a few occasions. A few different level designs would have been nice, this is Platinum Games so something as trivial as realism is hardly going to stop them. It does redeem itself towards the second half of the game, but I wouldn’t have minded the game to be a little bit more adventurous with its level design when trying to kill me. There’s no multiplayer function to speak of, apparently to maximise impact on the player or something, but when you think about it, with Vanquish’s speed and constant use of bullet-time would multiplayer really be applicable?

These days, all shooters have the danger of being tagged with that nightmarish label, generic, simply because there is so many of them. There isn’t much more ground to conquer… or, that’s what it seems like on the surface. There is always somewhere new to pioneer. Vanquish is an exaggeration on this genre that, in the west, might have just lost some of its sense of fun. There is a lot more to say about it, but all I can leave it with is that it is a worthy game that stands shoulder to shoulder with the rest of  Big Daddy’s of the shooter genre. The game is sleek and very nearly flawless, quick, speedy, cheeky and fun. If you’re thinking you’re going to need something after you’ve spent two hours of your life finishing Black Ops, here’s a campaign to blast you into space.

 

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