In this console generation, most companies seem to follow a formula for third-person shooters. According to that formula, the game must feature a cover system and give the player a cool set of devastating weapons. The game must also feature one or more online modes and, if possible, a co-op mode that must be playable online but can have the option for offline play. Whether the game ends up being good or bad, most third-person shooters seem to follow this formula. The team at Platinum Games, known for Bayonetta from earlier this year, also wanted to take a crack at the genre. They seemed to have taken a look at the unofficial blueprint for third-person shooters and changed it to their liking. There's still a cover system in place and there are cool weapons to use, but any hint of co-op or adversarial online multiplayer has vanished. Vanquish is a strictly single-player affair, so does it have enough to sway gamers away from their multiplayer matches?
The story, though new, feels like a throwback to an '80s film. In the latter half of the 21st century, Earth is wrought with overpopulation. In an effort to curb the need for more food and energy, humans start populating a space colony, which also serves as a more efficient means of sending solar energy to Earth. As conditions on Earth grew worse, radical shifts in government affected the colony's behavior. There's a coup in Russia, and the coup leader took control of the colony. Calling itself the Russian Star, the militant group turned the solar energy array aboard the colony into a large solar cannon and lay waste to all of San Francisco, demanding the surrender of the U.S. government in the process. With 10 hours to go before New York becomes the next target, DARPA agent Sam Gideon and a battalion of American soldiers storm the station and hope to put a stop to the new and powerful threat.
Eventually, you realize that the story has no real bearing on the game experience. There are a few twists to the tale, starting with the kidnapping of your professor and whispers of a mole in your army, but things never get deeper than that. There are a few lines of dialogue that are meant to show how tough everyone is, but they end up being laughable since it's the same bravado you've heard countless times before. Then there are the lines that show the staff isn't taking the story seriously, like a soldier's response once you free him from some bindings. In short, the story merely feels like it's a vehicle for the action pieces — and you'll find plenty of those.
Vanquish takes on the traits common to any third-person shooter on the market. Sam can only carry a limited amount of weapons at a time (three) along with two different grenade types and, of course, a melee attack that differs depending on the weapon being held. Sam wears a special suit of armor that's equipped with the Blade weapon system, a special high-velocity movement system, and the Augmented Reaction defensive system, which is a form of bullet-time that can be activated from a dodge or when his health runs low. He can't jump, but he can take cover behind just about any object and leap over it, if it isn't too high. Sam can dive and roll to get away from attacking enemies or to dodge incoming ordnance. Grenade throws have no visible arc before they're thrown, so players have to perform more accurate throws with some trial and error. There's also a lack of blind fire; Sam simply peeks out of cover to attack. Older gamers may remember these being normal mechanics in a third-person shooter, but younger ones may find these removals a bit startling.
The standard gameplay mechanics work well and stand out in a positive way. The biggest addition is the run mechanic, which has been transformed into a boosted slide because of the jets on the suit. Not only does the assisted slide add an element of cool, but it's also more maneuverable since you can slide in any direction during the boost without stopping. This is very different from games like Gears of War, where running only lets you sway a little outside of a straight path and a big directional change means stopping and turning in the desired direction before running again.
You come across a myriad of guns in the game, and you can upgrade them. Picking up upgrade chips or grabbing the same weapons when their respective ammo is full results in upgrades like more ammunition and more power per shot, so it's worthwhile to pick up everything you see just so you always have the most powerful version of your favorite weapon. Finally, there's the option to take a smoke break while behind cover. While that might sound like a silly addition to your arsenal, you can use it to your advantage by distracting robots with a thrown lit cigarette, showing that there is at least one benefit to having a smoker in a video game.
There is only one real concern with Vanquish: the gameplay length. On normal difficulty, the game takes between six to eight hours to finish for very experienced gamers. Six acts are split into several stages, but the experience ends before you want it to. The good news is that the fights are tons of fun. Whether you're going after a small battalion of Russian robots or one of the big bosses, each fight never feels like a cakewalk unless you're playing on easy. A few enemies stand around waiting to be shot, but some employ flanking tactics and others activate a self-destruct mechanism if you put them close to death without finishing them off. There are plenty of moments where you'll come close to death or die outright, so things are tense because you don't have too many opportunities to simply stand behind cover. There are also plenty of moments where you'll revel in your abilities and enjoy sliding and rolling from spot to spot, dispatching every robot along the way before they have a chance to take a shot at you. You could also slow down time so you can shoot rockets from the air or throw a few back at the enemy. In a way, the complaint about the gameplay length only exists because the combat is too enjoyable and you don't want the experience to end.
The sound, while good, becomes the weakest part of the game. The effects are rather good, with the prerequisite loud explosions and gunfire booming at a breakneck pace. Gamers who are playing with Dolby Digital systems will benefit the most since the chaos envelops you and helps with immersion. During the few quiet moments, you'll hear a slightly muted techno electronic soundtrack that amplifies the action by not being overwhelming. The score is quite good, but if you aren't a fan of the genre, you won't hate it since it is never too loud to be noticeable.
The voices are a weak audio aspect. The voice work isn't the issue, as the delivery is good thanks to some veteran voice actors. The ham-fisted dialogue, however, constantly reminds you to not take it too seriously. The multiple audio options from Japanese to English to major European languages make it so that the game sounds exotic enough. However, most people sound the same in the English track. In particular, Sam and the veteran military leader Robert Burns sound alike, even though they are voiced by two different actors. Considering how many scenes the characters have together, especially early on in the game, it might have been a better decision to have a different-sounding actor for one of the characters.
The graphics are close to superb. The character models look great, and while Sam's suit gets all of the attention due to its sleek futuristic look, it also sports some great details, like scuffs and scratches, after a few big battles. The same can be said for the robots, especially some of the larger bosses, where pistons and gears are clearly visible on their joints. The animations are much more impressive. Each action is smooth, from shooting out of cover to robot pieces flying after an explosion, but it's the suit that takes center stage. Seeing the grenades slide out of the leg is a nice touch as opposed to them simply appearing out of nowhere. The gun's transformations from one weapon to another never cease to amaze.
The real winners are the particle effects and the frame rate. Just about every second of the game is filled with sparks showering from Sam as he skates across metal floors or smoke billowing from destroyed ships. Bullets litter the screen from every direction, and there is rarely a time when something isn't in danger of exploding. Despite all of this and the speed in which Sam can move around the area, the frame rate holds at a steady 30 fps without fluctuating. At a time when some of the best games can slow down with too much happening on-screen, it's refreshing to see a game that holds a steady frame rate without dropping textures or screen-tearing in the midst of battle. If there is a complaint, it would be with the lip-synching during the times when the HUD displays a picture of the speaker. Almost every time, you can catch the lips continue to move even when there's no dialogue. It is a small blemish to the rest of the graphical package, but it is noticeable.
The controls are pretty easy to use, and that's a big feat considering how chaotic everything can get. The basics are there, with the left trigger aiming, the right trigger shooting, and the right bumper reloading. The cover and dive mechanics are placed on two different buttons, so the A button lets you dive while the X button becomes contextual, used for taking cover on barriers and for kicking open crates or manning turrets and vehicles. The B button is for melee attacks, the Y button is for grenade throws, and the left bumper is for jet boosts and ARS mode when you're coming out of a dodge roll or dive. The layout works well and makes it so that it is easy to start boosting into a wall and taking cover without pause. One thing that is different has to do with the d-pad selection of weapons. Grenade types are changed by hitting left instead of down, while the other directions change out your gun type. Aside from that change, there are no complains for the control scheme.
Despite the length of the game, Vanquish is a delight to play. While the sound could have been punched up a bit, especially with the voices, no one will argue that the game controls well and looks amazing. The story may be passable, but the sheer fun of blitzing all over the battlefield as you dispatch waves of enemy robots never gets old, and the bosses only amplify the fun factor. Unless you are a stickler for having game experiences last in the double-digit range, you should purchase Vanquish and make it a permanent part of your gaming library.
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