Platinum Games is not the most well-known developer, but the studio is mostly comprised of former Capcom employees, including Shinji Mikami, the man responsible for games such as Resident Evil, and Hideki Kamiya, best known for Devil May Cry and Okami. In short, they're some amazingly talented people, and their games have been pretty interesting thus far. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the ridiculous action game Bayonetta, which many claim is the best of the genre that Devil May Cry started. Bayonetta's over-the-top visuals and strange sense of humor made it tough for Western audiences to buy. Platinum's newest game, Vanquish, seems more geared toward American buyers. While this means it is less ridiculous, it doesn't mean that the action for which Platinum is known has gone away. It may not be Bayonetta, but Vanquish still isn't a run-of-the-mill third-person shooter.
Vanquish is set in the not-so-distant future. The energy crisis on Earth has become critical, and nations are struggling to find a way to stay afloat. America decided to build a gigantic orbiting space station that absorbs light from the sun and beams it to a station on Earth. It turns out that other nations are not so happy about America monopolizing the world's most abundant source of power. In particular, Russia turns the space station's AI defenders against the Americans, hijacks the collector, and turns the powerful beam of solar energy on San Francisco, destroying it in an instant. Now it is up to a group of soldiers, including the main character Sam, to take back the station and prevent Russia from using it for even more deadly attacks.
Vanquish, as with many post-Halo shooters, has you playing as a marine in a special suit of power armor. In this case, it's a suit equipped with the Blade weapon system, a special high-velocity movement system, and the Augmented Reaction defensive system. Unlike other shooter heroes, Sam doesn't pick up his enemy's weapons. Instead, his suit scans them, and his nanotechnology Blade weapon can transform into any of the weapons he's scanned. You can only have a few weapons scanned at a time but can switch between them instantly. Scanning a weapon you've already scanned will increase the ammo for your current weapon and slowly begin to upgrade it. The more you use a weapon, the more powerful it gets. A heavy machine gun, for example, will gain additional ammunition capacity as it levels up, while a rocket may get additional attack power. Since you're upgrading a scanned weapon and not an actual weapon, these upgrades are persistent. Exchange your scan of a machine gun for that of a plasma cannon, and you'll still retain the machine gun's upgrades if you get one later.
The game seems to have a good selection of weapons, although most are traditional shooter types. The shotgun, heavy machine gun and rocket launcher function exactly as you'd expect, or at least they do at the lower levels that we saw. There are some neat gimmick weapons, like the FLE Gun that shoots a giant burst of plasma, but most seem straightforward. There are also classic frag grenades, which can be used to blow up enemies, or EMP grenades, which stun robotic enemies and make them vulnerable to your other weapons. Sam's super suit also gives him enhanced strength, so he can perform powerful melee attacks and bounce off enemies before shooting them in the head.
Sam's super armor is equipped with jets that let him basically rocket around the stage at will by "skating" along the ground on his knees. It's strange but really neat in motion. You can move very quickly while still fighting, allowing you to battle enemies with high mobility or move from cover to cover in ways that would make Marcus Fenix drool. This means that combat is very fast, especially when combined with the suit's Augmented Reaction system.
The AR system allows you to slow down time for brief moments under certain conditions. You can slow time when you're boosting around or dodging attacks, almost like Bayonetta, but far more controllable. Your AR slow time, which is represented by a meter on Sam's back, allows you to blast enemies while moving at very high speeds. The suit's HUD will even display weak points to target on an enemy. Using AR mode is slightly risky because it's passive. When Sam gets in a bad situation, it will activate automatically, giving him a few moments to run away. Since a badly damaged Sam can't boost until his health regenerates, this is the only way to save yourself if you're in bad shape. If you've wasted all your AR offensively, though, you'll be without it when Sam is getting torn to pieces by enemy fire.
The AR system and boost system are not required elements of the game, but they encourage players to be the best they can. If you choose to play Vanquish like a cover shooter, it has a lot of familiar elements. The cover mechanics are quick and smooth, and you have access to the usual tricks: blind fire, dive out from cover, throw grenades and generally play the game like Gears of War. It's not the best way to play, though, since you'll be trapped and vulnerable in situations where mobility could be your greatest asset. You have some neat gimmicks that allow you to move away from cover. Pressing LB while Sam is behind cover causes him to pop off his mask for a moment and light a cigarette. After a moment, he'll toss the cigarette into the air, attracting the enemy's attention. Doing this is not only stylish, but it's also a great way to draw away enemy fire.
Sam isn't alone on the space station, although he's by far the biggest and baddest marine. Other soldiers are available to serve as helpers. This isn't a squad-based game, and the soldiers are not under your command, but they're basically helpful AI sidekicks. If you keep them alive, they'll draw fire and damage foes. We saw a group of AI soldiers take down a large enemy while Sam was busy with other matters, which is pretty surprising. These AI pals can be injured or killed, and while you don't technically have to keep them alive, the game encourages you to do so. Going to a downed or injured ally and reviving him will reward you with items and return the soldier to the fight. Sam can also hurt his own allies, which means you might want to be careful with those grenades.
At the end of every stage, you're graded on how well you did. This includes how much time you spent behind cover, how many enemies you killed, and how many allies you protected. While you don't need a good score to finish the stage, it's likely that players will be encouraged to get the best scores they can. Platinum's other games, like Bayonetta, were strongly based on earning the highest possible score, and it seems that Vanquish will be the same way. Players can get through the game without ever bothering with a high score, but it's likely that you'll play stages over and over again to see everything that the game has to offer.
When Bayonetta was released, the PS3 version was notably different from the Xbox 360 iteration. The visuals were almost universally worse, and the frame rate was noticeably lower. On top of that, loading issues plagued the game, and while a patch was eventually added, it still left gamers feeling sour about the inferior version. Sega has promised that Vanquish will be a true multi-system game. Platinum is working on both versions and promised that it'll be optimized to run at the best possible setting on both systems. Both the PS3 and 360 versions were shown at E3, and there was little difference between the two.
Vanquish is an interesting addition to the third-person cover shooter genre. Games like Gears of War established the rules, and while most games are willing to bend those rules a little, they rarely break them. Vanquish comes close to throwing the rule book out the window. While cover is an option, the game encourages you to spend as little time as possible behind a wall, when you could instead be zooming around the battlefield and blasting enemies in slow motion. It's a very odd take on a well-defined genre, but it has the potential to stand out while still being accessible to fans of Gears and similar titles. Hopefully, Platinum can continue its reputation for high-quality games and provide an interesting new take on the third-person shooter genre.
More articles about Vanquish