June 10

Vanquish

This is a game that more people need to play. One of those under-appreciated gems that the masses sleep on, but that has a cult underground following, and lauded by a select few for being well ahead of it’s time. Developed by Japanese outfit Platinum Games and with the legendary Japanese producer Shinji Mikami onboard and in-charge of game design, this title had the potential to be something special, and for me at least, it didn’t disappoint.

One of the finest game designers in the world today, Shinji Mikami
Mikami is famous for many notable works, but most famously it was the Resident Evil series that brought him international acclaim and praise. After popularising the survival-horror genre with the first title, he also had the knack and game design nous to be able to reboot the franchise entirely with Resident Evil 4, a game that stands at the very forefront of videogame perfection and remains to this day as one of the finest titles ever created.

RE4 was one of the first games to use a behind the shoulder camera perspective with  a hybrid of third and first person controls. It had the unique facet of keeping the player’s character in view at all times whilst also allowing much of the gamefield to be visible at the same time. This simple combination was an absolute winner and has subsequently been copied and re-used by numerous titles including famously, the Gears of War franchise. Vanquish then is clearly Mikami’s evolution of the RE4’s gameplay system. It keeps the same basic camera and control system but adds an absolute shit-ton of gameplay enhancements and nuances that make it an absolute joy to play.

Sliding around on your knees with a jet emanating from the back of your suit. Yeah, this is a Japanese game.
One feature that both RE4 and GOW share is that they are somewhat ponderous in nature. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact it’s deliberate as in both titles it is core to other game experiences. In RE4 it adds to the tension and drama of being hounded by various unmentionable terrors, and in GOW it is key to the cover-based gameplay system of navigating between one safe spot to another to stay alive when encountering the enemy. Vanquish deviates from this path by being totally balls-to-the-wall frenetic in pace and action. Sam Gideon, the protagonist of the game possesses the Augmented Reaction Suit (ARS) that enables him amongst other things, to boost around on his knees across the game floor. This means that the player is capable of moving around any given area incredibly quickly, and the overall game design is structured to that the player NEEDS to keep doing this in order to stay alive.

Vanquish also introduces the Max-Payne style bullet-time slowdown to the shoulder camera shooter genre, trigger-able by the player at any time whilst they have enough power in their suit to do so. Though not a totally a novel feature, it absolutely compliments the ability to boost around the play area and fast-paced nature of the game by allowing the player to slow-down the game and give them a moment to think. Something which in this game, is a luxury one is not often afforded.

One of the things I love about this game is the absolutely relentless nature of the action. Bullets literally fly everywhere and the player has almost no respite from the enemy at all. Even being in cover is unsafe, as after hiding behind it for a short while, cover can be destroyed by enemy attacks and AI that knows to flank you and sucker you out from any hiding places. This means that as soon as you do get into cover, you have to immediately think about the next place you can safely move to as your current position is under threat from the moment you get there.

It’s here where slow-motion shows it coup de grace, as jumping out of cover is usually followed by activating slow-motion, allowing you to peg a few enemies before traversing to the next safe spot you plan to move to. This allows for some absolutely epic moments, such as jumping over cover, reaching for a sniper rifle and pegging an enemy on the opposite side of the playfield with a head shot in slow-motion whilst in mid-air. And it makes you feel like an absolute bad-ass. This is an entirely unscripted affair, meaning that the player is encouraged to find all manner of similar style tricks and gimmicks to defeat enemies. One of my absolute favorite tricks is to throw a grenade, then activate slow-mo and SHOOT IT DOWN IN MID-AIR to take down an entire legion of bogies by surprise.

Vanquish, though visually looking like a very western game shows many nuances that make it recognizably Japanese in terms of gameplay. One such trick is to weapon change cancel in order to speed up your rate of fire and to avoid the downtime on certain weapons. For example, you can fire a Rocket Launcher which normally has a long recharge time and then immediately switch via the d-pad to a fast firing weapon such as the Heavy Machine Gun to keep your onslaught going. You can also do the same when reloading, so rather than waiting for a gun to fully reload, you can cancel into another weapon. Time it right and you can start reloading a weapon, switch to another gun, fire that gun a few times, then switch back to the original weapon you were reloading and fire that, all in the space of a few seconds, with no let up of you firing assault.

The lethal Disk Cutter, a great example of balance between ranged and close-combat usage

Unlike RE4 or GOW, Vanquish also adds a whole new layer to the Melee system that appears in both of those games. Each weapon in Vanquish has a melee attack, and each differs from one another. The Shotgun for example, causes Sam to perform a backflip and gives him some airtime. Thus it’s possible to run up to an enemy, hit them with a backflip, then activate slow-motion in mid-air during the flip and fire the Shotgun, or even switch to another weapon. You can use this strategy for all sorts of tricks such as taking out an enemy in cover by melee attacking an enemy nearby. Weapons are also balanced beautifully, with weapons with great firepower generally having weak melee attacks, and vice versa. The Disk Cutter, for example, is poor as a ranged weapon, but up close it acts like a Chainsaw and can rip enemies (including bosses) to shreds in seconds.

Weapons and slow-mo usage are tied to a meter that is part of the ARS suit. Thus using too much slow-mo or too many melee attacks at once depletes your suit’s energy and causes it to go into overheating mode, where you are no longer able to use either function. Interestingly this is also tied to Sam’s health, so if you take too much damage, the suit will also overheat, meaning that when in the thick of things, one overheat can mean a quick death. This certainly adds to the challenge of the game, especially at harder levels where your suit overheats twice as fast. This means that the player has to really think about when and where he can use the suit’s abilities although in a strange way also discourages players with less skill from using the suit in the first place. Certainly this game seems to have a big divide between people who don’t see anything special in Vanquish, and those that swear by it. I feel that those that were unimpressed with the title probably just played the game in a GOW style, rather than playing the game it was “meant to be played.”

One of the most fascinating things I find about Vanquish from a design standpoint is the “purity” of the weapons system in game. RE4 featured the Merchant which meant that all weapons were upgradable, making them more powerful and allowing them to carry more ammunition the deeper into the game you got. This meant that the difficulty and number of enemies could increase and still give the player a good chance of progressing, a very common and very successful to balance a game whilst providing additional challenge and interest. Vanquish has a limited upgrade system in Normal mode, and is not present at all in Hard or God Hard modes. In normal mode, upgrade cubes are sometimes spawned from select enemies. Upgrading a weapon normally has a fixed effect, such as increasing the damage or capacity of a weapon. Interestingly, the player can choose which weapon they want to upgrade simply by switching to a specific weapon before collecting the cube. Thus one can opt to favour one weapon throughout the game, or mix and match if they prefer. Additionally, weapons also upgrade if you collect another of the same weapon, if you are already at maximum capacity for that weapon (and only if you are maximum capacity).  Therefore it’s possible to start the game and not use a weapon such as the shotgun at all, meaning that every time you find one, it upgrades, allowing you to reach the maximum upgrade spec for a weapon quickly.

In Hard and God Hard modes, this no longer applies, meaning that the player effectively must use the same weaponry throughout the game. No New Game+ options or re-using fully boosted equipment from the start of the game here. This makes for a phenomenal challenge for the player but is also testament to fantastic game, enemy and level design. Everytime a player starts the game, they are effectively already in possession of all of the tools they need to complete the game, and it’s down to the player’s skill and strategy that determines whether they are successful or not.  Considering that many members of the Vanquish team worked on titles such as Devil May Cry, RE4 and Bayonetta, this is a really surprising design choice. When playing through the game it genuinely surprised me that there was never an option to upgrade the ARS suit / weapons through collectable in-game currency. Each of these aforementioned games uses such a system, which means that new types of gameplay are locked out from the player until later in the game. 

In some ways I think Vanquish would have had even more to offer by utilising such a system, but the fact that it does not means that the game is an absolute showcase of fantastic design and how using the basic tools in a strict and specified game system can still lead to a myriad of gameplay possibilities. This is best shown in the Tactical Challenges offered to the player once they complete the main game. There are just 6 on offer, but these challenges are so insanely fun and challenging that I feel they actually offer more gameplay that the story mode itself. Once a player masters the game, these challenges which are initially very hard can be made to look really easy and are a great showcase of player skill.

Ultimately it’s a real shame that this game did not perform well at retail. Many of the gameplay systems and features will inevitably end up in newer games and I am sure that some title in the future will take the glory for the implementation of some of these gameplay mechanics, despite Vanquish having implemented them first. Resident Evil 6, no longer directed by Mikami of course, already looks to have stolen the ability to roll from side-to-side and to slide into and out of cover. I feel that the rather generic story of Vanquish and the short play-through time probably lead to review scores around the 8/10 mark. A shame, because although it’s easily possible to complete the game first time round in less than 5 hours, it’s 5 hours of absolutely unrelenting non-stop action that grips you by the balls. Vanquish is a great example of quality over quantity then, and it’s a game that deserves to have done much better.

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