It was about halfway through the campaign of Vanquish, the latest third-person shooter from Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, when I fully realized that the game was exceptionally cool. As hero Sam Gideon crouched quietly on a platform that crept through the pulsating innards of a reactor, a strong techno bass pounded out in the background to compliment the reactor's dull howls. At that moment, I stopped and realized just how sweet most moments in Vanquish are. This is more than just a sci-fi shooter -- Vanquish emphasizes style and skill just as much as explosions and gunfire.
Vanquish, the fourth title from the talented developers at Platinum Games, is an incredibly fast-paced title. It takes place on an orbital space station called Providence, which has been taken over by a Russian extremist group known as the Order of the Russian Star.
The station, which takes advantage of microwave energy, is weaponized by the extremists and turned on San Francisco, which is devastated by the attack. In response, the United States dispatches a full fleet to stop the extremists from continuing their assault on New York. Joining the military retaliation is DARPA researcher Sam Gideon, who comes equipped with the ARS battle suit. Officially, Sam is accompanying the military to gather Intel on the suit's performance on the field, but secretly Sam is conducting a rescue operation to locate the captive Professor Candide, creator of the energy system that powers the space station and the ARS suit.
To me, this all sounds like fairly interesting (albeit traditional) sci-fi story-telling, but the plot is one of Vanquish's weakest parts. I'll touch on that in more detail later, but luckily the game's fantastic action and unique twists on third-person shooting keep it extremely entertaining from start to finish.
When it comes to actual gunplay, Vanquish is similar to Western-developed shooters and it's rock solid. Sam will come across several different weapon types during his mission on Providence, including classics like the assault rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher, and sniper rifle. There are more intriguing weapons to be found, however, including a lock-on laser that fires beams of light skyward, and a low-frequency device that fires energy through walls. All these weapons are fun to use and useful in specific combat situations.
There's a responsive cover system in place that requires a quick button press to lock against a wall or sandbag. This cover system works really well and is vital to staying alive, because Vanquish is a very hard game. In fact, it's shockingly difficult fairly early on, especially if you're playing on Normal or Hard mode. When you take enough damage and you're close to death, Sam's ARS suit kicks in and slows down time, giving players a chance to actually dodge bullets and run desperately to cover. Usually there's always somewhere to hide or regroup, so deaths are generally human error and not the result of unfair balancing.
Players should note, however, that a lot of boss enemies in Vanquish have instant kills, which can be extremely frustrating. Despite how harsh an instant death is, I'll admit that they were just as fair as any other part of the game. Bosses broadcast their moves before executing them, giving players time to react. These broadcasts (which might look like a "rearing back" or a flash of light) are also generally accompanied by an audio queue, which means even if you don't have a line of sight with the boss you can keep track of what it's doing.
Some people that tackle Vanquish just won't like the instant kill mechanic, but I think it added a fantastic sense of urgency and danger to the battle. It keeps you on your toes, which is always good when so much is happening on screen.
Vanquish feels almost like a high-energy, arcade-style game, thanks to these pattern-based boss encounters. This feeling is enhanced by the score tally which is always displayed on the side of the screen. Taking down enemies will earn you points which are added up in real-time and even labeled, so you know what sort of reward you're getting for taking down a particular type of robo-baddie. Even though it's just a number, I always felt strangely satisfied as I watched an enemy explode into a cacophony of pieces which caused my score to jump.
Vanquish also boasts a simple upgrade system for weapons, a system that encourages players to manage their inventory intelligently. Once in a while, an enemy will drop an upgrade cube. Grabbing it will level-up whatever weapon Sam is currently holding (he can carry three at a time, along with two grenade types). Each weapon can be powered up around ten times before being maxed out. These upgrades enhance the weapons maximum ammo capacity, as well as its attacking power. Picking a weapon up off the ground when you already have full ammo for it will put a chevron mark on the weapon's icon. Doing this three times will result in a full power-up. This upgrade system gave me something to work towards, besides a high score, and I always love the feeling of improving my character.
Of course, the most notable difference between Vanquish and other third-person shooters is the boosting mechanic. Sam's ARS suit is equipped with a (ridiculous) set of thrusters that allow him to move around the battlefield at insane speeds. This boosting mechanic serves several purposes. First, it makes moving from one piece of cover to the next much easier and gets Sam out of danger in a pinch. Second, it helps speed Sam through levels to help leaderboard junkies get faster completion times, which helps improve a player's overall score.
All of these various gameplay mechanics work great and they're a lot of fun to employ, but one of my favorite aspects of Vanquish is the absurd collection of action set pieces to be found during the campaign. Although the overarching aesthetic of the Providence space station is the same throughout the game's five acts, some of the settings in Vanquish blew my mind. Sam will find himself battling on massive cybernetic hills where buildings fall around him, high-speed trains that spin upside down mid-combat, entire highways that crumble away under his feet, and more. Part of the thrill of Vanquish is seeing what sort of crazy structures you'll fight your way through next.
The entire campaign can be completed in approximately six to seven hours, so it's not a particularly long game. Thankfully, the developers included special challenge levels where players fight wave after wave of enemies in search of a high score. This is great for replay value, as the mode focuses on pure combat and chasing points.
A special note must also be made regarding Vanquish's visuals. Although the organic settings like trees and foliage aren't quite as pretty as I'd like, the hyper-tech backgrounds of this shooter are stunning. Constantly moving parts, blinking lights, and jets of compressed air can all be found on Sam's suit alone.
Despite all the fantastic things going on in Vanquish, there are some disappointing aspects to the experience. Although the story does an adequate job in stringing along one action set piece to another, the overall plot is lackluster and fails to engage on the same level as other similar stories of war and the soldiers that wage them. This is a shame, because the frantic action of Vanquish would have been even more addicting had it been supported by an urgent, character-driven narrative.
The characters in Vanquish, similarly, fail to grow emotionally during the campaign, and although I was fond of Sam and his support operative Elena, there wasn't enough to capture my interest. Ultimately these problems don't interfere with the blissful action, but it would have been nice if they helped support the gameplay more effectively.