Not nearly enough games encourage or feature rock power-slides these days. Sure, you could bust one out while riding the intoxicating high that follows solving a particularly vexing Scribblenauts puzzle but unless your floor is solid oak buffed to a concert piano sheen and you happen to be sporting your favourite PVC catsuit, you’ll be participating in some involuntary high-velocity coffee table/eye socket interfacing before you can say “YouTube sensation.”
That’s where Japanese developers Platinum Games have got your back, front, top, bottom, and miscellaneous appendages with their latest offering, Vanquish.
A third-person cover shooter, Vanquish casts you as Sam Gideon, a US Department of Defence researcher who is sent with a team of elite soldiers to secure a solar-powered space station seized and sabotaged by an unscrupulous Soviet sect.
However, some awkward, egg-headed poindexter you ain’t – this wee excursion provides you the perfect opportunity to trade bullets with baddies, jibes with a hardass Lieutenant-Colonel, and wistful glances (over a com-link at least) with some hottie in tech support. But most importantly, you accomplish all of the above while power-sliding about the place at terminal velocity like a rocket-propelled Pete Townshend.
This ability is all thanks to your Augmented Reality Suit, an Iron Man-like exoskeleton which also allows you to enter bullet-time and melee like Bruce Lee. While these features are hardly new to the genre, they’ve never been incorporated into a game as seamlessly or as awe-inspiringly as they are here. You can dive out from behind cover, power-slide at warp speed between a giant robot’s legs while emptying a clip into its vulnerable bits, engage bullet time, weave between clouds of now-stationary bullets and missiles, switch to your sniper rifle and neatly remove the heads from a handful of enemies prior to boosting back into cover. Such manoeuvres are common as air and – thanks to tight controls – executed as naturally as breathing.
But it’s not all just for show. The game demands that you utilise these mechanics often just to remain on the right side of the existence ledger, and you frequently find yourself in the role of demented timelord, stretching and compressing that oppressively steady construct like an accordion as you pick out weak points on enemies and make mad dashes away from hailstorms of bullets.
Besides which, doing so looks absolutely awesome. I defy anyone to walk into the room while you are playing and not spurt out something along the lines of “Holy balls,” regardless of their age. Play it in your nursery and those could well be wee Mario McPacman’s first words. Just make sure you have your camcorder ready.
Beyond the ‘wow’ factor of bullet time, the game as a whole is gorgeous. The cutscenes look great and their direction is terrific. Battles are widescreen, chaotic affairs, yet backgrounds remain detailed and breathtaking. The ring world you inhabit for most of the game offers spectacular vistas of infinite space and of crumbling futuristic civilisations. Populated with well-animated enemies and lit by city-sized explosions, it’s pure spectacle even before you unholster your assault rifle.
Like many alluring things, however, it’s also dangerous. Despite your ARS-enhanced abilities and a healthy stockpile of weapons, you’re far from invincible. Vanquish conjures ‘90s Neo-Geo button-masher shooters in that at any one moment there are large swarms of enemies in your vicinity, they aren’t particularly gun-shy, and they have brought their larger older brothers along just in case ol’ slidey gets a bit cocky.
In addition, there are a number of enemy weapons that place you on or over the precipice of death in one shot and you are rarely assaulted from fewer than two sides at once. Cover is destructible and your ARS overheats if you do too much of the aforementioned slo-mo slide-killin’ without respite. All this makes formulating a solid strategy in the heat of battle an imperative, and managing your suit temperature and ammo crucial.
There are a welcome variety of weapons in Vanquish, and the usual suspects are all present including frag and EMP grenades. But there are also some innovative new guns to play with, like the LFE which fires an unstoppable but not especially powerful glowing orb through enemies and scenery alike, or the lock-on laser, which rains down crystalline death on large numbers of enemies at once. Tellingly, there are no pistols – there’s no time for something so ineffective. All weapons can be levelled up by collecting upgrade orbs or by picking up ammo for them when they are already at capacity, and doing so increases their range, damage and clip size.
There are a number of distinctive enemies to destroy too, including transforming robots, tanks bristling with guns and with legs instead of tracks, mini-bosses that look like Dinobots, and some ludicrously massive level-closing monsters, who tend to alternately fill the screen with missiles or send nasty one-hit kill attacks your way.
In typical Japanese style, there are also some really unique enemies, like a sword-wielding angel made of crystal, or a tiny orb that gathers scrap metal around itself and shape shifts into various animals.
Vanquish certainly gets all the big things right, but the small touches are what make it phenomenal. If your squad mates wander into your line of fire, Sam yells “Get outta the way!” and they duck. Your remaining ammo gauge is handily accessible right next to your crosshair and yet is unobtrusive. Your radar highlights enemies, guns and teammates and is clear even at a glance. Large enemies react to being shot, which is satisfying. Using bullet time, you can shoot missiles just as they have left an enemy’s cannon, and the resulting explosion damages them. Turrets run out of ammo. If you shoot the legs out from an enemy they drag themselves towards you like the Terminator.
You can loot the battleground after you complete a level so you never regret not hoarding weapons when the bullets are flying. There is even a minigame to play as the credits roll.
Vanquish also features something sorely lacking in third person shooters: a sense of humour. The voice acting is hilariously over the top, particularly the gruff pirate-channelling Lieutenant, and there are plenty of cheesy one-liners and witty nods to other shooting games. For instance, aping Gears of War’s macho “This’ll do” when picking up a weapon, Sam instead politely offers “Not what I was after, but it’ll do”. At one point a shocked marine exclaims “They wanna win just as much as we do!”
It’s a shame that many will write these things off as a Japanese developer misunderstanding Western culture because they’re clearly included with tongue firmly embedded in cheek. There are also some welcome swipes at US foreign policy, Halliburton and the Iraq War.
Unfortunately Vanquish is short - about six to seven hours on first play through – and there isn’t a swathe of bonus content. That said, this is the only game I have ever completed and immediately restarted, ever. One play through is simply not enough, and besides, clocking the game unlocks “God Hard” mode, which I daresay will add substantially to the aforementioned play time.
The only option other than the campaign is a Horde-style challenge mode, which, frankly, is accurately titled. I’m not too proud to say that my life expectancy in challenge mode thus far has been briefer than the average sneeze, but – like sneezing – has been extremely fun.
The only other criticisms that can be scraped together and levelled against Vanquish are that often in cutscenes Sam is doing awesome stuff that I wish I had a hand in controlling, and that you can only throw grenades a fixed distance (“really far away”).
But I can’t in good conscience fault anything else. Platinum Games have created a boisterous, arcadey, astounding shooter that makes the competition seem an uninspired grind by comparison.
Play it immediately.