Vanquish Retrospective Review
Published back in 2007, Vanquish released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 (and was later ported to PC) to a relative lack of fanfare and moderate critical acclaim.
In the years since however, the game has achieved something of a cult status, and is being looked back upon with more appreciation than it initially garnered. This is possibly due to it appearing to be just another over-the-shoulder 3rd person shooter, which were in vogue at the time of its release.
Published by SEGA and developed by Platinum Games, Vanquish is set in the not-too-distant future and plonks the player into a Russia vs USA space-battle-standoff situation. Mech suits, huge spaceships, robots and cyborgs abound in a bombastic space opera.
So is it deserving of the belated praise? Here’s the good, the bad and the mixed:
Fast and Fluid: When you start the game up, initially Vanquish does appear to be a standard cover-based third person shooter. The first couple of areas look just like something out of Gears of War, a flat area with barriers and enemies behind the cover. Things soon get interesting however, as you discover the dash move – where your jet-powered soles propel you across the flow – and ‘AR Mode’ – a state where time slows down and you’re able to aim and shoot at normal speed. It doesn’t take long before you realise that taking cover is actually best used only a last resort, and you’re better served going on the offense, chaining together dashes, melee attacks and triggering AR Mode to take down your foes. Once you get the hang of controlling Sam in this way, Vanquish feels fantastic, and represents a unique and satisfying gameplay experience.
Graphics: One of the first things that struck me when I fired up Vanquish was how good-looking it was. The detail on Sam’s suit is exquisite, with tiny different parts of the suit transforming and morphing as you do different manoeuvres. The environments and enemies also look excellent in terms of both art design and graphical fidelity. Most impressively of all, the frame-rate never drops, even in Vanquish’s most frantic moments with large amounts of bullets and enemies on screen.
Detail: I’ve just mentioned the intricacies on Sam’s suit, but Vanquish is full of little details that compound to give the impression that Platinum really put time and effort into its creation. Small things like whenever you change weapon, your arm transforms into the weapon in real-time, a cigarette bouncing away from you after you smoke it (a legitimate diversion tactic), and the animations of the enemy robots as they succumb to your fire. The action never seems to truly stop, whether it’s in the foreground or the battles going on in the background (more on this shortly). It all amounts to an impressive visual package.
No dull padding: Something I really appreciated playing through Vanquish, particularly after playing the Gears games, was the distinct lack of padding segments. Some action games are guilty of adding in long, boring walking sections devoid of actual action, presumably with the aim of building tension or developing a story. Gears of War 3 is especially guilty of this. Thankfully, Vanquish takes more of a ‘show, don’t tell’ stance to its storytelling, with skippable cutscenes and a couple of very brief walking segments punctuating an otherwise non-stop flow of action sequences.
Weapon variety and upgrades: Vanquish’s arsenal is impressive and satisfying. Whilst somewhat limited in size, no gun feels useless, with the light and heavy automatic rifles complimenting each other well, the shotgun being excellent in the short range and the sniper in the long range, and some original weapons like the lock-on laser and the disc launcher serving to keep things interesting as alternative tactical options. There’s also a unique upgrade system, which rewards you for sticking with your favourite weapons – each time you pick up that same weapon, it upgrades your current version, with plenty of upgrades to be had for each gun.
Wartime atmosphere:The vast majority of the game is spent on an O’Neill Cylinder in Earth’s orbit, which the Russians have taken over and plan to use as a weapon (I think). The game takes place during a full-scale assault on the station by the USA, and the game does really well to evoke the sense that there’s a continuous massive battle happening around you. There’s always action happening in the distance, and you feel like you’re a small part of the grander war effort.
QTEs: I never thought I’d be writing about quick time events in a The ‘Good’ section, but here we are. Vanquish somehow manages to get them right, by making them a) brief b) interesting in terms of action/graphics and c) treating them as a reward rather than the meat of the gameplay. You might spend a good ten minutes battling against a giant mech, eventually whittling its health down to single digits, to then be treated to a dramatic cinematic of Sam climbing the thing, dodging missiles at point blank range with the press of a button, and unscrewing its head via the swivel of the control stick. Using QTEs as a reward for skilled actual play is a great way to do them right.
Lots of checkpoints: The action is frantic and the difficulty level pretty high in Vanquish, and its a relief that the game is very generous with its checkpoint system, with each scene sliced up into bitesize segments that act as checkpoints, meaning if you die you’ll not lose much progress at all. Instead, the game punishes you for dying by docking you points from your score, which is a great way to keep more casual players sticking around, but also presenting an incentive to skilled players to avoid death if they’re chasing a high score.
Quick loading and seamless acts: Vanquish is also pretty sharp in the loading department, with many Acts pretty seamless in their transitioning. This also adds to the sense that you’re playing on one giant space station in one big sequence, as the Acts and Scenes will flow together with only a scoreboard flashing up quickly to punctuate them. You’ll begin the next Act where the last left off, and that really helps to knit the experience together.
Cheesy: The characterisation and script in Vanquish is incredibly over-the-top, with every character chewing the scenery to the highest degree. It’s full of overblown stereotypes and corny one-liners, and in a way it’s charming. It’ll be down to the player whether they find it off-putting or not. I didn’t mind it.
Difficulty: For some, Vanquish might feel too difficult. There are times, particularly against some of the game’s bosses, where the game feels almost unfair. Thanks to the generous checkpoint system however, the frustration rarely lasts long, and the difficulty adds to the satisfaction of clearing a stage. There are several difficulty spikes however, and the overall curve is a bit all over the place.
Sound design: Vanquish’s score is decent if a little generic, complimenting the action well enough. The voice acting, as mentioned, is very cheesy, but the actors clearly have fun with what they were given. Overall it’s nothing groundbreaking in the sound department, but it does the job.
AR mode: AR mode is a key component of the gameplay, allowing you to slow time down and react to the things happening around you. It’s as exhilarating as it is useful, often triggering at the essential time to help you get out of a scrape. The annoying part in its application however is that it can only be triggered either when you’re doing a powerslide, or if your health becomes critically low. It feels like it would’ve been sensible to allow the player to trigger the mode whenever they like, not just while sliding, as often sliding is too fast to make AR mode useful while doing it.
No multiplayer: A multiplayer mode for Vanquish feels like a no brainer, particularly after you’ve played through the campaign. Beating you own high scores just isn’t enough to keep you playing after the credits roll, and the prospect of sliding around shooting other human players is extremely appealing once you become adept at the controls. It’s a real shame that it wasn’t included.
Ambiguous scoring: As addictive as the score-chasing is, the scoring summary itself after every act is somewhat ambiguous. This is even more odd when considering Platinum’s other games, which are typically very transparent in their scoring systems. Sometimes it’s not obvious why you’ve been penalised for points, or why you’ve earned so many. Less opacity here would have gone a long way.
Stereotypical tropes: As charming as the cheesiness can be, sometimes things just go a bit too far in terms of the stereotypes. Having your assistant, Elena, giving you assistance remotely whilst the camera pans up her legs feels a bit weird, and the one-dimensional Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Burns just induces eye-roll after eye-roll with his macho gruff one-liners. Finally Sam himself is of course a young, handsome flawed rogue who plays by his own rules but deep down does the right thing. Maybe I’m looking into this all too much, but some originality would’ve been nice.
Cutscenes: This is an odd one, and perhaps it’s because the cutscenes are rendered in the in-game engine, but some of the cutscenes simply don’t look as good as the actual gameplay itself. This is isn’t helped by the fact that the gameplay looks fantastic, but it can be a bit jarring to see close-ups of poorly rendered ships flying around in a cutscene, which were clearly designed to be doing their thing in the background. Most cutscenes are pretty brief and all are skippable, so it’s just a quibble really.
Melee attack: Finally, Sam’s melee attack is somewhat flawed, in that it completely drains your suit of energy, meaning AR mode cannot be triggered. This leads to you actively avoiding using the melee attack as much as possible. This is a shame, as much of the game is in close-quarters, and it feels like a melee attack should be the least taxing offensive option, rather than the most. An odd design choice indeed.
I really, really enjoyed Vanquish, and I’d go as far as to say it’s probably my favourite third-person shooter. Super-slick gameplay, depth to the controls and excellent technical presentation amount to a really fun experience. The lack of longevity after completing the story and some lazy characterisation holds it back from true greatness, but it comes highly recommended nevertheless.