It seems like every third-person shooter plays by the same rules these days: regenerate player health and use a sticky cover system. Vanquish is no different. It's a third-person cover-based shooter and its main character regenerates his health just like the rest.
The differences, however, are in the execution.
Platinum Games took the rather pedestrian cover mechanic and made it fun again, primarily by adding a dash function. Sam Gideon (Vanquish's chain-smoking gravelly-voiced hero) dashes from one cover location to the next, turning each battlefield into a kind of pinball table, where the enemies are the Bumpers and Sam is the ball. It's a much-needed tweak to the stale cover mechanic and it effectively shows just how cowardly previous genre heroes have been in recent years. Sam jumps out at the enemies, slides/dashes on his knees (which are equipped with jet boosters, naturally), slows down time to make the perfect shots, then ends with a back-flip kick to an enemy robot 10 times his size.
In case there's any doubt, this is the definition of "bad-ass."
Of course, after such a display, Sam's suit -- which endows him with these abilities -- will overheat, forcing you to play defensively until the suit can catch its breath. This results in a surprisingly simple yet engaging offense/defense, risk/reward system. It encourages you to go balls-out aggressive, but there's always the threat of paying the price for such aggression. When your suit is overheated, you're vulnerable. If you're taking fire, you'll probably die.
Thankfully, the game makes generous use of checkpoints, so death isn't much of a problem. You'll usually start again only a few minutes back from where you died; far enough back to develop a plan to destroy that last robotic titan.
That's another of Vanquish's more impressive features: the enemies. Sure, you'll fight plenty of human-sized robots, but the real thrills come from Platinum's fearless use of larger-than-life enemies. Not ten minutes into the game, you'll battle a robot that stands roughly five stories tall. And that's just the beginning. Later in the game, you'll look back at that first giant robot and remember him as a chump because Vanquish takes enemies other games reserve for "final boss" battles, and gives them to you as common enemies.
But Vanquish is more than just dashing from cover to cover, fighting enemies who could squish you like a bug. With a stealth/sniper level, an all too short but imaginative zero gravity level (where "up" is relative to your position), and even an interactive final credits level, Vanquish keeps the game fresh despite the extremely linear design.
The story is forgettable and blessedly unnecessary. Still, if you're going to tell a story, at least mix the sound in your cutscenes well enough to allow me to hear what the characters are saying. There were a number of times when I was watching a cutscene and the music or sound effects drowned out the character voices.
Another annoying trait is the completely nonsensical collection feature. Apparently, each level has a hidden statue. If you shoot the tiny statue, it changes color, makes a weird sound, and adds to your final score at the end of the level. The statues are usually well hidden and necessitate looking in every nook and cranny to be sure you find them. The problem is, this is directly contradictory to Vanquish's key strength. The game is about moving around quickly, making the big kills, and moving on. Vanquish is at its worst when Sam is strolling around an empty scene, checking behind benches and around corners for a statue to shoot. Had Platinum Games not had this side questing collection mechanic and focused some effort on giving me mildly branching paths to take through their levels, Vanquish would have been an even better game.
Another thing that would have made Vanquish a little better is the ending. After fighting so many outlandish robotic titans, I wanted the final boss to be bigger, badder, and more intimidating than everything I've seen before. Instead, the final boss fight was decidedly underwhelming, offering little challenge and less flair than many of the preceding levels. It was, in effect, anticlimactic.
Additionally, though I can forgive Vanquish for having a throw-away story, I found the cliche characters a missed opportunity. Sam Gideon is effectively Solid Snake in mech armor. Ivanova is the cliche female child prodigy genius that permeates so many games these days. Your Marine comrade-in-arms is the "hoo-rah" military lifer we've all ran across hundreds of times in both games and movies. And there's the scientific genius with a conscience, who realizes too late that he's responsible for the horrors his inventions have brought about. There isn't an original character in this bunch, which is too bad considering how Platinum Games was able to make the tired genre fresh again. I would have liked to see them give similar treatment to their characters, even if those characters would ultimately inhabit a silly nonsense story. But then, maybe that was the point. Maybe those characters are boring copies of genre staples for a reason.
Vanquish's greatest strength is, perhaps, in how it never takes itself too seriously. It approaches its story with a self-depricating, tongue-in-cheek nonchalance. Sam cracks wise about how a specific enemy character reminds him of a "bad video game" and none of the main characters ever take the time to reflect on the larger questions posed by a superweapon orbiting Earth. Instead, Vanquish encourages players to accept the nonsense story and scenario for what it is: a vehicle to experience a ton of over-the-top action sequences. And in that, Vanquish delivers. The action is pure and gets right to the point. It's light-hearted, usually focused, and always exciting.
Game Title: Vanquish
Platform: PlayStation 3
Genre: Third-person shooter
Developer: Platinum Games
Release Date: 19th Oct 2010