Vanquish (2010, PS3)

By catstronaut / May 24, 2013

To feel let down by the opening hour of Vanquish is completely natural. Coming from Shinji Mikami, the action-game auteur responsible for Biohazard 4 and God Hand, a certain level of finesse is expected, and Vanquish seems to miss the mark. Granted, the graphics are stylized and detailed, the controls responsive and on-point, the enemies sleek and smart and varied. But there’s a sense of malaise — would the gaming god of up-close action really make such a me-too cover shooter, one in which players hide rather than approach, taking pot-shots at enemy AI over waist-high cover?

   Of course not.
   Vanquish seems, at first glance and touch, like Gears of War. The trappings are a little different, with Russian robots and mechs taking the place of Gears’ monstro-humanoid Locust forces. But there’s the same burly space marines, the same assault and sniper rifles, the same waist-high cover to crouch behind.
   Spending more time with it, though, Vanquish is pure Platinum, mechanically grounded by Shinji Mikami’s sublime direction. After enough frustration at being put down by enemy after enemy, players naturally experiment with the system.
   The feeling that something’s amiss builds up slowly. Main character Sam Gideon can boost around levels at incredible speeds, which feels a little excessive when rocketing from cover to cover. Time slows down when Sam takes critical damage, a wasted mechanic when he can simply duck back to heal. But what really feels off is the game’s difficulty. The enemies are too far away, and each shot feels meaningless, hopeless.
   Shots will connect and kill, but rarely does Sam make any meaningful progress — until players begin using Sam’s Augmented Reaction Suit to its full potential. Players can slow down time at will, but only when performing a dodge-roll or jumping over cover. It’s strange, at first, to maneuver away from safety and into the fray. But it works.
   It soon becomes clear that no, Vanquish is not a me-too cover shooter. It’s even the antithesis of that style, finding its heart as much in Devil May Cry and Bayonetta as anything else. Sam boosts around the battlefield, hops over enemy cover, engages bullet time, and unloads a clip directly into his robotic enemies. This is incredibly personal combat, often feeling more like melee combat than projectile warfare.
   And that’s when they learn that Vanquish isn’t as much Gears of War as it is a sci-fi Max Payne. With the help of his senses-heightening ARS suit, protagonist Sam Gideon dives out from cover, slows down time, and picks off three enemies a second. He boosts around the map, shotgunning in close-ranged slowdown, tearing enemies apart.
   Vanquish enters that rare space where the action is so intensely pure that, for short periods of time, players blink out and become one with everything onscreen: Sam Gideon, his weapon, the bullet, the enemy.
   It’s amazing, given the tremendous scale of some battles. There’s this idea among many Western gamers that Japanese developers are unwilling to commit the resources required to make truly cinematic games, games with an enormity that makes conflicts real, that extends the game past its boundaries and into a wider world. Vanquish knocks that idea on its ass.
   Vanquish has enormous battles; Vanquish depicts a war. Cities stretch into the horizon as their streets crumble underfoot. Enemies surge, leaving their stations, emerging from buildings. Hulking behemoths extend past eyesight, so large they crush city blocks as they walk.
   But when you jump over cover and slow time down, the world fades away into zen. This is another world, a microcosm of perfect focus. It’s a beautiful moment, ever placid. Intimate connections are formed with enemies before they fall away, naturally, in time.
   I’ve grown familiar with these enemies. I cherish them. I love the sleek robotic grunts that make up the core infantry, the mobile cover units that scamper crab-like around the battlefield before expanding into shields, the enormous walking jellyfish that explode into spider mines when destroyed. The enemy design rivals any game’s. It’s magnificent.
   So when I say that Vanquish’s scoring system feels arbitrary, or that some foes have far too much health, or that the story rivals any other for inanity, know that I am coming from a perspective of utmost respect for what Mikami and Platinum Games have crafted here. This is a work to rival any action game, a game whose flaws feel incidental compared to its unprecedented, unrivalled core.

Vanquish is Insomnia's 2010 Game of the Year.