Nothing about Vanquish is subtle.
The game is a frenzied experience, a third-person cover shooter given dozens of cups of coffee. Other shooter protagonists lumber from cover to cover, firing as they go. As Sam Gideon, the player skids across the floor on booster jets, dropping into bullet-time as they slide to pick off enemies with steadily aimed shots, then punches any survivors into scrap metal.
A third-person shooter from a Japanese company is a bit odd in the current market, but Vanquish bears all the trademarks of a Shinji Mikami game. It’s loud, excessive, stylized, and aggressively incoherent. At any given moment, at least three things on the screen are probably exploding, rounds are zipping across the camera like strobe lights, and at least one of your hilariously death-prone NPC allies is messily meeting his maker.
This is not the game for epileptics.
Vanquish‘s plot can charitably be described as “bare-bones” but (again characteristic of Mikami) it compensates with copious backstory. It’s the future, and the United States has constructed an orbital colony to compensate for severe overpopulation. Promptly, a secret society of Russian ultranationalists (we’ve never seen those before!) led by an albino (who may as well have “Villain” tattooed on his forehead) stage a coup in their own country, then capture the orbital colony, and convert it into a microwave superweapon. After they rather gruesomely blast San Francisco, they demand the United States surrender unconditionally or face the destruction of New York City.
As this game employs the gruff, manly, hoo-rah sort of American, the United States’ answer is to send a fleet of space battleships carrying marines to take the station back. Tagging along is Sam Gideon, a DARPA researcher wearing a suit of experimental power armor who’s volunteered to come along in order to rescue a kidnapped colleague. In accordance with the Gordon Freeman principle of Armed Nerds, he is monumentally more effective than the combat-trained Marines who die in droves around him.
All of this happens in more or less the first ten minutes of the game. Then it’s just a slog through strongholds and barricades manned by murderous robots, interspersed with the occasional cutscene of Gideon doing something awesome or token conversations between cardboard cutout characters. Particularly hilarious is Robert Burns, a massive cyborg voiced by Steve Blum whose every line is gruff enough to cut glass.
Okay, so its narrative is more or less nonexistent, but Vanquish does have its positive points. Any individual set piece in the game is dazzling in the hands of an expert. Players get access to a fairly standard selection of firearms, though they aren’t really that distinct from one another, and face a surprising variation of standard enemies. More importantly, Sam is an order of magnitude more agile and mobile than the typical third-person-shooter protagonist with his jet dashes and acrobatic, close combat attacks; cover is less a redoubt to hold than a momentary shelter breather between charges.
Sam’s suit reactor shares its jet power reserves with the ability to enter what is effectively bullet time. Get hit too often or too hard without instantly dying (which happens sometimes without warning given the sheer volume of fire on screen at any given moment) and Sam will trigger it automatically to escape notice. However, it’s necessary to use it frequently just to get a good sense of your surroundings, fire accurately, and carefully pick out targets. The latter is particularly critical in Vanquish‘s chaotic melees; the various robotic enemies are surprisingly fast, aggressive, and fairly intelligent, employing cover and armor support quite well.
Combining shooting, agility, and bullet time at once becomes a staple of Vanquish. At its best in the hands of an adept player, the game handles like a dream. Players can vault off surfaces with a leap, swing into slow-motion, and casually pick off clumps of enemies with gunfire before they hit the ground. Any one set piece is an amazing display of polished graphics, cunning AI, and spectacular maneuvers. It’s amazing to watch…at first.
The problem is, Vanquish combines a weak narrative with a startling lack of direction. The player ends the game in functionally almost the exact same way he or she began, and latter enemies are often subtle variations on earlier models. The same boss is recycled at least four or five times almost entirely the same way. And as your opponents are essentially robotic drones, none of them have much personality to leave a lasting impression beyond the sheer amount of firepower they can bring to bear — the apparent antagonist appears on screen only a handful of times.
Since you never seem to be getting anywhere new or given time to breathe and admire the experience, the experience of Vanquish rapidly blurs together. Early missions have some variation — a mission where the player claws his or her way inside an enemy walker and destroys it from within is quite good — but later missions begin to drag. The never-ending overstimulation of Vanquish‘s combat wears down the joy of the experience until it becomes mundane.
Despite its consistent failures of storytelling and pacing, Vanquish is a solid game. Its narrative might make Gears of War look sophisticated and eloquent in comparison, but it defies genre expectations and toys with gameplay conventions in interesting ways. But when its relatively short campaign can rapidly feel too long, maybe it’s best nursed over a week or so instead of burned through in a night or two.