There is a point where – depending on the gamer – Vanquish clicks or falls apart. For the first gamer, it becomes a beautifully chaotic waltz of rocket-sliding around a crumbling space colony and shooting robots in the face. For the second gamer, it becomes an intolerable, controller-snapping exercise in frustration, cheap deaths, and unintuitive controls. For a hypothetical third gamer? Let’s just say that it’s somewhere in between.
Before that tipping point, Vanquish feels like an oddity that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. On the surface, it has all the trappings of your typical Western-made shooter: big, burly, super-macho American space marines with voices like they took breakfast in a gravel quarry, comically evil Russians, and combat that heavily revolves around ducking behind chest-high walls to shoot people who aren’t hiding behind chest-high walls as well as you are. Beyond that, though, it has the soul of one of those hyper-kinetic Japanese action games like Devil May Cry or Viewtiful Joe – both, not coincidentally, games that sprung in part from the mind of Vanquish boss Shinji Mikami.
As DARPA agent Sam Gideon, you have a mission to accomplish: A rogue Russian faction has come into power, taking control of an American space colony and using the colony-mounted energy beam to annihilate San Francisco. You and the hypermasculine space marines who will be providing cannon fodder for the mission need to storm the space colony and take it back before they do the same to New York City. If you can rescue the genius professor who designed the thing, so much the better.
Thankfully, said genius professor also designed you a suit of power armor. The Automated Reaction Suit – or ARS – is your armor, your tool, and your weapon when fighting those dastardly Reds. Some of the high-tech gadgetry in the ARS is just a sci-fi justification for standard gameplay mechanics: Your BLADE system can replicate any weapon it finds at a nanotechnology level, but it can only store three of them, which is essentially a fancy way of saying that you can only carry three different guns at once.
Sam can’t jump except at predetermined parts of a level, but with the ARS, he can certainly slide. Jet boosters in the suit let the player quickly skim along the ground in any direction, whether to mount an assault or to get out of a sticky situation. It makes for fast-paced, highly maneuverable combat in open areas, which is a welcome change from the standard cover-based mechanics we’re used to.
However, the ARS’ boosters share a resource – heat dissipation – with the other primary gameplay mechanic, a hyper-focus “bullet time” slowdown that highlights enemy vulnerabilities to Sam and lets him carefully aim and blast away. If the heat gauge runs out while the player is using either one, Sam enters an “Overheated” state that leaves him vulnerable, unable to use any of his fancy tips and tricks – or even to do something so simple as punch the bad guys.
Ordinarily this isn’t a problem. In fact, it’s actually pretty fun to rush through a battle, alternating between sliding from cover to cover and blasting your enemies in slow-motion while keeping a careful eye on your heat bar to make sure you’re still within acceptable limits. There’s just a single irritating spanner in the works: When Sam’s health is critical, the ARS will engage the bullet-time automatically. In theory, it’s a great emergency option that lets you pick off whoever’s shooting at you or get into cover, giving the player a “get out of jail free” card without diminishing their skill.
In practice, this eats up your entire heat bar – no matter how full it was, and no matter how long you’ve been back at full health – leaving you Overheated and exposed. Ergo, if you didn’t deal with whatever threats dropped you into the red during the initial time-slow, you may be worse off than you were before it all. If there was an easy way to turn off the emergency bullet-time, I certainly didn’t find it, and the game doesn’t make any effort to instruct you how.
This is all the worse because Vanquish is a hard game – if you were expecting leniency from the man who made Viewtiful Joe and Devil May Cry, you expected wrong. It’s frenzied, it’s chaotic, and you will likely get stomped/blasted/blown up by robots many, many times before you see the story to its end. Sometimes deaths will feel cheap, like you didn’t have any control over them – or like you couldn’t react to them in time because the system had wasted all of your bullet-time for you.
This is the crux of whether you are a gamer that will enjoy Vanquish or whether the game will make you throw your controller against a wall. If you’re willing to put the time into learning the game’s nuances and its systems, it – like Mikami’s earlier games – is frantic, fast-paced and rewardingly stylish. If you aren’t, then you’re probably just going to put the game down after you die on your third boss fight for the tenth time in a row.
For most gamers, this single question is a make-or-break point. Everything else is solid – the game looks wonderful, and while the story is pretty cheesy, it’s functional enough to carry you through a six-hour campaign (perhaps more or less, depending on how many times you die). There are some awe-inspiring set pieces – and what’s more, occasional awe-inspiring moments that were completely unscripted.
Vanquish is an acquired taste, but if you have that taste already – or if it grows on you – it’s a blast. On the other hand, if you don’t have that taste, than none of the robot-face-kicking in the world will be enough to convince you to enjoy the game. Much like last year’s Demons’ Souls, Vanquish knows who its audience is, and if you aren’t part of it then it really couldn’t give a damn.
Bottom Line: Apply Devil May Cry‘s stylish, breakneck sensibilities to the run-duck-and-gun of Gears of War. All of the trappings are perfectly sound if not extraordinary, and despite one or two incredibly vexing design decisions, Vanquish‘s combat is blisteringly fast and a genuine pleasure to watch and play when it’s going well – but an exercise in maddening frustration when it isn’t.
Recommendation: If you like Japanese hyper-brawlers like Devil May Cry, God Hand and Bayonetta, or you’re willing to give rough games a try, Vanquish might be up your alley. Otherwise, rent it for what feels like a genuinely interesting commentary from a prominent Japanese designer regarding Western-made games.[rating=4]
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game.
John Funk would probably have been better at Vanquish if he’d been using an Xbox 360 controller.