We've said it before, but I'll say it again: It's always fun to be surprised with a game; to be expectant of little, and come away fulfilled. With hype machines what they are, it's all too easy to overindulge in marketing fluff, buy and beat a game, and be left wanting of something more after skipping through rolling credits. The only thing left to do after that is jadedly pawn off the disc. Yet, despite these MMOs (massively marketed operations) of the corporate kind, there remain some games capable of genuine satisfaction.
Platinum Games has been able to stay these feelings of disappointment through a streak of over-the-top releases grounded in solid mechanics. With the ability to elicit such feelings of fulfillment from a sexy witch sporting small caliber high heels to a gruff, noir sequel Ash Williams-a-like, Platinum returns on the HD consoles with Vanquish and a mind to satiate those searching for a competent third-person-action-shooter-with-a-cover-mechanic experience in 2010. There's room for improvement, but Vanquish's booster-filled action puts on a spectacle in its run time.
It all starts with a bang—literally. As San Francisco is overheated and warped with a super microwave blast from well above the Earth's atmosphere, you know this story isn't staying terrestrial. However, that doesn't mean Vanquish is an unconventional futuristic sci-fi adventure. No, Platinum hit all of the tropes requisite in turning Russia back into America's enemy. There's a context for the game, one that leaves itself open for a sequel, but with an exposition that dives head-first into the action, you're left wondering what's going on for most of the five act, 7 hour-ish firefight through a gigantic space station colony. While you eventually learn who's doing what and why—and just who those people are anyway—it's an endgame explanation missing a good bit of supplemental backstory along the way.
But really, as our hero, Sam Gideon, infiltrates farther into the Russian-occupied colony, the game reveals itself more as a way of believably delivering that bullet hell action so prevalent in Japanese anime. Clad in a DARPA-designed exoskeleton, Sam is able to jet around environments which vary from a breezy, green courtyard to lumbering Transformer-wannabe space cruiser. The suit can't propel you vertically, if not in a contextual action; instead, the thrusters allow you evasive maneuvers like the “Mech Rocker” (knee slide) and “Reposing Robot” (feet-first baseball sliding method). It all plays fantastically when you have enemy fire whizzing at you while you're simultaneously dispatching others from your own gunfire. A boost mechanic likely hasn't been this satisfying to play around with since Zone of the Enders.
And to be sure, you do a lot of sliding about as you move from one encounter against robotic forces to another. Platinum explain and show just how Sam can carry up to three weapons and two sets of grenades at a time deftly with full animations, and using an arsenal found, upgraded and swapped out in the field allows for different strategies to be employed. It's just a shame you see just about all there is to face off against within the first act of the game. There's some variance in model design down the road, but Vanquish struggles to throw refreshing enemies at you the longer it goes on. The entirety of the experience is paced well with an appropriate length, and an increasing number of mixed-group insurgents doesn't let you simply go through the motions, but it would have been nice to see Platinum build more on the boss and general enemy structure.
Even on the Normal difficulty setting there's a challenge to be had as you look to score big by finishing levels quickly and scoring kills to upload onto a leaderboard. However, some of this challenge is partly due to a few choice design decisions. For example, boosting about doesn't come free of charge. Your ARS suit is only capable of a short burst, and overheats if you're too much of a leadfoot. Usually you can jump-roll around and press up against cover to regain a mysterious amount of health and recharge your suit, but using your jets for skillful kills isn't the only thing which depletes your boost gauge.
Melee actions and a bullet time effect also add to the suit's overheating. The multipurpose energy consumption requires a sharp eye and sound strategy, but when enemies charge at you in the unrelenting Challenge arenas (unlocked after completing the game) and harder difficulty settings, the chance to only use one melee attack per charge most likely results in insta-death scenarios. The ability to slow down time and watch individually animated bullets graze by you is never tiring, but marveling at them only to run out of juice by punching one flanking enemy and then dying from another is frustrating.
Slowly evading danger is fun enough to play around with, but it's not nearly as beautiful as the rest of the game. Shadows aren't the prettiest and lip synching is way off in Vanquish, but everything else is incredibly easy on the eyes. Unlike other shooters, Platinum aren't afraid to keep you out of mechanical corridors and bland palates. Set pieces encompass every part of the screen. Foreground playable sections are often in transition with robotic barriers and escape runs, and backdrops are alive with a frenzy of drunken missiles and painted scenery. Also, it may be more gameplay, but Vanquish also affords you the opportunity to cherry pick robot limbs to blow off, and blood isn't a faux pas here.
Where Platinum might continue the tradition of smartly created visual assets, they're still a bit behind the ball when it comes to the audio side of things. What counts as the soundtrack amounts to little more than an exploration in synthesized beats of the techno flavor, looped monotonously for each unique level. It's fitting, given the fast action, but still in need of balance. Alternatively, the acting is neither stellar nor abhorrent. Sam sounds like an even more glottal, yet not has haggard, Solid Snake, and none of the characters' dialogue is challenging or memorable.
In a time when some are clamoring for long, drawn out stories and unfitting multiplayer options, Vanquish shows how its possible to avoid both and deliver a strong, albeit surprising, performance. True, without a game-plus option to carry over upgraded weaponry in the unlocked “God Hard” difficulty once the game's over, it lacks a bit of re-playability unless you're more of a masochist. But even with it's sometimes oblivious buddy AI, bottom-heavy storytelling, and some design hiccups, Vanquish should still be able to find a place in your collection for another go sometime down the road.
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