Oh Japan, I can always rely on you for quirkily splendid and unmistakably stylized experiences of awesomeness: the underrated strategy action of Valkyria Chronicles, the self-indulgent masterpiece that was Metal Gear Solid 4, and that weird recurring dream I have with a Japanese schoolgirl brandishing a Hello Kitty paddle.
Vanquish, the latest from Resident Evil mastermind Shinji Mikami, is no exception to this trend. Set sometime in the future aboard an orbital station overrun with sneaky Russian extremists, the game puts you in the pimped-out armour of Sam Gideon, a soon-to-be hero out to rescue a captured scientist, stop the crafty Ruskies, and be the guinea pig for his futuristic ARS battle suit.
Gameplay is an eclectic mix of elements with nods to other cover-based shooters like good ol’ Gears, though with less of the gritty war-torn environments and more of the cleaner robotic landscapes of tomorrow. The action itself however is something totally different due to the frantic pace of the mayhem you’re constantly bombarded with, thanks in most part to the combination of some sick rocket booster moves and a slow-mo system that Vanquish dubs ‘AR mode’.
Sam’s ARS suit allows him to jet across the battlefield using boosters, a cool gameplay mechanic that’s useful for moving quickly to cover, snagging some ammo in a pinch, or getting up close and personal to an enemy drone for some savage melee dismemberment. This rocketing about can be combined with the aforementioned AR mode to enter bullet time when things get a little too frantic, and the mode is enabled automatically when Sam is near death to allow him a small reprieve before kicking the robo-bucket.
Weapons are of the traditional fare in Vanquish, but added to the trusty machine gun, shotgun and rocket launcher are some wicked toys like the Lock-On Laser and the Disc Launcher. Each packs its own kind of punch and is useful in different situations, but the best part is that each gun is actually a transformed version of one single default weapon: switch from your energy orb gun, for instance, and you’ll watch the weapon evolve like a tiny Transformer into a sniper rifle. Small visual treats like this permeate every aspect of the game right down to the tiny mechanical movements of Sam’s suit, and it’s this kind of attention to detail that allows Vanquish to hold its own even against a AAA release.
Guns are also upgraded on the fly as they’re picked up during combat, but interestingly they only do so when at full ammunition. This means careful management of Sam’s toys if you plan on maxing out a weapon’s stats, but for those less frugal with their bullets there are upgrade cubes scattered about which do the same job.
The single coolest thing about Vanquish though apart from the mental gunplay and excellent visuals (complete with silky-smooth framerate) are the set pieces. Never before have I gone through a game where it feels like there’s a completely new and excessively enormous scene about to surprise me around every corner. Highlights of these include a mammoth space cruiser ploughing right into the battlefield during a skirmish, a monorail chase where the tracks run not just left and right of you but rotate around you too, entire highways falling away from under your feet, and so many gargantuan and highly-detailed robotic rivals that you almost feel guilty destroying some obsessive animator’s hard work.
The boss fights are particularly epic, and I won’t spoil any of them apart from the first one: a huge robot with four limbs and five times as many cannons fires seemingly innumerable attacks before our hero breaks its legs, blasts it in the mechanical eyeball, and snatches a whopping shell out of the air and quicktime-event’s it right down the boss’s own weapon barrel. It’s a fight that’s as difficult as it is impressive, a feat that gamers will grow accustomed to as the battles keep getting bigger and more insane. Oh, and attempt Hard mode at your peril: this is one title that isn’t afraid to offer hardcore gamers a serious challenge.
Despite a forgettable narrative and some headache-inducing techno beats, Vanquish is a surprisingly great game that really didn’t get the media attention or fanboy hype it deserves. The graphics are killer, the pace is breakneck, and the entire experience will have third-person shooter fans drooling more than a Japanese businessman with his own personal used-panty vending machine.
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