If it were possible to make a game out of the phrase “F**K YEAH!!!,” with the three exclamation points and everything, it would probably come out looking a lot like Vanquish. At least, those are the words I wanted to repeatedly yell (sans asterisks) as I drilled apart Communist robot legions with an assault rifle, executed countless rocket-powered knee-slides to escape massive chainsaw-shaped troop transports, and slowed time to gun down enemies as they roared overhead on an upside-down runaway monorail car. No other phrase quite captures the thrill of tearing ass through Vanquish’s overwhelming odds and smashing down robots dozens of times your size, unless maybe you throw in a few “grrrrs” and “rrggghs” for good measure.
If the above doesn’t paint a vivid-enough picture, Vanquish is fun. Ridiculously fun. A cover-centric, Gears of War-influenced shooter that pokes fun at that game’s grunting, gore-soaked manliness while melding it with a shiny, distinctly Japanese vision of the spaceship-and-robot-filled future, Vanquish distinguishes itself early on by being extremely fast and frantic, hurling dozens of enemies and bullets and huge, crashing set-pieces at you and daring you not to run for cover.
Knight in robot armor
At the same time, the game makes you feel like a genuine badass by putting you in control of Sam Gideon, a chain-smoking DARPA researcher who’s sent to help free an American space colony/city-microwaving superweapon after it’s conquered by an army of robots controlled by the newly restored, newly rogue Soviet Russia. In addition to being gravel-voiced and nearly unflappable, Sam’s in control of a robotic super-suit called the ARS, which enables him to soak up a ton of damage, punch through steel and perform high-speed rocket slides to get wherever he needs to go. It comes with a gun that can mimic the shape of any firearm, but can only carry three “blueprints” at a time (a convenient way of explaining where Sam keeps all his guns).
It can also slow down time to enable rapid movement and targeting, which is particularly handy if you’re trying to shoot down a volley of enemy missiles, or just hammer a huge, fast enemy’s weak spot before it can turn away. (It also kicks in automatically when you’re near death, an extremely useful feature that gives you the chance to run and heal behind cover, or to get in the last few crucial hits needed to kill your enemies.)
Above: A helpful diagram of Vanquish’s many onscreen elements
Having all these cool tricks at your disposal means that, while the action can get intimidatingly thick, you’re able to charge through the danger, smash your enemies and turn their own huge turrets and vehicles against them before they even know what’s happening. It’s exhilarating, but there’s a catch: push the suit too hard, and it’ll overheat, at which point you’ll have to wait for its onboard reactor to vent and cool down. Rocket-boost for too long, or fail to disengage your bullet time before an onscreen meter runs out, and you’ll be vulnerable and weakened for a few crucial seconds. You’ll be in the same boat if you successfully punch anything, which is supremely irritating, but is probably in place to balance out the coolness of Sam’s one-hit melee kills.
Above: Still totally worth it
So, that’s about the extent of the abilities you have at your disposal. Well, that and a handful of different gun types, which along with simple upgrades are scattered liberally throughout every battlefield. These range from shinier versions of conventional firearms, like assault rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles, to more futuristic weapons like a lock-on laser, an “LFE gun” that shoots huge energy balls and a seemingly crappy disk launcher that suddenly becomes amazing when you discover it can double as a close-quarters chainsaw. Oh, and you’ll also have access to two types of grenades: frag, which blow things up, and EMP, which hilariously paralyze your enemies and make them easy targets.
Finally, you can duck behind cover to dodge volleys of enemy fire (although you’ll learn early on that this won’t keep you safe from all attacks), and while you can’t blind-fire, you can pop up to squeeze off a few aimed shots at your enemies before ducking back down. And while you may be tough as nails, sometimes it’s better to hide let the game’s ever-changing group of friendly space marines (who fight independently of you and are led by the grizzled, bionic arm-toting, even-more-raspy Lt. Col. Burns, the closest thing Sam has to a constant sidekick) take a few lumps for you.
Above: See these men? Think of them as your personal bullet-sponges
Plenty to see here
Vanquish isn’t a terribly complicated game from the perspective of what you’re able to do, but there’s a lot more to it than simple run-and-gun. Created by Platinum Games (the minds behind Bayonetta, MadWorld, Viewtiful Joe and Okami) and Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, Vanquish is a game that takes great pride in A) looking really pretty, B) mixing subtle parody with over-the-top ultraviolence, and B) throwing players into huge, world-shattering (sometimes literally) set pieces.
In the first few levels alone, for example, you’ll be slammed against an Omaha Beach-style wall of machinegun defenses, during which you can hijack the enemy’s robot walkers and machinegun turrets as enormous spaceships crash all around you. Then you’ll get to take down an impossibly huge walking tank with glowing weak-point joints that, when “defeated,” transforms into an even tougher humanoid form, and eventually squeezes you into a couple of simple but ultra-slick quicktime sequences before it goes down.
Above: It also does this when its first stage “dies.” What a crybaby!
After that, you’ll face off against an alarmingly fast tank tricked out with giant sawblades, and then you’ll need to slowly lead a floodlight-bearing APC to safety through a dark tunnel filled with giant, tentacled bomb-things. Then you’ll be sent hurtling down a superfast monorail track against the backdrop of a richly detailed cityscape, where you’ll be forced to rapidly clear another train of enemies before it can crash into your own.
Again: those are just the opening levels. Vanquish’s biggest strength is that it’s able to almost constantly come up with something new and cool to see, do or shoot at, making for an experience that always manages to feel fresh and engaging despite its relentless pace. In between all these thundering events, you’ll spend most of your time chewing your way through hordes of rank-and-file robot grunts – but even these fights are so well-designed and varied that they never feel like a slog. Even when the newness finally wears off and the game calms down to a more steady pace, it still manages to dig out a few surprising ways to throw you for a loop before booting you into a fantastically bloody, all-bets-are-off finale.
The downside, of course, is that no game can sustain this kind of pace for long. Vanquish can be slammed through in about six to eight hours, although nearly every second of that feels like a rollercoaster ride, and I never felt cheated by the length. There’s also some replay value here, much of it in going back through the surprisingly fun-to-replay story to find and destroy all the hidden Pangloss statues (one of several odd references the game makes to the classic satirical novel Candide), or just to improve your score, assuming you actually care about that.
Also, crashing your way through the story will earn you access to the game’s Challenge levels, a handful of Horde mode-like stages that pit you against overwhelming odds and challenge you to hold out for as long as possible. It’s not as much fun as an actual multiplayer Horde mode would be, but it’s still enjoyable if you’re in the mood for throwing yourself against enormous waves of baddies until you die.
Shortcomings aside, Vanquish is a brilliant, wildly enjoyable shooter that isn’t quite like anything else on the market right now. We won’t go so far as to assert that it’ll do for shooters what, say, Devil May Cry did for action games – but all the same, we’d be pretty happy if it did.
Is it better than…?
Quantum Theory? Yes. God yes. Quantum Theory and Vanquish are only really similar in that they’re both Gears of War-style shooters created by Japanese developers for an American audience, but they’re linked in that A) they arrived within a month of each other, and B) Vanquish is basically the opposite of Quantum Theory. Everything QT does wrong, Vanquish does right, from the pacing and characters to the level design and action. True, we can’t throw a vapid sword-girl at a giant, pointy-elbowed sack of glistening poop in Vanquish, but we think we can live with that.
Gears of War 2? No, but only because Gears 2 has one important thing that Vanquish doesn’t: multiplayer. And while we respect that Vanquish was never meant to be a multiplayer game, it’s still a feature that’s given Gears 2 a long shelf life, and made it an overall fuller experience. Also, Vanquish’s unlockable Challenge levels – which pretty clearly have a lot in common with Gears’ Horde mode – would have been a hell of a lot more enjoyable to tackle with a few friends.
Bayonetta? Yes, but only just. It might seem weird to compare two games that play completely differently from each other – one’s a cover-based shooter, the other’s a Devil May Cry-style slash ‘em-up – or to say that the one that scored a 10 in January is somehow inferior. But Platinum Games’ last effort, despite being awesome, still managed to leave a bad taste in some mouths thanks to an unforgiving, relentless level of difficulty that let players scrape by with mediocre performances, but mocked them for it afterward. Vanquish can be tough, but it wants you to succeed, and to feel great about succeeding. So while it retains much of Bayonetta’s darkly smirking sense of fun, it never makes fun of you if you suck.
Just for you, Metacritic!
Insanely fast and relentlessly fun, Vanquish manages to keep up a breakneck pace almost throughout its entire runtime, never quite slowing down enough to get boring. Of all the Gears of War-alikes we’ve played, this may be the best.
Oct 19, 2010