Voom, Voom, Shoot, Shoot
I missed out on the scourge of cover based shooters in the 2010’s. My only real experience with the genre was a little bit of Gears of War with an ex in college, which I found pretty dull, and half of the first Uncharted game that came free with my PS4, which was fine but the combat seemed to rely too much on memorizing enemy spawns. To be honest, none of the games ever looked that interesting to me. That was until I saw Vanquish. Released in 2010, the game was directed by Shinji Mikami and developed by Platinum Games, a combination that seems made to appeal to myself specifically. The thing that truly caught my eye when I first saw it was the gameplay: the speed, movement, and hyperactive nature no cover based shooter has shown before or since.
The reason for this fast paced gameplay is because the main character, Sam, is equipped with a DARPA design power suit that lets him slide around with rocket jets. This allows the player to skid across the combat arena at obscene speeds to change cover and maneuver around enemies. The suit also allows Sam to activate a bullet time mechanic. This happens either by aiming down a gun’s sights while dodging or when critically low on health, which is useful because, like most things in the game, damage racks up fast and death comes quickly if not played carefully.
The rocket boots and slo mo mechanic leads to one of the two things that Vanquish is built around: speed and movement. Speed is an obvious key aspect to a game with rocket boots as a main mechanic. However, the importance of speed is also emphasized in Vanquish because most enemies stay at the same speed. Very few enemies move particularly quick, prefer to sit behind cover and hardly ever rush you down, and because of this Sam’s speed gives him a direct advantage. The high speed of the rocket slide gives him the ability to change positions faster than the enemies can react and the low speed of the bullet time let’s him hold enemies in place to load bullets in them.
Movement is the other major aspect that the game excels in, but it’s not just Sam’s own movement abilities where this is shown. The best levels in the game are where parts of the level themselves are moving. There’s a level where the enemies are on conveyor belts slowing going down the middle of the room; another where Sam and the marines travelling by a freight transporter on rails and the enemies are attacking from another transport as the rails move them up above and to either side of the player. This allows the enemies to reposition without having to leave cover, making them harder to hit and much more interesting to fight.
I haven’t talked much about the story of Vanquish yet and that’s because there really isn’t much to say. The game starts with Russia invading a US space station and using a giant microwave beam to wreak havoc on San Francisco. Sam is sent into the station along with some marines launching an attack to stop them. Both Sam and the leader of the marines, Burns, have Shinji Mikami’s trademark over the top machismo to them, but it’s played too straight to be as deliciously ridiculous as Leon Kennedy in Resident Evil 4. Overall, I was left underwhelmed by the story. I was expecting absurd set pieces and tongue in cheek irony from Mikami and Platinum Games, but only found a bare bones story with little to keep me engaged.
This is why I started to resent the game slightly anytime it slowed to crawl to dumb exposition. The cut scenes were fun enough to watch, but it seemed like every new mission started with Sam walking through an empty room at a glacial pace while talking to his mission control Metal Gear Solid style. I was having fun with the gameplay and these moments makes the game feel extremely stilted.
The stilted feeling bleeds into gameplay too because the game starts to feel repetitive by the end. With a lack of enemy designs and repeating bosses, the combat moments blur together, giving a feeling of déjà vu as you wonder ‘Haven’t I done this before?’ What would have helped was using more of a variety of weapons, but I didn’t see a use for the more unique weapons like the disc launcher, LFE gun, or laser cannon. This might be because I never bothered to use them enough to upgrade them, but I was having fun enough with just an assault rifle, boosted machine gun, and sniper rifle, occasionally a rocket launcher for a tough enemy.
This isn’t to say Vanquish is not fun because it definitely is. Boosting around the battlefield with rocket boots, shooting up enemies and slowing time for better shots is a blast. A lackluster story and some pacing issues are not enough to take away from the solid core gameplay loop in the center of the game. The game is short, but it is the perfect length for a game of its type, spending just enough time to explore its unique mechanics and ending before the repetition got too tedious. Vanquish gets a recommendation from me, especially if you can find a cheap copy, which should be hard due to the game not selling well at release and falling into cult favorite stardom. Which is pretty perfect for a game as unique and fun, but also flawed as Vanquish.