Monday, March 28, 2011

Review: "Vanquish"

Bottle Rockets
review for Vanquish, 1 player third-person shooter/action, available now

Vanquish is a game that shouldn't exist. It's a third-person shooter, at the very core a Gears of War clone-type-thing, set around the typical tropes of taking cover to blindfire, holding a button to sprint, and having limited access to the amount of weapons and grenades you can hold at once. But on the other hand, it's developed by Shinji Mikami, reknowned Japanese video-game developer, and creator of games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta. I mean, sure, this sort of "mash-up," if you will, makes sense, in a perverse sort of way, and it works - really, really well, too. But it's the sort of game that you can imagine being bought up as a joke - "yo guys, what if Shinji Mikami made Gears of War?" Y'see? That's just a joke concept. The game isn't a joke, in fact it's fantastic, but the root idea of the game is... intriguing, to say the least.

The story comes from the same joke that this game was made from - it's the future, and Space Russians are microwaving American cities. So the big, bad Space Marines climb onto the Russian Space Colony to fight some robots. Yes, that's the plot. And yes, it is unfortunately taken quite seriously. I mean, a lot of it is taken tongue-in-cheek, and the dialog is well-written and funny and made me chuckle it quite a few spots, but it's hard to tell if they want us to take it seriously or not. I'm thinking it's on the same wavelength as Devil May Cry - tongue-in-cheek to the extent that it's self-aware, but not so much that it won't try to be an epic space tale. But... yeah, it's hard to put a finger on which side it's leaning to, which isn't a problem... it just made me ask questions that aren't answered.

Adding to the questionably insane plot, your player character seems to be a massive "fuck you" to the game's Gears of War roots. Players take on the role of Sam Gideon, and while most of his support crew are the aforementioned grizzly Space Marines, with arms the size of treetrunks and covered in three-inch-thick body armour, Sam is a skinny, athletic, chain-smoking ex-Football player, equipped with an Augmented Reaction Suit. (Yes, that spells ARS. It's pronounced "arse." I don't know if that's on purpose either. I sure as hell hope so.) Your radio support character, as per standard, is basically the typical female remote help, but when she's pictured in cutscenes you'll notice she's wearing a short-skirt so short it would make Lara Croft blush. There's a lot of times the camera pans over her from the bottom up (in typical Bayonetta fashion, this is Platinum Games after all, maturity is not on the menu), resulting in a lot of "should we tell her..." moments where it looks like she's being stalked by DARPA. Oh, yeah, the research group is called DARPA, which is almost pronounced "derpa". Research group? What research group? The research group that made the ARS! Duh! Weren't you paying attention?

Ignoring whatever alternate universe this game seemed to drop out of, the game does a really awesome job at straddling the divide between Western third-person shooters and Japanese action games. You can take cover and blind-fire and pick off enemies carefully, or you can use the whole of ARS (giggle) and its abilities to have some good-old fun. The suit is apparently covered in a lot of tiny, tiny rockets - hitting LB will send Sam sliding across any surface and breakneck speed. Pulling the left trigger at this point, and you'll find the second - and most useful - of the ARS' capabilities: slow-motion bullet-time. By activating bullet-time, your... um, reactions are augmented, I suppose - and you can shoot down those evil Russian robots. It's incredibly useful if the robots you happen to be fighting have missiles - and so many of them do.

The only odd thing about the ARS is that it will only ever go into slow-motion when you're either sliding, or in mid-roll/dodge. Pressing LT at any other time is the aim button. It's an odd mechanic, but there's no denying it works - and it adds to the game's breakneck pace - but it takes some getting used to. Also, all these abilities - sliding, dodging, and slow-motion - drain out the ARS' energy supply, which is, for some reason, connected to the melee attack, too. So if you ever punch a robot to death, your suit will overheat and you will be unable to slide to cover or dodge enemy fire, which is not the best position to be stuck in. Oh, and I can't ignore that whenever you lose enough health, slow-motion is activated with no way to switch it off - and while I guess the idea is you have to use the opportunity to get away from enemy fire, if you're too slow and you don't, you're left as sitting duck without the ability to slide away, and with no health. It's not helpful that there's a bar for everything but your health, but I digress - this is what we call "nitpicking". The game is largely unaffected by these blights. That's the bad out of the way - onto the good.

This game looks amazing. You really can't tell from screenshots, but to see this game in motion is to have your eyes attacked by a flurry of lasers and explosions and reflections and such. The game is also really, really fast - I mean blink-and-you're-dead fast. When you first hit the rocket-slide, you'll be holding on to your balls as you glide along the ground like a fighter jet. The action is slick, and - like I said in my Stranglehold review - action gamers enjoy this sort of stuff. It's fast, it's awesome, and the enemies are creative (even if some bosses are recycled endlessly through some of the latter chapters). I haven't said this often enough, but I love robots - especially cyborgs - and watching robots' heads explode is enough to make me giddy with pride. The game also allows for the over-the-top finishing moves on some of the larger enemies, usually taking on the form of a quick-time event, and the creativity of some of these semi-cutscenes are indisputable. The game is very much Japanese, from the menus to the enemy designs, and with that, I come to perhaps Vanquish's biggest flaw - or its greatest strength.

In straddling the line between Western and Japanese action games, what does Vanquish hope to achieve? I mean, don't get me wrong, the game is awesome, and I heartily recommend you check it out forthwith. But... is there any reason for this game to be made? Combining Western and Eastern genres to make a somewhat polarizing game is certainly creative, but there's some many other ways to do it. I mean, the Japanese shooter isn't a whole lot different from this sort of game, the characters just run faster and there's less cover-based malarky - and Western shooters aren't much different, they're just a little (okay... a lot) slower in pace. The game is fantastic and Platinum have made something very enjoyable and very unique with Vanquish, but it's not a revolution, and it certainly could have leant to either side and not have trimmed anything important. The pace is brilliant and the story is goofy, but why exactly the game felt it had to combine these mismatched genre types is beyond my comprehension. For whatever reason, mind, it has succeeded - and Vanquish stands aloft as a shining example of what high-concepts can achieve. I say, if you're a fan of over-the-top action games and Gears of War-style shooting, you should pick up Vanquish and support this up-and-coming developer as they push the boundaries further and further with each subsequent title. If you only like Devil May Cry, or only like Gears of War, the game may be frustrating and confusing - perhaps only a rental is in order, then. For action junkies such as myself, though, picking up Vanquish is a no-brainer. Just be prepared to be thoroughly perplexed. By awesome.

It walks a thin line, between Gears of War and Devil May Cry, and it succeeds with gusto - but it begs the question. "Why?"

Andy is soaring high. Like a bird in the sky.

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