The ARS suit, despite its terrible acronym, will be long remembered as one of gaming’s greatest power suits. Worn by Sam Gideon – protagonist, DARPA operative, and man who refuses to ever finish a cigarette – the advanced ensemble’s range of abilities is small, but compelling. Boosting and bullet time may not sound like much, but Vanquish allows the player to playfully combine these two powers with such flair that every encounter becomes a set piece – a theatre of balletics and ballistics that only Bayonetta can claim to outdo.
A cover shooter on the surface but something far deeper and complex underneath, Vanquish’s gameplay is every bit as flashy and flamboyant as Platinum’s last. See an enemy in the distance and Gideon can leap from cover, boost towards it at incredible speed, and then slow down time to take better aim as he skids past. Another enemy’s attacking from the right? Flip out of your skid, dodge with the A button, and a timed press of the shoulder button will see Gideon enter bullet time once more, ready to dole out more damage. Perhaps you’ll finish off your third foe with another bit of distance-covering boosting and a one, two, three of powerful punches to the head, ending the encounter with a loud crunch and a bright flash of blue light.
And it all occurs so fast, Gideon blasting from one end of the battlefield to another in mere seconds, taking out the invading Russian robots a mix of finesse and fury in these small pockets of intense, inventive action. Thirty seconds of fun repeated over and over? Try fifteen.
So yes, Vanquish is indeed a cover shooter, but it’s also much more than that. Shinji Mikami has taken the work he pioneered for the third-person genre in Resident Evil 4 and furthered it still, mixing in the wild kill streaks and combos of Bayonetta for an altogether pacier and more concentrated take on the over-the-shoulder gaming. The hallmarks from both designer and studio are all there. From Mikami’s elaborate, multi-stage bosses and silly dialogue to Platinum’s tight, showboating gameplay, Vanquish is a giddy mix of everything we love about gaming; a game that’s as much about creating fun moments of gameplay as it is about looking good in a fight.
It’s the smaller details that really inform the experience, though, ensuring that the broader features gel. A generous snapping radius means popping in and out of cover is fast and fluid; there’s plenty of time to switch between different manoeuvres on the fly, allowing for easily chained and improvised combos; bullet time is activated automatically if you fire when boosting; the camera is easily positioned and always frames the action from the right angle; and then there’s that constant layer of risk and reward that informs the entire experience. It all clicks together with a satisfying sense of flexibility.
The level design is capably constructed to take advantage of Vanquish’s open play, the shape of each space within the Citadel-like space station ‘Providence’ changing often. The greys and whites of the complex architecture do become overly familiar with time, but with combat arenas shifting from wide open platforms, to claustrophobic and compact rooms, and then to long, thin walkways, you’ll always find yourself challenged to find new ways of exploiting the space and cover available.
Enemies also play a large part in this endeavour, the robot AI you’re pitched against starting small but quickly escalating to Metal Gear-esque quadrupedal monstrosities. Like the size and shape of the environments in which you do battle your opponents similarly force new tactics, particularly on higher difficulties. Many foes require several direct shots from behind, meaning crafty boosting and use of bullet-time is a must, while others will transform mid-battle demanding a quick rethink on strategy. Some enemies will clamber towards you at incredible speed if they lose their legs; a kamikaze attack that will kill Gideon without some quick repositioning, while others will fly and drop in behind the DARPA operative for a back attack. And then there are the bosses – typical Mikami constructions, each completely different from the last but all adorned in glowing weak spots that must be dismantled before you can focus on the core.
Vanquish isn’t perfect; Gideon’s accompanying squad will often run into your line of fire, and at other times will often hog cover when you need it most. Several of the game’s weapons seem inconsequential too, heavier armoury like the LFE Gun and the Disc Launcher feeling ineffectual when you can always rely on a trusty combination of the heavy machine gun, sniper rifle and rocket launcher.
But Vanquish is still truly great. It’s a game that has few equals when it comes to total sensory overload, featuring more than its fair share of explosive set-pieces, some of the more inventive on-rails sections we’ve played, and fantastically imaginative boss battles. And yet it’s all supported by something many third-person shooters overlook when they’re excessively concerned with spectacle – fantastic gameplay. Depending on who’s playing Vanquish can be at worst an incredibly tight shooter, at best an old school arcade score attack ripe with replayability – the post-level stat breakdowns and online leaderboards will no doubt motivate many to revisit each level until they can boost through each without suffering a single gunshot (there’s also an achievement for completing the game without dying once).
So, while Warren Spector might bemoan the current landscape of videogame development for “still making cartoons”, Vanquish proves that there’s still space for ridiculous dialogue, clichéd characters, amped-up power-suits and big guns alongside the Heavy Rains of the industry, as long as the intelligent gameplay structure is present too. And it is. Platinum Games knows how to craft a good videogame. It’s as simple as that, and right now, the team is competing only with itself.