Review by HollowNinja
"All style, no substance."
Vanquish is a shooter that attempts to break the mold of what a shooter should be. Platinum Games took a look at what the modern third person shooter is, saw a plodding, slow cover-hopping-fest, and decided they'd show the West how it's done. Unfortunately, their idea of what a third-person shooter should be didn't translate as well to reality as they had imagined, and perhaps now they realize why the genre is as it is.
Because of the way this site is structured, you have probably already seen the score I have assigned this game: a decidedly mediocre 5/10. I won't pretend this isn't a harsh score. I'm being very harsh with my assessment of this game, and perhaps you'll understand why by the end of this review.
Vanquish makes the decision to allow the gameplay to drive the story, rather than the other way around. This is a sound decision by the game's developers, keeping the focus of the game to the gameplay and not the plot.
You play as Sam Gideon, a former football player who had to quit because of an injury, but was offered the chance to work with DARPA and text out a new advanced battle suit. He chain-smokes so many cigarettes you'll wonder how he still has lungs. He's supported by Elena Ivanovich (this game's voice-with-an-internet-connection), a genius who can remotely take control of practically any electronic device at plot-convenient moments. Alongside Sam is Lt. Colonel Robert Burns, a 7-foot-tall beast of a man with a mechanical gun-arm and a mouth that spits parodical amounts of obscenities. The entire plot seems to a parody, actually, of Western shooters, seeking refuge in its own audacity.
The game opens with a Russian terrorist group using a microwave array to fry San Francisco from outer space. Their leader then demands that the American president surrender within the next 10 hours, or he will fry New York City as well. There are a couple of interesting plot twists along the way - nothing is as it seems - and then the game ends with an unsatisfying sequel hook.
Considering that this is a console game, I'm rather impressed. If there's one thing this game doesn't lack, it's visual flair. Both technically and aesthetically, Platinum has done a fine job here. I can complain about neither graphics nor aesthetics. Also impressive is that both the PS3 and 360 version are almost identical visually. Well done, Platinum, for being able to milk this quality out of the aging PS3 and 360.
However, there are still some visual flaws worth mentioning when you take a closer look. First is that this game noticeably renders at less than an HD resolution - 1024x720, to be exact. This is narrower horizontally than the 1280x720 resolution that is standard among console games, and it shows in a slight blockiness around some polygons. 2x MSAA isn't quite enough to remove all the jaggies from the image, a fact made more apparent by the lower resolution the game runs at. My eye tells me Platinum skimped a bit on anisotropic filtering, and textures far away and at an angle to the camera are noticeably less sharp. However, given how fast you'll be moving in this game, these minor issues aren't noticeable at all, and I applaud Platinum for keeping the focus of the visuals where it really matters in order to achieve a solid framerate.
While the game has a 30 fps cap that stays impressively solid throughout the game, there are some minor framerate drops here and there. Thanks to the game's excellent use of object-based motion blur, these drops aren't as noticeable as you might think (and props to Platinum for using object-based blur rather than frame-based blur). Vanquish is perhaps the only game I've played that uses more motion blur than Crysis (and in Crysis, the twitchy nature of mouselook actually makes motion blur more apparent). In hindsight, they could have toned it down quite a bit. I'd have liked to see something more subtle like Half-Life 2 had, but I think as it is it is meant to fit a certain visual aesthetic that is quite appealing.
This game's use of shaders is quite impressive. I am astonished to think that Platinum managed to squeeze these visuals out of the hardware of both the PS3 and 360. There is also an impressive use of particle effects and heavy post-processing.
On the animation side, there are quite a few nice touches. The animators put soon good work into this game, and it shows. Sam throws his grenades like a football player and most of the melee attacks look fluid and well-animated. Even the robots are well-animated.
A lot of the cutscenes seem to be prerendered. The compression used here is of very high quality. Sega should start licensing this tech out to other companies Unreal Engine-style. Sega, you can pay me the royalties after you make enough cash off my idea to break back into console manufacturing.
The only real downer here is that there's no PC version - it would have been impressive to see this game in true high-definition glory (though the heavy use of prendered cutscenes would then be pretty jarring). Even as it is, this is a damn good-looking game.
The music is sufficient, but as is the case with all modern games, unmemorable. This is the natural byproduct of the existence of voice acting and sound effects - the memorability of games from the days of yore wasn't because music was better back then, but because in modern games voice acting and sound effects tend to steal your attention. As a result, the effect of music today is subconscious for the most part. I have no complaints, and the little bits of music I caught were fairly good.
The voice acting was average as well. At no point did I find it bad. Perhaps hammy at parts, but I get the feeling it was intentional in its hamminess. Still, I've heard better.
Now we get to the meat of the game. This is make or break. The gameplay of a game is the most important thing, and here is where it falls short.
I'm not going to waste your time describing how third-person shooters typically play. If you're not already familiar with them, then get off your hipster soapbox already.
What I will tell you is that Platinum Games wanted to make themselves different. Taken from an article, these are the three aspects of a typical shooter that Platinum Games wanted to avoid:
1. Remember the map, find a good spot, hide, then move.
2. If you get discovered, move to another hiding spot.
3. Fire before you are fired upon.
As far as realizing these goals goes, they succeeded. Cover in this game can actually be destroyed by enemies. However, this isn't necessarily the best example of game design. The biggest problem with this game's gameplay is that Platinum Games tried to "fix" what was wrong with Western shooters without understanding Western shooters in the first place. Japanese developers seem to prefer high-speed stylish gameplay rather than the intense but methodical nature of Western design.
To that end, we have the bullet-time mechanic, which you can activate by holding the aim button (L1) while performing certain actions (boosting, rolling, vaulting over obstacles, and the Heavy Machine Gun's melee attack). Bullet-time isn't original anymore. It was abused to hell last generation, and only died out this gen because it's hard to implement in multiplayer.
One of the key complaints I had with this game was the weapon selection. You have a rocket launcher that does tons of damage but has poor ammo capacity (therefore, it is very limited in its usefulness), an assault rifle (fires fast, has good accuracy), a heavy machine gun (which is the same thing with a slower rate of fire and worse accuracy but better DPS), a "disc launcher" (point in the general direction of an enemy and it will home in, can bounce off floors and walls and hit multiple targets), some sort of energy ball shooter called the LFE gun (more on that in sec), a lock-on missile launcher (useless due to low damage and poor ammo capacity), a sniper rifle (pretty standard one, too), a shotgun (I got little use out of it, since it does poor damage for what it is), and your trusty grenades. There is an interesting little level-up system here. By picking up a gun that you already have equipped or by picked up certain upgrade packs, you can upgrade your weapons permanently for the rest of the game, even if you drop it and pick the same one up somewhere else. Three can be equipped at a time, and you select between them and your 'nades with the d-pad. You'll have either the assault rifle or the heavy machine gun on you at all times (I always had both and either the disc launcher or sniper rifle at all times). The problem here is the notable lack of precision weapons besides your sniper rifle. Basically, this means you'll spend most of your time opting for the spray 'n' pray method of attack rather than pulling off skillful headshots and using controlled bursts to take down enemies. It feels unsatisfying, to say the least. I'd have appreciated some 3-round burst weapons that center around precision... but I get the feeling that such weapons wouldn't fit well with bullet time. It would be like Scouts in Valkyria Chronicles all over again, except this time the game isn't turn-based. What I am forced to play with just feels insulting to my skill.
I said I'd elaborate on the LFE gun. At first glance it seems useless. Through the entirety of the game, I could never figure out what the weapon did. It appeared to shoot out large, slow energy balls that... did nothing, as far as I could tell. Reading a few forum posts taught me that it's meant to stun enemies, which was news to me; I swear I shot that thing at the robots multiple times and it didn't seem to do anything. One should not have to read information on the internet to figure out something as simple as what a weapon is meant to do.
In fact, practically all you'll be doing in this game is going into bullet-time, unloading your clip or ammo into an enemy, then coming out of bullet-time. Your bullet-time mechanic is powered by your suit's ARS reactor... which, unfortunately, also powers your boost. As far as bullet-time mechanics go, this one isn't particularly good, due to how poorly balanced it is. When you run out of meter, you instantly go into a rather long overheat phase during which you can't use your bullet-time or your boost at all, and you'll be reminded how helpless you are in this game without it. The game also has a sort of "last stand" mechanic. Your bullet-time automatically activates when you're near death, so you can find cover and hopefully get a second chance. Unfortunately, it rarely works out that way - your "last stand" bullet-time lasts until you overheat, and you aren't allowed to quit out of it right before you overheat - basically, this is a death sentence. You'll be helpless against enemies, and the game only tries to prolong your inevitable death by extending your life while taking away your main offensive and defensive tool. Even more annoying is that melee attacks will instantly overheat your reactor. This makes melee attacks far less useful, as after using one you'll be stuck in the middle of enemy fire with no boost to get you out of there quickly. Perhaps they should have had melee attacks take out half your ARS meter instead?
For some reason, all the enemies in the game, with the exception of one short segment near the end, are robots. My first thought was that this was due to Japanese censorship concerns - they're stricter over there about both violence and sexual content (by the way, this game really likes to taunt you with camera angles that almost but don't quite allow you to see Elena's panties; she has some very nice legs). That was my theory until that one act late in the game, when you do fight human enemies (is that a spoiler? I think I'm being vague enough that this shouldn't be a spoiler for anyone who hasn't played the game). That segment has blood in it as well. So now I have to ask - why didn't we fight human enemies throughout the game?
Unfortunately, the controls aren't as good as they should be. The action elements of the game control quite smoothly, but the shooting isn't quite as solid. Vanquish eschews the heavy auto-aim used in most console shooters like Call of Duty - there's no aim assist at all. This isn't unusual for a third-person shooter. Gears of War had no auto-aim either. The biggest problem is that there isn't enough range in the sensitivity to allow for quick camera movement while preserving accuracy while in combat. The most comfortable sensitivity I could find required three whole seconds (!) for a full 360-degree rotation of the camera - and I had to give up my ability to fire off the hip with any reliability to even get that much (which, admittedly, isn't as bad as it sounds. You won't be firing off the hip much in Vanquish). Thankfully, the game allows you to adjust the sensitivity separately for when you're firing off the hip, aiming down the sights, and zooming with the sniper rifle. This isn't even due to the usual issues that spring up from using a dual-analog control scheme in a shooter, since I don't have such bad problems with other shooters. Platinum just didn't tweak the controls well enough.
Replay value: 2/10
There's practically no replay value here at all. No incentive to play the campaign multiple times exists. There's little reason to play on a higher difficulty with the same clunky controls and poor design. No multiplayer mode exists, probably because this game's heavy reliance on bullet-time doesn't lend it to multiplayer - I can't even see a co-op campaign working here.
Final Verdict: 5/10 (not an average)
The biggest problem with Vanquish is that its attempt to outdo Western game design shows exactly why Western developers have been more successful when it comes to shooters. There's nothing wrong with Japanese game design. Platinum Games' own Bayonetta is proof of that. Bayonetta was an incredible exhibition of everything a hack-and-slash action game should be. Western games such as God of War look pitiful in comparison Vanquish was a poor attempt to one-up Western shooters that utterly failed. Vanquish's unique gameplay elements essentially boil down to bullet-time and boost, and the result is even worse than if the game had just been another Gears of War knockoff.
I'm ripping on this game quite heavily. This isn't because it was painful to play (like many 5/10 games are) but because I found this game's premise so pretentious that I found it necessarily to score it as harshly as I did. Japan is surely capable of making good shooters, but I'd like to see them take a look at Western shooters and, rather than try to prove how bad they suck, even when they don't (like Platinum did), take the best elements of what makes good current Western shooters enjoyable and apply the appropriate elements of Japanese game philosophy to them. Vanquish should stand as an example of what happens when you let your arrogance get the best of you.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 01/09/12, Updated 01/30/12
Game Release: Vanquish (US, 10/19/10)
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