Saturday, November 20, 2010

REVIEW - Vanquish.

I was expecting big things from Shinji Mikami's latest action bonanza, and if you consider yourself well-read on the subject of his work, it's clear that he has delivered on his mandate with Vanquish. Like Devil May Cry, it boasts immensely stylish action. Like God Hand, it's a deceptively deep game, with lots of meat on its seemingly bare bones, and like, well, every game he's directed, it's got a stupid, cheesy plot that exists only to place the protagonist in a wild, imaginative environment - if you're a fan of Mikami (and you should be), it will satisfy.

While Vanquish is a great game - it is strength upon strength - I must admit I was expecting a bit more. Everything Mikami has touched as director has either revolutionized a genre or brilliantly modernized classic mechanics. Vanquish does neither - it merely refines one genre down to its funnest form - but since that is its only major flaw, what remains is still definitely worth exploring.

Let's talk presentation. Is it a bit stupid that a gung-ho, cigarette-suckin', one-liner-spewin' man's man like Sam Gideon is giving DARPA's prototype Augmented Reaction Suit its first field test?

Yes it is. And once you start blasting around the battlefield, popping heads and breaking hearts, watching all the little detailed articulations on your suit switch this way and that, you won't care.

Art direction begins to feel a bit too dedicated to the sparse reality the gamer finds themselves in - it's one of these minimalist futures where everything looks very clean and the most interesting part of the environment is its sheer scale - but it also manages to maintain a consistency that sells the player on its ridiculous reality.

The sparseness also allows the engine to throw a rather remarkable amount of stuff around. The spectacular shower of sparks that glitter about the battlefield after a boss fight, the sight of individual bullets whining past you in slow motion, trying to keep your head in a firefight while a thousand-ton troop transport crashes into the world a few meters away all successfully give Vanquish a real wow factor. As yet another attempt to use the whole "bullet time" thing to make action look extra-cool, Vanquish is an unqualified success.

It's that unbridled spectacle which first hooks the player, and thankfully it continues to deliver over the course of its campaign. Unlike some games that only offer two or three such incredible moments, Vanquish consistently bombards the player with way, way over-the-top set pieces and gargantuan foes.

After you've seen all the colossal mechs and killed all the crazy bosses, what's left? Is the game worth playing, after you've seen it all?

You betcha.

Like Platinum Games' Bayonetta, Vanquish's skin-deep beauty sheaths a core of delightful, old-school depth - only to be mastered by those willing to put in the requisite time. Smaller grunts will go down easy with the careful application of headshots, but that's just the beginning. "Alright," Vanquish says, "you've learned their 'secret.' Now figure this out."

Then it throws something totally new at you. Now, you can just shoot this new enemy until it dies - that works - but that's not very cool, is it? And there is a cool way to kill this new monstrosity. There is always a hidden method, a tactic to be discovered which changes a three-minute war of attrition spent wasting countless shells into an ultra-stylish execution, seemingly (but not really) effortless, and lasting all of eight seconds.

Vanquish rewards mastery not with new toys or achievements, but with the glory of mastery itself. Getting better at the game changes it entirely. It's delicious, and a deeply satisfying challenge on the harder difficulty levels.

All of this is thanks to wise, considered design. While challenge consistently ramps up over the course of the game, I never found myself obstructed by some terrible difficulty spike. New mechanics, tactics and enemy types are introduced at a clip that allows the player time to experiment and adapt before the game combines the new and the old into a crazy new action sequence that pushes the player just a bit beyond their comfort zone.

A dash of customization is all the fluff that's been added. If Sam picks up a weapon for which he already has full ammunition, that weapon will receive permanent rank buff - but rocking a pimped-out LMG at the end of the game isn't the source of the player's sense of empowerment - it's the experience, confidence and skill gleaned from a game that expertly leads one down a path that is never too easy, and always just hard enough to make them grow as a futuristic gunfighting super-soldier.

I often reference other titles that inform the design of a game in my reviews, but when it comes down to it, the question a review should answer is "how well does this game achieve its goal?" Comparing this third-person shooter to Mikami's last third-person shooter, or other third-person shooters with cover systems isn't really a comparison at all, because Vanquish has a very different objective, a very different goal - and it achieves it perfectly. In doing so, though, it ignores much of what we've come to value in our modern games.

It's not trying to thrill you with its grit or tell a great story. The story is an afterthought. Grit is nonexistant in a game where all your enemies are clean, lifeless robots. Vanquish has only one real objective: wonderful gameplay. It's designed to be so damn fun to play, you don't miss the rest of that stuff - and I don't, really. This is third-person shooting, rendered down to its essential core and rebuilt with a few mechanics to make it a bit more fun for the player, a bit more glorious to watch.

As such, it's a bit lean - there's nothing else to enjoy here, if you don't enjoy the gameplay - but it's also a successful exercise in doing one thing fantastically well. It's visually spectacular in the name of drawing the player in, but after that it comes down to this:

Vanquish is very pretty, and really fun to play.

-constant, spectacular set pieces and use of effects
-above-par graphics
-watching your weapon transform is always cool
-uses slow-mo really well
-the deepest third-person shooter gameplay you'll find
-a great, hardcore challenge on harder difficulties
-stupid, cheesy story

-stupid, cheesy story
-we get it, Sam's a white knight
-it's a great shooter - but that's all it is

Vanquish boasts rich, rewarding gameplay and great spectacle, but little variety. This is a game that can be easily digested in a two-day rental, or obsessively and pleasurably mastered by the stalwart.

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