To fans of Resident Evil and Devil May Cry, news that Shinji Mikami has returned from the wilderness to work on a new game will be welcome indeed. Despite Mikami’s previous title, God Hand, being released in 2006 to under-appreciative reviews, Vanquish’s eye-blistering action and slick controls have gained a lot of interest. Even so in the Western market, where Japanese productions can often get left behind with translation and culture differences. Also, it’s yet another glorious feather in the cap of Platinum Games, the publishers of last year’s third-person action extravaganza Bayonetta.
It’s true that Gears of War has a lot to answer for. Although Epic’s gritty, ultra violent and gory saga is difficult to fault, it has since unleashed a massive swarm of third-person cover and shoot titles. Initially, Vanquish threatens to follow suit, but once you get past the tutorial sequences, you start to realise that Mikami has injected a sense of style and elegance that makes Vanquish quite unlike most third-person shooters before it.
Set in the not-so-distant future, Earth’s dwindling energy resources are being hotly contested between the United States and Russia. What's essentially the second Cold War leads to the mass destruction of major cities in America at the hands of a Russian space station equipped with solar weaponry. One of the opening cinematics shows the city of San Francisco being microwaved by the new outer-orbit weaponry, complete with gruesome scenes of innocent civilians being cooked alive. As the President of the United States addresses her nation, a last resort plan involving a task force called Bravo Company is sent to neutralise the space station and regain power against the Communist forces.
So Vanquish is basically Die Hard set in space. But instead of Bruce Willis, the protagonist is Sam Gideon, a US Government agent with a penchant for smoking, one-liners and loose women. Sam is equipped with a spanking new Augmented Reaction Suit (ARS). And this shiny, "Iron Man"-like armour is more than just body-bling. The ARS gives way to some of the most insane third-person combat action many gamers could ever dream of.
The animations in Vanquish are beautiful to watch and never miss a beat as Gideon zips around on screen. The ARS lets you dodge bullets, slide from cover to cover and slow-down time to seamlessly take out a dozen bad guys with grace and style. The gunfights are epic and you’ll seldom get a chance to blink with the ceaseless action on screen at any one time. Gideon even has an impressive array of martial arts moves for close-quarter combat as well. But despite the manic carnage, Vanquish never threatens to become a button-masher. The controls, although taking a little while to get to grips with, are smooth and responsive letting you string together a masterful combo of deadly moves that even your significant other will appreciate watching.
Strangely, despite all of Gideon's fancy moves, he can't jump. This frustrating lack of vertical movement means that you will be stopped in your tracks by a small barrier or bit of rubble. Although he can leap over them from cover, the ability to quickly hurdle objects on the move would certainly be helpful in the heat of battle.
Speaking of a heated battle, your ARS body armour can over-heat when pushed to its limits, forcing you to take a quick breather while it cools down. This change in pace opens up a huge element of strategy, letting you consider your next plan of attack and regrouping your thoughts before launching into a new barrage of awesomeness. However, it is fair to say that the enemy AI could do with some improvements. Although the foes in Vanquish are never easy, often attacking in waves of overwhelming numbers and with excessive fire power, they don’t possess the same sort of cunning as seen in something like Gears of War. The only exceptions come in the form of boss battles, of which Vanquish has plenty. One of these, for example, is a huge, heavily armed mech-spider, that even once you destroy it, turns into a robot and proves to be even more deadly. Towards the end, players will need to be at the top of their game to get through some gargantuan and seemingly impossible encounters.
All of these sequences are beautifully pieced together with stunning cinematics that fans of Mikami will be expecting. In his typical style, many of these are totally confusing and long-winded. But you can't help but admire the impressive number of man-hours that must have gone into making them. In fact all of the visuals and over-all presentation of Vanquish are almost flawless. Granted most of the environments can be a bit bland and are made from almost an entire palette of cool greys. But the attention to detail, the character renders and the amount of movement on screen make the monotone sets easily excusable. In fact it’s probably safe to say that the choice of the metallic colour palette only adds to the abrasive characteristics that makes the game so appealing in the first place.
As you might expect from the hands of Mikami, Vanquish isn’t very forgiving and will give casual gamers a hard-time as the difficulty ramps up quickly. The checkpoints are spread out, often forcing players to replay large chunks of frustrating gameplay over and over. There is even a ruthless point deduction that will cause high score junkies to throw their toys around in anguish. But this shouldn’t deter a wider audience of gamers as Vanquish does feature an easy difficulty setting and even includes an assisted control scheme to help others cope with the insane action. For fans of Bayonetta and those who found Gears of War a bit too slow and clunky, Vanquish is definitely going to please when it releases here in NZ on 22 October.
Note: Vanquish was reviewed on final code on a debug console, but not the retail version of the game.