Reviewed: November 13, 2010
Released: October 19, 2010
Talk about your sleeper hit of the year. I knew absolutely nothing about Vanquish going into this review. It somehow had avoided me at E3 and none of the pre-release hype was particularly memorable. Even after the game arrived when I was studying the cover with the Iron Man-like character grinding along the floor, I still wasn’t terribly impressed, but things were about to change. The slick opening menu with the sweeping curved city in the background only hinted at the spectacle to come.|
Before the main event, gamers are required to report for a bit of mandatory ARS training, which is both useful and even a bit entertaining thanks to some witty banter with your handler, Elena, and Dr. Candide, the creator of the fantastic mobile armor you find yourself wearing. Once you learn how to move, dash, and shoot a variety of weapons you are ready for action.
The game opens with a stunning opening cinematic – we’re talking Final Fantasy caliber here; the kind of high octane movie that would send Michael Bay scrambling back to film school - where San Francisco gets “nuked” and an epic space battle ensues with giant battleships (that look like they were lifted from Starship Troopers) advancing on a giant space megastructure similar to a Dyson Sphere, but this one is cylindrical in shape.
After your ship slips past the bay doors you are deposited in the first of many stages, this one requiring that you merely traverse a hallway before another cutscene takes over. Vanquish is extremely cinematic, especially in the beginning where you may only actually play the game for 3-5 minutes out of the first 20. The movies ease up in duration and frequency soon enough, but given their high quality and the fact that they seamlessly integrate with the gameplay; I had no problem with them. And you can always skip them if you just want to kill robots without knowing why.
To summarize, Russian terrorists have taken over a massive space station/city and turned it into a giant microwave weapon. After cooking San Francisco they give the U.S. 8 hours to surrender before they turn the weapon on New York City. You play Sam Gideon, a special operative from DARPA with an experimental combat suit, sent to assist the regular marines. Your high-tech handler, Elena, is always in your earpiece to provide you with the latest intel and tech support.
Vanquish is first and foremost a third-person action shoot with a fantastic cover system. The only thing that rivals the maneuverability of Sam’s suit is the incredibly cool BLADE weapons system and the lengthy upgrade tree for those weapons. You have four weapons slots; one is dedicated to grenades that come in EMP and explosive flavors. Your other three slots can be swapped out with whatever weapon you like.
The upgrade system is slick and intuitive. If you pick up a weapon that you already have it will refill the ammo for that weapon. If you already had full ammo then it will upgrade that weapon. Every few levels your weapon will improve, both in damage and ammo capacity. Levels are indicated with ribbons, chevrons, and stars, and it can take over half of the game before you max a weapon. Interestingly enough, if you ever drop a maxed-out weapon you will lose one level of upgrade. Even grenades can be upgraded in number and blast radius.
The weapon selection is very imaginative with some standards like heavy and normal assault rifles and a rocket launcher, but then you have things like a Disc Cannon, the LFE cannon that shoots a giant disabling plasma ball, and the Lock-On Laser that can lock-on and fire numerous laser bolts in swarm missile fashion. Weapons are generously scattered about the levels, both on the fallen enemies and in green Marine drop boxes, making it easy to switch or level up your arsenal before each new encounter. From time to time you will also find an upgrade power-up that will instantly upgrade your current weapons one level.
Perhaps one of the coolest parts of combat is your ARS battle suit. This suit is able to withstand massive amounts of damage and when it does finally go critical you will automatically go into AR mode where time slows and you can either escape to safety or get in those final few shots with precision aiming. AR mode can be manually triggered to enhance normal combat with a simple button combo. This allows you to slow down the otherwise frantic and often overwhelming encounters and choose your targets with far greater precision. It also helps in locating and hitting those glowing “soft spots” on the massive bosses. And finally, your suit can also jet propel you around with super-speed like a runner sliding into home plate. Any use of the ARS including taking damage increases the heat. If the suit gets too hot you will go critical and have to wait for it to cool down before you can trigger AR mode again.
The cover system works nicely and is required in nearly every encounter. Your jets will allow you to zip from cover to cover then peek out and fire when safe. The enemy AI is adequate and any lapses are made up for in sheer overwhelming numbers. Vanquish is hard, even on the normal skill setting. You’ll encounter your first boss about 20 minutes into the game and are destined to die several times figuring it all out. I will tell you here and now, it is paramount that you diligently find upgrades and level up those weapons early and keep doing so throughout. Firepower is king in this game.
The action in Vanquish is so non-stop and over-the-top that it often felt like an arcade game, especially when periodically, a scorecard would pop-up tallying your progress for the previous level and the overall game up to that point. Personally, I thought the scoring was unnecessary, but I guess that’s a big deal in Japan, and it does lend itself to replayability and competitive leaderboards.
Graphically, this game is right up there in the top ten best on the Xbox 360. It lacks a bit when it comes to outdoorsy appeal (like Castlevania: Lords of Shadow), but for high-tech futuristic polish, it doesn’t get much better. As previously mentioned, the opening movie and every other cutscene in this game is summer blockbuster quality with huge sweeping camera pans of the planet-sized city in space and awesome reveals of some of the largest bosses in gaming history. One boss is so large it takes a Saturn V-size rocket just to lift one foot off the ground. Levels mix indoor and outdoor locations; there are some wild train rides, a collapsing highway, and even a mission in a forest.
Narrowing the visual focus, the enemy creations are marvelous in their detail and animations from the smallest of spider-bots to the largest of bosses. Sam’s looks incredible with detailed suit graphics, pulsing energy, and the morphing animation for his weapons is super-cool. Even his grenades switch out on his belt. Lighting, effects, smoke, damage; it’s all just perfect – even the gratuitous up-skirt shots of Elena in nearly every scene.
Complementing the mind-blowing visuals is a cinematic score worthy of a sci-fi blockbuster. It’s a mix of atmospheric, orchestra, and even some cool techno club beats if you can find a secret robot dance club. The voice work is exceptional, especially for Sam who sounds remarkably like David Hayter (Solid Snake). My only complaint with the sound mix is that the voice levels are way too low during the cinematics forcing you to strain to hear the dialogue in some parts of the game.
Vanquish is a solo experience with no multiplayer, and I have no problem with that. The game delivers a solid 8-hour experience that will have you loving every memorable minute. Interesting enough, when the game starts and the Marines are being briefed on their deadline, a counter appears above their heads indicating they have 8 hours and 4 minutes to save the world. My completion time was exactly 8 hours and 1 minute. There are lots of fun and challenging achievementd you can earn, some of which will have you replaying all or at least parts of the game over again.
Vanquish is a mix of Zone of Enders (anyone remember that game) and Iron Man with firearms. The action is relentless, the challenge is immense, the settings are breathtaking, and the feeling you have when it’s all over is indescribable. You’ll want to call your friends and have them cover over and play just so you can watch and appreciate it all over again. Vanquish is the best kept secret of 2010 and a cover-action-shooter that no true gamer should consider skipping.