Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Review: Vanquish (PS3)

Vanquish is an awesome game, there’s no doubt about that. Platinum Games have created a masterpiece of a shooter that blows away any other modern day title that remotely tries to replicate the same blend of intense action and screen-filling chaos, of which there are next to none. Comparisons with Gears Of War may be drawn initially, as the game appears to be a more hectic variant of the duck & cover shooter. However, Vanquish is instead is more like a hardcore, three-dimensional homage to the 16bit run and gun shumps of old, and is as definitively thrilling as it is exemplary.

The best way to describe Platinum Games’ highly stylish, and overly intense homage to classic side-scrollers, is to say that it is like a warped version of Gears Of War on a speed trip. Though such limiting connotations just don’t really do it justice. Sure, you can play Vanquish like a simple Gears clone on easy mode, and the game does have plentiful spots of cover in which to park your backside against, though in doing so you’d be missing the point completely. And by a very large margin.

Perhaps with its use of high-powered, though grounded special abilities, and the instantly cool, but somewhat fiddly to implement weapon cancelling system, the game owes as much to classic, over the top beat’em up romps such as Marvel Vs Capcom as it does to any other contender to the third-person shooting crown. The sheer intensity of the combat; the amount of enemies, effects, and carnage on screen rip apart any misconceptions you might have taking you on a journey into one of the most satisfying action games that I’ve played in a long time.

Starting out initially, the game sees you taking on a few handfuls of enemies using the many walls and concrete cover points in order to take a few second breathers in between the more fierce battles for territory. This is pretty much like every other third-person shooter you’ve experience before. However, very soon after it finally starts to dawn on you that sticking in one place for any length of time isn’t a very good idea; you’re unlikely to stay alive for long doing this, especially as the game ramps up its foe count dramatically the further you push on.

Instead you have to keep moving, whether that be from point to point, or by trailblazing past scores of enemies using your jetpack. It doesn’t matter. The thing is, combat is meant to be fast, furious and often chaotic. The constant change-up between slower enclosed affairs, with wide-open faster paced sections is like the constant ebb and flow of pace in a fighting game.

However, unlike in those kinds of titles, you’ll be constantly facing a barrage of bullets, laser beams, artillery, and powerful rockets as the stage quickly turns into an all out battlefield. It’s hectic, but stylistically cool. And this is exemplified by Sam Giedeon’s use of a specially engineered suit giving him a small range of enhanced abilities.

Sam’s Augmented Reaction Suit (ARS) not only makes our futuristic American hero more agile – you can dodge, flip and cartwheel yourself past most heavy enemy fire, but also allows him to glide across the floor’s surface with the aid of a jetpack, plus conveniently upping his perceptive skills, delivering a slow-motion, bullet-time type effect to the action.

The jetpack, and in particular in combination with bullet-time is something that you’ll no doubt be needing to use throughout most of Vanquish, especially on the Normal and hard difficulty settings. Seeing as enemy fire usually comes from all directions, the game conveniently pushing you to move from place to place, and back again, using your suits impressive abilities in order to leverage any vantage point you can.

I found it distinctly refreshing running in head on, constantly repositioning myself the heat of battle, boosting around enemies before going in for the kill. The sensation you get is far more exciting than just by simply hiding behind various walls and other objects, occasionally popping up for a few quick shots before ducking back down again. Instead cover gives you a few quick seconds to grasp your bearings before you jump full-on back into combat, blazing past enemies, before spraying a mountain of bullets their way.

Often boosting past multiple targets, before turning around in full bullet-time action, whilst cartwheeling past an incoming barrage of projectiles is a common way of not only staying alive, but also positioning yourself for the perfect assault. Once in full slow mo you then can unleash your own sneaky counter attack. This is unmistakably what Vanquish is all about, and is something that you should frequently be doing all the way through the game. Sometimes though, the action becomes just a tad too overwhelming to handle, and the end result is being on the receiving end of some near-fatal impact damage.

Your suit may make you fast whilst being incredibly durable, but strong and built to withstand epic bombardments it is not. In order to give you that fighting edge, when you are mere seconds away from death the game automatically slows down into bullet-time, whilst your health quickly recovers. This then allows you to easily take out the most offending foes from halting your progress safely in the knowledge that a short represeve is only a few seconds away. It’s a nice touch, one that frequently helps you out just when you think you might be near the end.

Of course, your ARS abilities can be used independently from each another; activating the bullet-time mechanic to gain a better shot when needing to hit a crucial weak point for example, or boosting away to get out of tough situations in which there is no time to sensibly avoid conflict by more normal means. Chaining these abilities together however, is really where the game’s skill and subsequent depth really lies.

Take for example the weapon system. You have four weapon slots in Vanquish, and these can be toggled through via the d-pad (one for each direction) – you usually start with the assault rife, heavy machine gun, shotgun, and some grenades. However, weapons can be cancelled out mid-fire by simply pushing down on the d-pad to select another. This means that it is possible to lunge toward an enemy in slow-motion whilst emptying a whole assault rife clip into them, before cancelling into a shotgun for a decisively final, close-range blast to the head. It’s moments like these which really, really deliver that “oh yeah” factor, but without the need for any cheesy Americanised comments found in a certain other shooter.

It is up against the bosses in which these feats of brilliance are best served, although due to the sometimes fiddly nature of the controls, such events rarely go quite as planned. And this is perhaps the biggest issue that can be laid out against the game; that with so many button combinations to remember, and the d-pad to consider in higher-level play, Vanquish sometimes feels like it’s more inaccessible than it perhaps should be.

I really like the idea of weapon cancelling – it brings much dept to the table. But when it is so finicky to use, it can feel redundantly absent. You can of course still manage to utilise most of your acrobatic, Matrix influenced arsenal despite some minor qualms with the controls. And the range of impressive bosses, and sub-bosses - which become normal foes once you’ve encountered them for the first time – is exactly where this tatic is best reserved. Imaginatively designed, screen-filling, and scenery destroying in nature, these awesome encounters are some of the best parts of the game.

Forget the blazing gunfire found right in the regular battlefield, because when up against one or even several bosses at once, you’ll be bombarded with scores of incendiary projectiles, and numerous other tools of war. And as if taking these behemoths down wasn’t difficult enough, every one features its own signature one-hit-kill attack, giving out an instant death sentence if you’re not quick enough to move out of the way.

Such moves are rarely of continued annoyance. And although later bosses use this quick kill manoeuvre far more frequently, the game does give you adequate toolage in order to deal with them successfully. It’s just a case of memorising each boss’s specific attack patterns, avoiding the lethal blows, and constantly boosting, dodging and countering all the way through to the conclusion, in which you should witness a lovely cataclysmic explosion, filled with layered smoke and loads, and loads of awesome particle effects.

Spectacle isn’t just contained in these encounters however, Vanquish features a fair few dramatic set pieces and lavishly scripted events. One of which is a very, very cool train section, which sees you situated on one train while firing on another that twists and circles your carriage on a intertwining track way. Another segment will see you taking on several mini-bosses at once, up against a range of powerful fixed weaponry amongst some stunningly lavish visual carnage.

Elements like these, and the many large-scale battles to be found through the game all flow nicely into each other. There’s never a moment where Vaquish feels disjointed, or where certain sections come out of nowhere. Perhaps the only thing which occasionally tends to intrude, is the game’s use of brief cinematic interludes during gameplay, which break up some very short shooting sections just as they are getting started. Quite why this was done I’m not sure – the plot isn’t expanded in any meaningful way that’s for sure, and they simply break up the feel of the game.

The rest of the cinematics though are a very welcome inclusion. They are a blend of the same OTT action as found in the gameplay segments, complete with the same electronic, trippy music that encompasses the entire game. And whilst these cut-scenes don’t really flesh out the story, they are amazingly well directed, and act as an impressive companion piece to the highly-stylished gameplay.

Effectively, the plot is only a sallow device used to set up the next elaborate action sequence, where by there is lots of shooting, lots of cool set-pieces, even more shooting, and then more short cinematics, followed by even more of the same. And since it is this rinse and repeat nature of play which makes Vanquish feel like a modern-day re-envisioning of classic 90’s shooters like Contra and Metal Slug, rather than just a Japanese take on Epic’s GOW, that is exactly how you should view it.

Vanquish blends tried and tested old-school arcade methodology with modern day, western sensibilities into a ride of highly intoxicating, choreographed chaos, complete with large scale intense action, and short little cinematic interludes - Quantum Theory this is not. The game then is a stellar example of Japanese madness meeting crazy over the top gunplay, delivered in a familiar form, though strikingly fresh and original at the same time.

If there are any complaints to be had, then it’s the somewhat stiff animations, and slightly complicated controls which mostly come to mind. Although neither really put a dampner on the experience, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to forgive such issues considering the level of polish to be found throughout.

Vanquish may well be a little too hectic for some, with the near constant bombardment of multi-directional action threatening to disengage anyone unaware of the sheer apocalyptic mix contained within, but it also provides some of best slices of arcade style gaming in recent years. The fact that it does this so well, means that Platinum Games latest is quite possibly one of the best games I've played this generation, and is in my view, utterly essential.


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