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Friday, 1 August 2014

Vanquish



Vanquish.



I like Platinum Games. They've got spunk.

Before Bayonetta, which I have mixed feelings about, I'd pretty much never heard of them, and it's true that they've not developed many games at all, although with sci-fi hack-and-slash Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (still not a word, guys) and Sentai simulator Wonderful 101 on the books, and Bayonetta 2 and Legend of Korra coming up later this year, they're definitely growing in prominence.

Vanquish seems to be one of their lesser known games, probably because it's a slightly odd duck, being an absurdly beautiful and frenetic rapid-skidding-around-the-place third person shooter that combines shooter gameplay, squad-based gameplay, beat-em-up gameplay, and Sonic the Hedgehog-oid racing gameplay in a way that makes it not fit easily into any genre.

(Interestingly, when I told someone this once, they tried to insist that genres were immutable constructs that had existed since caveman times. Then they told me it was in first person. They'd never played the game: This, my friends, is why I try to avoid having conversations with people wherever possible.)

"Yeah, you're playing first-person, as someone standing very
close to the main character."

It's also very, very short. It took me about six hours of committed gameplay to beat it – for a lot of people, it'll only take four, which makes it Portal series levels of shortness. This obviously doesn't make it any more popular, especially since unlike Portal, this is a game you could extend to eight or ten hours without it outstaying its welcome.

Vanquish drops you into the Kamen Rider esque power armour of Sam Gideon, a DARPA researcher sent along with a military squad to liberate a space-station-slash-power-generator from the hands of evil extremist Soviet robots, who have recently used it to microwave San Francisco in an event many newspapers are describing as 'a little harsh.'

With his state of the art armour, Sam is able to rapidly slide along the ground at high speeds, copy up to three types of weapon, throw grenades, kick robots so hard they explode, and smoke. The smoking is a gameplay mechanic. You can use it to distract robots. Robots have strong views on tobacco.

"STOP POLLUTING THE AIR."

The whole game is very reminiscent of 'bullet hell' games, in that it never really lets up. You rarely get the chance to relax in this game – from the start through to the end it's almost constantly throwing enemies at you, usually from multiple directions, with your only cover being fragile and easy to destroy. Your only option is to scoot around the field as rapidly as possible, taking cover only when you need to recharge, returning fire as best you can and maybe occasionally lobbing a grenade or seizing a turret to temporarily change up the gameplay.

(Speaking of changing up the gameplay, the end credits are a rail shooter where you shoot asteroids. The most powerful asteroid is director and lead designer Shinji Mikami himself. Just – just so you know.)

To be honest, the game wouldn't be the same if it did have any slow moments. What makes the game fun is that it forces you to be a constantly moving ball of energy and death, and it never lets up or lets you relax: You may think you've mastered being a high speed engine of doom that destroys rifle-robots, but the moment you think that, the game will introduce giant spear-robots, or slow moving exploding jellyfish robots, or the weird teleporting Dr. Manhattan robots.

Or worse: Evil Soviet Kamen Rider, which is to say, your main villain, Zaitsev. You only face him twice in the game: Once on his own, and once with a robotic double with all the same abilities, and each time is a highlight, as you face someone who has all the same abilities as you, except he has a rapid fire energy gun and he can fly. While as a character, Zaitsev is a middling to weak villain at best, being a jeering bald cyborg whose crowning moment is imparting a terrible truth you've probably figured out already, as a boss he is absurdly memorable.

Unlike this large gangly robot, which I don't remember at all.

Which describes the game to a T, really. Storywise, it's – fine. Predictable. A bit by the numbers. Bolstered by some very lively and fun characters. You're never going to be surprised by the story, I doubt it'll touch you deeply, but it's a coherent excuse for some high octane action fun. Where the game shines instead is its gameplay.

(If this all sounds oddly familiar, incidentally, in a way you can't put your finger on, then, well, that's probably because it owes a lot to Shinji Mikami's previous works. The man is undeniably prolific, having produced God Hand, Devil May Cry, several Phoenix Wright games, a bunch of Resident Evil games, and similarly tokusatsu-oid video game Viewtiful Joe. For this game, he draws inspiration from several of those – the game is noticeably similar in places to all of those except Phoenix Wright, actually – along with popular 70s anime Neo-Human Casshern.)

It's the kind of gameplay that should have made this game a classic, and didn't. Not for lack of critical appreciation, I'll note: It's won awards. Numerous awards. Two Game of the Year awards. Best Sci-Fi Game from IGN, and nominations in five other categories. Best Original Game Mechanic from GameSpot, and six more nominations, including Game of the Year. This was a critically well-loved game, which is a pretty big achievement, given that it came out of a studio that at that point was mostly known for Bayonetta.

(Feelings on Bayonetta: Still mixed.)

Also, what lovely design.

I imagine, then, I am not alone in my disappointment that four years later, no sequel has materialised, or even been hinted at once. For a game with okay sales and good critical reception, that's actually more than a little bit surprising. Instead, Shinji Mikami is releasing survival horror The Evil Within, which would probably excite me more if I enjoyed surival horrors, on the whole, but I don't.

(I know, I know, I loved Condemned: Criminal Origins, but that's different.)

So that's disappointing, especially when the game was left open for a sequel. But still, game sequels are as oddly and inconsistently spaced apart as anime sequels: Maybe in two years time they'll announce Vanquish II. Maybe when I'm ninety years old and the world is enslaved to the Great Googlebot, I will switch on my VR headset and see an advert for Vanquish: Attack of the Fleshlings, and write an editorial about how it's a shame that the Great Googlebot insists that robots can't be villains in fiction any more.



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