Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Review: Vanquish: How much awesomness can you fit in one game?

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Vanquish is a game that reminded me how much I love Japanese games. If somebody walks into the room as you're playing Vanquish, the latest from Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, their first thought might be that the game looks a lot like a brighter Gears of War, and, both being cover shooters, they do share some similarities. However, whereas I couldn't stand Gears of War and quit after only the 2nd level, Vanquish is a game that grabbed me and pulled me into its craziness almost from the beginning, and kept me playing until I reached the end. Fun to play, challenging, and incredibly addictive, here's something that every action game junkie should have in their collection.

This is a game set in our world in the future, where robots have been developed as armed forces and are invading America. Russia is behind it, and the plot pretty much covers everything from futuristic combat suits to space colonies, to world-weary old marines and politics, not to mention smoking. Lots and lots of smoking. The plot here is deliberately over the top and quite convoluted, but it delivers some truly amazing cutscenes, some of which set the scene for great battles and enemy confrontations.

The real reason you play Vanquish, though, is for the gameplay, and this is the type of game that you need to play (and I'm not talking about the lame demo) to really understand. Once you get the hang of controlling Sam in his high-tech combat suit and discover which weapons work best for your style of play, Vanquish's controls feel like second nature, making the hours upon hours you'll spend gunning down these Russian robots incredibly fun and rewarding. Cover is there and it definitely plays a big role in battle; if you don't take cover at the right time, the enemies will wipe the floor with you. What I love so much about Vanquish, though, is that unlike Gears of War, it doesn't require you to constantly lug a slow-moving character from one cover wall to the next, and in fact gives you many incentives to hop out from behind your cover and take on the enemies directly. With the press of the left bumper, Sam is suddenly able to lie down and slide through the environments like he's on a motorcycle, definitely one of the cooler gameplay mechanics the 3rd person shooter has seen in some time. The feeling of zooming around enemies,dodging their bullets and powerful ray gun missiles, is pretty much second to none, and this becomes even cooler when in bullet time. In another cool feature, Sam's suit sends him into bullet time mode whenever his HP runs low, and as it regenerates, you have some time to either run for cover, or to absolutely wreak havoc on the enemies surrounding you in slow motion. Incorporate a slide into this and you have the recipe for absolute....erm.....badass-itude. I haven't even mentioned your melee attacks, yet another surprisingly satisfying gameplay addition that makes Vanquish feel not like "another 3rd person shooter" but like a game all its own.

The focus here is on its fast speed. Sam moves very quickly, and his ability to athletically hop over cover, the quick time in which the enemies' HP depletes, the short length you stay in each location before your squad moves on, and some of the seriously cool combat set pieces, make for an adrenaline-pumping experience that I found exciting in a way I've never found 3rd person shooters exciting before.  This game's all about the flash, it's all about the excess, it's all about the intensity and the action, but on the other hand, it's not a shallow game. Some of the massive boss fights and the more elaborate battle scenes you'll find yourself taking part in require a definite strategy, especially later in the game, and the weapons you pick up (you can carry 3 different ones at once, any of which you can swap out) are all varied and allow for a completely different combat experience. There are also robot mechs you can take control of and turrets you can hop into, both of which can do serious damage to surrounding enemies, though these have limited ammo so you can't make the game too easy for yourself. Vanquish does run on an ammo system but there always seems to be plenty of it around and you have other weapons you can switch to should you run out. You can also find weapon powerups throughout the levels to upgrade their ammo capacity and power.

It's all just really, *really* fun. I can't stress that enough. For much of the time, playing Vanquish is like getting to control the coolest action scenes in the most intense action movies. This is a non-stop thrill ride with a challenging (but reasonable) difficulty and tons of great action sequences, both playable and in cutscene form.

Even so, though, Vanquish isn't a perfect game, and one thing that holds it back is the story. I'm not sure why a game that looks as great as this does and that features cutscenes as cool and expensive as these were was given such bad dialogue. Almost every line, both during battle and during cutscenes, is so incredibly cheesy and campy that I actually felt embarrassed for the voice actors, (and this has some good ones too, like Final Fantasy 12's Gideon Emery and of course Steve Blum) who give bad performances as they struggle with an uneven script. It feels like it was Mikami's intent for Vanquish to replicate the feel of an "American Action Movie," with the problem being that "American Action Movies" haven't been this way since, like....the 80s. As a result, rather than feeling like the homage it was probably intended to feel like, the poor script and voice acting result in Vanquish feeling cheap and even a little dated. Which is too bad, because some cool stuff actually does begin to happen towards the end, but the under-developed characters and bad dialogue make it tough to take any of it seriously, let alone care much about these characters. The somewhat inconclusive ending might also rub a lot of gamers the wrong way.

On the gameplay side of things, Vanquish does move from being "challenging" to "frustrating" somewhere during the last hour or so, as some of the enemies you fight (the flying ones) can be unfairly difficult to see, and this, along with the game suddenly seeming to favor overloading the screen with enemies over real strategy and bosses who have moves that kill you in one hit, makes for a frustrating last hour or so. Thankfully, Platinum Games was more than generous with the checkpoints, so things never seem to be *too* frustrating, but there are definitely some moments towards the end that may send some controllers flying.

Verdict: Vanquish is actually the first effort from Platinum Games that I really enjoyed. I liked MadWorld but thought it ended just as it was getting good, and I couldn't stand Bayonetta, but Vanquish is something else. It's an intense, fun, challenging, nice-looking, and perfectly paced 3rd person shooter that just served to remind me why I still like Japanese games so much more than many of their Western counterparts. Vanquish isn't afraid to go over the top in the way that many Japanese games love to go over the top, and in an age when many games are taking themselves so seriously, it's refreshing to get to play one that's not afraid to push the boundaries of what's possible in a 3rd person shooter while completely destroying any sense of reality or believability. Still, one area I wish the game did take itself more seriously in is its storyline, as this is a world that's absolutely begging for a great story. Instead, Vanquish settles for action movie cliches, bad dialogue, and characters with very little in the way of personality. Don't go in expecting a well-written or acted story, and you'll probably love Vanquish.

Presentation: Top-notch cutscenes and high production value, coupled with enough style to fill two games, works to hide the groan-inducing dialogue, which does its best to cheapen the experience.

Graphics: Beautiful art direction, a vast cityscape, and so much happening on screen at once that it's almost unreal, Vanquish is without a doubt Platinum's best-looking game so far.

Gameplay: Delivers a fun and intense experience loaded with variety and style. Really pushes the envelope of what can be expected out of an action game. Words can't describe how fun this is to play, and the pacing is relentless.

Audio: Soundtrack's both subtle and epic at the same time, works well with the action. The voice actors do their best but still can't quite redeem the dialogue. Sound effects though are as crazy as the action.

Value: a "God Hard" mode is unlocked after beating the game, which I'm sure presents an EPIC challenge....can't even imagine. There are also some other challenge modes you unlock as you progress through the campaign.  Game could maybe have used a little more in the way of extra features with its somewhat short length, but the campaign's good enough to be worth it all on its own.

Overall: 8.5/10

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