Wot I Think: Vanquish

It’s my first time with the high-speed bumslides and endless robo-armies of Bayonetta and Nier: Automata dev Platinum’s third-person shooter Vanquish [official site], newly released on PC a full seven years after its console versions. I like to think that this means I see it with clear eyes, unclouded either by nostalgia or a predisposition to root for an underappreciated underdog.

Of course, it may instead mean that I’m unfairly holding a 2010 game to 2017 standards. That may be why I want to say things like “Vanquish looks and sounds exactly like the kind of shallow, noisy, appallingly-written, hyper-macho low culture that people who don’t play videogames think all videogames are like”. Then again, the reasons that people have kept its flame burning for the best part of the decade are surely the same reasons that make me want to say things like “yeah, Vanquish is brillo.”

Essentially: Vanquish is an amazing action game wearing the skin of the most unrefined and disposable noughties trash. I’m reasonably confident that intended satire of Gears of War-style archetypes underpins its hulk-shouldered, ever-swearing, constipated-sounding, chain-smoking key characters, but unfortunately there’s neither bite nor wit to it.

This kind of action hero satire is not new to games, but there’s none of the cackling excess of Bulletstorm, the brevity of Serious Sam or even the unintended belly-laughs of Gear of War 2’s dead wife scenes. It’s drab and cheerless. Fortunately, none of what’s said or happens even matters – you could replace every single line of dialogue in the game and it would make no real difference to proceedings.

The plot, such as it is: an army of Russian robots are trying to take over the world, you are a special ops sort with a special suit who has to go and shoot them, but one of your allies doesn’t respect you, until such time as the plot decides he respects the hell out of you. You know the score, probably.

The tedious characterisation and storytelling coupled with the most unpleasantly thin, meatless and generic of sci-fi action soundtracks (it sounds like the free samples included with a DJ application for Windows 95) makes Vanquish a terrible game on the ears. Outside of some striking space station design in a couple of levels and a couple of its boss-like enemies, it’s not a particularly interesting game to look at either, broadly coming across like Gears of War meets Michael Bay’s discarded designs for Transformers XVII.

Should you ever hear someone rhapsodising about Vanquish (as many have lately, believing that a lost classic is finally getting its day in the sun), don’t let them forget that, for all its virtues underneath the surface, Vanquish wears a coat of many ancient sins.

They’re bang-on about the virtues, mind you. Vanquish is yer actual rollicking good time, a game which kicks off feeling like any old space marine shooter but soon mutates into a thrilling cavalcade of athletic action that, though it’s made up of borrowed parts from other shooters, feels like no other shooter.

I mean it about the bumslides. Vanquish is all about the bumslides. To bumslide in Vanquish is to move as fast as a motorbike, with the added benefit of your head being just below the trajectory of most bullets, but an energy meter forbids you from doing this constantly, so it’s very much about picking your moments. While strafing and a cover system are present and correct, these are really about filling time until you can pull off another bumslide, at which the point the only sensible thing to do is switch into short-lived slow motion and pop off headshots (or, more commonly, glowing red weak spot-shots) as you careen around large spaces at speed on your titanium-clad posterior.

Sure, you can play it like a cover shooter if you want – it absolutely accommodates that – and I imagine some people will, never entirely twigging to the real game underneath.

To repeat an oft-used line, the best shooters are the ones that make movement, rather than the act of aiming a reticule, the most vital and even exciting aspect of themselves. Look to last year’s Doom, and how enjoyable it was to traverse a space. That’s why Vanquish works so well too. In terms of forward progress, it’s usually as straightforward and even uninteresting as can be – corridor, lift, big door, repeat – but when the time comes for a battle, it really goes for it.

There are the huge open spaces, the endurance tests against hordes of foes both little and large, there are the D-Day assaults upon heavily fortified bunkers, and there are the small rooms whose doors lock and trap you inside with something that has a frightening number of hitpoints. Often, there are all of these strung breathlessly together, a relentless carnival of shooting, sliding and slow-motion.

It could easily be argued that there isn’t much variety to Vanquish – that essentially it loops the same few encounters, requiring the same few skills – but, whatever it might bungle in terms of style, it broadly redeems in terms of pacing.

There are far too many terrible cutscenes and entirely pointless sections while you stomp along trapped in a scanning mode that has no purpose, but when Vanquish has its mind on the fight, it’s a combination of breathless intensity and pure thrill-power. Ping-ponging from enemy to enemy with your weapon of choice, creating a path through a bullet-hell place thanks to the power of slow-motion bumslides.

The genius of the slow-motion is that it doesn’t only trigger manually, but also automatically if you’re near-death and haven’t just expended all of your suit’s recharging energy meter on a mega-bumslide. In other words, a near-death situation is also an opportunity to turn the tables on your hordes of enemies. If you can mow enough of ’em down then finish up in a safe spot by the time the slow-mo ends, your health is restored and you’re the king of the castle. Equally though, you could fail to make the best of it (or overreach) and wind up dead all too easily.

I died a lot in Vanquish (on normal difficulty), but though the repetition inherent to this could be frustrating, I always knew that it was because I’d screwed up rather than because the game is unfair. Screwed up by not being a cool enough bum-sliding dude, that is.

Vanquish is one of those games where you get significantly better at it as you play, and it’s for that reason that it throws increasingly challenging situations and some rock-hard boss-baddies at you, rather than because you’ve got amazing powerful weapons later in the game. You pretty much see every weapon type it has to offer within the first hour or so, and the only upgrades are to stuff like ammo capacity or reload times rather than outright power.

So, it’s a case of learning your tools – the main one of which is your butt – rather than being gifted ever-expanding powers. The net result is that you feel cooler and cooler as you play, far more in control of the unlikeable personality vacuum that is Vanquish’s protagonist than you were when your first took control of him.

Which brings me to the matter of Vanquish’s PC conversion, specifically in terms of controls. Apart from some dabbling to test the gamepad controls, I’m happy to report that I played the whole thing through on keyboard and mouse, and it felt like it was made for that control set. We’ve all played games meant for gamepads that feel awful on K&M, but quite clearly this has been a thoughtful conversion, even though it is seven years after the fact. If anything, I can’t imagine not playing this on the PC’s weapons of choice, so natural does it feel.

Performance-wise and graphics setting-wise there’s nothing to complaint about either. It runs smoothly and it looks as decent as one could reasonably expect from a 2010 game at max settings, though it’s a shame it wasn’t possible to include higher-resolution textures. As I say though, Vanquish simply is not a great-looking game, so those kind of above and beyond efforts would have been for minimal gain.

Is Vanquish the legendary success that you may have heard others describe it as? Nah, but it is a distinctive and solid good time with excellent movement and controls, and some delightfully tricksy setpiece battles. It feels damn good if you can break apart your shooter muscle memory and give yourself to its new ways, and I only wish that element of it could somehow be transplanted into a game with a less turgid personality. In the absence of that impossible possibility though – yep, play Vanquish.

Vanquish is out now for Windows, via Steam.

32 Comments

  1. Kefren says:

    “So, it’s a case of learning your tools – the main one of which is your butt”
    Bottom, bum or arse in the UK please. Butts are cigarette leftovers.

    • FurryLippedSquid says:

      Or handy garden utensils.

      • Kefren says:

        Or those woodeny bits on the end of military bang-bang machines.

      • Scumbag says:

        Nothing is more fitting than going out into the middle of your garden with everyone watching, opening your butt wide and then emptying the liquid inside all over your plants to help them grow.

    • Beefenstein says:

      Butts are, sadly, also sometimes people.

      • Darth Gangrel says:

        Or the people that are the targets of a joke, as in being the butt of a joke.

        • poliovaccine says:

          Yeah, but that term only exists to evoke the idea of someone being at the ass end of a scenario anyway, so it’s very much the same type of butt.

          • scatterbrainless says:

            Not quite. Butt really just means the terminating end, thus your butt is the end of your body (torso really), a cigarette butt is the last end of the whole, the butt of a gun is its last bit of extension. To be the butt of a joke is just to be at the receiving end of its process. So really “arse-end” refers to the above meaning, with an added pejorative implication, as opposed to the other way around.

      • hamilcarp says:

        presidents, even

    • liquidsoap89 says:

      You CAN throw cigarette butts when you’re in cover, which distracts the robits and gives you an opportunity to surprise them… So “butt”s not completely out of place.

  2. Clavus says:

    “The tedious characterisation and storytelling coupled with the most unpleasantly thin, meatless and generic of sci-fi action soundtracks (it sounds like the free samples included with a DJ application for Windows 95) makes Vanquish a terrible game on the ears.”

    I loved the soundtrack. It’s not too refined but the tunes mesh just great with the action. Love it or hate it kinda thing I guess.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Me too! Also no mention of the audio cues for enemy attacks. Those were really well done.

  3. wcq says:

    Can’t really disagree with anything Alec writes. Vanquish is a prime example of the sort of game where everything except the gameplay is generic at best, but the gameplay is so good that the other stuff doesn’t even matter.

    • Flopdong says:

      Personally, this is all I want from most games. I definitely enjoy the occasional super cinematic game, but most of the time I just want to sit down and play something, and enjoy the gameplay systems working together. Its surprising how many games get that part wrong, and deliver great graphics and story without any fun gameplay.

  4. Unsheep says:

    Well, maybe you shouldn’t hold a 2010 game to 2017 standards then, that would be the reasonable thing to do.

    • Clavus says:

      That’s a bit of a cop-out isn’t it? It’s released here now, so judge it in the context of now. In the end it’s still a game worth attention.

  5. ffordesoon says:

    I sort of disagree about the story. I mean, yes, it is deeply stupid and completely disposable, but there’s this rich vein of authentic Japanese weirdness just under the surface that makes it very enjoyable for me. The characters aren’t merely Bruckheimerian archetypes – they are the most archetypal archetypes to ever archetype. It doesn’t feel like satire so much as deliberate – but, crucially, sincere – camp. I do agree that the environments are too samey, though.

    Sometimes I think the only thing anyone needs to know about Vanquish is that there is a button you press to make the lead character inhale a cigarette in one puff and then flick it away. The button does not help or hinder the player in any way. It’s just there because that is a thing American Action Heroes do (or used to do, anyway).

    • wcq says:

      The cigarette actually has a gameplay functionality: it draws enemy fire for a second. Which you can use for shooting them in their stupid robot faces.

      Regarding the story, for me it just wasn’t weird enough to really be enjoyable. Platinum pulled off sci-fi camp way better in MGR.

      • Baines says:

        Vanquish is one of the few games that bothers to use the achievements system to inform the player of at least a few things that they may not otherwise try or realize. There are actually two achievements involving killing enemies that have been distracted by cigarettes.

  6. thenevernow says:

    Maybe, just maybe, back then PlatinumGames, like other Japanese companies, wanted to conquer the global (read, American first and foremost) market and thought this is what the masses wanted, in terms of tone and and look&feel.

    Also, I wouldn’t say “K&M” are the PC’s weapon of choice; they’re just an option that’s exclusive to the PC and one that’s mostly attractive to the stubborn for a game like this.

    • Malarious says:

      Uh, what? Vanquish excels on mouse & keyboard because it’s a fast-paced action shooter without lock-on. There’s no better tool than a mouse for accurately lining up shots. WASD isn’t ideal for movement in 360 degrees, sure, but the accuracy that a mouse affords can trivialize a lot of console ports.

  7. Dersu says:

    Great review, mostly agree with everything you said.

    To me the game’s biggest hindrance is in its pacing actually. I don’t quite know what it is, but the game is becoming really exhausting to me fairly quickly, and so I can’t play it for extended periods of time.

    It’s absolutely relentless and yet the battles just don’t feel intense or personal, like I usually like my action games to be. Instead, it feels too ironic/campy and detached but not in a funny or endearing way. And I think this combination of always-forward-moving large scale battles with NPCs – in drab looking environments – and exaggerated bro-dudes, is just really exhausting to me.(that LT-Col. Burns though is cracking me up. I mean the dude just doesn’t rest, and keeps on yelling all the time. Plus, he’s ridiculously grumpy).

    Also I’m not sure the health system totally fits with this style of gameplay. Maybe if they had some sort of shield or just a regular health bar to keep track of, because it’s kind of confusing. Reminds me of a similar issue I had with Wolfenstein (2009) where they had the CoD health system, even though the devs clearly want you to be aggressive and adventurous with the different powers and weapons, which doesn’t really work on higher difficulty settings, because you have to constantly hang behind cover. Thankfully the last Wolfenstein had a more traditional health system. Not to mention the amazing flow the last Doom had, thanks to the glory kills. Maybe if they had a similar system here the combat would flow better as well.

    • Apologised says:

      My only real problems with it when I played it last were that one: The game has no real ending just a hook for a sequel. Why? Why would you even do this Platinum? ONE game you have ever made has EVER gotten a sequel, and that required the planets to align and somebody at Nintendo to lose his mind.
      Two: No new game+ mode that gave us the heatsink unlock mode from the final boss fight.

  8. TΛPETRVE says:

    Vanquish is precisely what it says on the tin: An action gamer’s masturbatory fantasy – a wank wish. Womp-womp, don’t pardon the pun. It’s a short, intense game that has all the highly condensed, arse-clenching fierceness of a session of knob (or whatever erogenous zone you prefer) polishing, but it’s nothing that inspires any emotional attachment or commitment.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I felt pretty committed to it for a while. But then I’m pretty committed to wanking.

  9. HumpX says:

    Best description Ive heard is “A Japanese take on Gears of War style gameplay”

    Its silly fun. I played it on console back in the day and enjoyed it as a rental.

  10. LennyLeonardo says:

    I keep wanting to berate people for calling it disposable or whatever, and tell them they “don’t get it”, but I think that might just be 2010 me trying to escape. Actually I get not liking it, but I loved it. With a bit of effort.

  11. poliovaccine says:

    You’ve said the word bumslide so much it no longer has meaning to me.. bumslide. Bumslide. Bumsuhlied. Bhumsclyde. Agshdhfsbfb

  12. vgambit says:

    You mentioned dying a lot on normal. That’s probably because there’s a bug in this port. If you cap your framerate to 30, then the damage level will match console. If you set it to 60, or even higher, you’ll take a *lot* more damage than intended. It’s one of those review-revisiting bugs, IMO.

    PC Gamer has more on it.

    link to pcgamer.com

    If you want to try it yourself, crank the difficulty up and see how long you can last.

  13. Marclev says:

    Bought it, played it for an hour (about half of which felt like cut scenes, it’s one of those games), and refunded it.

    Just didn’t feel like anything special to me, generic console cover shooter #101, with an annoying “heroic Americans save the day, Russians evil” plot. I admit maybe I didn’t play it long enough, but time’s valuable and their other game, Nier Automata, grabbed me immediately and I’ve been playing it for >20 hours now.

    I guess it’s probably ok if you like that sort of thing, but … meh.