Wot I Think: Vanquish
Seven years too late, or just in time?
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.