Vanquish: 8 Years Later

Vanquish, Sega

Vanquish doesn’t fuck around. It’s loud, bombastic, and relentless. If you get caught in the crossfire, you’re dead. Vanquish is a difficult game. It forces players to forget their preconceived notions of how modern third-person shooters should play. You’ll see cover littered around, but this is NOT  a “stop and pop” experience. As a confident action game, it encourages momentum-driven player expression. Once the initial awkwardness sets in, it’s up to the player to kill things as efficiently and stylishly as possible.

Vanquish, Sega

“Come on, you apes. Do you want to live forever?”

The Platinum charm comes swinging in at full force. With unabashed bravado, phoned-in performances, and cringe-inducing writing, it’s difficult to take the story or any of its characters seriously. At an early point in the game, Elena, some vanilla radio support character, shouts in Sam Gideon’s ear.

As she proclaims: “Your suit is performing at nominal levels, Sam“, he responds with “Never had a girl say that to me before.” His gravelly, Hayter-like voice sells the line, propelling otherwise lazy writing to quote-worthy levels.

Far from the only notable delivery, Vanquish is filled to the brim with grade-school fluff. Unimaginative art design, Saturday morning cartoon villains, astronomical stakes, half-assed plot twists, and the list goes on. I would normally trash this sort of stuff, but it escapes criticism due to its stalwart confidence. Platinum knows the story is dumb. Platinum knows the writing is abhorrent, but you know what? They’re having a damn good time because, at the end of the day, all this nonsensical bullshit exists to contextualize the action.

“Thank God I’m an atheist”

And fair enough because skill-based spectacle action is Platinum Games’ bread and butter. Unfortunately, in the translation from melee-focused spectacle to weaponized combat, some of that talented team’s experience is lost. The combat suit’s core abilities consist of jet-fueled sliding and activating slow-motion.

Dodging, followed by aiming down the sights, activates slow-motion. However, there are a few other ways to slow down time. Aiming down the sights while sliding also does the trick. Conversely, slide-kicking an enemy and aiming down the sights also slows things down. Pretty much all of the cool stuff is tied to ADS, which feels extremely limited.

Can you imagine slowing down time and aligning headshots as you’re dodging forward or backward? What if Platinum added a jump button? Imagine combining that with some of the other movement abilities, further increasing the player’s creative arsenal. Platinum certainly got things rights with its weapons. While two of the guns offer a “one size fits all” style of play, most of them are situational.

Those situations, luckily, occur more frequently than you’d think. There’s a very clear purpose for each of Vanquish‘s weapons and they all serve distinct functions. Whether it’s crowd control, stun, or push back, the shotgun ends up becoming the only borderline useless gun in the entire game. I rarely found a good use for it considering the design of arenas and encounters. If anything, figuring out which weapons to use in which scenarios and prioritizing upgrades is where half the strategy plays in.

Unfortunately, due to the game’s design, it doesn’t empower the player as much as it leads on. Practically everything is tied to a stamina meter: Sliding, slow-motion, and punching.

Vanquish, Sega

“Hmph, this is starting to sound like a bad video game”

Stamina meters in skill-based action games are nothing new. There’s nothing inherently wrong with stamina meters in general. When incorporated properly, they elevate the skill ceiling. It can be something that separates the casual players from the pros. I understand the gratification that comes with mastering a game’s mechanics and intelligently exploiting systems like stamina meters. My question then rests on why? WHY the FUCK does punching an enemy drain the entire stamina meter? It is the most bone-headed design decision I’ve encountered in a game like this.

Rather than encouraging aggressive play, it punishes you for taking risks. If you decide to act like Sam Gideon does in cutscenes, you will die no questions asked. Arenas are routinely filled with half a dozen grunts along with higher-level machines. There’s always a balancing of power that needs to be accounted for. With machines and gunfire rushing at you simultaneously, punching some dude two or three times is a death sentence. For an arcade-driven action experience that rewards more points for finishing missions quickly, it’s astoundingly restrictive.

At that point, you might as well restart from the checkpoint. At least with other actions, the player can manipulate the meter. If I run out of stamina in any other scenario, it’s because I wasn’t paying attention, holding onto that slow-motion longer than I should have. It’s because I decided the risk of fully draining it was worth the extra damage I’d be able to expend. With punching, there is none of that. If I do it, my meter is gone.

Vanquish, Sega

“Don’t go making funeral arrangements just yet”

As harsh as I may have seemed toward Vanquish‘s stamina meter, I want to clarify that it’s still an exhilarating adrenaline rush when all the pieces fit together. While it could have been a bit more mechanically refined, it’s still an off-the-wall third-person shooter with interesting weapons. It doesn’t waste the player’s time with bullshit. Platinum knows you came into Vanquish to kill some shit and that’s exactly what you get. Cinematics are usually incredibly short, rarely ever exceeding the minute and a half mark. There are worse ways and better ways to spend five hours, but if you’ve grown tired of mainstream cover-based shooters over the years, Vanquish is worth looking into.

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