I recently reviewed Tecmo Koei's terrible Quantum Theory. It was an example of a Japanese development studio trying to copy Gears of War, with awful results: devoid of originality, style and any Japanese influence. This cannot be said about Vanquish. Platinum Games' third-person cover shooter is exactly what I expect a studio from the Far East to do with the genre. It's action-packed, crazy, cheesy and high-score obsessed. SEGA and Platinum Games started the year with a bang thanks to Bayonetta, now they're finishing it with a game very nearly as good.
I'm not even going to try and make sense of the plot. It's typically crazy stuff from Platinum Games: set some years in the future and involving Space stations built to generate power; Russian rebels trying to take over the world; a destroyed San Francisco; the President of the United States; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); and a kidnapped scientist. You play as Sam Gideon, armed with an Augmented Reaction Suit (ARS), sent by the President to assist the US army in its war against the Russians.
While the basic mechanics are commonplace in third-person shooters (duck behind cover, peek out to shoot, leap over obstacle to reach next area of cover), the real star of the show is the ARS. With this Sam is able to activate jets that let him boost around the levels (for a limited time), smack enemies in the face with the power of King Kong, slow down time Max Payne-style and upgrade weapons on the fly. In short, the ARS suit is a pretty damn sweet piece of kit.
It's amazing what the addition of boosting and slow motion does to the feel of the gameplay. Whereas Gears of War is fairly slow-paced throughout, Vanquish mixes exhilarating speed with ultra stylish bullet-time. One second you'll be sliding around on your knees, whizzing under the legs of a giant mechanical killing machine, unleashing round after round of lead into its weak spots (orange or red areas, usually); the next you'll be rolling into a slow-motion sequence, with bullets cascading past your head and explosions occurring so slowly you can see ripples in the air.
Your suit can only use its most advanced features until it starts to overheat, so you'll still have to make do with more traditional cover-hopping and hack 'n' slash-style evasive rolls. And you'll really need to have your wits about you as Vanquish isn't an easy game. On the default difficulty you'll die repeatedly at the hands of the robotic enemies, whereas the harder modes (including an unlockable God Hard setting) will require ninja-like reflexes and heightened spatial awareness. For gamers less appreciative of Platinum Games' hardcore style, Casual Auto mode not only makes the enemies less deadly, but also turns on auto-targeting when zooming in - as in the Call of Duty games.
Enemies are smart, too, making use of their own cover and charging at you if you hide for too long. There's also an element of choosing the right weapon for the enemy, and focussing on certain weapons in order to level them up. I tend to stick with down to Earth weaponry rather than those of science fiction fantasy, so I ended the game with a maxed out assault rifle, heavy gun and rocket launcher, but I could have just as easily gone for the laser gun, massive LFE gun, sniper rifle or disc launcher. You can carry three guns at a time, along with EMP and explosive grenades, with the former grenade type being very useful to disable bots for a short period.
Vanquish is sci-fi through and through, with enemies generally being robots of differing colours, but some transform into shields, others fly and the big bad bosses are truly awesome. Sub-bosses become common foes once you've defeated them, while the hulking monstrosities that are the proper end of level enemies fire unimaginable amounts of firepower at you. At times you can barely see the sky through the hail of missiles and giant rockets heading your way - a sight that looks truly amazing when you've activated slow motion.
My favourite enemy comes about half way through the campaign, forming itself from bits of scrap metal. You need to shoot its red core, but that's easier said than done when it can leap at you in a way similar to how xenomoprhs catch their prey in the Alien movies. Vanquish is a violent game - it's about war after all - but this beast quite literally rips you apart if you get caught in one of its death lunges. It's bloody scary, making my heart rate jump during every encounter.
Platinum Games knows how to put together an impressive looking game, as is evident in MadWorld and Bayonetta, and now Vanquish. The industrialised sci-fi world on display is absolutely gorgeous, and while the more picturesque locations don't shine as bright, on the whole the environments are wonderful. You're never far from a spectacular set-piece, either, with giant space ships crashing at your feet and hulking great mechanoids bursting through the floor and releasing dozens of smaller troopers. There's a kick-ass soundtrack accompanying everything, and the voice acting gets away with being overly dramatic thanks to the general cheesy tone of the story.
And that all brings me to Vanquish's big problem: It's too short. Yes, you can replay every mission in order to try and get a new high score and faster completion time, and there are challenge missions (essentially a single-player version of Gears of War's Horde mode), but it's impossible to get away from the fact that I finished the game in under seven hours on the default normal difficulty setting - and I died a lot. There's rarely a moment that seems unnecessary or added simply for padding, which is great, but without any form of multiplayer you're paying full price for a game that in most cases will only last a day, two at a push.
If you enjoy shooters then you absolutely must experience Vanquish; just know that you're not going to be getting much more than a weekend's play unless you get addicted to high scores and challenges. It's hard to be down on the game, though. I enjoyed every second, with the build up to the final encounter being particularly exciting. While we're being told that the Japanese games industry is on its deathbed, Vanquish is a shining example of what the most talented developers from the East are capable of.