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Shinji Mikami's Vanquish does a rocket propelled knee-slide into the TVG offices with mixed results...
Platinum Games is really starting to carve out a distinctive style for itself. Despite the fact that its two biggest titles to-date, Vanquish and Bayonetta, come from different sides of the action game spectrum, they actually play-out in very similar ways. One is a third-person shooter pitched somewhere between Lost Planet 2 and Gears of War, while the other is a hack 'n slash from the Devil May Cry school of thought. Still, the numerous parallels between both titles in everything from their design to their gameplay dynamics are plainly evident, and on first sights it would seem to bode well for Vanquish that it can be so directly compared with the quite sublime Bayonetta.
Firstly, there's the difficulty: Vanquish, like Bayonetta, throws a bone at the casual gamer with an almost condescending 'Auto' setting, although it seems likely that the game's developers would laugh derisively at anybody who played it on anything less than Normal (which is pretty much the equivalent of Hard in most other games). Beyond this there's a God Hard setting that's unlocked when you complete Vanquish's campaign for the first time, similar to the 'Non-Stop Infinite Climax' mode in Bayonetta. Once again, Platinum Games is taking pride in the amount of pain it inflicts on gamers who dare to buy its product and long may this kind of unashamed sadism continue as far as we're concerned.
It's old-school Japanese design to the core: the focus is not so much on offering players a varied gameplay experience throughout the campaign as much as it's concerned with constantly repeating the same core experience while painfully ratcheting up the difficulty to egg you on. However, although Bayonetta always did enough to compel you more than it frustrated, Vanquish often falls short of this compelling desire to beat the game and can leave you feeling apathetic towards it instead. It's a shortfall that's epitomised in the Augmented Reaction Suit (ARS) worn by protagonist, Sam Gideon throughout the campaign.
Effectively a device that allows Sam to initiate bullet-time, the ARS also has rockets attached to it that propel him along on his knees like a celebrating football player gone berserk. The suit's bullet-time powers have obvious similarities to Bayonetta's 'witch time' - not least for their stunning slow-mo visuals and luscious magenta colour scheme - while the rocket propulsion stuff is all-new. It's a welcome feature for the most part as well, which allows Sam to pull-off dazzling kills as he skids into mech-filled rooms spraying bullets around in 360-degrees of stylish, bullet-time aided vitriol.
But it's how the gameplay is balanced around this suit that's frustrating. Performing a single melee kill or getting yourself into a near-death state overheats the suit, robbing it of its powers and leaving you running around aimlessly in some kind of defenceless stupor or cowardly hunkering down into cover while the suit recharges. Although the melee kill problem is simply resolved by avoiding melee attacks altogether (which is a shame because they're different for each weapon and reasonably entertaining as a result), the near-death issue can become a bit relentless at times, particularly in a game that's so heavily overclocked with waves of enemies and epic bosses.
Perhaps this is a minor gripe. After all, balancing your use of the suit's powers with Vanquish's impressive armoury of weapons is where the game excels. Considerable strategic depth can be found in figuring out which weapons are the most successful against specific enemies, how these weapons combine effectively with the ARS' powers, and levelling-up the weapons through a fairly basic but decent enough upgrade system to tailor your specific combat style to the game. Linking all of these factors together while skilfully rocketing between cover using the ARS portrays Vanquish at its most enjoyable. The gripe remains though, and robs much of the style from one of the game's prime motivators.
You see, Vanquish is very fast-paced - it slaloms between missions that are sometimes no more than five minutes in length and yet come jam-packed with numerous different types of enemies in their droves. An extensive system of online leaderboards, which take into account everything from the amount of cover used to level completion times and the number of friendlies K.I.A. to the number of enemies killed, then puts added impetus on this fast-paced action. It just seems that some of the ways in which Platinum Games has balanced the suit's abilities work directly at odds with this addictively fast-paced experience. The persistent overheating seems to stunt rather than blend with Vanquish's gameplay at times and you really do learn to loathe the beeping sound effect of an overheated ARS.
This fast pace isn't limited to the gameplay either as the campaign is a short one at roughly seven hours in length. With no multiplayer to speak of and only the ranking boards/increased difficulty to offer any significant replay value, there's no doubting the fact that Vanquish is massively lacking where content is concerned. Neither are these seven hours the most gripping that you'll ever play through, with a storyline that fails to draw you in thanks mostly to unconvincing characters and some shallow plot twists. One saving grace here is the entertaining cliché that Sam Gideon represents, with his constant cigarette smoking and com-link banta having much in common with Hideo Kojima's Solid Snake.
That said, there are some quite distinct Japanese design foibles in the game as well: Vanquish's tutorial lacks any kind of seamless blending and is lazily dished out as a stagnant to-do list instead; similarly to Lost Planet, the controls feel a touch hammy and oversensitive compared to competing shooters in the West (although this does complement the game's fast pace to a degree); the camera work isn't quite on a par with the genre leaders and, of course, there's the customary obsession with mechs throughout. All of these idiosyncrasies are endearing to an extent though, thanks mostly to the punishing gameplay that runs through it all. However, what you really end up yearning for is some kind of standout feature or style that sets Vanquish apart from its very tough competitors and, somehow, rocket propelled knee-slides don't quite hack it.
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