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Review: Vanquish

6:56 AM on 10.19.2010 // Jim Sterling

Platinum Games is a studio to admire. Its titles have never been huge sales successes, but the developer's status as a critical darling and a maker of great games, going right back to its Clover Studios roots, cannot be denied.

Platinum Games is a studio to admire. Its titles have never been huge sales successes, but the developer's status as a critical darling and a maker of great games, going right back to its Clover Studios roots, cannot be denied.

The idea of Platinum turning its eyes Westward in order to create a cover-based third-person shooter certainly excited me. Here's a studio I respect, putting its eccentric and bombastic style into a genre that really needs some extra flavor. What could go wrong?
A surprising amount, apparently.
Vanquish (Xbox 360 [Reviewed], PlayStation 3)
Developer: Platinum Games
Publisher: Sega
Released: October 18, 2010
MSRP: $59.99
Vanquish is a game that intends to speed up the typically methodical cover-based shooter and, fundamentally, it has done this. Armed with his ability to glide along the ground with a ludicrously fast rockstar-style knee slide and assaulted by enemies who act more like Ikaruga-style SHMUP enemies than the beefy blasters of Gears of War, Platinum has most definitely succeeded in making a cover shooter with energy. At least ... aesthetically.
The trouble is, everything looks exciting and chaotic, but after five minutes of gameplay, in which you get to see practically everything that the game has to offer, Vanquish manages to go from an action-packed assault on the senses to a formulaic, boring shooter that refuses to build upon its core ideas and remains content to regurgitate itself for the duration of the experience. 
Despite the bombast and flair, Vanquish is actually a rather run-of-the-mill shooter that manages to devolve its genre, rather than evolve it. For instance, Sam's rocket gliding ability is governed by an energy meter. His melee attacks are governed by the same meter. Yes, you read that right, Sam actually needs energy to punch his opponents, and once he's landed a single successful punch, he can't glide away since the energy meter completely drains. Several times, I punched an enemy, failed to kill it thanks to Sam's inability to aim his punches properly, and was killed because I could neither defend myself or swiftly escape. 
So what does this mean for the overall game? It means that, when you get down to it, Vanquish is just another cover shooter with shallow gimmicks that have no applicable use. Sam's glide ability is only useful for escaping (or trying to), since there's no point getting up close and killed because you have no power left. Any thoughts you had of sliding toward an enemy, murdering him in a flurry of punches, and deftly sliding away like an awesome space ninja better be abolished from your head -- everything you do in this game makes you vulnerable, weak, and ultimately dead. 
Vanquish suffers from that peculiarly Japanese development mentality that says, "Let's throw a stupid amount of crap at players and pretend that we made a challenging game." It's full of one-hit kill attacks, sometimes thrown at players after twenty-minute boss battles, and Sam himself can absorb only a pitiful amount of damage before his health becomes critically low. Even sticking to cover is pointless due to the amount of attacks that completely ignore the cover system and instakill Sam through solid walls.
The endless assault of missiles and ambush attacks can be negated by a bullet time effect that kicks in when Sam glides and shoots simultaneously. This would be useful were it not for the fact that Sam's energy levels deplete rapidly, and once they go down, you'll need to wait for them to recharge. Of course, if an enemy throws one of its death missiles at you while you're recharging, you're boned. Sam's dodge maneuver is pathetic and won't get him clear of the giant energy beams and explosions that endlessly come his way. 
And this is Vanquish. A game that contradicts itself by having cover that offers no protection and special powers that make players weaker. It tries to be a high octane "bullet hell" shooter with a cover system, but neither of those elements go together at all, leading to a game that ultimately feels like a conflicted mess. 
Occasionally, Sam will go up against some bosses that are impressive in terms of scale and design, but nothing else. They go on for far too long, with Sam's weapons only chipping away meager amounts of HP, and they often pack their own instant-death moves which are apparently designed solely to waste a player's time. Even worse, every boss battle in the game is repeated several times. Having to fight the monotonous and grinding "Unknown" robot three times throughout the course of the game is the complete opposite of fun. 
There's a distinct lack of content in Vanquish. In fact, if you've played and been impressed by the game's demo, as I certainly was, then you've already seen what the game has to offer. There are a few extra weapons, but they're all discovered within the first 10% of the game and you'll soon learn that the assault rifle's the only useful gun anyway. There are no new moves to unlock, no cool weapons found later in the game, and the only upgrades available are increased ammo counts. 
There's simply nothing compelling the player forward. It certainly isn't the story, which is asinine and attempts to be political while Sam Gideon does his best Solid Snake impersonation. Even the final boss is just a repeat of a boss fought at the end of the game's first act. Except now there's TWO of them, wooooah!
This total lack of compulsion and variety is made worse when you realize that the game is only five or six hours long. The game took me five hours and fifty-four minutes to complete, and that's including the cutscenes and the twenty-minute boss fights that I had to retry. If you can play without dying and skip the cutscenes, I'd estimate between three and four hours of actual gameplay -- even less when you take out the first-person sections in which all you can do is slowly walk -- a rather disingenuous way of artificially bumping up the game's length. 
At the very least, the game is very pretty to look at. The various visual effects and explosions, not to mention the fact that individual bullets have been animated and are visible in slow-motion, all deserve praise. The bright colors make a welcome break from the dreary browns of most cover shooters, and the enemy design is especially cool. The aesthetic portions of Vanquish are very impressive indeed, so if all you care about are graphics, this is your game. 
Those who aren't so easily pleased by smoke and mirrors will be left wanting with Vanquish. Short, repetitive, and criminally dull, this game gives one the sense that Platinum was resting on its laurels, convinced it could do no wrong. Unfortunately, it has done quite a bit wrong with a game that's full of conflicting design choices and bereft of inspiration. 
Vanquish is a tepid and tedious game that simply doesn't deserve your cash during a period chock full of far superior releases. And I never thought I'd have to say that about a Platinum game. 



Vanquish - Reviewed by Jim Sterling
Average - Like a meal of lukewarm water with white bread. It filled my time and my belly, but lacks any discernible flavor or nutritional value. A game that left me no different than it found me. Just passing through.

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Jim Sterling, Former Reviews Editor
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