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Saturday August 19, 2017
Gaming love letters: Vanquish
by Tim Henderson | Jun 15, 2017 | Comment Now
Vanquish has been given a second lease on life thanks to its PC re-release. Is it overdue? Well, yes; is it still good? Absolutely.
Gaming love letters: Vanquish

No matter where the franchise goes from here, Gears of War will be remembered. It’s not quite Mario, not quite Wolfenstein 3D or Doom, but its influence shouldn’t be underestimated: this is the game that convinced Microsoft to add more memory to the then-still-in-development XBox 360, this is the game that for many set the benchmark for what games from its generation should look like, and it’s also the game that popularised cover shooting mechanics.

Stop and pop, Cliff Bleszinski of Epic Games called it. A snappy way of describing an action sequence that wasn’t really all that exciting when you, err, stopped to consider what those words actually meant. Still, Gears turned out to be an enjoyable game. And that cover mechanic? That thing became hot.

Post-Gears, action games practically insisted that you stop. Dudebros were stopping left, right and centre. Games had dedicated buttons for stopping, they tweaked the feel of the stopping to make it more snappy and sticky. Stopping was somehow visceral. Characters stopped with force; there was no stopping their stopping, they were stopping so hard. Sometimes they could stop and hug a wall for the better part of a game’s chapter or stage. Stopping was the shit, man.

Because of this, we learned to stop. Stopping and popping became a part of the language of third-person shooty games. Be it through playing the games themselves, soaking them in through word of mouth or media coverage, or just straight-up advertising, we learned how cover mechanics were to be treated: find a wall, cower behind it, occasionally look out to fire off a few rounds. Only move when strictly necessary.

Here’s an old Chinese proverb that isn’t an old Chinese proverb at all: “Old habits die hard.”

Enter Vanquish, star of this piece and almost-certainly-the-best-third-person-shooter-of-the-previous-generation. Vanquish is a Japanese shooter trying to appeal to a perceived American fanbase. There are some missteps here (in fact, throughout the game there are many – it screams to its core quality that it remains amazing despite them) that range from a lacklustre English dubbing effort through to visual design compromises that attempt to add a bit of square jaw to a Casshern-influenced aesthetic that I really wish looked more like a more modern take on Macross Plus. But the key point here is that Vanquish is a Japanese shooter in spite of its awkward Western pandering (you’re a dudebro player character is named Sam; they couldn’t even come up with a good, dumb action hero name), and it brings certain sensibilities with it. Also, it’s by the guy who made Resident Evil 4, another awesome game that sadly isn’t as good as Vanquish because its main character has only very normal kneecaps.

Originally released in 2010, Vanquish included a cover system. Because of course it did. And, at its core, when all of the gears are clicking and whirling, it’s a better game for this inclusion. But, at the same time, holy damn does the simple existence of the cover system help distract players from actually finding this out.

This isn’t Mikami’s fault, and to be fair it’s not really Cliffy B’s, either. Gears and its kind taught us to hide behind cover because that’s how those games were designed. It’s just an unfortunate fact of life that teaching a person to do something differently to how they already do it is often much more difficult than teaching them how to do the thing from scratch. When anyone with experience in the genre sees cover in Vanquish, their instinct is to use it for safety while popping off as many enemy robots as they can.

This works well enough, at least early in the game, but it isn’t really what Vanquish is about, and played this way it can come across as a pretty ordinary, often frustrating shooter with a few cool whiz-bang moments. For one thing, bunkering down is a great way to lack spatial awareness and get killed by unseen enemies.

Vanquish isn’t about hiding behind cover. It’s about jumping over cover and then shooting a robot in the head through the scope of a goddam sniper rifle before you hit the ground again. It’s about using cover as a chance to catch a quick breather, drag from a smoke if you’re feeling cocky,  and recharge the battery of your hypercharged knee rockets (this also powers the game’s mind-melty bullet time thing), so that you can slide back out from cover and waste a further three or ten enemies with a tank of bullet-time before returning to charge it again so that you can throw an EMP grenade and slide out while also firing into the glowing rear of the giant robot with the cannon arms.

In a world of action games about stopping, Vanquish is like the alternative kid who very few people really get to know. It’s a game about moving, and it does try to get this idea across. At the end of each level, a scorecard is shown on screen, replete with bonus points should you get the job done swiftly. Whenever Vanquish places you in a confined space and makes you fend off enemies or shoot out cameras or whatever, the space is always, always in motion; forget holding off waves while waiting for an elevator – you can deal with them once you’re stuck on the forsaken thing.

The cover art for the game is literally the lead character, Sam, sliding along the ground so fast you probably wouldn’t hear his approach for a further twenty seconds after he passed you by.

Once all this gets absorbed into how you approach it, Vanquish is brilliant. While surprise one-hit kill melee attacks will still enrage, they happen far less frequently when you’re bouncing around like a pinball (also, frustrating as they are, they may be integral to getting the message across that you shouldn’t employ a bunker down approach). More importantly, all of the mechanics that kind of seem like ideas shot like soggy spitballs against the classroom wall when treating Vanquish like a typical cover shooter begin to gel together and make glorious, cohesive sense.

At the core of it all is a boost mechanic, at once tied to moving really fast and slowing down time so you can aim while also moving really fast. Use too much of it, or take too many hits, and your suit will overheat, effectively turning you into just another soldier. At this point, scrambling for cover actually makes sense, and it is a huge, deflating, sucky feeling when you have to do that.

This mechanic, the one that leaves you venerable and well, kinda human, when it overheats? It’s a fantastic piece of risk-and-reward. Frequently, Vanquish is at its best and its players at their most powerful when this mechanic is pushed to its limit, but boost too long or take enough damage, and it’ll be taken away from you. Sometimes, Vanquish will outright tease its players and script moments when the suit overheats, creating palpable panic out of what is actually much slower gameplay.

The recent PC release has unintentionally highlighted just how important this balance is. It played beautifully at release and can hit a steady 60fps on even very modest hardware, but it turned out that taking damage was timed with the frame count (which targeted 30 for the original console release) and as such, players were forced behind cover a lot more than they should have been. It was still great, but a little wind was sucked from its sails as a result of this. The bug affected the very thing that made Vanquish such a cathartic experience. Thank heavens a patch option is already available.

A lot of joking was made about the game being cool because of its knee boosters. Strange thing is, it actually is cool because of rocket-powered knees. The very nature of what elevates Vanquish from kind of good to mind-numbingly awesome is wholly dependent on them. I have dislocated my left knee four times, three of which necessitated a trip to hospital, so the idea of having super human robotic kneecaps is perhaps the quintessential power fantasy on my end, but the actuality of it is that Vanquish just happens to have chosen the knees because it looks cool when you slide around like that. Butt rockets or super rollerblades just don’t have the same effect. Just so long as Sam can move very fast for bursts of time.

In many ways, what makes Vanquish special comes back to it being a Japanese game. It’s sleeker, less lumbering than most American alternatives, more about swiftness than strength. The body is the weapon, with different firearms all transforming in Sam’s hands rather than being amassed on the field, to say nothing of the booster knees. Rockets swarm like bees rather than blow up half a stage. It’s chaos; chaos made possible by some clever mechanic choices.

It isn’t without imperfections. The plot is a bit bland, although it could pass for a Trump supporter’s ultimate conspiracy fantasy in today’s political climate, and the weapon upgrade system (which upgraded a weapon whenever you pick up a duplicate if you’re already full ammo, but downgrades each time you die) results in bosses that get harder to defeat the more times you fail to do so.

Maybe these things would matter more if other games had taken Vanquish’s always-moving gameplay and built on them. However, with an initial release window sell through of less than one million units, that was never particularly likely. Is it possible that something could be like Vanquish, only better? Well, yes. But in the absence of such a game, the original is still uniquely fantastic.

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