If there is a positive thing to be gleaned from the ongoing trend of re-releasing old games it’s that the practice can give certain titles that deserve it, a second chance. Sure, Resident Evil 4 and Minecraft have been used and abused by their creators, ported to anything with a processor. It can often feel that these schemes are just excuses for developers to just sell us the same games over and over. But then, once in a while, an underappreciated gem like Vanquish gets a port, and a second chance. Vanquish is a fantastic, fast paced, over the top spectacle cover shooter developed by Platinum Games directed by the legendary Shinji Mikami. Originally released in October, 2010 during the height of the slow, brown, gray, and gruff military shooter and the accompanying critical harrumphs they attracted from the diverse critical circles. In the year that saw the release of Black Ops and in which we were serenaded by Mad Word via the Gears of War trailer, Vanquish delivered cover shooting with the demanding movement and speed we’ve since come to expect from Platinum Games; much to the delight of critics, and the fans that played it. And yet, if doesn’t seem to be in the zeitgeist of the genre as much as other excellent games from the period. Why? With the release of this port, maybe we can figure this out.
The year is… erm… the near future! A group of Russians has taken over an American space colony and used it to destroy San Francisco via science. The United States Government sends its Marines to assault the space station. With them, is Sam Gideon, a DARPA Agent armed in an augmented reaction power armor. And so, they set out to save the day. Vanquish’s plot is awesome. Not in the sense that it is a top notch story, but rather in the sense that in inspires awe. Like Adolphus Huxley’s Brave New World, or Gibson’s books about class divisions and networked computers, its plot about intrigue involving a female President, Russia, and secret technology feels far more relevant today than when this game was released. I wonder if Alex Jones based his 2016 election campaign coverage on it. It is utterly ridiculous, and it knows it is, but like the best action movies form the 80’s, Vanquish never breaks character to show that it knows, regardless of how over the top the action gets.
As other early Platinum games, Vanquish is not about the story. It is about the game play. Vanquish is, at first glance, a cover shooter, but in reality it does not want to be. Sam is quite resilient, and his suit is equipped with a sliding ability that when activated, slows down time giving you the chance to quickly mow down hordes of the enemy robot fodder and deal massive damage to big enemies and bosses. This is limited by the suit’s heat. The longer Sam is in slow motion mode, the more the heat gauge fills up, and when the gauge is full, then the suit must cool down. The trick is to get the suit as hot as possible without getting it to overheat, as letting it overheat means that it will take far longer to cool down. While this is a cover shooter, the game doesn’t want you to be in cover for long, and in fact it lowers your score the longer you are in cover. To this end cover is often easily destroyed, or simply moves, and the levels are designed in a way where you are either surrounded by enemies that can easily flank you and have more than one route to attack you, or you are attacking heavily fortified positions, usually uphill. As a result, you will be moving from cover to cover, trying to push the suit as close to that overheating point as you can without reaching it, and using cover to let the suit cool down but trying not to stay too long lest the enemy surrounds you or your cover is destroyed.
Sam also comes equipped with a BLADE system weapon, a weapon that can assimilate other weapons and change between them instantly. Sam can carry up to three weapon prints the time, and change between them at will. These weapons range from the mundane, such as rifles and shotguns, to the heavy duty such as rocket launchers, to the ridiculous, such as plasma beams and disc launchers. It is entirely possible to use this to combine weapon effects, along with grenades for devastating effects. When you pick up weapons of a kind you have equipped and are at full ammo, you will get an upgrade for your weapons. Sam is part of a team in the game, and so you will have friendly NPC Marines fighting alongside you. They are generally useless. They only seem to be good at dying, and that is good for you because healing them will cause them to drop guns that can be used to replace the ones that you have and are low on ammo, or to upgrade existing guns. All these systems means that while the game is easily accessible it has a very high skill ceiling. This is something that is expected on Platinum Games, and to continue with the trend of things that expected from, the campaign is short, but it comes packaged with challenge modes, as well as higher levels of difficulty. This adds much needed replay value to a short game, and takes real advantage of the high skill ceiling built into Vanquish.
It helps that the port of this game is fantastic. It runs very well, and save for the occasional slight screen tearing, it had absolutely no problem. I know that there is a back story to this game, but becasue this game loads so fast on my PC, I have not actually been able to read the loading screens that explain this back story. I am truly impressed by how fast it loads. It must be less than two seconds. The game is uncapped on frame rate, so higher end computers will be able to get their money’s worth with Vanquish. However, know that there is a glitch that causes Sam to take more damage at higher frame rates, which caused me to cap my game’s frame rate at 60. I tested the game with both an xbox 360 controller and a PS4 controller on a USB dongle, and they both work well. Then I tried the game using keyboard and mouse, and I never went back to using a controller for it. Keyboard and mouse feel natural for a game as twitchy and fast paced as this one. It works so well, I would risk to say that keyboard and mouse is the definitive way of playing Vanquish.
Being so good, why wasn’t Vanquish as beloved as other games of the time? I think a lot of it has to do with its visuals. Considering that the setting is a space colony, its environments are pretty boring. Most of them are made up of endless concrete, with the occasional break in a park. There are reasons for this, of course. Platinum in general is not a developer that is too interested in the graphical fidelity of its environments, preferring to use that computing power on the twitchy action that made them darlings with critics and consumers alike. But if you were looking for a game in the cyberpunk future of two thousand and ten, then it seemed like every major release offered meaty guys in power armor traversing a brown and grey world shooting at things. In a saturated market, Vanquish could not stand out. People looking for that kind of brown and gray, shooting at things experience had a plethora of games to choose from, from a strong line up of publishers flexing their marketing muscle to get their bucks. People like myself, who were not, ignored it thinking it was an attempt by Platinum to cash in from the popularity of the genre. I wasn’t unaware of Platinum games. By then I had already played and enjoyed Bayonetta, but unlike its big sister, Vanquish simply did not have the visual flair or combat system to separate itself from the pack and attract my attention. Maybe I am mistaken, but I feel many like me probably felt the same way.
The good news is that Vanquish, and those like myself who missed it the first time around, now get a second chance. As of this writing, it is on Steam for about USD 20. For a campaign that is about eight hours of pure action and quality, it is not a bad deal. And if you are the kind of person that likes to work systems, and likes to thoroughly master the games you play, then I can imagine that Vanquish’s higher difficulties levels and challenge modes will offer plenty more hours reaching for the game’s incredibly high skill ceiling. There was clearly love put in this game. It was Shinji Mikami’s last game after the series of strange games he released after Resident Evil 4, and before he left Platinum to go work on The Evil Within. And of that collection of games, it is probably the best one. The culmination of a collaboration with a familiar team that had collaborated in the past, and learned their lessons the hard way. So if you haven’t already, go ahead and give Vanquish a shot. It deserves the chance to impress you that was denied to it all those years ago.