In games writing there are a few terms that are constantly splattered across every review, preview and editorial about how terrible games writing has become since the "good ol' days." "Fast-paced," "blockbuster," "expansive" — those are just three of your more common adjectives.
Today, I want to talk about another one. "Frenetic." It's been applied to basically every real-time action, racing, shooting and sports game of the last half decade. Hell, unless you were designing a turn-based war game you could expect one of the writers at Kotaku, Joystiq or Destructoid to slap that label on your game within minutes of first seeing it.
It's like the word "delicious" for food, or "sexy" for members of the opposite sex. It's a term that has become stuck in the forefront of our minds over the last few years and as a result it is instantly recalled and regurgitated anytime anything has speed lines or motion blur.
It's not until we come across a game that is actually frenetic that we are forced to realize what a pity it is that we have stripped the innate power from our language through overuse. Today, I want to tell you about such a game, but since I already decried the use of its best descriptor, let's see if I can't get through the whole review with one linguistic hand tied behind my back.
Developed by Platinum Games
Published by Sega
Available Now for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360
The odds are pretty good that if you've seen more than one anime in your life, you've seen one in which the hero is a super-human robot with all kinds of awesome shape-shifting weapons and nearly supernatural fighting skills. Guyver and Casshern are two that immediately pop into my head and I'm far from a fan of the genre. Still, there's something very conducive to the world of gaming in these tales. They generally face incredible, otherworldly odds, win by the skin of their teeth and manage to look extremely cool while doing so.
I have to imagine that when Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami was designing Vanquish, that last sentence (or, at least, a Japanese version thereof) was written in huge letters across a nearby whiteboard. Forget the cool cybernetic suit and the flashy graphics, Vanquish is, in essence, all about just barely winning against incredible odds and looking damn cool while doing it.
But, let's back up for a moment and talk about what this game actually is before I get into the praise. Vanquish is the story of Sam Gideon, a top athlete who was tapped by DARPA to wear an experimental cybernetic war suit. A short time later, Russian extremists hijack a superweapon (as is their wont) and use it to literally cook San Francisco (complete with exploding heads in Oakland and a boiling bay). They then make demands and threaten to microwave New York City if the government doesn't capitulate. Since the designer of the superweapon is the same guy who built Sam's robosuit, he (along with his DARPA handlers) asks our hero to take down the Russians.
It's not Shakespeare, but given the genre, it sufficiently sets up any reason you might need to blast robots to pieces.
And, more crucially, it introduces the game's big gimmick: the nifty cybernetic suit. Thanks to the scientific wizardry behind the exoskeleton Sam can slow time, kick robots through walls and deploy a transforming arsenal of guns ranging from a standard assault rifle to the hyper-destructive disc launcher. What's more, that arsenal can be upgraded as if you were playing Gradius. Grabbing upgrades increases your current weapon's damage, speed or ammo capacity, and dropping one gun for another means having to choose between a different kind of firepower that could perhaps be useful and ditching all your hard-earned improvements. Given that you can only carry three guns at once, this system forces players to constantly think about what sort of weaponry they'll need for the next minute or two of gunplay. Plus, by allowing players to upgrade each weapon individually over the course of the game, Vanquish introduces roleplaying game-esque elements where you'd least expect them. The system works so well that it's amazing (or depressingly indicative of the dearth of creativity in the games industry) that it took this long for a developer to adopt it.
Remember that word that I refused to mention at the beginning? Yeah, well combine that with the system I just mentioned and you get why Vanquish works so well. While you're busy figuring out whether the huge robot in front of you would rather be hit with a shotgun or a rocket launcher, you have fourteen smaller robots firing machine guns at you, two soldiers nearby in need of medical attention and a cloud of rockets flying right at the crate you're crouched behind. With this much going on at once, you again get a sense that developer Platinum Games was trying to make the intense action of modern shoot 'em ups more palatable to the average gamer by coating it in the aesthetics of a 3rd person, Gears of War-style action game.
Looking back, it's easy to imagine that combination going terribly wrong, but having played Vanquish, I'm again wondering why it took so long for a developer to get this right. Is Platinum Games — the same people behind the awesome (yet underloved) Bayonetta earlier this year — that much better than everyone else?
You'll notice I haven't really said anything about the sights and sounds in Vanquish. That's not because they're sub-par — far from it, actually — but they simply do their job, and compared to the ingenious gameplay mechanisms, they don't do much other than that to stand out. After seeing so many pretty, shallow games with flashy graphics you can really only say "the explosions are awesome" or "the giant bosses are so cool" in so many different ways. It should come as a much greater compliment that I enjoy Vanquish for how it plays, as opposed to anything I saw or heard.
Still, let's just say "Vanquish looks and sounds great," ok?
Admittedly, Vanquish shares the average 10ish-hour length of most other modern action titles, but it offers rarely seen replay value thanks again to its bullet-hell lineage. Every time you complete a mission you get a list of statistics, ranging from how many enemies you killed, to how many rounds you fired, to how many tiny golden statues you shot. It won't appeal to everyone, but the sort of person who absolutely must nab a high score will love this sort of thing.
I won't claim that the story is enough to earn raves from gamers who look specifically for that sort of thing — they'd be better served by any roleplaying game or even the recent Halo: Reach — but for anyone else, this game is at the top of the list for the best ways to scratch an itch for frenetic mayhem.
Dammit! I was so close to the end!
Post Script: This point neither detracts from the game, nor enhances it (hence it appearing in the post script) but I just wanted to mention that Vanquish abounds with references to Voltaire. From the scientist who created your suit (Professor Candide) to the Pangloss statues you find lying around the levels, the references are as subtle as the writer's feelings on Christianity. I thought it was hilarious that Platinum would go to these lengths to make an implication that the vast majority of their audience would fail to grasp.
Still, it made me giggle, so bonus points for that Platinum!