Review: Vanquish (Xbox 360)

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Arcades back then were filled to the brim with row upon row of cutting edge excitement, the kind that ate quarters and tokens as if there was no tomorrow.

When new and fancier consoles arrived on the scene from Japan, Capcom, Konami, Sega, Data East, and many others would blister thumbs and recycle gamepads on an almost monthly basis with simple, action packed titles that warranted the price that they were sold at. In those days, it wasn’t so much how long a game would last than it was for simply having that kind of arcade fun at home without having to stand next to someone that hasn’t taken a bath in three days for an open spot.

And that’s what Vanquish has resurrected with its fast, frenetic, third person, kill-em-all action fest filled with ridiculously crazy explosions and a host of mini-bosses that shake the screen with their very presence. This is an unabashedly arcade tour de force for the console complete with online leaderboards and a scoring system challenging all comers to do better.

Both Vanquish and the classics it feels inspired from share at least one thing in common: an inescapable draw to test your skills and enjoy the simple pleasure of playing. It’s also the same reason we used to drop endless quarters into stand-ups years ago. It’s as if Shinji Mikami and his team had gone back in time, studied arcades when they were at the height of their power, and then brought back the best parts wrapped in modern pixel gloss and flashy special effects.

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Vanquish takes place in a “near future” world where the lack of resources and an exploding population have pushed the Earth to the brink of chaos. The United States, however, had built a massive space colony in orbit which also had the dual purpose of beaming infinite amounts of solar energy back down to it.

Of course, not everyone was happy about this monopoly such as Russian hardliners who had overthrown the Kremlin and had taken it over as the Order of the Red Star. The Order ruthlessly seize the colony using a massive army of disposable robots, microwave the heart of San Francisco, and demand the surrender of the United States before they do the same thing to another city.

You play as chain-smoking Sam Gideon, the test pilot of a powered suit of armor. Answering to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects; an agency that actually exists in the real-world), Sam had been testing the suit out when the call came from the President to go into action. Armed with a transforming rifle, it’s up to him and the cannon fodder with him to take the station back.

The over-the-top story makes it hard not to feel as if it were a homage to both the 80s action flicks pioneered by Schwarzenegger and Stallone and the arcade scene that blossomed like neon lit dens within nearly every mall and neighborhood at its peak. Sam’s gravelly delivery and his penchant for lighting up while dangling on the edge of a broken bridge can make him seem like Solid Snake in high-tech clothes, but when the action looks as good as it controls, it doesn’t really matter whose schtick he’s stolen.

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Sam’s ridiculously powered second skin charts a bullet ballet of brutal action and freakishly explosive insanity across Vanquish’s epic acts. It enables him to jet across the floor from cover to cover, speed up his reflexes with bullet time, or manually dismember hardware with high kicks or knuckle sandwiches. As I blasted my way through one area of the space station to the next, I was reminded of Epic’s Gears of War mixed in with Contra, Rush ‘n Attack, Mercenaries, and any other number of classic action arcade games over the years. Vanquish channels them onto the screen like some silicon sorceror hellbent on punishing its players.

The slick mech designs, peppy techno-pop, and high-tech aesthetic that varnish the screen canvas the gameplay with the kind of sexy sci-fi that Vanquish twists into a deadly playground. Leaping past danger with a column of scintillating light trailing behind Sam’s back or a falling fist of armor the size of a small car felt as if I were dropped into the middle of a tungsten tipped warzone every step of the way. Although the effects can sometimes feel as if someone were waving a hand in my face and blind me to what was going on – no thanks to the occasional claustrophobia of its camera – there was little mistaking the rush of wading through its robotic hordes as a multi-million dollar super soldier.

Early bosses even become regular enemies later in the game. Why attack you with one five story mech when it can throw two of them at you at the same time? There’s even a boss or two that brings back ye olde ‘instant kill’, telegraphing the Reaper a second before they strike to test how fast you can dodge out of the way before it happens.

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Sam’s chain smoking won’t help his health, but he does regenerate it if he can find cover or simply stay out of the way of enemy fire. His armor also has its limits such as when it overheats after performing certain stunts, such as bullet time, or in saving him from death by automatically switching to that mode to help him slip out of trouble at the last second. It’s not a guarantee that he’ll survive since it’s just as easy to jump out the proverbial frying pan and right into the fire.

Weapons can level up in the field if you collect upgrade chips randomly dropped by enemies or the same weapon, though it will only replenish your ammo instead if you’ve used it. Only three guns of any type can be carried at once in addition to grenades and there are plenty of destructive toys available in the field. Dying can also punish you by lowering the upgrade level of your weapons, though its more forgiving if you die a second time so as not to leave you hanging in the middle of a tough fight.

The game is divided into five Acts, each of which are broken down into several missions. A number of difficulty levels are offered up, Bayonetta-style, ranging from Casual Auto (which automates some of Sam’s abilities but still provides some challenge) to Hard. Finishing the game unlocks the amusingly named “God Hard” mode which should bring a smile to the faces of those that remember Shinji Mikami’s God Hand.

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Even after shooting through the end following eight or nine hours of intensive robot smashing, I wanted to head back in and do it all over again atop the unlocked side challenges. Though the in-game statistics at the end of each mission made it seem that it took less time for me to actually survive its action, that’s not counting all of the retries from the gratuitous deaths Sam suffered from either getting shot full of holes or eaten by a living mass of metal.

Many games beg to be replayed in the same way, but few wrap the experience up in the kind of mechanized mayhem that Vanquish liberally splashes on the screen. Seen from that perspective, this is a game that revels in its arcade roots for those that love the empowering insanity of solid action – and the chance to recycle robot legions into Roman candles.

Vanquish
Sega / Platinum Games
Xbox 360 / PS3 (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature