Gotta Go Fast
Sometimes, guessing a game may claw free from console exclusivity and arrive on PC is a testament to great foresight. Sometimes, it's just the culmination of small hints and a deep-seated hope. In my case, it was most certainly the latter. Still, it didn't take away any of the excitement when the pre-order for Vanquish appeared out of nowhere. In truth, with Bayonetta's success, was there ever really any doubt? It's easy to say that in hindsight, so let's instead focus on whether PlatinumGames knocked this one out of the park as well.
Just like with my Bayonetta review, the same concerns are here. Is it a good port? What about the framerate? Handling? Precision? What kind of game is Vanquish anyway and would you enjoy it? These are questions for everyone even remotely interested in this title, so let's not dally too much and get started.
If you've not been in the loop about this game in the past seven years, Vanquish is a game about going fast and shooting even faster. You are Sam Gideon, a former football player employed by DARPA to control the Augmented Reaction Suit or ARS. Sam is a raspy voiced chain-smoking antihero tasked with taking back a giant space station called Providence that the Order of the Russian Star stole and used to blow up San Francisco.
Considering the space station looks like it's one-tenth the size of Earth, crossing such a large construct in a quick fashion would require a set of wheels or wings. With the ARS, all you need are some durable kneepads. Equipped with state of the art armor and boosters, Sam can slide across the battlefield quicker than any foe. If that doesn't cut it, the suit comes with a recoil compensator and an Augmented Reaction mode which functions as bullet time and can be activated by will or when critically wounded.
As good as all this sounds, the ARS suit is still experimental and has some design flaws. It has a tendency to overheat quickly when AR or boosters are used too carelessly, which causes the suit to be nonfunctional and leaves Sam to his own devices and usually in a rush for cover.
Whether you are in cover or sliding around, Sam won't be able to do much without a weapon. While your punches kill enemies instantly, it does immediately overheat the suit. Thankfully for Sam, he's also equipped with the BLADE system, an adaptive weapon that can store up to three weapon blueprints at one time, switching between them seamlessly and rebuilding itself on the spot. BLADE will be your main method of improving your stats as it were.
Picking up the same weapon while having full ammo on it upgrades it, with the upgrade carrying over when you've tossed it and pick up a copy elsewhere. Doing this with a set amount of them, or picking up an upgrade cube that occasionally appears, will improve some of the stats on the weapon. While in theory you should always be able to handle any situation with stock weaponry, and there are always enough weapons lying around during boss fights and other high-intensity situations, these upgrades do significantly empower you during some of the more difficult moments. Being able to deal more damage or hold 200% more ammunition will certainly serve you in more intense firefights.
However, should you die and press the Checkpoint option, you will lose one upgrade rank of your weapon. This immediately becomes a sore point in the game, especially when you are suffering. This loss is limited to one degrade per section, meaning that repeatedly dying at the same section won't drain you of upgrades. Considering that you need to have full ammo to receive an upgrade from a duplicate, this creates the unfortunate habit that you need to hold on and not use your favorite weapon until they are fully upgraded. There is a slight exploit where this can be circumvented, but it requires you to not be under constant fire in order to do it.
Years ago on the Xbox 360, this was already a point of frustration in the game. A frustration that didn't return for me on PC, yet did leave a sour taste. The PC version comes with the DLC weapon pack sold for the console version, and The Boost Machinegun, the Laser Cannon, and Anti-Armor Pistol are incredibly powerful in their own right. The Boost Machinegun is similar to the regular Heavy Machinegun with a smaller magazine size that can penetrate walls and obstacles at a certain upgrade level. The Anti-Armor Pistol is a heavy caliber pistol that does as much damage as a shotgun and has the falloff and spread of a sniper rifle. The cherry on top is the Laser Cannon. The Laser Cannon doesn't require ammunition, instead using up the energy from your ARS suit. It does respectable damage and only gets better as it is upgraded.
These weapons are considered rare by the game and therefore have only a 25% chance of appearing in a weapon box. That shouldn't matter too much since you get all three of them at the beginning of the game, and every so often a static stash will appear where you can pick up all three if you so desire. This means you can use the Laser to preserve ammunition during most situations, switching to two of your other quite powerful DLC weapons in situations that it doesn't cut it. A weapon that both nullifies ammo preservation concerns and eases up the upgrading process in a game like this shouldn't be called anything short of overpowered, threatening the balance of the game.
Vanquish is about going fast and preserving ammo in a tactically stressing situation. Tackling challenges like that is not for everyone, and that's fine. Not everyone likes every game, that's not how humans work. However, these weapons ruin a part of the intended balancing and challenge, even if you don't use them. As said, they have a small chance of appearing from a weapon box instead of a refill for the regular weapon you might be currently using. I finished the game on Normal and, while I'm aware the game isn't exactly that difficult with the regular weaponry, the DLC weaponry did make it a breeze. It also encouraged me to use cover most of the time, as opposed to how I played the game years ago, grinding my knees at high speed with a Heavy Machinegun.
Perhaps that extra firepower is needed for PC players, because those fortunate enough to run the game on higher frame rates may be suffering an increased unintentional challenge. Because of it, Vanquish players may be experiencing a unique version of the Dark Souls 2 frame rate bug. In Dark Souls 2 with unlocked frame rate, players would find their weaponry degrading faster, even in contact with ragdoll corpses of their fallen enemies. Vanquish players instead have to deal with increased damage received if their frame rate is significantly higher.
Despite that, the game does come across as a relatively smooth experience. As made clear earlier, the game certainly can run at a smooth 60 frames per second, even if there's a bug associated with it. The cutscenes themselves haven't rerendered from the original version, so they do obviously run at a lower framerate.
Speaking of cutscenes, the story itself isn't exactly complex. While you're out there traveling through the space station, cutscenes crop up every few fights. The main dynamic is the conversation between you, your fellow DARPA agent and remote field assistant Elena, and Lt. Col. Burns. Especially Burns is of note, as most of the time, any cutscene relating to you and the situation you're in will result in Sam and Burns exchanging quips in order to make light of the situation and push each other to the limit. Said to be a Marine, it should be no surprise that Burns is very much one of those "ends justify the means" type of character. He's not a very complex character. In fact, most of Vanquish' characters are hardly more complex than they give away on the surface.
Every once in a while, a cutscene involving the leadership figures of the involved parties may appear. It is simply a conversation happening over your head and alludes at an increasingly complex political landscape for the parties involved as the game goes on. Sadly, hardly any of what is said in these cutscenes affect the flow of the game or even the characters. Sam and the characters with him don't hear the conversation, the player is simply informed of them. It creates this odd disconnect that seems to insist that Sam and his friends are nothing but pawns and there's no real payoff at the end of it. To save you some spoilers, the situation in the space station is resolved in some shape or form yet leaves no question as to whether Vanquish was expected to have a sequel.
A lot of cliffhangers and unfinished plot points remain. Considering this is a mere six-hour game, a lot of players may end up struggling over truly bonding with the story or any of its characters. Especially considering that most of the exposition regarding these characters is shown during loading screens. On PC, these load screens last mere seconds, leaving most of the exposition into these characters ignored.
A poor story can handicap a game, while a great combat system can absolutely compensate for it. Vanquish probably isn't the best third person shooter you've ever played, and certainly not the most complex one either, but it does feel unique in its own right. In a way, the game is about figuring out how to micromanage your energy (which functions like stamina) while also remaining adept at shooting your enemies. You can go fast, and you can slow down time. You don't have a lot of energy to do it with, but as long as you don't overheat your core by blowing it all in one go, you'll regenerate it relatively quickly. In time you'll learn to stop using boosters or AR just in time before you run out. Dodge rolling doesn't cost energy and is considerably faster if the suit isn't on cooldown, further encouraging well-timed energy preservation.
Pile this together, and you'll find that Vanquish is a game that combines micromanagement and tactical shooting with area awareness. If you're a strong enough threat, most of your enemies will focus on you and seek to close in on your location. Hold out long enough in cover while shooting back, and you can zip past them during an opportunity, leaving the enemy at range while they slowly try to move toward you again. Considering that enemy snipers are far and few between, having range on your enemies is generally a benefit, as long as you have a gun that's precise enough.
Precision isn't as important in Vanquish. Holding zoom will both zoom you in and have ARS stabilize your gun as well. It reduces the kickback your targeting reticule receives but does not reduce spread. Especially the stock assault rifle and other machine guns suffer from spread that can't really be compensated for, meaning it's ill-advised to use them for enemies at long-range. As you are only able to hold three weapons at one time, it's therefore advisable to have a setup that either perfectly complements your play style, or optimally covers all ranges you may find yourself engaged in combat in. The best testament to this is the sniper rifle, as it isn't really all that powerful and instead also doubles as your silenced option. In terms of combat effectiveness, being silenced isn't all that useful in Vanquish, leaving the rifle mainly used for one situation where you need to take out searchlights at night.
What is important for precision are proper controls. The game feels good with a controller, which should come as no surprise. You turn and aim fast enough to tackle the countless robotic enemies. What is a surprise is how well the keyboard and mouse controls seem to handle. The boosters on the ARS suit allow you to quickly turn to any direction while boosting, even though that might not make as much sense when you bring physics into the mix. Turning fast with the controller while boosting already gave you a surprising amount of leeway, but the turning speed of the mouse doesn't suffer a single bit from it either. It gives you an incredible feeling of directional control.
It isn't the only concept that Vanquish has a correct take on. In my Bayonetta review, I brought up my dislike for cutscene Quick Time Events that resulted in an instakill when failed. While Vanquish has QTE's, they are far and few between, oftentimes reserved for Bosses that are much larger than the average enemy. Even then, failing most of them results in damage or failing to finish off the boss, prompting you to try again as soon as possible. They're straightforward and permit the player to gaze at the cool things Sam makes the ARS do.
That said, also unlike Bayonetta, Vanquish feels far less replayable. At the end of every chapter you have a report on your performance, but without a grading given it doesn't really feel like you're achieving something unless you're obsessed with skimming off completion time as a hobby. You can replay levels and see your scores during selection there, however there's no reward for replaying other than bettering your results. Add to it with Vanquish sporting a mere 5-6 hour campaign, and you're left with an experience that feels it should have been longer.
Completing Acts does unlock Challenges, which seems to be nothing more than Horde mode where you are expected to survive a certain amount of waves from in order to complete it in a timed manner. Besides that, completing Normal difficulty unlocks God Hard mode.
Perhaps finishing up the story in its entirety as opposed to hinting at a sequel would have been better. I'm not privy to any information on whether the story or length of the game was rushed, but it wouldn't be a surprise if that was the reason why the game is so short.
The DLC weapon system is unfortunate, as they pretty much outclass every other weapon in the game. One way to fix this is to include a toggle option in settings to stop these weapons from appearing. Failing that, including an achievement for beating the game without ever touching them could be great for those with the amount of self-control to put themselves through that hardship. Of course, fixing the frame rate bug would be nice too, as it currently does make it more appealing to use the overpowered guns and stick to cover more often.
In the end, Vanquish is a short game with a powerful burst that for most may manage to pull them through before the lack of further complexity completely wanes their interest. Set aside an afternoon in the weekend and get a feel for what is PlatinumGames' take on a third person shooter. It isn't the best one out there, especially today, but the excitement it brought in 2010 is enough for it to be an infrequent reference when a discussion turns to speedy gameplay. Seeing it finally arrive on PC is befitting of it, faults and everything. There's no doubt that most of the excitement for the port came because of rose-tinted glasses, it's no Bayonetta after all.
- Exciting Sprint Mechanic
- Satisfying Bullet Time
- Proper QTE's
- Short Campaign
- Forgettable Story
- Framerate Bug
- Lackluster Weapons