More so than even Bayonetta – Platinum Games’ previous masterpiece from earlier this year – Vanquish is a game in which a myriad of disparate elements all somehow come together to create something that is essentially perfect. It’s a third person, cover-based shooter that has more in common with classic Japanese ‘bullet hell’ shmups than it does with Gears Of War or Uncharted, and it has an even more skewed worldview and sense of humour than the positively deranged Bayonetta did. It’s pointless to say that it’s the best game of its kind to have been released in over a decade – although it most definitely is – but that’s only because there isn’t really much that you can legitimately compare it to.
It’s so visually chaotic that it should be the most intimidating game that you’ve ever played in your life, but you’ll never once find yourself confused or bewildered. It has been crafted with such bullish focus that the lack of arbitrary bells and whistles – like multiplayer – ends up coming as a real breath of fresh air. Instead of feeling (as way too many games released these days do) like something that was obsessed from its inception with pleasing absolutely everyone, Vanquish only ever goes its own way. You’ll see things in it that you’ve seen many times before, but they are only there because director Shinji Mikami wanted them to be, and they never infringe.
Bullet-time style slow motion – a device that has been positively hammered to death in every other videogame released since 2003’s heinous Enter The Matrix – appears again in Vanquish, but it’s so much more than some cheap, me-too stylistic tic. AR Mode (as it’s called here) forms the backbone of the entire game, and is a masterpiece of thoughtful game design. In addition to looking astounding (and, rather than being merely a kaleidoscopic flourish, you are actually able to dodge every single bullet that you can see) the balancing act of maintaining your suit’s energy levels is ridiculously addictive, and the knife-edge appeal of it never dulls.
Four things deplete the health of your energy suit – enemy attacks, boosting, AR Mode and your own melee move. Bearing in mind that (after a moderate opening tier designed to ease you in) many situations call for you use all of the above – and sometimes in rapid succession – mastering Vanquish’s combat makes you feel like you’re spinning plates in a circus. Encounters are rarely streamlined so you’ll have to be acutely aware of your environment from all angles, larger enemies often have attacks in their arsenal that can kill you with one strike, and on the Hard difficulty setting you’ll have to run around reviving your squad-mates if you don’t want to be instantly turned into mincemeat.
You’re also able to trigger AR Mode manually by hitting the appropriate command after pulling off your dodge move. Doing this is the key to gigantic high scores, and superbly, Vanquish has online leaderboards which are already as hotly contested as any hi-score tables seen since the heyday of Bizarre Creation’s vastly underrated The Club. In another nod to stripped-down old school shmups, upgrading your weapons is wonderfully simple, and is all done via collectibles that you find whilst in the field. Levelling up your guns never involves a cumbersome menu that keeps you away from the action, so once you jump into Vanquish, relentless action is the solitary order of the day.
As was exactly the case with Bayonetta, whether you get all of the in-jokes, and whether you warm to its utterly skewed personality are both moot points, because it is truly a disillusioned gamer who doesn’t appreciate what Platinum have pulled off with it. It’s as impeccably well-made as any videogame you’ve ever played, and trades in nothing other than giddy, invariable levels of pure excitement. If there’s any justice in this world, 2012 (or thereabouts) will see the release of Vanquish 2. But even if we’re lucky enough for that to happen, it’ll have one hell of a job holding a candle to this. One of the finest videogames of 2010.
Watch the Vanquish trailer here: