This must be the hardest game to review if current magazine review scores are anything to go by, mixed as they are. All have valid negative points (samey backdrop, gameplay), but this game, more than any other I have ever played, is a case of suck it and see. I recommended this game to a work colleague, and upon describing the game he seemed to take an instant dislike to it, thinking it could never be his thing, but he was proven wrong upon playing the demo. My advice: play the demo first.
This is another game helmed by another rockstar Japanese game director (of which there are many now, Kojima-san, Suda 51, Kazunori Yamauchi and Shigeru Miyamoto all enjoying celeb status), namely Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil 4 and Bayonetta fame. But unlike those two games, this one attempts to have a go at a very western idea: the cover-based 3rd-person shooter, but with a twist of Japanese flavour.
First of all, this is the most impressive looking 3rd party game I have ever seen on any console, but it depends what you like. The extraordinary set pieces, the bonkers explosions, the hail of gunfire, futurstic setting and the massive moving backdrops all combine to make this, for me, the most visceral gaming experience I have ever had from a 3rd party dev. When you are flying low in a VTOL, just absorbing the scenery and environmental effects is, quite frankly, exhausting. The same quality translates to the main protaganist, who wears a futuristic battlesuit for the duration. I keep thinking it's about to transform, there are so many moving parts it's like watching a Chris Cunningham music video. It would be at least worth a rent if you were any kind of fan of Jap-animation like Ghost in the Shell and Appleseed. Truly extraordinary and something the demo can't possibly convey. You just have to play it.
Gameplay-wise, this is where a game lives and dies. Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw of Zero Punctuation says a game has to live and die by it's single player and he's not wrong. This is ALL Vanquish is as there is no multiplayer component, and for that i'm thankfull. It feels so focussed and, dare I say it, old fashioned. This is mainly because this game does something incredibly old fashioned that seems to have been phased out: it keeps score.
There are so many comparisons to draw with this game, I just can't name them all. Many have drawn comparisons to Gears of War, and I can see that, but I think it has far more in common with R-Type and Ikaruga crossed with Max Payne crossed with Starcraft. This game has the bullet-hell, massively difficult, unforgiving, frenetic gameplay of R-Type, the slow-mo, run-and-gun, Matrix-style gameplay from Max Payne and the micro-management of Starcraft. In fact, to get the most out of this game, micro-management is essential. You make SO MANY micro-decisions in this game. You are constantly prioritising on-screen enemies, micro-managing resources, watching for downed teammates, making upgrade decisions, watching for tell-tale signs of a one-hit-kill attack, all of which are brain-melting. Some have complained about the lack of unlockable abilities for your character, and that worried me, but I needn't have. You upgrade yourself. It sounds cheesy, but this game trains you to fully use your abiities and weapons. The game gives you the tools to unlock your own potential almost instantly, you just have to learn how to use them. That is why this game, to me, is so good.
By all means, play it like Gears of War, but it will bore you. At the end of a stage the game gives you a summary of how much time you spent in cover. I prefer to call it a cowardometer. In fact, getting this stat at all is an interesting experiment. I regard Gears and Uncharted to be amongst my favourite games, but this game seems to spit in the eye's of those two. Where you NEED to spend most of your time behind a chest-high wall in GoW and UC, playing the game at your own pace, Vanquish rubishes that idea and simply offers you the choice. Whether it's just offering a westernised gameplay mechanic for us Gears fans or if it's trying to make a point on how much we western players cower behind walls is never made clear, but it's fun to speculate. It never judges you on this stat, but you can tell what Mikami is thinking: wouldn't it be cooler if you used less cover? Yes it is. WAY cooler. Would it be cooler if I peaked out from cover and shot these enemies from afar, or would it be cooler if I slow-mo rocket slided past them, back flipped in slow-mo, took their heads off with a shotgun, lobbed an EMP grenade towards a group of mechs and flip-kicked that massive robot into the middle of next week, all to rescue a downed teammate? The choice is yours.
I am lucky to have 5.1 surround on my PlayStation, which just amplifies the visceral attack on the senses. The sound design is typical warzone complete with explosions, screams of dying colleagues and gunfire. It's nothing new. Where this game draws further comparison to side-scroling shooters is the pumping techno soundtrack and, again, it's standard fair. You will need to keep your ears peeled for the enemy robots though, as there are often very distinct audio cues as to when they are about to unleash hell in your direction, all of which you will be made to learn. But when you engage slow-mo, that's when the sound design excellence really shines. Voices, gunfire, music, explosions and each individual bullet all grind to a near standstill, reminding me slightly of that gunfight scene in Face/Off where Somewhere Over The Rainbow is played in the background. John Woo eat your heart out.
It is a short game, but it is very focussed. Once you have learned the mechanics, there is a Challenge mode to get your teeth into a la Batman. It's a welcome inclusion and will probably be the focus of any DLC. It's also fun playing the game in Japanese with English subs for that full Jap-animation experience. One thing I would have liked to see is a customizable soundtrack. As an experiment I had Led Zep's Rock and Roll playing in the background and it sounded awesome instead of that constant techno soundtrack. I guess those Xboxers will get that choice. I would have also liked to have been able to destroy a little more scenery, or to try to get to a place where I could trigger more environmental damage, like bring a skyscraper down on a robot, but perhaps that's for the sequel. And if they do a sequel, I hope the story improves.
The story isn't original or great in anyway. The dialog is fairly poor, forced and quite awkward, but I didn't care. In fact, I really warmed to it. The characters are very much Japanese cliches of Americans, so in that repect I quite enjoyed it. For some reason, MGS4's Drebin came to mind as I was listening to the NPCs. Completely over the top cliches, but isn't that why we like Japanese culture? Again, this is a big bone of contention, but it's possible to look past it. Don't expect much in the way of character or story development.
There is nothing like this game out there at the moment. I loved it, but you may not. I just hope this review has been of some use. Play the demo or rent first unless you know you're going to like it. 4.5 stars, 9 out of 10.