Vanquish starts with a bang. San Francisco is immediately destroyed by a giant (and I do mean giant, it’s like a nation unto itself) space-based laser cannon controlled by a crazy Russian revolutionary who looks like a cyborg. The U.S. then launches its entire space navy to attack the laser cannon before it can destroy New York City. There are also hints of a traitor in the midst of the U.S. forces, but only super soldier Sam and his sexy assistant Elena know of this threat. Oh, and the genius scientist who made Sam’s super suit has been kidnapped by the Russian cyborg.
All of this is thrown at you in the first cut scene with no build up and with everyone yelling their dialogue in order to be heard above constant explosions. It makes no sense at all, and from this point on, you won’t care about the story. Nor should you. For as long and frequent as the cut scenes are, the only relevant story moments happen in the very beginning and end; the entire game is essentially filler, but it’s the best kind of filler you could ask for.
There’s something pure about Vanquish. It’s not an ambitious game. It strives to do one thing only and do it well: combat. The main gimmick here is your super suit, which lets you boost around the environment, go into a slow-motion bullet-time mode, or do both at the same time. Doing either for too long makes your suit overheat, leaving you powerless for several seconds while it cools. Finding cover is also important, but Vanquish is unique in that it’s a cover-based shooter that doesn’t actually revolve around cover. This is not a “stop and pop” kind of game. If you sit behind a wall for too long, you’ll get overrun. To be effective in combat, you have to jump into the thick of things. Boost behind enemies and go into slow-mo as you shoot the weak spots on their back, then jump behind some sandbags for protection as your suit recharges. The transitions from one action to another, from boosting to cover to dodging to slow-motion, are fast and fluid. Many Japanese actions games suffer from overlong animations, but Vanquish knows speed is key to survival and does everything it can to keep you moving.
Unfortunately the high-speed action is hampered by a convoluted upgrade system for your guns. Every now and then you’ll see an item that will automatically upgrade whatever gun that you’re currently holding, but these items are rare. More commonly, you’ll earn upgrades by picking up the same type of gun multiple times but only if that gun has its maximum amount of ammo. For example, if you have a shotgun equipped and you pick up another shotgun, then it gets upgraded, but if you used the weapon at any point beforehand, then picking up the second shotgun will only refill your ammo. So the more you shoot, the less upgrades you’ll get; there’s something very wrong about a shooter that discourages shooting.
You also lose upgrades, and it’s never clear why. Sometimes I lost an upgrade when I died. Sometimes I lost multiple upgrades when I died. Sometimes I lost upgrades when starting a new act or chapter. Sometimes I dropped a powerful weapon because it ran out of ammo, only to pick it up later and find it without any upgrades at all. Even after playing for several hours, I can honestly say I have no idea how the upgrading system really works. It’s a mess, but it’s also beside the point.
As frustrating as it is feeling like you’re not fighting at your full potential, the combat controls are so refined and so well balanced that your frustration will turn into excitement every time that you pull the trigger. That excitement begins to fade in the final act though, as you run into boss fight after boss fight that are just battles of attrition against enemies with far more health than you. It’s here that the game overstays its welcome—even after just six hours. It becomes tiring and (against all odds) boring, as you die and replay each fight from the beginning with slightly weaker weapons.
Vanquish redeems itself with its Tactical Challenges. These are essentially arenas where you fight off waves of enemies. The game times you but not with a countdown, so you can take as long as you want in a fight and then try to beat your old score. It’s here, where the game is focusing solely on what it does best, that it becomes fun again. And it just might entice you to start the story over on a harder difficulty.
The upgrade system and drawn out ending taint this otherwise excellent action game. Vanquish is the only third-person shooter since Gears of War to innovate on the cover mechanic, making it a secondary concern to your suit’s heat management, and that alone makes it a refreshingly unique shooter worth playing.