The Seriously Absurd Case of ‘Vanquish’

Games might not be sentient, but their creators can imbue them with distinct personalities. Vanquish, helmed by the eccentric Shinji Mikami (the man behind innovative and bizarre games such as Resident Evil, Resident Evil 4, God Hand, and Killer7) is a playful trickster that dances back and forth over the line of parody and self-seriousness. To play it is to witness a game in conversation with its contemporaries in the third-person shooter genre. Vanquish’s campy story matches its outrageous visual style and hyper-kinetic gameplay, while also poking fun at the solemn plots of its contemporaries. Alongside all this irreverence is a game earnestly committed to learning from the advances made by previous games while also offering innovations that push the shooter genre forward. Vanquish relishes its absurdity, even as it flaunts its serious accomplishments.

As far back as Rush ‘n Attack, the Soviet menace has always provided video games with consistent, dependable villains. Like Modern Warfare 2, Vanquish‘s plot revolves around a reignited war with Russia. Unlike Modern Warfare 2, Vanquish tells this story with a grin rather than a straight face. Vanquish’s villain, Victor Zaitsev, steps into a familiar role as a militant Ruskie with a scheme for world domination that would make a Bond Villain proud. Sitting in a command center upon a high-tech throne, Zaitsev holds the world hostage as he expounds on his plan of instituting a New World Order. His sunken eyes and sallow complexion give him a vampiric look as he revels in the destruction of San Francisco by what is essentially a giant space laser. He’s an unabashed caricature of an Eastern European despot, and the story makes little effort to liken him to “real world” terrorists.

At times, Vanquish flirts with more serious critiques of war and politics. U.S. President Elizabeth Winters hints an at alternate reality in which her highly-driven, pantsuit-wearing doppelganger won the 2008 election. The conflict between Russia and the U.S. is eventually revealed to be a conspiracy between Winters and Zaitsev to start a war as a “stimulus package” for the country’s flagging economy. The lead character, Sam Gideon, finds time in between skirmishes to debate the meaning of sacrifice with the hardened war veteran Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Burns. Taken alone, these narrative components would feel forced and overly cheesy. Fortunately, Vanquish’s “serious” bits are more akin to South Park-style satire than a Tom Clancy thriller.

Whenever the specter of narrative importance arises, campy jokes keep the mood light. Burns, an impossibly built, grizzled old marine, never misses a chance for a one liner. After winning a battle against the Russian controlled robot army, he quips, “Those red bastards will never know the beauty of a Kentucky Bourbon.” Faced with enemies that have him out numbered and out gunned, Burns shouts ,“Thank God I’m an Atheist!” and jumps into the fray, gun blazing. The Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Medal of Honor games have made the inclusion of military slang in video games commonplace to the point in which hearing “We are Oscar Mike,” makes sense to most players. Vanquish subverts the authenticity such slang attempts to evoke by laying it on overly thick. Burns prepares his men for battle by telling them: “This situation is hot. We’re going to need to stay frosty” in a tone so serious that it only serves to highlight how ridiculous it sounds.

The main object of Vanquish‘s mixture of affection and mockery is the Gears of War series. Burns’ exceedingly beefy physical stature makes him look like he stepped right out of Epic’s highly successful, stylized games. Sam Gideon growls and rasps his way through the dialogue like someone who was up all night gargling gravel. The Gears crew growl “Nice!” or “Sweet!” as the player picks up weapons, and Sam makes cracks like, “This’ll come in handy!” or “This is gonna be fun!” Both Marcus and Sam are given mission objectives and narrative exposition by attractive, blond intelligence officers who serve both as off-site support and latent love interests. Vanquish follows the adventures of the ragtag Bravo Company, who seem to get in as many tight situations as Gears‘s Delta Squad. However, their thematic tones diverge in a few crucial places.

Early on, Vanquish alludes to the scene in which Gears of War 2 took its dark turn. The prisoners that Marcus and Dom find in Gears of War 2 have been irreparably damaged by the Locusts, unable to live with the pain or just waiting for others to put them out of their misery. Instead of following it down a similarly solemn path, Vanquish maintains its bombastic attitude. The situation is similar: a group of marines have been captured by enemy forces and subjected to an unknown fate. However, when Sam releases the convulsing marines from their electrified shackles, the game unleashes its quirky sense of humor. Each marine remarks on how great they feel after having been saved. One credits his shackles for fixing his back problems. Sam suggests that one of the newly freed marines find one of the pleasant prison devices on eBay and then gets back to the task of rocket boosting around a space station with a laser gun. Cheesy as all of that may be, at least it’s thematically consistent.

Vanquish has a fictional world but is never shy about breaking the fourth wall to wink at the player. Meta-jokes frequently crop up, as when Burns tells his men to start shooting “If you see so much as a fucking Roomba.” Should the player perform well in the stealth mission, they are rewarded by the achievement that references the sneaking prowess of the Splinter Cell series’ main character: “Fisher is the Other Sam.” When Elena gives Sam the rundown on the deadly enemy robot called the Crystal Viper Assassin, he remarks that “This is starting to sound like a bad video game.”

This is especially amusing because Vanquish exhibits many of the traits seen in “bad” video games. Its corny dialogue, silly premise, and arcade sensibilities stand in stark contrast to its cinematic brethren like Uncharted and Red Dead Redemption. Its emphasis on points, time attacks, and twitch-based dodging is more similar to Space Invaders than Mass Effect. However, it would be a mistake to write Vanquish off as a modern day relic of a bygone era. Underneath its ironic story and clichéd characters lie robust gameplay systems that seriously upstage its competitors.

Vanquish confronts the tendency of “stop and pop” that plagues many cover-based shooters by forcing the player to constantly juggle the risks and rewards of battle tactics. Fights in Vanquish almost always consist of a variety of enemies with different speeds and attack patterns. Stationary snipers may tempt the player to hunker down, but mobile foot soldiers and flying turrets ensure that there are very few safe spots. Combat turns into a game of hide and seek punctuated by mad dashes, during which the player must still manually maintain steady aim.

Key abilities such as speed boosts, bullet time, and melee attacks all share the same limited, yet renewable resource, which prevents the player from relying too heavily on any given technique. Shooters of all kinds tend to have certain dominant traits. Halo trades on combining projectiles with powerful melee attacks, cover is king in Gears, while Call of Duty rewards constant speed. Vanquish demands all of these, yet keeps any one dynamic from becoming dominant by tying each element to the all important energy meter.

Vanquish is no joke when it comes to the skill required to succeed: players are expected to learn the systems and stay sharp. Certain enemies can end Sam with a single lucky shot, restoring the tension that regenerating health has eroded over the years. The unique weapon upgrade system provides incentives for using a broad array of weapons. Because upgrades are only applied if a gun’s ammo is full, the player must cycle to other weapons if they wish to save up for an enhancement. While doing this, they are forced to experiment with other weapons whose applications are revealed by necessity.

The end of each chapter is a reminder of Vanquish’s real story; statistics detailing how fast you cleared the level, how many enemies were destroyed, and how many times you were killed all contribute to an evaluation of your performance. All of these factors are tallied to produce a score that is entirely divorced from the game’s plot. Accuracy, time bonuses, and even deaths are acknowledged as a part of the game, just not the part that advances the plot. Unlike games like Uncharted, in which players must willfully ignore ludo-narrative inconsistency, Vanquish acknowledges its mechanical challenges and lets them exist independently from the plot.

Vanquish’s strength is best illustrated by a cigarette. Sam chain smokes throughout the game, and the player can even press a button to take a smoke break while in cover. When I first started playing, I thought this was just a stylistic choice meant to emphasize on Sam’s identity as a bad-ass. Why else would someone who relies on physical fitness for survival disengage his armored robot helmet just to smoke a cigarette? Although it fits the game’s camp themes perfectly, smoking also has a systemic purpose: certain robots are distracted by the lit cigarette, and flicking it in one direction opens them up for an attack from the opposite side.

Although Vanquish may act the fool in terms of story and presentation, it does so with a sly grin. Underneath its mixture of reverence and satire towards its cover-based shooter contemporaries, Vanquish makes a serious contribution to the genre.


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