17 August 2017

Vanquish | The Marriage Of Two Genres

Imagine a bookcase filled with old magazines - dusty and scratched. You grab one on games and relish in the old memories that come with it as you read its quality articles. Slowly your eyes settle on a single word next to a review: “genre: shooter”. Back then games were seriously categorized with their brothers. Painkiller’s gothic extravaganza was every much a “shooter” as Delta Force’s attempt at realism. While games have always dabbled with combining multiple genres, like with the original Metroid, it wasn’t until Deus Ex and Metroid Prime that the term “shooter” just wouldn’t suffice anymore. This took another step in 2010 when director Shinji Mikami wished to make a modern iteration of the “arcade shooter” after having completed God Hand’s ode to the classic “beat ‘em up” genre. Looking to other modern titles for inspiration he quickly noted that they ‘lacked speed’ and that he wished to break these rules, subconsciously having his game represent both “action” and the classic “shooter”. He had tried to revive the “arcade shooter” before with P.N.03 with little success and wished to take those lessons learned to realize the vision anew with a bigger budget and wider deadline to back it up. The result is Vanquish.

During development Vanquish went through a lot of phases. At one point it was about a set of pilots who each had their own robot suit with distinct mechanical traits. One suit would be the slick shooter for instance and the other a brawler. But these elements were eventually scrapped for a more streamlined approach; there are no menus, upgrade-trees or stores to visit just like the arcade games it pays homage to. This extended to the multiplayer which was dropped as they felt that splitting resources between the two led to a worse singleplayer and a worse multiplayer - they wanted their love to show on every frame.
The result of this love is the Action Reaction Suit. The suit runs on energy and can be used to slow down time to make a tactical retreat, see bullets fly in mid-air and dodge them effortlessly or get that critical headshot while under pressure. Once the heat is off you can pump the juice into your legs to boost across the screen and start a lighting fast offensive to finish them off. Taking small breaks allows the suit to refill but when pushed too far it’ll overheat making your dodge slower while disabling other abilities like the boost. As a result the game becomes one of meter management with you always pushing the suit to its limits, squeezing out just that little fraction of a second longer to land that perfect shot or boost just that inch further. Other times you’ll want to keep a reserve in case you need to make a quick getaway. And should you really be in danger or wish to style one can insert the whole bar in one melee attack strong enough to put a serious dent in even the strongest boss. Having the player lose all their juice by using a melee attack keeps Vanquish from shifting away from a balance between action and shooting to full-on action. Yet not all attacks are equal in strength and utility, leaving some unused. Clearly everything is built around energy-bar, making it the most important thing there is and why a traditional health-bar is omitted, to prevent confusion.

The suit is complimented by a small selection of weapons ranging from typical machine guns to shotguns. The Assault Rifle has high accuracy but once you get used to the knockback both the Heavy Machine Gun and its downloadable brother the Boost Machine Gun outshine it; each weapon has its uses but some are innately better than others. More interesting to note are the novelty weapons such as the LFE which fires a purple orb that kills all minor enemies in its wake but can also be used to give your grenades a distance boost, push larger enemies off cliffs or stunlock the biggest of the bad. Aside from that variation is lacking though and more obscure weapons would have been welcomed. Upgrading weapons doesn’t fare much better, generally being ammo-capacity enhancements before the tenth upgrade which gives a special power-up like increased firing speed or shooting through cover. Thankfully the combat is enhanced by the presence of various tricks and abilities that are hidden from plain sight. For instance when firing a machine gun you can cancel the shot into a shotgun shell by switching weapons while firing, opening the door to new combat tactics. There are more neat tidbits like this that can show the difference between a new and veteran player - Vanquish has more to master than just aiming.

Said shooting is done in a pristine future environment. Like our favored suit the locales are white with small nudges of green giving the feeling of a chrome-like future. In juxtaposition to these stand the enemies which have edgier designs embezzled with gold and red colors, sometimes a light green or blue. As a result they immediately stand out making targets easy to spot - design supporting the gameplay. These foes vary from small foot soldiers named Gorgies who spurt binary just as they’re about to smack you with their gun, large Romanovs that make a grunt as they try to engage their flamethrower to an agile boss which warns you to “aim carefully” as he reveals his hidden weapon. Each enemy has a tell and a purpose behind its moves, some merely seeking to distract you from the bigger threat while others try to slow you down by overheating you. Removing randomness from attacks makes the player more aware of how the enemies work and how to counter them. Pair this with the constant eye on the energy bar and you’re slowly getting a game that is as much about balancing strategy and on the fly thinking as it is about balancing genres. Encounters consist of you quickly eyeing the radar while boosting across the battlefield, you prioritize a Gorgie - and take him out. Just as he erupts into particles you hear a distinct sound and timely dodge, using slow-mo afterwards to get an overview of the situation. You adapt your strategy to what’s in front of you and push on while your suit is put to the test - that is Vanquish’s combat in a nutshell. But the nuances in how this works in detail can differ from player to player due to the plethora of mechanics in place. One might have a blast disregarding the audio-cues and playing it defensively from behind cover, another might zip from one side of the battlefield to the other forever searching out that last magic pixel of energy. Both styles are supported and preferably mixed into one final style of play.


What’s surprising though is that this all takes place on a horizontal plane, rarely offering more combat depth in height. Enemy weakspots are always in their back which you can take advantage of by boosting out of cover and into the fray, but the game rarely asks you to deal with multiple levels of elevation such as enemies on different heights or weakspots located at different altitudes. It does try this with snipers on a catwalk or a mission that is at an angle, like a hilltop, but never pushes it farther. The target you are looking for is always in front of you and in clear view which could be due to the game’s roots as a console-shooter. This is also evident in the speed at which foes move, while playing with a controller you can keep up but when played with a mouse and keyboard you’ll notice even the fastest enemies becoming easy targets. Vanquish has the design of an action game in a shooter, but the shooter elements are outdated in some regards.

All the systems we just discussed are put to the ultimate test on “God Hard” difficulty. Before it even truly opens up you’ll have realize that this mode is only for those who thought they’d reached perfection and needed a stern lesson in humility. All fallbacks are removed: enemy encounters are remixed, upgrades are disabled and most importantly your meter drains more than twice as fast when slowing down time. Add slower health regeneration, sturdier enemies, increased enemy aggression and no achievement as a reward and you’ve got a setting that is only for the elite. It urges you to master the game and to push the suit beyond known limits - to truly wear it. “God Hard” demands excellence and with every try you will look to improve, this is a game that wishes to be replayed.
If you manage to best “God Hard” you’ll notice just how low your score is and how high those on the leaderboards are. The scoring-system was built in memory of its arcade roots and aimed to reward fast players and punish deaths. Yet by pressing “return to title screen” at any time all recent mistakes since the last save are deleted. This turns score-runs into a scenario where a player presses restart until the perfect run is achieved instead of a tense experience where one mistake could mean the end. To add insult to injury the system relies on giving you point-bonuses for killing enemies via their weakspots. A shame as the game's design pushes you towards mastery of two playstyles and yet the scoring system pushes you towards one pre-defined playstyle - a harsh oversight. This lack of attention is also felt in a certain little things. Despite small out of place set-pieces trying to break up the monotony, low-enemy variation set in quick. While from a combat perspective each fight offers something new they are visually less varying in their presentation, and lots of possible enemy combinations aren’t used. Other small omissions like the lacking ability to change shoulder while aiming or having your cursor abruptly move if you aim out of cover are little annoyances that hold the game’s shooting elements back from perfection. A lack of Mikami style unlockables is also noticeable. Unlike his previous games Vanquish is severely lacking in novelty modes and/or costumes - again emphasizing that streamlined approach. A shame, busting up robots dressed as Platinum Games star Bayonetta would have been a great pleasure. Vanquish’s entire design philosophy is built around replaying the game yet, outside of mere enjoyment, there is no reward.

And that was also what Vanquish got, no reward. While the old magazines and websites spoke fondly of it the lack of multiplayer, short runtime, launching the same week as Fallout: New Vegas and the combinations of genre’s didn’t hit home with consumers. Vanquish wanted to be an “Action” title but use the tropes of that genre with the flavor of a “Third Person Shooter”. Everything it contains is in the service of gameplay, to give the most pure and fun experience possible. That is sadly not enough anymore. But its influence will always be felt: how it sped up a slow genre, how it presented a game whose sole quality was to be infinitely replayable and which could be experimented with forever. As we put the magazine back into the shelf we will often see Vanquish close-by, tucked away in a closet to sometimes be revisited for that glimpse of a time when gameplay was the most important ingredient. Those that touched Vanquish and understood what it tried to be instead of what they expected of it will never let it go and became part of a larger community. So to you dear reader, who enters the community: welcome. To Vanquish.



opinion style
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In this short section I switch my own style to that of an opinion and give you a little peak on what my take is on this article.

Writing this piece was easily some of the most challenging I’ve done. When I was writing my piece on Ninja Gaiden I was distanced - while I think highly of the series I never finished any entry more than six to ten times. Vanquish on the other hand was a title that I finished more than forty times and counting with a new replay happening at least once or twice a year. And ever since I started up Stinger Magazine I kept notes of elements or minor grievances I had with the title but never dared structure them or write them down because I was in too deep. As I write this the Opinion Style the article isn’t finished yet, held back by a plethora of nitpicking notes hanging on every sentence which I would have approved long ago had it been on another game: but this is Vanquish.
How I got into Vanquish is something I can’t quite recall. I had originally gotten Bayonetta as part of a subscription to an, admittedly, bad gaming magazine. I liked the title and beat it on the highest setting and earned the Platinum Trophy (yes, I played the horrible Playstation 3 release). Some time later I think I noticed Vanquish on a store shelf which was heavily discounted due to its bad sales. I completed it in one single day and immediately delved into the Challenge Maps afterwards. I was stuck on Challenge 4 for two days; memories return of me walking through museums with classmates while I thought up strategies. Challenge 6 took longer until I decided that Saturday would be the day. I’d put on the song “You’re The Best Around” by Joe Esposito and went at it until it was done - and I did it. This situation would play out again exactly the same years later a certain handicap-run of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. “God Hard” difficulty wasn’t finished until much later, during the PSN outage which forced me out of my online Street Fighter addiction. 
Vanquish introduced me to many players I still talk to today and it is a title that gave me enough self-esteem to delve into other action titles like Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry where I met even more of those people. It is a game I will forever cherish and I pray I did it justice with this article. Vanquish, here’s to you old friend - may we grow old and dusty together. 


★ wishful thinking ★
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With this little section, I'll explore what small things could easily be added in a patch that would improve the game.

  • Auto-AR mode is disabled on "God Hard" difficulty;
  • Skip all watched cutscenes automatically” checkbox added to the menu;
  • This also skips the forced walking segments, some are replaced by loading screens;
  • Pressing L3 while aiming switches the shoulder from which the camera is positioned;
  • Very Hard difficulty is added in between Hard and God Hard, to make the jump from Hard to God Hard less painful. This difficulty has the damage output and enemy setup of God Hard, but reduces the AR-time by 150% and still allows upgrades - but less are available;
  • Dying also resets your stock of cigarettes;
  • Dying in God Hard no longer resets your stock to max;
  • The Laser Cannon’s visual effect when hitting an enemy is reduced, increasing visibility while firing;
  • Infinite Grenade glitch fixed;
  • Dying saves your current data;
  • Pressing “Return to Title Screen” saves your current data;
  • Aiming out of cover no longer repositions your cursor in certain situations;
  • Each melee-attack now has a use, be it due to some costing less meter or others having unique properties to them like stuns or juggles;
  • Boosting out of cover can now be canceled immediately by dodging as intended;
  • Beating God Hard with a positive score unlocks the abilities to play as Unrestricted Sam from the final chapter, using this costume disables score-recording;
  • The score-system is revised to promote different playstyles.

postscript notes
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  • As noted above, I was highly intimidated by this article. As such it suffered heavy rewrites until I was absolutely one hundred percent happy with it. If you are reading this, that means the impossible happened;
  • I once invited a friend over to play some games and he was visibly shocked to see Sam having a different animation when taking cover in a wall that is lower than chest-height. And rightfully so, it’s not something seen often;
  • Vanquish actually had an official tournament held in Japan, on who could beat the Challenges the fastest, even Inaba was present himself. You can read more about it here;
  • Though omitted in the article, Vanquish pulls heavy inspiration from old anime like Casshern! Worth a look;
  • This is the first article to feature “wishful thinking”.

sources
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Release-date:  19 october 2010|  Director: Shinji Mikami| Producer: Atsushi Inaba| Platform: PS3/X360/PC

2 comments :

  1. Good job Roy. Nice gif and image uses.

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    Replies
    1. Cheers man! Glad you liked the article :)

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