Latchkey Games is a weekly article that takes a look at games that perhaps didn’t quite get the amount of love they deserved: whether it was a game that was panned on it’s initial release only to become a cult classic, one that stirred the ire of series fans, or simply a game that fell through the cracks and was forgotten by time or overshadowed by a more popular release. This week I’m going to talk about Vanquish, Sega and Platinum Games’ power sliding, hard smoking, super fast paced third person shooter.
Veteran game designer Shinji Mikami is pretty best known for creating the original Resident Evil, but if you look back at his entire body of work, you’ll see that action games are his bread and butter: he got his start working on excellent licensed games like the SNES version of Aladdin and the underrated action-puzzler Goof Troop, and in recent years he’s returned to his action roots with games like God Hand and Shadows of the Damned. When you look at Mikami’s gameography and read interviews with him, it’s obvious that the guy loves action games and understands how to make a good one, so in that sense it’s not surprising that Resident Evil 4 (which is actually one of the few entries in the RE series that he personally directed,) moved the series forward into a more action-oriented path.
While Resident Evil 4 retained enough classical adventure aspects that I’d hesitate to call it a a straight up “shooter,” it’s influence on the genre is undeniable: Epic’s Cliffy Blesinski has stated many times over that RE4 was a huge influence on Gears of Wars, and pretty much every game that uses third person shooter mechanics made since has co-opted RE4’s over the shoulder aiming camera. Whether intentionally or not, Mikami’s RE4 revolutionized how third person shooters controlled and looked, so it makes sense that Mikami would want to revisit the genre that he helped to popularize.
The game that Mikami ended up creating was Vanquish, a sci-fi third person shooter that was about as different from Gears of War and other military-themed shooters as you could get while still staying in the same genre. Sure, Vanquish has a lot of the elements you’d expect from a modern third person shooter: a dedicated cover system, a “dudebro” story that recycles almost every 80’s action movie cliche you can think of, and that classic, RE4-style over the shoulder camera angle that’s become a hallmark of the genre, but Vanquish differs from its genre compatriots in one important aspect: pacing.
As much as I love Gears of War, there’s no denying that it’s a deliberately slow game: the emphasis on GoW is on strategically taking cover and finding the best position to lay down fire, not on mobility and speed. Vanquish is the exact opposite: protagonist Sam Gideon is equipped with a cybernetic suit of armor that doesn’t just protect him from enemy attacks, but allows him to quickly boost around the stages and pull off feats of speed and acrobatic ability that Marcus Fenix and his trunk-necked squad could only dream of.
The speed at which Sam moves isn’t just for show either: Vanquish is significantly faster paced that other third person shooters, and you’ll need to quick reflexes to keep up with the nigh-endless waves of enemies the game throws at you. The game does have a cover system for when you need to stop and recharge your shields, but the emphasis is definitely on staying mobile: even the basic enemy types are smart enough to try and flank you if you stay behind one spot of cover for too long, and the tougher enemies use explosive weapons that’ll damage you even if you’re behind something, so you never really feel completely safe on Vanquish. The best defense is a good offense, and Vanquish rewards proactive players who eschew cowering behind cover in favor of throwing themselves into the middle of the fight.
The game gives you plenty of options once you decide to join the fight too: sure, Sam is equipped with your usual machine guns and grenade launchers, but he also has access to some rather unique weaponry as well, including a laser that shoots out a Macross style burst of homing attacks and metal disc launcher that can slice through multiple enemies in a row. You’ll need to use Sam’s boost both defensively and offensively: you’ll need it to dive behind cover when you’re ambushed (trust me, diving to avoid an attack is so much more dramatic when you’re doing at 80 MPH,) and you can also use to quickly boost behind enemies and flank them when you launch your counterattack. If you really want to feel bad-ass, the game even has a button dedicated to making Sam stop in his tracks and take out a cigarette and just light one up on the middle of the battlefield.
In many ways, Vanquish almost reminds me of SNK’s beloved Metal Slug series. Sure, Vanquish is in 3D and is set in the future while Metal Slug is 2D and is set in a whimsical World War 2-esque setting, but in terms of pacing both games are remarkably similar: they’re both fast-paced, challenging games that encourage players to keep moving, and both games throw endless waves of enemies and huge bosses at you. In fact, I think that if SNK ever manages to create a good 3D Metal Slug, it’ll probably play a lot like Vanquish.
Vanquish received a mostly positive response from critics: the main complaint about the game was its dumb, cliched story, but honestly, does anyone play these type of games for the story? Despite the glowing critical reception, Vanquish didn’t quite sell to publisher Sega’s expectations, and the game was quickly forgotten about after its release. It’s a shame though, because Vanquish is easily one of the best shooters to come out this generation, and that’s saying a lot when you consider the amount of shooters that have been released in this console cycle. If you’re interested in the game and you missed out on it when it was first released, you can pick up a copy of Vanquish for about $20 or less if you shop around, and trust me, it’s a worthwhile experience at any price.