Vanquish — A Retrospective
In 2008, the Wachowski sisters released their most critically-despised film to date: SPEED RACER. While critics were quick to back-pedal and hate on the later THE MATRIX films too, and have expressed a reasonable amount of skepticism about CLOUD ATLAS, SPEED RACER was instantly hated almost-unanimously. SPEED RACER was the DUKE NUKEM FOREVER of movie reviews in 2008. The gloves came off; there was blood in the water. The mob descended, and they were merciless.
Most people that have actually seen SPEED RACER sadly didn’t see it in the theater, and the critical hate it inspired is a source of continuous confusion for the inevitable fans of the film. To date, no major movie release has a greater disparity between the critic’s score (1–2 stars) and audience’s score (4–5 stars) on the questionably-valuable review-aggregator Metacritic. It’s hard to say exactly why this is the case; were audience expectations calibrated strangely? Certainly few expected the directors of THE MATRIX to adapt a well-loved but thoroughly-antiquated japanese cartoon from the 1960s as their followup to V FOR VENDETTA. Maybe critics were still feeling the burn after they gave the latter MATRIX films such high scores, only to have the public turn on them…
Whatever happened, for whatever unfathomable reason, film reviewers, as a group, as a clique, overlooked and drastically undervalued a genuine cinematic masterpiece (albeit an unconventional one). As a direct result, the film was funneled out of theaters in record time, only able to reach its real audience (everyone but movie critics, apparently) once it arrived on Blu Ray. SPEED RACER was not a cheap movie to make, and it is a kind of CG spectacular, but neither of those things is particularly notable. So what makes it so special?
Part of it, at least, is that SPEED RACER exists in a cinematic space-time that is in many ways the epitome, the sacred nexus that earlier Wachowski films like THE MATRIX (or basically any Zack Snyder movie) strive so desperately to achieve but don’t really know how to get there. In SPEED RACER, time is completely relative; a viscous fluid, the passage of which, like our place in the chronology and memories of the characters, is utterly dependent on the story, rather than linearity, or even cinematic tradition. Time and space shift according to the needs of the narrative and cinematography, but in a way that is intimidatingly holistic and with a degree of confidence that would be unnerving if it wasn’t so thoroughly saturated with real human love.
It is a cartoon, animated with a degree of bravado the likes of which the world rarely gets to see. It has all the energy of an unhinged Madhouse anime but informed by a remarkable level of attention to detail, and a willingness to distort time and space even within the same shot. If the story requires it, the foreground can be a perfectly traditional shot, while the background is mirrored geometrically, like a kaleidoscope, utterly without explanation; or maybe the background is moving in slow motion while the foreground remains in real-time; or both at once, in one memorable sequence. Whole sections of the film proceed as essentially flattened sprites in a diorama while other scenes possess a sense of space and dimensionality unrivaled in the medium.
SPEED RACER’s masterpiece status doesn’t come from just “being stylish”, though, whatever that might mean. It is a masterpiece because under that delectable veneer of chaos, immaturity, homage, and parody, every single imaginable detail, even the relationship between time and space in the diegesis, has been meticulously and obsessively tweaked and tuned to support, strengthen, and bind together the otherwise almost-always-flying-off-the-rails audio-visual story-experience.
There is something about a silly film built on a flawless foundation that inspires and thrills in a way that cuts through our jaded cynicism. VANQUISH, veteran director Shinji Mikami’s latest action videogame masterpiece (following immediately on the trend-setting RESIDENT EVIL 4 and chainsaw-birthday-caking GODHAND), is the SPEED RACER of videogames.
A very cool critical reception at its 2010 launch, and sub-1-million sales numbers, doomed VANQUISH to the almost-rans of the videogames industry. Next to critical and popular darlings like GEARS OF WAR (itself strongly inspired by RESIDENT EVIL 4’s cover system, squad battles and over-the-shoulder camera), VANQUISH never stood a chance. But like fans of SPEED RACER, fans of VANQUISH were understandably confused by the negative reaction.
When the creator of the modern third-person action game returns to the genre with a sweeping epic of chaos, immaturity, homage and parody, built on top of a ferociously precise, studied, and peerless arcade foundation, the last thing one might expect is silence. Worse than silence, even; the quiet disappointment of jaded critics, shaking their heads and regretting how over-the-top it is, how preposterous the vein-and-muscle space marines’s voices sound, how relentless the pacing is, and so on.
If only VANQUISH had the gravitas of the genre its creator had spawned, if only it was serious and mature like GEARS OF WAR, or UNCHARTED, then we could admit it into our hallowed halls; then and only then could it earn our appreciation.
But like all cult phenomena, and especially like SPEED RACER, this expensive and meticulously constructed cult game eventually found its audience. Insightful reviewers started to notice that this wasn’t a third-person shooter at all; that VANQUISH is a sort of hybrid of STARFOX and OUTRUN, filtered through QUAKE 3 ARENA’s powerups and map control, and deeply informed by the legacy of Konami and Treasure’s classic 2D and 3D shooter designs, especially Treasure’s SIN & PUNISHMENT.
Like SPEED RACER, VANQUISH was inspired by a somewhat outdated Japanese cartoon — CASSHERN, which unsurprisingly featured a jet-powered robot soldier. The comparison to SPEED RACER is complete when we realize that VANQUISH’s subjugation of the normally static bounds of space and time to the whims of gameplay, strategy and tactics is the thing that ultimately sets it apart from its contemporaries as well.
Before we dig into how and why VANQUISH casually and constantly warps space-time in a player-driven way, let’s take a moment to appreciate the arcade foundation that supports these distinguishing features. In VANQUISH, the way enemy behaviors and the player’s abilities subtly encourage and reward you for leaving cover, rather than seeking it, is admirable and wholly ignored by other games in the genre, before or after. Every weapon in the game has a specific strategic use, and both stylish and efficient play demand the flexible mastery of every weapon on the table. VANQUISH FAQs offer little to no concrete help in mastering the game, at least partially because VANQUISH is less about finding the path of least resistance, and more about ballet dancing across a chessboard in more-than-real time, while the pieces, and even the chess board itself, linked by visible and comprehensible logic, shift under the player’s feet until the dance is over.
It is a little difficult to adequately describe the systemic arcade foundation of VANQUISH but we have to at least try. For starters, from a gameplay perspective, VANQUISH has nearly all of the elements one expects to find in a console third person shooter videogame: squadmates, fragile enemy mobs, more robust unique enemies, giant bosses, convenient cover, recharging health, some special moves, a handful of guns, and some ammunition-related resources.
But part of the magic of VANQUISH is the way they layered many of these systems together into just a few distinct economies. For example, the recharging health is a visible shield-style meter, as opposed to some tacky blood decals, but it also serves as the fuel for recharging special moves. Cover, of course, is intimately connected to not-getting-shot (which keeps that special meter full), and so already we have a kind of health-oriented special-move cover-system metamechanic that includes half the elements in the game. Along similar lines, rescuing squadmates in VANQUISH gives the player an ammo bonus, making the player’s squadmates part of the ammo metasystem, which it turns out is intimately connected with these special moves we keep referring to, which are often used to retrieve ammo and guns from divergent map locations. And on top of that, each distinct enemy type is designed with different metasystem risks and rewards in mind as well, tying everything up with a neat bow.
Ultimately, what we end up with, as opposed to separate spreadsheets that are easy to analyze, is an elegantly tangled ball of interdependencies, where each of the player’s choices feeds back into a functional ecosystem with complex but logical and comprehensible results. The player’s special moves, which I promise we’re getting to, are largely navigational in nature, and so even the physical location of enemies, not just their type and their attack style, are implicitly bound to the health metasystem, since the health bar doubles as fuel for said special moves. This elegant recontextualization of recharging health is just one of the ways that VANQUISH takes a usually dumb and disappointing mechanic and puts it to not just good but exemplary effect. By embedding this mechanic at the core of the game, VANQUISH uses recharging health to strengthen other aspects of the systems, rather than relying on it as a bandaid for an otherwise unsolvable problem that weakens the rest of the experience.
(Christopher Alexander would call VANQUISH a “whole” system, with self-reinforcing patterns, as opposed to broken systems, in which the tension between patterns ultimately unravels the entire tapestry. It is often much more important for a design element to fit in with the whole than it is for the element to excel independently.)
Anyways, because this recharging-health system doubles as fuel for the game’s critical, powerful, and constantly-engaged special moves, players are constantly running down their health meter, as one would expect. And, when the meter empties entirely, either by over-using special moves, or taking hits from enemies, players get a brutal recharge-time penalty, quadrupling the recharge time of the meter. Like the boost meter in MOTORSTORM, players quickly learn that they can make the most of their health-fuel by pushing the meter right to the brink, but never quite over.
On top of that there is a kind of mission-checkpoint-scoring-experience-points system, which rewards new players and challenges veteran players by intuitively sorting difficulty into a kind of self-imposed hierarchy. Really high scores are only possible if you run a mission from start to back without having to resort to checkpoints, which, while at first it seems like a drag, quickly and obviously becomes the actual focus of the design, as you pare seconds off of early encounters, streamlining your approach, and positioning your resources for whatever encounter waits at the end of the stage. There is even a kind of Kojima-esque cigarette decoy system, which while nonsensical in some ways, becomes yet another tool that is entirely optional for beginners and still very useful for high-level speedruns.
Of course the player’s understanding of all these things builds slowly and organically, in a way that is not nearly as overwhelming as it probably seems here. Players gradually begin to understand that playing VANQUISH is a bit more like playing GO than GEARS; flanking this way instead of that has slight but non-trivial global effects on the way the battle flows from that point on. And, like GO, play is as much about aesthetic as it is about strength and success. But maybe there is something that is not entirely clear here yet; it’s a shooter, right, so why does it matter where the enemies stand? Why not just shoot at them from wherever the player happens to be and get on with it?
I’m so glad you asked.
Let’s talk about guns for a minute (or, let’s be honest, for several minutes). VANQUISH has only a handful of weapons, six, maybe seven guns in all. These guns are strewn about a bit like arcade powerups, rather than upgrades in the narrative sense. This is important: in VANQUISH, no gun is technically better than any other. They’re immaculately well-balanced. Every gun has a specific purpose and role, and each gun excels within its defined function, and is balanced by higher or lower ammo capacities and refill rarity accordingly. While players can finish the game without using all the guns, high level chess-ballet requires using every option, at just the right time, in just the right way.
(A quick aside: VANQUISH’s arcade-style meta-structure means that unlike many console shooters, VANQUISH is more fun the second time around. Knowing what threats lie ahead makes VANQUISH better, not worse. VANQUISH, as we said before, is less about winning and more about winning with style. VANQUISH’s short length and arcade-style gun drops are a testament to this structure, and understanding this is important when we are talking about the guns and how they work within the game.)
In VANQUISH, the player can carry three guns at a time, and since no gun is technically worse than any other, weapon pickups are omnipresent, and players often know what threats lie ahead, deciding which three guns to carry at any given time is an ongoing strategic decision, as opposed to a purely stylistic or obviously mathematical non-choice. Players don’t always want the rocket launcher, even though it is quite powerful, because it only fires 3 shots, and chews up a whole gun slot. Likewise, the EMP is not always effective in some scenarios. Same with the sniper rifle; these are special purpose tools. Figuring out how and when to use them to best effect is an intentional and almost puzzle-style element of the VANQUISH campaign level designs, and even more so in the Tactical Challenges.
That said, throughout much of the game, we mainly rely on the game’s three stock weapons: Assault Rifle, Machine Gun, and Shotgun. Staples of any third person shooter’s diet, really, and it is this explicit realization that must have driven the design of these weapons. These three guns form the backbone of the guns-ammo-enemies-geography metasystem in VANQUISH, and their unique properties, while not immediately obvious, end up feeding back into the movement systems and the way players relate to the level designs and enemy threats throughout the game.
The Assault Rifle is exactly what it sounds like, the standby of the standbys. High ammo capacity, high rate of fire, good at close and far range. But in VANQUISH there are some very specific choices about the design that dictate the assault rifle’s role in a way that is a little different from most other shooters. First, it is the weakest weapon in the game, producing very little damage with each shot (VANQUISH does not have pistols, because, honestly, why bother). Second, short of the sniper rifle, it is by far the most accurate weapon in the game, even fired backwards in midair whilst vaulting a barrier in DREDD-like slow-mo. This accuracy is far more important than it might sound, as most VANQUISH enemies have arcade-style weak spots where weapon hits do extra damage. Beyond maybe 10 or 15 meters, the assault and sniper rifles are the only weapons that can hit these sensitive and hard to reach areas. So even though it is technically a weak weapon, it is still far more effective at long ranges than most other guns available to the player.
The Machine Gun hits very hard, but carries maybe a third of the ammunition of the assault rifle, and suffers from horrendous aim. The wide open battlefields of VANQUISH mean that players need to get quite close, relatively speaking, before they can take advantage of the increased damage output of the machine gun. Already we can begin to see some dynamics falling out of these weapon designs: when the player is far from an enemy, stick to the assault rifle. Up close, switch to the machine gun to maximize damage.
The VANQUISH Shotgun, though, is one of the top five game guns of all time. Not just because it has a very satisfying sound, or good in-game knockback and stun effects (as any good videogame shotgun should), but because on top of that, the VANQUISH shotgun is the lynchpin of the entire movement-health-enemies-level-design metasystem at the heart of the game. It is the stalwart keel of Her Majesty’s VANQUISH. While the shotgun carries maybe 1/20th the ammo of the assault rifle, and does essentially zero damage at any range beyond one, maybe two meters, it does an enormous amount of damage at point blank range. It’s just shy of a rocket, and maybe half the damage or more of the fuel-expending super-melee moves.
The importance of this, for those who haven’t yet played VANQUISH, is that the shotgun’s seemingly-gratuitous-damage-at-very-close-range design provides a massive incentive for players to get very, very close to their enemies. Many shooters have melee attacks, and VANQUISH does too (more on those in just a moment), but the shotgun is VANQUISH’s true melee attack. The fact that it has limited (but not too limited) ammo only makes it that much more valuable. The shotgun is a critical and omnipresent resource that dictates and reflects upon the player’s movement and relation to every other enemy in the area. Use it well, and a shotgun can clear every major enemy in the area in seconds with just a few well-placed shots, leading to higher scores, better ammo conservation across your armory, and other advantages.
Beyond the varied gunplay, each weapon in VANQUISH has its own distinct melee attack, which (with one notable and interesting exception) completely drains the shared health-fuel meter, but does even more damage than the shotgun, if such a thing can even be imagined. These unique melee attacks take a few different forms; the shotgun’s melee attack, for example, involves an airborne flip thing (the only move approximating something like a jump in VANQUISH). But because most melee attacks drain the player’s health-fuel meter (the lone exception being the EMP) and staggering damage output, they are best used less like normal melee attacks and more like finishing moves from a fighting game. Melees are the perfect way to finish off a final enemy in an area, allowing the player’s health-fuel to recharge as they run to the next encounter, especially since the melee attack always does the same amount of damage, no matter how much meter the player had left when they triggered it. Of course, the value is not purely systemic; ending a tense battle by punching a giant mechanical scorpion so hard that it explodes (when it lands, of course, sometimes a football-field away) is, well, pretty satisfying.
Even weapon reload times have been carefully tuned and balanced, making careful weapon switching and ammo management on a micro-tactical level a valuable skill that can save precious seconds, and avoid unnecessary delays. Certain weapon reloads take exactly as long as the player’s stock dodge move takes to execute, allowing players to bury or interleave weapon reloads in already-necessary defensive maneuvers. Emerging from an encounter with an empty health bar and three empty guns is a testament to a player’s efficiency and control of the situation.
The strengths and weaknesses of each weapon, and their relationship to the rest of the game, while delightful in story mode, are best explored in the Tactical Challenges, a series of wave-based arena battles players can play outside of the core story campaign. “Like horde mode??” you ask. “No,” I say. “A game mode that can’t even exist in other shooters, because it only has value as an expression of the intricately balanced weapon-health-etc metasystem of VANQUISH.” “Whoa,” you say.
Tactical Challenges take place inside various selected arenas from the story mode, but feature different waves and arrangements of enemies and weapon pickups. For example, in a room that previously just had a boss fight, players might fight five or six very distinct waves of enemies in a specific order. Each Tactical Challenge is the same each time, and the game records the player’s fastest score. Since each weapon in VANQUISH is designed with a specific purpose, and each enemy has a specific risk-reward relationship with the player based on their location in the level and the type of weapon the player has, the layout of pickups and design of the waves becomes its own fourth or fifth dimensional level design, encouraging players to discover extrapolated and overlapping strategies. In the Tactical Challenges, players find the inherent arcade nature of the story mode writ large and obvious, and better for its purity.
Mastering any of the Tactical Challenges involves not just taking stock of the available resources at the start of each challenge, but also remembering what resources may become available later, and how best to use them against the threats that will appear in a minute or two. Wasted resources are wasted seconds; saving a grenade here and a rocket there, capturing a mech on wave 4 rather than using up all those precious shotgun rounds, are critical decisions that differentiate both scores and play style in a concrete way.
What I’m getting at, in case it’s not completely clear, is that these are the sorts of things that I mean when I say that the things about VANQUISH that really stand out, the cool special moves, are built on a superb foundation of game systems. The attention to detail, not just in the introduction of these nuances, but in their deliberate and artful tuning, to draw out the most interesting challenges, is remarkable. The way the combat systems function both mathematically and stylistically is impressive, especially when doing the thing that looks the coolest is so often the thing that actually is the most efficient and beneficial. VANQUISH teaches you to be cool. And yet this is only part of the picture, because probably the most memorable and most important aspects of VANQUISH (a console shooter, may I remind you), are more directly related to navigation and movement, and only indirected related to the admittedly impeccable guns and face-shooting.
And so, without further ado (as if there could be any more ado if I tried)… the special moves. In VANQUISH, there are some techniques that allow the player, like the directors of SPEED RACER, to bend the considerable space and time of VANQUISH’s diegesis to suit themselves, and their own idiomatic expression of the game. These health-meter-draining maneuvers are referred to in-game as Boost and AR.
Boost is the speed pickup from WIPEOUT and the turbos from MOTORSTORM with the thumb-feel of OUTRUN’s timeless drifting. Punching the boost sends players hurtling across VANQUISH’s wide open spaces at a just-barely-manageable pace, with remarkable precision of control; the sole restriction being the precious but rechargeable fuel players’ consume. Players can shoot, melee and even enter cover from Boost, and much of the game’s greatest goosebump-inducing moments and finest tactical triumphs come from exactly this sort of layering of behaviors. The world of VANQUISH is exactly as claustrophobic as the player wants it to be. Through Boost, three-dimensional space is distorted and becomes an expression of the player.
Likewise, the way players express time in VANQUISH is through its other core mechanic: AR, which is superficially recognizable as the classic Bullet Time from Max Payne. But unlike most other bullet-time-based action games, players cannot enter VANQUISH’s AR by merely pressing a button; they have to “dodge” into it (recalling OUTRUN’s drifting mechanic yet again). Players are heavily restricted and can only slip into AR when vaulting obstacles, or rolling out from behind cover, or, of course, when employing Boost.
In many ways this juxtaposition of constraints is counter-intuitive; the obviously correct approach to building an action game would be to make AR available in nearly any scenario, a la every game that ever had a bullet-time-like mechanic in it. And Boost is clearly the type of system meant to be used only in very special cases. Mikami’s decision to approach the problem from the opposite direction is symptomatic of his genius. RESIDENT EVIL 4 flaunted many traditions that had gone unquestioned for years, even some invented by Mikami himself in the original Resident Evil. This seems to be his thing; it was, I suppose, only natural for him to do the same reversal in VANQUISH.
Once we see his designs in action, the obviousness and necessity of his decisions becomes quite clear. Of course players can Boost at will; of course they can only achieve AR by evading into it. It makes sense, once you shake off the pressure of the old ways; AR is vastly more powerful and dangerous than Boost, so putting it behind a higher wall, so to speak, makes a lot of sense. But it is also very tactile and frictional. Evading or dodging into slow motion, rather than lazily sauntering into it, feels so perfect it is actually pretty hard to describe. It’s like the first time you played a game with double-jump, or the first time you saw a Magic Eye poster. AR in VANQUISH feels like leaping out of the flow of time as we know it; like we are gripping reality with our index finger and shifting it to suit our very particular need at the moment. It is forceful and minimal and deeply rewarding.
Let’s tally up what we’ve learned so far: in VANQUISH, players enter arenas with the knowledge that they want to get close to enemies to maximize their ammo resources. They know that they can replenish ammo resources by boosting over to fallen comrades and weapon pickups. They know they get a considerable point bonus if they finish the level quickly enough. And yet each new arena is full of classic third person shooter cover. Initially it seems like there is some tension here. After all, its a cover shooter, right? That means you shoot from cover. That’s the whole thing.
But what becomes clear, after an hour or two, maybe less, is that VANQUISH is not a cover shooter at all. VANQUISH is, instead, an anti-cover shooter, and, in being so, forever redefines the cover shooter, in exactly the same way that RESIDENT EVIL 4 redefined third person action games for the last decade. VANQUISH is nothing if not a monumental pile of temptations to encourage players constantly leave cover. VANQUISH is an orbital space station piñata of rewards, daring players to take greater and greater risks. Sure, players use cover if they absolutely have to, but only as a place to briefly regenerate health and reload a gun. This takes maybe two to three seconds if they’re using their abilities correctly and avoiding that recharge penalty. In VANQUISH, the optimal solution to the problem of “why not just shoot all the bad guys from behind this nice piece of cover” is to jump the barrier, scoop up some ammo, and close the gap, for faster progress, for more bonuses, but most importantly to perform.
Strangely, and, depending on who you ask, amazingly, VANQUISH is also a bizarre parody. The inevitable space marine squadmates who accompany the player get progressively gruffer voices, culminating in war hero Bob Burns, a charicature of Cookie Monster, testosterone, Jesse Ventura in Predator, Marcus Fenix and Mum-Ra. He cracks jokes about Roombas, whilst the game’s hero Sam, clad in a suit of armor literally (actually-literally) called “the arse”, quips one-liners about Ebay in the midst of firefights aboard a massive orbiting satellite city thousands of miles above the surface of future Earth, all on the orders of a thinly-veiled Hillary Clinton. Even the game’s final boss is playing a videogame within the game, which VANQUISH refuses to even remotely consider commentary on drone warfare.
(Another quick aside: I later found out that in fact the player was supposed to be a drone-like avatar as well, which would have been an unbearably brilliant coup. I am almost glad they opted for a plain old space-bro. Almost.)
Given the genuinely peerless action game design, the hilarious story elements and so-called narrative make it is impossible for me to read VANQUISH as anything but a humbly (apologetically?), decisively extended middle finger to all of our so-called serious and mature murder-em-ups.
Despite VANQUISH’s high level of difficulty and relentless pacing, and the game’s superficially-chaotic ultra-violence, players almost never actually kill a human person. Players save far more generic space marines than they kill. The enemies, for narrative and systemic (and I think ethical reasons), are very much Just Robots. If we look at Mikami’s most influential action game designs, we see that the player is rarely killing actual sentient beings; GODHAND largely eschews death altogether (unless you count delivering summary judgment on some jerk demons), whilst the RESIDENT EVIL series presents the player with vapid zombies. Even DINO CRISIS is, probably obviously, mainly about dinosaurs. Don’t even get me started on GOOF TROOP. Anyways, VANQUISH puts players face to face with thousands of fragile robots, and ultimately, only at the game’s conclusion, a few humans. Mikami’s contemporaries seem almost desperate to put humans under the guns of his mechanics, as if these ideas are great and all but really they’re put to waste if they’re not baked in to a bonafide murder simulator. Videogames are a funny thing.
Across the board, VANQUISH refuses grit; it is anti-gritty, and revels in it, knowing that it has revolutionized the grittiest of action genres without a single camera-splattering fatality animation (despite those precise things being another of Mikami’s own inventions in the genre). The game’s end theme, in stark contrast to most of the game’s bland but serviceable techno music (Mikami describes these tunes as the “background dancers”), is a classic Japanese anthem with a slight touch of euphoric western patriotism; a Godzilla theme for a globalized world, and a perfect denouement to this Japanese take on America’s take on Japanese action game design. Of course the end theme can’t be hip hop or nu metal; of course it has to be an anthemic victory march. Because VANQUISH is sick and tired of the same old cynical grit. VANQUISH is enthusiasm encoded in electrons and sound waves and injected not into your skeptical brain but directly into your heart.
The same superficially-reckless charm that permeates the game’s controls and mechanics and level designs and even music is omnipresent in the game world around the action, too. The action in VANQUISH occurs in a relentless, almost-numbing series of nearly-incomprehensible set pieces, including train chases, giant robot invasions, Battlestar Galactica-style capital ships crashing into the killing field at close range, and so on. These set-pieces are the real background dancers to the battleground chess ballet unfolding in the invisible but foregrounded game-space.
While it pains me to admit it, VANQUISH, despite my occasionally hyperbolic rhetoric, is not entirely without flaws. But the flaws are largely external, rather than internal. In classic Platinum style, VANQUISH forgets to teach players how to play itself. It has a tutorial, but the tutorial fails to mention exactly the elements of Boost and AR that transform a player’s experience with the game from lukewarm Japanese wanna-be to mind-blowing and heart-filling revolution. They designed achingly precise and delightful Tactical Challenges, with a very simple high score system (how fast can you destroy everything?). But they forgot (or couldn’t afford) to include intuitive or integrated leaderboards within the game. When I turn on VANQUISH I want it to taunt me with some player’s two-minute run on TC1, and I want it to let me watch the replay. I want to study a stranger’s ballet, and disect it, and devise improvements, and contribute to the community effort to solve the puzzles Mikami made for us. But VANQUISH makes this process difficult, to say the least. I also question the choice to end the game’s final (and lengthy) boss fight with a QTE, which, if failed, forces the player to fight the whole battle again.
And while VANQUISH does feature women in roles of enormous power and agency (the president of the United States and the player’s supervisor and master hacker at DARPA), the fact that they only exist in cutscenes, and are the sole women in the entire game, is disappointing. VANQUISH might be a parody of western male-only space marine shooters, but that’s no excuse for continuing that lack of diversity.
In spite of those things, VANQUISH is a vivid and exhilarating reminder that the designer who defined a decade of third person shooters can run rocket-powered circles around the rest of the world’s poor imitations, creating not just a solid shooter but exhilarating and heretofore unimagined venues for our expressive performance.
In a world of hyper-derivative and gritty action-slurry that refuse to take creative risks, it takes a work like SPEED RACER to remind us about love and fun and excitement and performance and the fluidity of our perception, and the right and responsibility of art to twist the world to fit its unique vision. If VANQUISH is the SPEED RACER of videogames, and of course it is, we should remember that Shinji Mikami and Platinum are not the Wachowskis. Instead, they let us be the Wachowskis; they let us make our own SPEED RACER. And we love them for it.