As the much anticipated PC version approaches, Shinji Mikami's expertly crafted action game proves it can still topple modern day blasters
Video games owe The Matrix a slow-mo, shell-dodging debt the medium will never repay.
The likes of Max Payne, Viewtiful Joe, and Stranglehold all cribbed from Keanu and company's effortlessly iconic Bullet Time to terrific effect. Rockstar in particular has turned the act of time-defying headshots into a giddily gory art – be it Michael in GTA V, or Red Dead Redemption's John Marston. Yet no single game has ever benefitted from dancing with slow motion death quite like 2010's Vanquish. In fact, Platinum Games PS3 and Xbox 360 release was so ahead of its time, the seven-year-old cover shooter now feels more modern than most games released in 2017.
The bullet-hell brainchild of Resident Evil genius Shinji Mikami has shot back into the news of late thanks to its upcoming – somewhat surprising – PC remaster. Hitting Steam on May 25 with an unlocked framerate and support for 4K displays, Vanquish could ignite the imagination of a whole new generation of gamers. As it should. After all, this is a shooter that took the ball passed on by Gears of War, slid to the end zone on rocket propelled shins, then blasted the opposing linebacker into the stratosphere – appropriate, seeing as its heavily armored hero throws a grenade with the athletic flare of an NFL quarterback.
Strangely, Gears' Marcus Fenix and his brand of behind-the-shoulder Locust slaughter wasn't the Sega-published shooter's main inspiration. Instead, that honor bizarrely belongs to Neo-Human Casshern: an obscure 1970's Japanese anime about an android who battles robots trying to take over the world. Viewed through this lens, the comparisons are easy to spot. Vanquish spends almost every second of its five hour runtime making you obliterate its brightly-colored Gorgie 'bots with a dude who looks like a relay-running Robocop.
"If I went ahead and made the exact game I wanted, it probably would have been like Casshern, where you punch and kick the entire way through," Mikami admitted in an interview with the late video game blog Joystiq back in 2010. "But obviously if it were a game with only punching and kicking, I already did that with God Hand." Considering the conceptually niche brawler sold less than a million copies worldwide, the esteemed Resident Evil 4 director was probably wise to insert huge chunks of over the top sci-fi shooting.
Cover star Sam Gideon is an unbearable dullard, of course. Mikami and co. seem to have thought giving him a gravelly larynx (one that's clearly smoked 6,000 cigarettes) was an adequate substitute for a personality. Spoiler: it ain't. It's no surprise that during his quest to foil a Russian terror plot aboard a floating space station, Gideon routinely exhibits less flavour than a helping of military issue asparagus. Yet though this futuristic agent can't beat Nathan Drake in a quip-off, he more than makes up for it with a set of superbly fluid abilities.
The real genius of Vanquish lies on the heavily padded shoulders of its Augmented Reaction Suit. Gideon's exoskeleton doesn't just make him look like the tougher big brother of Metal Gear Solid's Cyborg Ninja, Raiden, it instantly imbues him with the savage grace of an uzi-wielding ballerina.
Providing the suit has enough charge – cleverly, melee attacks instantly drain its juice – you can enter the hyper aware AR mode every time Sam locks a Russian robot in his sights. This isn't just any old slow-mo mode, though. Not content with merely letting you pick off enemies in the sort of showy style Max Payne would surely raise a tumbler of Kong Whisky to, Vanquish's killer feature allows you to zip around its hectic battlefields with the incredible looking sliding-boost mechanic.
More than anything, it's this wonderfully organic show of asskicking athleticism that still elevates Vanquish above almost any shooter released in the last few years. Even the better part of a decade on, knee sliding in glorious slow-mo as you effortlessly switch between a flood of bionic targets offers murderous multitasking gameplay that exudes showmanship. Vanquish's physics systems and rudimentary AI may not compete with modern day contenders, but when it comes to letting players revel in the sheer joy of movement, this ageing cover-based blaster remains the reigning champ.
There's only one game that gives you a firearm that scans different weapons, then morphs between a shotgun, sniper and machine gun at the drop of a dime
Then there are the guns. Lots of guns. Actually, that's a lie. Unlike Neo and his infinite rows of lobby-ruining weapons, Vanquish technically forces Sam to rely on a single firearm for most of his adventure. Of course, when said equalizer turns out to be one of the most absurdly adaptable sci-fi firearms in gaming history, there's little reason to grumble. Step forth Vanquish's BLADE system: one of the most kickass sci-fi guns in gaming history, and an able companion to Sam's slippery shooting galleries. A lot of cover shooters have automatic rifles, sure. But there's only one game that gives you a firearm that scans different weapons, then morphs between a shotgun, sniper and machine gun at the drop of a dime.
Think of the Battlefield Logic Adaptable Electronic Weapons System (for all you acronym-haters) as a super-deadly 3D printer – just one that obliterates robots with shape-shifting bullets, rather than producing pretty papercraft. In an environment where Gideon is constantly peppered from all sides by a barrage of missiles and explosives, being able to adapt at breakneck pace is essential. Not only does the BLADE look cool as its sleek components whirr between ever changing stocks and barrels, it eliminates much of the clunkiness inherent with switching out guns in more vanilla shooters. Many modern games could yet learn from this entirely user-friendly firearm.
Despite all this supreme polish, Vanquish was met with a collective chart-bottoming shrug, relegating it to minor-league status. A meagre one million copies were sold globally (by comparison, the last Call of Duty sold about 15 million copies), and that's combining all time sales figures for both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Mikami's muscular blaster was rightly adored by critics, but it's a huge pity so few gamers got to experience it at the time. That's why any PC player with even a passing interest in cover shooters should give the game a whirl when it hits Steam next week.