VANQUISH and the Best of All Possible Worlds

VANQUISH is a videogame developed and published by Platinum Games for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 version was played for the purpose of this review. It was directed by SHINJI MIKAMI.

In Voltaire’s magnus opus, Candide, Lisbon’s harbor was hit by a storm, followed by an earthquake, a tsunami and a fire. Thousands died, including Jacques, an Anabaptist who was a friend of the protagonist, Candide. Not to worry though, counseled Candide’s tutor, Dr. Pangloss. After all, we live in the best of all possible worlds. If Jacques drowned, it certainly was for the greater good. In fact, reassured Pangloss, the bay outside Lisbon had been formed expressly for Jacques to drown in.

Dr. Pangloss is a parody of Leibniz’s theory of optimism, which states that, since we live in the best of all possible worlds, everything that happens naturally happens for the best. But Pangloss goes a step further in terms sheer absurdity. For example, it was not God that purposefully made people’s eyesight bad, but merely allowed glasses, i.e. the greater good, to exist: “It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe that noses were made to wear spectacles; and so we have spectacles.”

For centuries, Pangloss made ridicule of Leibniz’s theory, but not anymore. With Vanquish, Leibniz will try to have the last laugh.

After an attack on San Francisco (which was created for the greater good of only appearing in the game’s introduction) by one Russian terrorist (who exists only to destroy San Francisco), the U.S. government sends a squad of faceless space marines, led by Lt. Col. Burns – who appears to be straight out of a Gears of War game, the mandatory dose of Delta Squad cynicism included – and Sam Gideon (you) to fight back.

The weapon used to destroy San Francisco was part of a space colony that harvested solar energy taken by the Russian and his many, many robots. This was all invented by Prof Candide (a-ha!) who was also kidnapped by the Russian and taken to the space colony for a reason that is certainly hiding on the other side of a plot hole. Gideon, which means “the Destroyer” in Hebrew, must get him back by using his special power suit to destroy everything in his path, including little “Pangloss statues” that look like little Oscars stuck hidden from your aim.

Vanquish is how Mikami would like Gears of War to be: with the sense of camaraderie replaced by the individual capability of doing awesome things, like sliding with rocket jets and firing in slow motion. These mechanisms add an incredible amount of fluidity to the genre. You don’t just “cover and shoot”, oh no! You shoot from cover, slide towards the enemy, body slam it and, while you are still in the air, bouncing from that body slam, you slow down time and shoot the heads of all remaining droids.

Does that sound intense? What if the game were nothing but that gameplay loop? Vanquish has no expository moments. It has no pacing. It’s a roller-coaster ride, sure. But this roller-coaster has no turns or ascents. You start from the highest point and then fall…and fall…and keep falling…and then the game is over. It’s exhausting, really. It took me four months to beat it not because I wasn’t able to, but because I could only enjoy Vanquish in small gulps. Basically, this is a cell phone game for a console. It arms itself with gulp gameplay and tries to deliver that as a console meal. Gideon himself gets tired of destroying the same robots all the time. It’s possible that there was never a moment of greater empathy between gamer and character than when he says “Great! More damn things to deal with!”, somewhere in the middle of chapter X. Since all the chapters are so alike (hint: you shoot robots and watch cutscenes of Burns and Gideon smirking and complaining to each other), the value of X really doesn’t matter.

In fact, Mikami doesn’t seem at all interested in anything other than the shooting mechanisms. The enemies are all robots with no self-awareness, so there isn’t a reason to care about them. Scores are kept, but since there isn’t any use for them – not even rankings – why bother with them? The environments are pretty, but there is no life in them, no sense of place either. The space colony is almost entirely made out of concrete, which explains why the game says there is an economic crisis going on – it was probably something to do with the burst of some cement bubble – and also why all the visuals have a washed-out quality into them. There is so much stuff going on, at the same time there is nothing in particular standing out, you will spend most of your time searching for what to shoot rather than actually shooting. From now on, the Gears of War color palette will get a whole new level of appreciation from me.

The colony itself appears beautiful; it’s a cylindrical world, much like Mass Effect’s Citadel and the colonies of Gundam, where the cityscape always tilts upwards giving you the vibe the next city block could be just above your head; alas, there is never time to contemplate it. The game’s perspective is too limited. There is nothing beyond the action segments. There is a particularly telling moment, when your team must descend to the area below the inner surface of the colony and you all ride elevators to get there. The elevator is panoramic, with a view to the outer space; the ride takes less than 2 seconds of a cutscene before cutting to the start of the next stage. Now, imagine what you’ve missed. Imagine a game where, instead of showing a quick cutscene, the entire universe unfolded before your gaze during a couple of minutes of silence. A better game would do that. In fact, a better game did that, like Bioshock during the unveiling of Rapture.

But the thing is that Vanquish is too content with itself. It is certainly a defender of Leibnizian optimism. It sets out to literally destroy the satirical figure of Pangloss and awards you with the “Leibniz Defense Agency” and “Best of All Possible Worlds” achievements for destroying all the Pangloss statues hidden in the colony.

Remember the glasses example, when Pangloss absurdly mixed up cause and effect? Why, it so happens that, in videogames and art in general, Pangloss’ hypothesis of a omnibenevolent intelligent design is always valid. Here, everything that exists was indeed designed for the greater good. The bridge that collapses as the player goes through it? It was formed only to collapse as you slide through it. That inconspicuous crate of weapons in the middle of a colony? It was formed only so that you could have something to fight that big robot. This is why you spend the entire game in a space colony that never seems lived in: in the best of all possible worlds, that colony was probably only built for robots to be shot at. There is sense of glee and optimist when you are in control of Sam Gideon, a man that instinctively exclaims “this is going to be fun!” whenever a new weapon is found.

This sharply contrasts with the plot that takes place during the cutscenes, where things are always going awry (ship explodes, enemy appears, people is killed, the bad guy escapes and San Francisco is destroyed). The plot, unlike the moments the player is in command of, is static. It never moves, never changes. The only moments it is developed in is during the beginning and the end of the game, and even then it rides on clichés.

Vanquish is a game with the perfect gameplay loop but is ultimately dragged down by just everything else, either by bombarding us with enough information for us to stop caring, or by offering too little information for us to begin to care. It is schlock yes, but with enough promise to warrant a remake or a sequel that would fix its shortcomings. In the best of all possible worlds, this is what would happen.

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  1. Dominic Tarason

    There are rankings – loads of leaderboards for each stage, each difficulty level (which affect enemy AI more than player health) and each challenge stage.

  2. I enjoyed Vanquish actually, but I think that’s because I came into it with the assumption that the story would be especially terrible. I just took it as an arcade game and found it a pretty satisfying experience, though one that I have no interest in repeating.

    • Fernando Cordeiro

      Well, it IS an arcade game. I could easily imagine paying a quarter for a gulp of Vanquish and then going away with no regrets.

      But, in a review, expectations about a terrible story does not excuse the terrible story. I may have liked Vanquish – and I did! – but that doesn’t stop me from recognizing it’s not good. Nowadays, one cannot excuse a console game without pacing. Arcade and mobile games, sure. But not consoles, where it is assumed you spend at least 1 hour sitting down. Even Super Mario Bros. and the original Zelda had pacing.

  3. Great piece. This is the kind of games writing I’d like to see more frequently.

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  6. André

    For me Vanquish is an exhilarating ride of intense action. It lacks enemy variety, but the intensity of the set pieces makes up for that. The idea of a game taking place in a futuristic space city over the span of a few hours appealed to me. The story and the characters are grating – Burns and Zaitsev above all – but like Devil May Cry, this is one game that I play to take on the role of an overpowered being doing over the top acrobatics. I’m not saying Vanquish should be excused for having a terrible plot just because I enjoyed the gameplay, but this is an experience which i think was crafted to be sheer entertainment first and foremost – and in that regard I am glad they let you skip some of the cutscenes.

    Congratulations on the text, it is well thought out.