Vanquish is a fast and frenetic ride that barely lets up for breath or to explain its reasons to the player. Delve beneath the power-sliding acrobatics, bullet-time action and explosive set pieces though and you’ll find a backstory that hints at Voltaire’s Candide and tells a tale of good intentions gone badly awry.
This subtle narrative is easily missed and the backstory which explains the immense space station and the hostilities between the US and Russia is hidden behind the amazing gameplay and abilities of the ARS suit.
It’s a shame that this level of detail is obscured so much but understandable considering the Vanquish’s nature. You wouldn’t want characters or locations getting too heavy with exposition while giant robots stomp towards you and big chunks of scenery are flying all around. Every moment in the game is tuned perfectly to make it as entertaining as possible - these nuggets of story feel all the more precious if they’re chiselled out of the dark corners of the game.
Those gems can be hidden in plain sight - the Doctor you’re trying to rescue is called Candide and there are many parts of the game, some intentional and some by accident that draw parallels to that work by Voltaire. The French philosophers work criticised Gottfried Leibniz and his concept of optimism and did so by being sarcastic with an erratic, fantastical and quick-moving plot. Identical aspects to Vanquish’s gameplay and dialogue.
I don’t think the writers of Vanquish set out to directly pay homage to Voltaire’s work but it puts the ridiculous setting and story into an interesting context. From destroying Pangloss collectibles (Pangloss is Candide’s mentor indoctrinating him with the mantra of “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’) to the depiction of a corrupt government and the frailty of best intentions.
That last point is the most obvious in Vanquish’s story. The relationship between Gideon and Burns evolves and breaks down at certain points and the twist, though obvious and hardly groundbreaking, still shows conflict and politics ruining the best of Man’s achievements.
When you stop firing and look at the scenery it’s amazing where you find yourself. At first I assumed this was a generic space station with grey metallic walls and floors that did nothing to differentiate itself from one level to the next.
A few Acts in and I realised that the US space station was a giant, circular Halo-like world with massive residential and industrial areas. For all intents and purposes a huge world orbiting the Earth. This was the 51st state of America and it puts the gory destruction of the opening cinematic into perspective - an outer colony of the States used to destroy one its own. A poetic use of a superpower’s technology - collecting solar energy to fuel the population expansion - turned on itself.
The decision to use the Russians as enemies isn’t just a way of using a cliched action-movie rule-set to get laughs, it’s just logical. This is a future that’s a natural extension of the present - all wars or disputes are about resources and as Russia owns a large proportion of petroleum it’s not hard to see this eventually escalating into conflict. And yeah, having a bald, thickly accented dude that says ‘Dosvedanya’ can’t be beaten for dramatic punch and hilarity.
The dialogue is equally fascinating. It’s overloaded with clichés and grisly one-liners that could easily be interpreted as stupid but actually parody the entire genre of space marine shooter, including Vanquish itself. Gideon himself, during one of the final encounters asks Ivanova that the increasingly bizarre situation is starting to sound like a bad videogame - actually the only instance where the 4th wall is broken.
It’s a restrained approach and shows that Platinum thought about every part of the game with great care. Eat Lead layered the parody on with a shovel and lost all humour by such blatant acts. Vanquish allows itself one throwaway quip and concentrates on being a great videogame first rather than pushing satire into your face with a big neon sign.
As a whole this game comes together to create an experience on many levels. The one that everyone will enjoy involves power-sliding under massive robotic behemoths, taking down enemies while looking cool and enjoying the corny lines spat out along with a cigarette. What I enjoyed the most was peeking behind the curtain, seeing the bizarre references to a French philosophers work and the story which, despite its smoke and bluster, is all about the fallibility of good intentions.
That kind of hidden depth is what makes Vanquish one of my favourite titles of the year. Along with Dead Rising 2, it can appear shallow and exalt itself with explosive videogame features to the most ridiculous extreme - and yet both of these titles hold precious moments of insight and unexpected allegory that, hardly meaningful, was still a joy to experience. And that is what Vanquish is in a nutshell - a joy to experience from beginning to end.