Dissecting the Core Mechanics of Vanquish
In 2006, Epic’s Gears of War was released for the Xbox 360 to a strong reception. Players were thrilled with the fresh take on the shooter genre. No more running and gunning, now it’s all about stopping and popping! Very soon after Gears of War’s release the cover-based 3rd person shooter became a popular sub-genre. Nowadays things are different. The once fresh sub-genre is now one of the most overcrowded in the market. Business is booming for the videogame construction company responsible for making chest-high slabs of concrete. Yet after 7 years of stopping and popping, one shooter stands above the rest as the most unique, best-feeling, and long-lasting cover-based shooter that I’ve ever played: Vanquish.
Developed by Platinum Games and released in 2010, Vanquish is one of those games that truly is greater than the sum of its parts. The game has extremely strong basic mechanics: your character controls swiftly and accurately, guns feel great, and the cover-system works very well (although the cover-stickyness in some situations is perhaps the only part of the game that has aged unfavorably). But the two core mechanics that really make Vanquish tick are related the Augmented Reaction Suit: rocket-sliding and Augmented Reaction mode (slow-mo). Both abilities come together in a way that gives players far more creative options than seen in most shooters.
rocket-sliding allows players to quickly and safely traverse large distances
In Vanquish players control a character named Sam who wears an armored suit called the Augmented Reaction Suit. By holding down a single button Sam will slide forward feet first as if playing baseball, but with rocket-propulsion. This allows players to zip across the battlefield at a break-neck speed. Suddenly the levels in Vanquish feel much smaller as players can reach any important point in a matter of seconds. No longer are players forced to slowly crawl from one piece of cover to another in order to flank enemies or reach a supply cache on the battlefield.
The rocket slide works as well as it does for a few reasons. For one, while sliding the player is mostly invulnerable, which allows players to focus on staying in motion and allow them to safely boost away from any trouble they find themselves in. With rocket-sliding every part of the level feels within arm’s reach so to speak: players now have the freedom to utilize every aspect of a level in whatever order they wish. While rocket-sliding the character and camera movement are essentially un-restricted (unlike the sprint button in Gears of War), giving them complete control and full awareness of the battlefield. The ability also allows players to effortlessly transition into other mechanics in the game: quickly go into cover, aiming with ARS mode, and there’s even the ability to bicycle kick enemies with the melee button.
Augmented Reaction Mode
AR mode not only gives players greater precision but also increases their damage output
Vanquish has the most interesting use of slow-mo I’ve ever seen in a shooter. AR mode gives players the standard slow-mo perks seen in other games such as aiding in headshots on enemies or being able to “shoot extra” ( bending time to essentially up the DPS of a weapon). But AR mode combines with menacing enemy designs to create truly thrilling situations such as shooting inbound homing missiles out of the air to shooting small weak points from 100s of meters away in a small time-frame while in motion.
A very interesting aspect about AR mode though is the limited ways in which players can activate it. There is no “slow-mo” button. Instead, players can intentionally activate AR mode by aiming their gun in only 3 situations: immediately after performing a dodge, while in the air (which is initiated either by jumping over a piece of cover or slide-kicking into an enemy), or by aiming while also rocket-sliding. This creates an extremely interesting risk-and-reward dynamic as each situation puts players in extremely vulnerable positions (IE out of cover and low on energy). Players cannot sit behind cover and rack-up a bunch of slow-mo headshots at the same time, and instead they must sacrifice their defense by moving out into the open in an effort to increase their offensive capability.
Your energy is your health
There is only one meter in Vanquish, which measures the AR Suit’s heat level. This meter is tied to both your health and your energy that is consumed by using rocket-sliding and AR mode. In effect, every time you use a power in the game you are also damaging yourself. So long as you do not fully drain the meter it will replenish quite rapidly. Drain the meter completely though and your suit will overheat, which takes much longer to replenish and both primary abilities are disabled until the meter is fully charged again. This creates a wonderful dynamic where players try to use their powers as much as possible without overheating. A skilled player is constantly walking on a razor’s edge.
The minor details that add up
Vanquish is full of small details that help make the game feel so great. For instance any experienced Vanquish player knows that the doge button is crucial to staying alive and moving around the battlefield. It quickly moves the player in a given direction out of harm’s way and requires no energy, making it a great way to quickly get to cover if your energy bar is depleted. Most importantly players can access AR mode at the end of a dodge. When utilized correctly this gives player a new movement “type” of quickly dodging around the battlefield and taking quick AR mode potshots at enemies in between each dodge. The dodge button is so important to this game that I would consider it the 3rd main mechanic in the game.
Rapidly dodging and shooting is a strong tactic in certain situations
Another important design decision is that in almost every encounter the game gives the player some friendly NPCs to help out. They do very little damage but crucially draw enough enemy attention such that the player is not always constantly pinned down by overwhelming force. Oftentimes in games the designers seem to give the players large encounters to up the scales of the battle, but when the player is the only target for every enemy, they end up spending far too much time behind cover recharging their health instead of out in the field achieving great feats (Bioshock: Infinite was the last game I played that seemed guilty of this). The friendly NPCs in Vanquish work so well by giving the player some breathing room (drawing fire from enemy forces) but doing so little damage that the player still must accomplish a lot in the battle themselves to win it (and since the developers can add a lot of enemies into the battle without worrying about overwhelming the player, some battles become quite large and feel very satisfying to win).
Friendly soldiers fight poorly but do a great job of taking some heat off of the player
Vanquish is a tough game but never frustrating. I think a huge part of that comes from the “emergency AR mode” in the game that triggers when players are near death. When the AR suit overheats due to damage an emergency ration of energy is given to the player and AR mode is automatically triggered until that energy is depleted. It’s essentially like having your shields drain in Halo, but players are given about 10 seconds of AR mode to find a new spot of cover or finish off the last few enemies before having to wait and let their real energy bar refill without access to any powers. If players take too much damage while in emergency mode they will then die “for real” and must restart the fight. Players will still probably die a lot while playing the game, but this feature helps a lot in giving players a fun “extra chance” and allows experienced players to avoid many deaths. Essentially emergency mode still gives players a bit of a failure state (they must now stop what they are doing and retreat) without any of the frustration of having to restart the engagement (yet there is still the real danger of dying while in emergency mode). Honestly there could be an entire article about how emergency AR mode affects the pacing of the game.
Combining to Change the Dynamics of Gameplay
While Vanquish still involves a lot of moving from one piece of cover to another, it stands apart from other cover-based shooters by having most of the action take place in between those pieces of cover, instead of at them. Instead of sitting behind cover and shooting at enemies in one position until you move to another piece of cover and do the same thing again, in Vanquish players use cover to recharge their energy, reload, and maybe take a few pot-shots before going back out into the open. And the reason this is such a good thing is because of how all of the different mechanics come together to give players a wide, dynamic range of possible actions to perform when leaving cover.
All of the different mechanics and actions: rocket-sliding, AR mode, dodging, jumping over cover, melee, etc all act as their own small “moves” that can essentially be dynamically combo’d together like in a fighting or action game. And it feels fantastic because the player is in control of every single aspect of the action. Players can choose to rocket-slide up close to enemies and dodge around them while shooting at their weakpoints in AR mode. Or they could choose to bicycle kick an enemy and get launched airborne to be able to shoot at enemies hiding behind cover. Or they could jump over cover with a sniper rifle to take out an enemy sniper from across the map in slow-mo while airborne before landing and rocket-sliding to another piece of cover. Or they could combine any set of moves together in any way they want to.
A skilled Vanquish player can effortlessly string together different tactics
And I think that’s really what makes Vanquish work so well. All of the core mechanics meld together so well: they lead into and play off each other, they draw from the same pool of energy, and since your energy is also your health you basically are your energy (basically you are a big ball of constantly recharging energy that roams around dispensing energy in different ways). And all of the abilities are open-ended enough to be mixed together in so many different ways that the game gives players plenty of room for creativity inside of the confines of non-stealth shooter (another bonus is that you don’t have to slowly unlock those abilities on a skill tree).
When designing our own games, I think we can look to Vanquish as a source of inspiration when trying to create simple yet open-ended game mechanics, and not just in the cover-based 3rd person shooter genre. Vanquish succeeds by mastering universal design ideals: simple, open-ended mechanics that meld together so well it’s as if they were designed in tandem with each other (which maybe they were). Vanquish may never get a sequel (due to mediocre sells and Shinji Mikami leaving Platinum), but I hope that the core values that the game holds can live on in other games.