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Dissecting the Core Mechanics of Vanquish
by Ozzie Smith on 03/10/14 04:24:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

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

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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

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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.

dodging

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).

 vanquish1

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.


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Comments


John Flush
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I fully agree with what you said in this piece. The mechanics of Vanquish are great. However we both know the game was largely overlooked, I myself only recently repurchased the game because I liked the mechanics so much.

But why did I give it away once already? Characters and story. The world of Vanquish is bright and vibrant, a good change from the browns and blacks of every shooter game out there, but the characters are dirty, bland and disgusting. For example, a mechanic in the game not mentioned is the hero smoking and flicking his butts out at the enemy to distract fire. It had the typical muscle man swear-hole as the role two NPC, cigar included, and the banter between you and him tried to come off as humor when really it just reminded the players you and him are egotistic a-holes - I'm not a big fan of playing as an a-hole (unless of course I get to choose to be that way like in Mass Effect or KOTOR). The "hot cheerleader nerd" running the computer desk at headquarters is the only thing that isn't dingy about the characters and is so polar-opposite everything else you see with the characters that it doesn't make sense.

Developers, if you want to see game mechanics that work, Vanquish has them... it also is a good example of why game mechanics won't save you if you screw up the rest bad enough.

Terry Matthes
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I bought the game for $10 and thoroughly enjoyed it. The mechanics are a lot of fun, well built and overall it was pretty entertaining. Definitely a nice break from most action games.

Sam Stephens
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Excellent article. Vanquish is a severely underrated game that is in desperate need of a sequel. The way in which each ability has a useful function, but are also tied to the same resource, creates a dynamic that is absent from many shooters. The ability to go into bullet-time was also a wise choice for a game that is so fast paced. It's interesting that you mention Gears of War, because Vanquish builds off of Gears of War in the same way that Gears of War built off of Shinji Mikami's own Resident Evil 4

Saurian Dash
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It's great that you find the mechanics of Vanquish so helpful in your work. I feel that the approach of creating open-ended mechanics which seamlessly interlock in just about any order is what defines Platinum's output. I really didn't get on with Vanquish myself, the game really annoyed me as I couldn't help but shake the feeling that an external hand was involved in "guiding" the design of the game towards a different direction than what was originally intended.

The defining feature of the best systems Platinum have created to date is the way every single element of the game fits into the scoring system, in fact it's more a case of the scoring system itself acting as a blueprint for the player to follow in order to play the game "properly". Vanquish lacked this vital feature, there was nothing pushing you to improve your game (outside of the Time Trials) and no invisible hand guiding you towards attaining mastery of the system.

Viewtiful Joe, Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101 were built using the previously described template (scoring system acting as an invisible hand), it's the scoring system which ties all of the mechanics together, it's the scoring system which reveals the true meaning of most of the mechanics.

Look at Viewtiful Joe, this is where this all started. At first glance you may want to just run at enemies and hit them, but this is actually the single worst mistake you can make while playing. The correct approach is dictated by the scoring system; a "combo" starts not when you first hit an enemy, but when you first Evade an enemy attack. It's the scoring system which tells you this, then through further exploration you realise that in order to gain a decent amount of points per enemy you must make sure that you only hit them after you have successfully completed the Evade phase, which Stuns the enemy. It is at this point where you need to throw Viewtiful Joe's time manipulation ability into the mix; hitting an enemy during SLOW (hold L) will deal huge amounts of damage and increase your combo points multiplier by 1. So the most effective way to kill enemies quickly and deal the most damage is also the best way to gain the most points during the encounter.

So for example, suppose you had 4 enemies on screen which can all take 4 hits before they die. You dodge enemy 1, hit it 3 times, dodge enemy 2, hit it 3 times, all the way till you dodge enemy 4 and hit it 3 times. Then you activate SLOW and hit each enemy once, each hit will add +1 to the combo multiplier, the combo ends when you release SLOW.

Bayonetta is also based on this premise, the scoring system is the backbone or blueprint of your battles. What Bayonetta does which I thought was really bloody clever was to take the Evade/Attack phase of Viewtiful Joe and make it dynamic, they've made it work in 3D space. In Viewtiful Joe you could only Evade either up or down on a 2D plane, but Bayonetta substitutes direction with proximity; in order for this system to work in 3D space they have made direction irrelevant. In Bayonetta you Evade within a few frames of the enemy attack hitting you in order to activate Witch Time (Bayonetta's SLOW equivalent) which grants a safe moment to attack and a boost to the points earned for attacking.

The Wonderful 101 follows on using all of these same principles. Each and every action and button used to trigger that action has multiple functions - all of which have instant and direct effects on the scoring.

I love the way The Wonderful 101 continues to offer up secrets even when you think you've sussed something. The Unite Gun is a brilliant example of this. The combat hinges on a Combo Timer (much like Viewtiful Joe and Bayonetta), you may notice eventually that you can keep this timer active by firing at distant enemies with the Unite Gun. Then eventually you'll notice that the gun doesn't fire bullets, but members of your group instead! OK, but what's the significance? Well, heroes fired at enemies often cling on and start dealing damage, this is the exact function of the Team Attack Button.

The Team Attack button initially appears to be a low damage "zoning" tool, but you'll quickly notice that it actually functions as your Lock-On. When you use Team Attack, your heroes will lunge directly ahead and cling onto the target and start dealing damage. When Lock-On is activated you will see a glowing circle around the enemy, pressing the Attack button in this situation will cause your Leader to instantly zap across to the target (even from long distance) and attack at close range. If you repeatedly/rapidly use Team Attack, eventually enough heroes will pile onto the enemy that it becomes stunned, from here it will be susceptible to all hit reactions (so you can now Launch the enemy into the air for example).

So if you keep firing the Unite Gun at an enemy, eventually it will become stunned when enough heroes manage to cling on. OK, so you can stun enemies from a distance, that's pretty useful, but there's more! Look at the Combo Multiplier: each Unite Gun shot adds +0.10 to the multiplier. If you increase the multiplier beyond 2.50, your primary weapons (Hand and Sword) gain a massive attack power boost! So the "simple" act of shooting an enemy is also your Lock-On, your means to stun it in order to perform a high scoring combo and the means to increase the Combo Multiplier beyond the x2.50 threshold to boost attack power so that you can kill the enemy even quicker!

Every single function is like this! The more you play it, the deeper you realise the rabbit hole goes. This is what I love about Platinum's games and I really hope that more developers start thinking along these lines and start providing open-ended systems which actually ask the player to think for themselves and experiment as they find their own methods to best exploit the system.

Nick McKergow
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I felt this way too until I picked the game up again about a year later and played on the harder difficulties. Those ended up giving me the same "guiding hand" feeling, where you're forced to master every technique and clear a room with prior planning and perfect execution. You end up engaging with the game in a very similar way to when you're going for Pure Platinum medals in Bayo or W101. It elevated my opinion of the game from just "a really cool shooter that has that Platinum feel" to "a legit Platinum action game but with shooting mechanics". All that depth exists in Vanquish, it's just not being visibly tallied like in the other games.

Kenneth Nussbaum
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This was one of the greatest games of last gen, everything had such amazing design from a technical standpoint. Severely underrated.

Wes Jurica
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Thanks for bringing attention to this game. I'm not sure why it never got the attention it so rightly deserved when it was released. Great game and great breakdown.

Mikail Yazbeck
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A must play for designers, the mechanics in this game are supremely solid and worth learning from.


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