The Japanese gaming industry is dead. This sudden and stark obit, eulogised by one of its most trusted wards, Capcom’s Keiji Inafune, proclaimed stoic and without remorse or gravitas, recently reverberated around its reeling international family, relatives and rivals alike balking at the apparent abrupt demise of a once vibrant and ancient empire. Especially considering the industry is far from six feet under, Platinum Games’ Vanquish evidence of an abundance of vim and vigor in a region said to be stifled by the virulent, creativity-suppressing scourge of Japan’s “salary-man” mentality. Make a bad game? That’s okay, your job is safe. You’ll still get paid.
Vanquish is not a bad game – far from it in fact. But while it proves there’s life in the old dog yet – and capable of at least trying new tricks – there are other signs of trouble present; portents Inafune may not have specifically referenced in his scything attack on his homeland’s attitude to game production, but symptoms that suggest an even greater threat. The loss of identity.
Not since Japan reopened its borders to the outside world in 1854, thus ending both the Edo period and its isolationist foreign policy, has something as intrinsically Japanese so openly embraced the Western way of doing things. The impact of successful American games like Halo and Gears of War resonate to Vanquish’s conflictive Japanese core. From both its aesthetics to gameplay mechanics, Vanquish has taken the concept of the suited future-marine – twisting the premise to its specific needs – and set it among a third-person cover-based environment all too familiar to those of us on this side of the world. One of its core elements, the unfortunately named ARS, or Augmented Reactive Suit, is a tricked-out variation of Master Chief’s signature attire. Decked with more moving parts, gyrating gizmos and unraveling weaponry than a Transformer with schizophrenia, it’s as if Platinum have ensnared the more compact Spartan, strapped him to a table, and unmercifully unleashed MTV’s Pimp My Ride crew on the non-consenting space-marine.
It’s not that mimicry should be frowned upon in gaming. After all, the vast majority of games are rehashes of what has come before; gaming the paragon of Darwinism – strong and successful traits factored into the prevailing genome, advances passed on in the next evolutionary step to fitter, more resilient descendants. It’s how Platinum Games have built upon this foundation, however, where telltale cracks appear.
Though the suit is predominantly the main character of the piece, it is inhabited by one Sam Gideon, possibly the most unlikeable character to grace gaming since perpetual petition-pusher Jack Thompson. As a video-game personality he possesses not one single redeemable quality. He’s an ass throughout the entire mission, quipping and jostling with his commanding officers at every opportunity, his over-powering bravado often trite and grating. It doesn’t help that he’s been given some of the worst dialogue we’ve come across in a game since, well, since games were supposed to have bad dialogue.
We don’t like Gideon, and it’s almost enjoyable listening to his absurd moans when he succumbs to enemy fire. Platinum Games have no doubt attempted to create a cocky, anti-hero here but they’ve unfortunately misfired. Instead we suffer through a two-dimensional, banal annoyance that we struggle to connect with throughout the experience. It’s a small point, perhaps, in a game where the focus is on death-defying high-jinks and overt displays of machismo, but the detachment between player and protagonist is painfully tangible, the result an abject non-investment in the character and, by association, the task at hand. Not that we really care about that either.