We tend to stop writing about games when you start playing them. We cover the announcement, we write previews and reviews, but by the time you unwrap a new game we’ve moved on. Still Playing is our bid to address that. Every Monday and Friday, staff and contributors go into detail on the games they’ve been playing in their spare time. Here, contributor Chris Schilling finds that a DLC pistol subtly transforms the way Vanquish, Platinum Games’ remarkable thirdperson shooter, is played.-
There’s something wilfully perverse about Vanquish restricting its best weapon to downloadable content, not least because the Anti-Armour Pistol is the ideal way to acclimatise to the game’s unconventional combat rhythms. Sharp, accurate and with a single zoom, it reminds me of Master Chief’s sidearm in Halo: Combat Evolved, and it’s every bit as satisfying to wield. A second playthrough of the game’s campaign with this and the excellent Laser Cannon (a third DLC weapon, the Boost Machine Gun, can be safely ignored thanks to its small clip size) has been revelatory.
That some struggled to find greatness in Platinum Games’ shooter isn’t surprising, given the game’s reluctance to explain its control nuances beyond a brief tutorial. It’s all too easy to misread the Vanquish’s intentions – playing it as a straight cover shooter even as the game endeavours to force you into the open with aggressive enemies and an unyielding barrages of projectiles during the more intense skirmishes. I admit I found the instinct to cower behind chest-high walls difficult to curb when so many contemporary shooters tacitly encourage cowardice. The abundance of cover, the rise of regenerative health and the efficiency of AI team-mates have all taught me that bravery more often than not equates to foolhardiness.
Yet when the time comes to emerge from cover in Vanquish, you’re able to move out of harm’s way much more quickly. The animation for protagonist Sam Gideon’s roll-dodge is almost comically brisk, but its snappiness is crucial given the dangers you face, while his rocket-powered knee-slide is a far quicker and more satisfying way to switch positions than a roadie run. When cast in the role of aggressor, Gideon’s a rapier next to Marcus Fenix’s battering ram, and there’s an elegant flamboyance to his best moves compared to the blunt-force trauma approach of most western shooters.
Amid the swirling, chaotic maelstroms of Vanquish’s combat bowls, the Anti-Armour Pistol offers a rare moment of calm. It’s tremendously powerful, but with a limited clip size and a fairly slow fire rate, accuracy is essential; your attacks need to be more careful, more measured. Here, combat adopts a rhythm akin to that of fencing: bide your time, step forward, jab, and step back before your enemy can retaliate. That death downgrades your weapons by a single rank is another clue that Platinum prizes the art of the tactical retreat.
To maximise the weapon’s devastating capabilities, you’ll need to vault, slide or leap to trigger your suit’s slo-mo ability, which gives you breathing room to line up your shots. Better still, combine it with an EMP grenade to stun opponents, before firing piercing rounds through their metallic shells as you glide by. I find it easier and more stylish than slowly pecking away with a machine gun, and it even removes the hulking Romanovs with minimal fuss. During boss encounters, too, there’s something startling about seeing those lengthy energy bars rapidly disappear chunk by chunk.
My favourite tactic involves launching a frag grenade from cover into a group of enemies, vaulting over as it reaches them, then slowing things down just long enough to shoot it in mid-air with the pistol, taking out several opponents before they’ve had time to scatter. Another enjoyable alternative is to hit an enemy with a jumping kick, making use of the brief grace period before your suit overheats to fire off several shots as they stagger backwards. Meanwhile, smoking in cover after you’ve retreated is not just a nonchalant way to take a breather, but a genuine combat tactic: a flicked cigarette draws enemy fire, allowing you to sneak out while their attention is elsewhere, providing yet more opportunities for a headshot or six.
The weapon’s only real weakness is that ammunition is very hard to come by, and that it’s so enjoyable to use you’ll often find yourself pulling the trigger only to hear the hollow click of an empty chamber. Resist temptation and upgrade the AAP fully during the first three acts and you’ll find the closing stretch much easier thanks to its formidable force; in the meantime, the Laser Cannon powered by the energy supply of the ARS suit is a useful way to conserve ammo. About the only time the pistol is unsuitable is during a God Hard run, though the top difficulty level turns the game into everything it has previously worked so hard to avoid: a tedious stop-and-pop that weakens you so considerably that the coward’s approach is about the only way to survive.
Elsewhere, however, the Anti-Armour Pistol has subtly transformed the way I play the game, which makes it all the more baffling that it should exist only as add-on content. For those considering a second playthrough, it comes strongly recommended: as with Gideon’s cigarettes, it’s worth taking the time to indulge before you leap back into the fray.
For more on Platinum’s excellent shooter, read our Vanquish review.