SEGA hasn't done badly out of its four-game deal with Platinum Games, certainly not in terms of variety. We've had a score-chase playground for sadists in MadWorld; Infinite Space gave us a space-RPG for obsessive-compulsives; Bayonetta is an action heroine as gloriously over-the-top and under-dressed you could possibly hope for; and Vanquish, a third-person shooter set on a space station in the grip of a future Cold War, is nothing like any of them.
Its burly space-soldiers call Gears of War to mind, of course, as does the cover-based shooting, but it also carries faint echoes of Lost Planet. Ordinary movement and shooting has the same heft to it, and the giant transforming robot that appears at the end of the demo suggests that it might have some impressive bosses up its sleeve, too.
But Vanquish twists those solid, tried-and-tested third-person shooting mechanics in with oddly balletic, slow-motion close-up combat. It's a weird mix, but and far it looks like a successful one.
Vanquish's E3 demo opens with a dynamic menu that zooms around the inside of a sizeable space station, spinning slowly in the void. It's not all burnished aluminium - there are trees, too, suggesting we won't always be fighting in sterile P.N.03-style environments.
The Americans are fighting the Russians for control of this space station, which harvests energy from the sun; we play Sam Gideon, a battlesuited American 'operative', shooting his way through wave after wave of robots (Russian robots, presumably) in a 10-minute demo level.
It begins in an underground base. Sam's white-grey future-suit has a nifty transforming arm in place of different weapons, folding out into a shotgun, heavy machinegun, rifle and anything else he can pick up.
He's surrounded at all times by similarly outfitted soldiers, but they're largely non-interactive - they're just there to draw fire, really, which presumably wasn't a prominent clause of their sign-up papers. You can keep these handy bullet sponges alive by dashing up to them when they're in trouble and injecting a syringe of Magic Video Game Cure-All into their shoulders, but there's no penalty for ignoring them.
It kicks off when we move Sam and the squad up to the surface, where an army of robots is making an almighty din and a lot of mess. It's all juddering machineguns and exploding robots, bright white structures and enemy dropships depositing more and more droids into the field. They can't take much fire before blowing up, but nearly-dead robots glow red and run towards you in a suicidal explosion if you don't finish them off.
A press of the D-pad switches the grenades on Sam's belt to EMPs, which we can use to disable and take over AT-ST-style enemy walkers, vaulting acrobatically into the platform and showering the remaining robots with laser fire. After a while, a much-tougher-than-usual mech comes stomping down some stairs, helpfully blowing away a barrier that lets us at the mounted guns overlooking the level.
Bigger enemies drop new weapons, or upgrades for your existing ones; smaller ones just drop ammo. You have to hold a button to pick them up, though, which stalls the otherwise-fluid action somewhat - particularly when you run out of ammo in the middle of a boss fight and have to take a speedy tour of the arena, bending over periodically in the midst of gunfire to pick something up off the floor like a thrill-seeking environmentalist.
Ammunition seems quite strictly regulated, forcing you to change weapons or pick up new ones quite frequently, and make optimum use of mounted guns or hijacked walkers.
It's outside of normal pointing and shooting that Vanquish gets interesting. Having peppered robotic enemies with bullets until they begin to spark and twitch, you can finish them off by sliding along the ground and kicking them in the face in slow-motion, landing back on your feet in a twisting somersault.
The jets on Sam's battle suit let him slide around on his knees like a delighted child on a slippery airport floor, except at considerably higher speed, and going into slow-motion lets him shoot at things on the way past. It's both an escape tactic and an extremely stylish killing tool. Every gun has different melee attacks, but it's the jet-slide-powered somersault-kicking that's the most fun.
Slow-motion kicks in automatically if you're low on health as a kind of helping hand, albeit an extremely distracting one when you're trying to flee into cover. You can leap in and out of cover with a faintly ludicrous horizontal vault that flings Sam sideways about five feet into the air - another excellent opportunity to deploy slow-motion and blow off some robot heads before hitting the ground again.
It can also be activated directly after Sam's signature move - lighting up a cigarette before chucking it nonchalantly over his shoulder - in order to shoot cigarette butts out of the air, if you're a dreadful show-off.
After we've cleared out every enemy from the hangar with a combination of machine-gun bullets, face-kicks and close-up pistol-whips, it's time for the boss battle. It's the huge robotic space spider from Vanquish's unveiling, emerging from the ground in a mess of smashed concrete and metal.
This time, though, after emptying most of our ammo into the red weak spot on its head, it transforms into an enormous bipedal machine with grimacing evil red face like a Rock'em Sock'em Robot.
It unleashes pretty bullet swarms, instant-death lasers, rockets, limb-smashes and various other varieties of death, knocking us straight out of the mounted gun that we were aiming at its face. We're dismayed to find that launching yourself at the robot's knees in a slow-motion flying-kick does absolutely nothing, but shooting at its orange-glowing joints proves more effective.
After hammering the robot's elbows for a while, Sam leaps in for a slow-motion QTE, dodging rockets in the air before diving into the robot's arm-mounted gun and ripping it off, leaving a sparking mess of wires hanging out of the limb. After another assault on the robot's exposed core, it's over; it crashes to the ground, its red glowing face fades, and the demo comes to an end.
When director Shinji Mikami claimed that Vanquish looks like a shooter but feels like an action game, he wasn't wrong. Watching Sam slither past man-sized bullets with a swivel of the analogue stick and rip the limbs from an enormous boss brings back pleasant memories of Bayonetta.
Comparisons feel slightly redundant, though; Vanquish looks as entirely idiosyncratic as any of Platinum's other games. Suspicions that it's a re-skinned, Japanese Gears of War fade to nothing as soon as you slide-kick a barrier into a crowd of robots before chucking a cigarette onto the debris.
Vanquish is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 this winter.