The Flesh Is Weak
Every few months a game comes along that I absolutely want to love, but for some reason or another just can't. These are usually games that have fundamental mechanics that are both novel and fun, but make poor decisions when it comes to simple design choices. I really hate it when this happens. It means there is something about the experience that is resonating with me. Something that is drawing me back time and time again and therefore I must like the game. However, those feelings of elation are often cut down quickly when I'm faced with an unfair fight, an obscene difficulty spike, or something even simpler like poorly placed checkpoints. Bionic Commando is the latest victim of this trend.
Bionic Commando appears to be a third person shooter, but it's as much a third person shooter as Metroid Prime is a first person shooter. The true heart of the experience is in traversing the city, chasm, dock, or park shaped playgrounds that you're dumped into. Developer Grin has done a spectacular job in creating areas that are fun to explore and move through using Nathan "Rad" Spencer's bionic arm. This is greatly supported by perhaps the most finely realized swinging mechanic in any game. Yes, it is very difficult to get the hang of, but after an hour or so you'll be flying through the decimated streets of Ascension City with ease and pleasure. The excitement of flying a football field's length off of a street light with a well timed swing only to grab hold of a piece of destroyed highway just seconds before plummeting to a watery grave never gets old and is enough to drive you through the game. It's only when you miss that piece of destroyed highway that the game's spectacular flaws start to show up.
Death comes easily and quickly in Bionic Commando . One would suppose than that it would employ something I guess I've come to take for granted in games, checkpoints. The game simply autosaves when you move to a new area or sometimes when you complete an objective. Making one simple mistake in the timing of your swing release means falling into water or radiation, the latter being Bionic Commando's equivalent of invisible walls, and promptly dying as you flail the camera around looking for something to haul your bionic ass out of the danger zone. Upon death you are reverted to the nearest autosave. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the game's challenge and reward system.
This challenge system works similarly to Xbox Live's achievements, except that when a challenge is met the player is rewarded with an in game upgrade of some kind. For example, you'll be asked to kill five enemies with a single grenade. Actually doing so will reward you with an upgrade to your grenade ammo limit. This system is a great addition and does a good job of encouraging different and more thoughtful ways of playing, but when met with the autosaving mentioned earlier it becomes one of the single most frustrating parts of the game.
Any challenges met or progress made on "defeat 100 enemies" type challenges are wiped out upon death between autosaves. Many times killing five enemies with a single grenade boils down to luck and receiving that upgrade only to lose it minutes later after accidentally flinging yourself onto a building that happens to be irradiated is crushing. This is a major complaint that could have been easily fixed and that makes it all the more insufferable.
You probably won't find yourself doing much dying at the hands of your enemies. Somewhere in the game's eight to ten hour length you'll realize that water and radiation are the true arch enemy of Rad Spencer. That's not to say firefights are easy, they can be downright brutal towards the beginning of your adventure, but your arm and regenerating health allow you to quickly escape, sit around for five seconds, and then reenter the fray. You'll occasionally be provided with stronger weapons with very little ammunition, but your starting pistol and proximity grenades with a few upgrades from the challenge system can carry you through most of the campaign. In fights you'll be relying mostly on your bionic arm. Well, that's not entirely true. After playing for a couple of hours you'll be relying mostly on your bionic arm. You don't receive any of the arm's useful combat maneuvers until late in the first of the game's three acts. Until then you're left to cuddle up with some very mediocre gunplay.
Upon finishing the single player I immediately wanted to dive back in - the swinging really is that fun - but having played through the entire campaign and experienced the far more satisfying combat of its latter acts, I just couldn't bring myself to start from the beginning again. I have replayed a few of the campaign's highlights via the level jump option, but the lack of a new game plus like feature really is disappointing after having so much fun with the tail end of the game.
The multiplayer is a more logical option for getting a swing fix. I can see it being fun when played with several friends, but it doesn't offer much compared to the single player. Its main problem is that it boils the game down to its shooting mechanics, which aren't very good in the campaign to begin with. When faced with dynamic human opponents it becomes even worse. It's impossible to tell if you're damaging another player and most of the guns are worthless. It does feature all of the fantastic swinging and music from the campaign and is at least worth checking out.
The qualities of Bionic Commando suit its titular hero nicely. As one of the main villains tells Rad Spencer before stomping his neck, "The flesh is weak." Even with his bionic arm Spencer is still mostly weak flesh. Bionic Commando , the game, suffers the same fate. The addition of the bionic arm is enough to recommend a rental, changing the game from a completely mediocre third person shooter to a completely mediocre third person shooter with fantastic traversal and exploration, but the simple foundation of the game, the shooting mechanics, the checkpoints, the weapons, are simply weak flesh.