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Bionic Commando Review4
by Jeff Gerstmann on
Bionic Commando has moments of brilliance that help cover the game's flaws, but really, it all comes down to how much you like swinging around.
When making a modern update of an eight-bit classic like Bionic Commando, the tendency is to probably focus on the one or two defining characteristics of the original game and say "don't screw these up." The great news is that for Bionic Commando, that defining characteristic was its bionic arm swinging ability, and that part of the new game is handled really well. Unfortunately, a lot of the things that surround all that swinging around haven't been handled quite so nicely. The end result is a game that has moments of brilliance that are bogged down by weird constraints. How much you'll enjoy it is fairly dependent on your ability to quickly swing through an area and enjoy the relative freedom the bionic arm provides.
You'll swing around as Nathan "Rad" Spencer, the hero of the previous Bionic Commando. In the time since his last adventure, the government has become fiercely anti-bionics, and a mishap on his last mission put Spencer on Death Row. But after a pro-bionics organization called BioReign blows up Ascension City, Spencer's released and launched in what's left of the city to figure out what the bad guys are up to. That's where you get to take over. The story takes a back seat to the action through most of the game, and you really don't see many meaningful plot points until the game's final act. Near the end, things take a twist and some really crazy things happen, including a final gameplay sequence that might not be the most interactive thing in the game, but it sure does look amazing.
The beginning of the game quickly reconnects you with your bionic arm, trigging a very necessary tutorial that gives you a look at how to swing and some of the basic and advanced attacks you'll earn over the course of the game. The tutorial and the easy sections at the beginning of the game are a crucial time. It really feels like you'll either take a shine to the game's swinging, figure it out, and really enjoy the six-to-eight-hour adventure ahead of you, or you'll spend a lot more time standing on the ground than you should, and you'll probably hate everything that comes next. The game also has a challenge system that rewards you, both in achievements/trophies as well as in upgrades. Executing a set number of melee kills, taking down two enemies with one shotgun blast, executing properly timed consecutive swings, and killing guys by flinging objects in their direction are just some of the things that you'll be asked to accomplish. Some of these challenges just unlock more challenges when completed, but you'll also get better armor, faster reload times, and other helpful upgrades for playing along.
The structure of Bionic Commando is completely linear, with waypoints appearing to keep you focused on the next objective. You'll swing through the ruins of Ascension City, head underground a few times to fly through caves, head out to the docks, swing around an oil rig, and so on. Occasionally you'll have to stop and deal with some enemies. To do that, you're armed with a basic weapon, a one-shot gun that is the dictionary definition of "pea shooter." It sounds weak, it feels weak, and it fires as quickly as you can pull the trigger--which can actually make it a bit more powerful than it is normally, since you can rattle off shots at a pretty high rate. The aiming reticle is large, though it gets smaller if you zoom in, letting you pull off head shots at medium range. But standing on the ground, firing this thing at other enemies who are firing back, is pretty boring. Most of the other guns in the game--like a sniper rifle, a shotgun, a grenade launcher, and a fully automatic machine gun--are pretty standard and aren't much fun to use. I did, however, really enjoy using the Tarantula, a lock-on rocket launcher that can fire multiple shots at different targets by painting the targets before releasing the fire button. But you don't find it too often in the single-player game, and all of the secondary weapons have really strict ammo limits that prevent you from using them for long.
It almost feels like the developers deliberately made most of the guns lame to put more of a focus on your arm. Using the arm in combat is decidedly more entertaining. You'll be able to pick up objects in the environment and fling them at enemies, or you can refrain from getting fancy and just grab enemies directly and toss them at other foes, or off ledges. If you like, you can whip enemies up with the arm and use your guns to keep them airborne until they're dead. Or you can punch cars up into the air, jump up after them, and kick them at your adversaries. These methods are more entertaining, but fighting the regular enemies is rarely difficult, so even this doesn't stay exciting from start to finish.
In addition to just fighting regular dudes, you'll also encounter a few different varieties of mech suits or flying machines over the course of the game. Some of these are ground-based, while others fly around, launching missiles or energy blasts in your direction. Lobbing grenades or shooting other explosives in their direction is the easiest way to deal with these threats, but since ammo is usually fairly scarce, you'll have to lob large objects at them with your arm, or use other methods to get them to expose their back, where a weak point can be grappled onto and kicked. These fights, while not quite boss fights, take a bit of time to handle and force you to think. They're not always great, but it's the best that combat gets in Bionic Commando.
The deeper into Bionic Commando I got, the more it felt like someone realized that the more enemies that got placed into the world, the less exciting the game became. So it's kind of nice that there are large stretches of the game where it's just you and the environment, with very occasional breaks for a bit of combat before you get back to swinging through the air. This stuff, combined with a bunch of collectible objects strewn throughout the game, is probably the best part of the entire game. However, the game isn't quite as open and free as that probably makes it sound. The world is covered with blue-tinged walls and blue clouds that are meant to serve as radiation, making them dangerous places to be. Really, it's just a system of invisible walls and constraints designed to keep you on track. It's disappointing because, again, once you get the hang of climbing buildings with your arm and swinging around, you're filled with a desire to explore. But the game doesn't allow as much of that as it should. Water is also used to restrict your movement, as you'll sink like a rock and die if you fall into the water and can't immediately grapple your way out. Additionally, the game is broken up into areas that are separated by some very lengthy load times, which segments the world into chunks of varying size.
Bionic Commando is a great-looking game that creates a heavy atmosphere as you move from place to place. The bombed-out city is full of big craters, torn-up buildings, and debris. Underground, you'll hook onto stalactites, deal with tremors, and see some terrific subterranean cave areas. Spencer and the other characters in the game look pretty good, too, though I didn't really appreciate Spencer's "edgy guy with dreadlocks" look so much. If you want a classic feel, owners of Bionic Commando Rearmed can unlock a classic Rad model and use that, instead... but his shades and decidedly retro look stick out amongst the edgy tone the game attempts to hit.
Speaking of an edgy tone, the game doesn't hit it terribly well. The voice acting from Spencer, done by singer Mike Patton, is mostly done in a low growl that attempts to convey discontent at the situation. It all ends up sounding like someone trying to take something very seriously and failing miserably. Some of the other characters, like Super Joe, who spends most of the game guiding you from point to point and giving you mission updates, are done a bit better. One nice thing about the voice acting is that there are multiple takes for some lines, so if you die and have to see a part twice, sometimes you'll get a different line. Sometimes this is serious, and sometimes it's some kind of insane joke. For example, the default line when you first encounter a giant worm boss has Super Joe telling you that "you're just going to have to fight it." The second time, he said "you're just going to have to fuck it," resulting in a long "uhhhhhh" from both Spencer and myself. At times you can feel some of the campy writing that resulted from the poor translation of the Japanese NES game coming through, but there aren't enough "you damn fool" or "get the heck out of here, you nerd" moments to make it work.
In addition to the main campaign, which comes in three difficulty levels, Bionic Commando also has a pretty solid multiplayer mode that, again, depends on your ability with the arm. At its best, the game almost feels like dogfighting, with multiple players swinging around, launching through the air, attempting to grapple directly onto an enemy to slow him down for the kill. On some of the larger maps, though, the game sort of bogs down as players attempt to get the one-shot-kill sniper rifle or grab the Tarantula and launch lock-on missiles. It supports up to eight players and offers the standard trinity of multiplayer modes: deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag. While it probably won't replace your multiplayer shooter of choice, it's a fun diversion from the campaign that works better than it seems like it should. But it suffers a bit by being more combat-focused, putting more of an emphasis on the underwhelming weapons. The matching is pretty fully featured, containing a Halo-like party system, and it also has support for clan tags.
Bionic Commando goes back and forth between moments of great, navigation-based gameplay and a lot of little touches that don't work as well as you'd like. It makes the final product a little frustrating, because you can almost see a better game trying to bust its way out of its constraints. But more often than not, I was really taken by the game's rewarding swinging controls and terrific looks. If you consider yourself something of a swinger, I think you'll probably feel the same way.