A very strong franchise revival
First, a disclaimer. I inadvertently started my first playthrough on the hardest difficulty and wound up sticking with it. All my experiences are from playing through the game being utterly destroyed over and over again for hours on end. I think it's fair to say i've seen the worst the game has to offer alongside the best, but your experience is pretty much sure to vary from mine on the lower difficulties, where fewer enemies kill you with one hit.
On with the review.
Calling me a fan of the franchise is a severe understatement. Some of my best childhood memories are from grinding my way through the NES game at my best friends house, to the point where i could reliably and on request rush through the whole thing on one life. It was a game that felt strictly punishing but incredibly rewarding with persistence, and as such divided players into two distinct camps of fans and haters. I'll be frank. Swinging around is an amazing feeling. Even the basic physics of the NES game were capable of giving a sense of vertigo as you precariously swing among ceilings and pillars, and this 2009 version takes that feeling of imminent death and runs crazy with it.
There is a story in here, about Nathan Spencer, a gruff army dude that once killed hitler with a bazooka TO THE FACE, being released from prison to bail out a government failing to solve a crisis involving invading bionic terrorists. Apparently bionics are insane murderers, and they either had to be locked up or "disarmed", so to say. These terrorists want some secret weapon with which to bring a revolution, and Nathan gets literally shot into the warzone with a basic mission and tentative promise of reward. Everybody is either an asshole, insane or just plain angry, and the game is peppered with forgettable pompous dialogue that makes Metal Gear Solid look like Scorcese. The voice acting is solid but undermined by the weak script, but it all gets saved almost single handedly by a certain german character. This character is absolutely hilarious and completely over the top, and whoever voiced this guy needs a medal. We definitely need more insane german fascist villains in our video games. Overall the story meanders a lot and tries sort of weakly to make us like Nathan Spencer. It does, however, go completely insane and over the top near the end, with a series of set pieces that are among some of the coolest things i have ever seen, ramping up the emotional trauma. As for references to the '89 title, they are few and fairly tastefully done, so much so the requisite "you damn fool" reference almost snuck under my radar. A certain selfreferential money shot is completely over the top however, almost to the point where i was shocked by it. Nathan's kind of a dick!
Bionic Commando is, however, not about the story. It is at its purest, a linear action game where you move from point A to point B, pausing to get put into combat scenarios against mixtures of a palette of enemies. The fundamental difference from other similarly described titles, and what really drives this experience into a literal terrain of its own, is that moving from point A to point B is a deeply pleasurable experience. Your primary tool for traversing the game world is an extensible bionic arm that can be used for grabbing and throwing enemies and objects in combat, but most importantly swing from whatever the hell you want to swing from. The arm, launched with a pull of the left trigger, will grab onto practically anything you're aiming at, and uses its own intelligent aiming reticle that will snap to the most relevant object, often letting you aim for an enemy with your weapon at the same time as looking for a point overhead to swing from. Once attached to something, you will remain attached for as long as you hold the trigger, letting you swing smoothly and rapidly from whatever you deem swing-worthy. It's fast, intuitive, satisfying and unique. It's an incredibly elegant design. The actual physicality of the wire surprised me also, letting me do things like grab a pipe, swing around 360 degrees so the cable snagged along the outside and neatly deposited me on top of the pipe. Moments like that make the wire feel like a physical object in the game world; it ranks next to the first time i played with Portal's portal gun and Skate's grinding as one of the most innovative uses of physics i've come across in games for a very very long time. Spiderman this is not.
Aside from the arm, the firearms are generally less interesting peashooters and grenade launcher varieties, but are never the stars of the show anyway, and i rarely, outside of a couple of boss battles, felt the particular need to rely on guns. Why shoot a dude when you can punch a car at him and take out his whole family with him? In a sense, this downplaying of the guns serve to make the gameplay very arm-focused, and i wound up appreciating the arm more as i had to learn to rely on it.
The game has a very cool achievement-like system of "challenges", where reaching certain goals like killing a certain number of a certain enemy with a certain gun while in the air will get you an upgrade for that gun. These challenges encompass almost every aspect of the game, from swinging to shooting to boss battles, and is a nice and often necessary incentive to experiment with the tools you have available. On the 360, every challenge has a corresponding achievement.
It goes without saying that this places a lot of pressure on the level designers to create worlds that function well within the context of a player character that can practically go anywhere. The designers have solved this by reigning in the player with areas of deep water or clouds of lethal radiation, a solution that you either learn to live with or struggle with hard; This is a game where you basically go as you're told, and this can be a really frustrating experience coupled with the apparent freedom the arm gives you. I didn't have a lot of problems with this during the game, but there are definitely spots where these measures, particularly radiation, seem painfully artificial when you want to meander about a bit looking for collectibles.For the most part, however, the game world is designed for the player to move through fast, and it keeps the sights and battles coming rapidly. I was never bored. Some of the levels look downright spectacular, particularly near the end, with wide horizons, rolling oceans and beautiful sunburnt streets, and the occational enormous giant city-cized robot looming overhead. There were definitely moments where i paused to simply look at the game. The scale can be staggering.
The visuals, in general, are however a very mixed bag. Enemy models go from fantastically inspired to generic in a heartbeat, and the look generally feels quite low poly. GRIN have drowned the visuals in filters and lighting effects however, and this goes a long way towards solving any sharp edges. The less said about the player character model the better. I'm not sure how i'd solve a redesign of a character called "Rad Spencer", but i'm pretty sure i wouldn't make him a vaguely neanderthal beefcake with dreds. It's a less offensive design as you go deeper into the game, as it is consistent with the game world and tone, but it remains a very clunky and fundamentally unlovable design that's hard to want to see more of. High resolution renders of him (such as the cover) are less terrible than the in-game model, and makes me hope a sequel could at least improve his blocky neanderthal exterior and perhaps allow him to even emote a little bit. Without giving too much away, there's plenty for him to emote about in the game, but he seems utterly wooden throughout. It's a good thing he keeps moving around too fast for you to really get into the details, and the way he moves is fantastic throughout. Animation is top notch all the way through the game, full of personality, inertia and weight. The swinging in particular is a standout.
I admire what GRIN have done here. I haven't played a game that plays like this, ever. It's truly unique, and for the most part it's a pure pleasure, even on Commando where enemies will grab you and outright kill you, and the game rewards a long bloody battle against a mech by putting you up against three of them before you're even allowed a checkpoint. But it's got to be said that the amount of fun you will have is carefully portioned out, in a series of design decisions i find borderline offensive.
In short, and you've heard this elsewhere already, the game is completely crazy about what gets saved and when. Picking up hidden collectibles and then dying before the next save point means you have to pick them all up again. Sometimes getting a hidden collectible is an arduous trip you probably don't want to do twice. Completing a challenge nets you the linked achievement, but if you die before the next checkpoint you have to complete the challenge over again. It's absolutely mindblowing how this got through, as what it means is the game actively punishes you for wanting to be adventurous. I will never understand a game design that chooses when you can or can't have fun. There are literally bits of the game where you'll be tempted to go for a risky challenge, but will choose not to because you already completed other challenges and want to reach the next save point so you won't lose any of them. It's a completely insane design choice, and watching some Capcom dude try to justify it to 1UP as "keeping the game hardcore" and "keeping it balanced" made me want to scream. There is no such thing as balance in a single player game, there is only fun. You can keep a competitive multiplayer game as balanced or strict as you want, but when it's just a player, a controller and the game he or she bought, actively preventing them from having fun for the sake of "balance" is completely misguided. A good example of how this works is Resident Evil 5, which actively promotes game balance breaking behavior and becomes a more fun and enjoyable experience as a result. I won't bet money on it, but i'm hoping GRIN will issue a patch solving this issue, especially with regards to the collectibles, in the near future.
Speaking of multiplayer, i've had a surprising amount of fun with it. Matches are 8-player only variations of deathmatch and capture the flag, where gaudily colored clone commandos swing around open arenas trying to murder one another with the game's selection of weak guns and cool arm abilities. It's very much a game about getting the best vantage point or getting the drop on the other guy, often literally, and the fact that you can actually grab on to other players to slow them down and even swing from them in some cases makes for unusually physical gameplay. I'm not sure how long i'll be playing, but the map selection is sound and it never really stops being fun simply swinging around a radiation-free environment.
There are mistakes made here, there are polish issues, and there are story issues. The music repeats itself, there aren't enough boss battles, the main protagonist is unsympathetic, and there are insane design issues with regards to risk/reward. But those issues are all eclipsed for me. There are awesome new inventions, and there are plenty of sights i hadn't seen before, and things i hadn't done. It's an innovative game with a lot of heart, and it made me want to play it through again immediatly on completing it. It's a 4 star game, but it's the best kind of 4 star game. I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to try something new and see something else.