It’s been a long time coming, Spencer. Was it worth the wait?
The original console version of Bionic Commando, released on the NES in 1988, presented a completely new way to play the classic side-scrolling action game; replacing the jump button with a unique bionic arm. Rather than leap across hazardous gaps and pitfalls, players were required to use the arm to swing and climb through the levels, as it was implemented in many different ways to tackle certain situations, enemies and boss fights. It may have taken some getting used to, but once players became accustomed to this new style of play it was a sure-fire hit. Last year saw the release of Bionic Commando: Rearmed for the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Store; a remake of the original game that saw protagonist Nathan “RAD” Spencer, updated for the next-generation of consoles, and helped place him firmly back on the map as Capcom and Grin geared up to deliver a much-deserved 3D sequel to the classic 2D action game.
That sequel is finally here in the shape of (surprise, surprise) Bionic Commando, and once again you’re thrown into the weighted shoes of the Bionic Commando himself. The years haven’t been kind to Spencer, however. Set ten years after the original game, bionics have been outlawed and Spencer is falsely imprisoned and placed on death row for an incident that has inspired hate towards himself and other bionics. Feeling betrayed by the people he once fought for, hope is all but lost for the one-time hero until, in the unlikeliest of circumstances, he’s thrown back into action after a terrorist group know as Bio-Reign detonates a bomb in in the peaceful Ascension City. Most of the population is wiped out, leaving a great deal of the city irradiated, and it’s up to Spencer and his bionic enhancement - led by commanding officer Super Joe - to put a stop to things.
This is typical action-fare. The story moves along at a decent pace but there’s no room for character development, making it hard to feel emotionally attached during the latter parts of the narrative when the game seems to want you to feel for these one-dimensional characters. There’s plenty of overacting here, and myriad scenes that could be ripped straight from those unintentionally hilarious b-movies you find in bargain bins down at your local video store. It does its job moving the game along and throwing enough twists and surprises at you to keep things interesting throughout the duration, but the poor writing and cheesy acting will make you forget about the story once all is said and done.
It’s disappointing, but you don’t come into a game like Bionic Commando expecting a thrilling narrative. It’s all about the action. And Bionic Commando is a little up-and-down in regards to that aspect as well. The main focus of the game is, of course, on the bionic arm. Since the original game graced the NES in ‘88 we’ve seen swinging mechanics implemented many times, most notably in a variety of different Spider-Man games. Spencer takes a similar approach to Peter Parker, but it’s definitely a lot more manual. Rather than just press the swing button to latch onto anything nearby, you actually have to target each specific object you want to grab onto. This may sound extremely difficult - and it does take time to adjust to this method - but the game targets automatically; it’s just a case of getting close enough and pressing the button at the right moment.
To put it bluntly, if you can’t get to grips with the swinging, you will hate this game. For those of us that can, it will take a few hours to fully become accustomed anyway, resulting in the early moments of the game feeling pretty mundane. This isn’t necessarily due to the learning curve on the swinging, rather there’s no room to breathe and experiment with it. Unlike Spider-Man and it’s sandbox-style New York City, Bionic Commando is a linear experience. It’s not what you would expect from a game that revolves around swinging amongst massive skyscrapers, but it’s what you get. This wouldn’t be too bad if you were at least given some freedom, but you’re pretty much confined to the path the game gives you.
You’ll have a whole city in front of you but must follow a small corridor right through the middle of it. Due to the blast that put you here, most of the city is irradiated and flooded; radiation and water serves as the invisible walls of Bionic Commando, enter either one of them and you’re dead unless you can quickly pull yourself out. This restricts exploration to the point where you can’t even come up with a strategy to sneak up on enemies due to that particular path of buildings being irradiated. It’s frustrating that you can see all of these possibilities but the game doesn’t let you utilize them. There are some collectibles to be found, but there’s not much exploration involved here, instead they’re pretty easy to spot, the challenge comes from actually getting to them.
And this brings me to one of the games other problems: the checkpoints. Finding these collectables nets you some extra bonus goodies in the extras menus, as well as some Achievement points. I tried to get as many as I could and often spent upwards of five minutes trying to reach certain ones. The problem comes from death. If you collect a load of collectables and then die, you’re pushed back absolutely ages to the last checkpoint and must then collect them all over again. When you’re having to replay ten minutes of the game for a second time - along with the task of gathering collectables you’ve already earned - it can get very frustrating. There’s not even a chance to go back and find any you may have missed the first time, unless you start a new game. Even though there’s an option for level select in the main menu, entering it won’t let you keep any collectables or earn any Achievements - taking away from the game’s replayability. When the game world is filled with invisible walls that can kill you in an instant, you really need a more forgiving checkpoint system that doesn’t punish you because you landed on a building you didn’t know was full of radiation.
Luckily combat isn’t too difficult unless you whack up the difficulty to the insane Commando mode, so it won‘t bother the checkpoint system too much. But, sadly, it isn’t that exciting either. You spend most of the game with what can only be described as a peashooter in the purest sense. It packs no visual or audio punch, and fires at the rate you can press the trigger. As you can imagine, combat with this thing provides no thrills, and you can’t even pick up enemy weapons; instead, you just have to wait till the game decides you can use a particular gun by air-dropping it into you, and even then there’s barely any ammo. These other weapons consist of your basic machine gun, shotgun, sniper rifle, grenade launcher and rocket launcher; and just like the pistol they pack no real oomph. They’re all very lacklustre and uninspired, so it’s a good job you’re bionic arm eventually plays a big part in combat as well.
It takes a while to get going but eventually you’ll unlock plenty of moves to utilize with your cybernetic enhancement; from punching guys into the air and kicking them into their friends, to picking up boulders and cars and throwing them at people, or even zip kicking guys off buildings; the bionic arm combat is a vast upgrade on the basic weaponry and actually brings some fun to proceedings. By the end of the game I rarely ever bothered with the weapons, it was all about using the bionic arm to full effect with a mixture of swinging and combat. And I know I didn’t exactly praise the swinging mechanics earlier, but once you’re a few hours in, the game really picks up and the swinging becomes brilliant fun. The game world opens up a tad, allowing a bit more freedom in your swinging; and once this is combined with the combat it produces a winning formula. During my first few hours I’ll admit I was severely disappointed with the game, but once you eventually unlock new combat abilities and explore some of the bigger areas, Bionic Commando really comes into its own. Swinging through a dense forest with giant robots in tow is a great rush, and some of the boss fights are truly awe inspiring - it’s just a shame there’s so few of them.
Visually Bionic Commando looks the part. The city is surprisingly vibrant considering the disaster, but it makes a change from the murky brown and greys of a Fallout 3 or Gears of War, and there’s still a grand sense of the destruction caused as debris litters the floor and pieces of litter bustle in the wind. It’s impressive, to say the least, and the camera does a nice job of keeping up with all the leaps of faith and breakneck swinging. There is a strange blur affect when turning around quickly, but it’s normally not noticeable enough to be bothersome. The only real downside is that the true die hard purists may not appreciate the new, dreadlocked look of Spencer; but luckily you can unlock the original crew cut version if you own Bionic Commando: Rearmed and want to hark back to the good old days.
But, I suppose the worst aspect is the fact that you can see this whole city in front of you, there’s just no way of freely traversing through it. All it does is remind us of what could have been. These swinging mechanics in a much more open world would be fantastic; the game shows off glimpses of brilliance but you can never fully exploit it in the confines of these linear environments. It’s not bad but it could have been so much more, and that’s the most disappointing aspect levelled against Bionic Commando.
The bionic arm combat is fun but held back by the shoddy gunplay. If both were on par with each other then the combat would be so much more, providing satisfying shooting mechanics with the bionic arm, unique to the series. Once again, it shows off the possibilities but never fully realizes them. We can only hope that this is the first in a series that continues to build on the Bionic Commando name, opening up the world and building on the mechanics that show so much potential. As it is, Bionic Commando is an enjoyable yet flawed action game. It takes a while to get going, but once it does the swinging mechanics come into their own and there’s plenty of fun to be had over its six hour runtime. There are just too many roadblocks stopping it from becoming great, and that’s the worst disservice of all.