Game Review: Bionic Commando

May 19, 2009

Capcom primed us for a new foray into the world of Bionic Commando with last year's remake of the NES classic. Now, we have its home console sequel. With its focus on bionic arm-play, plus its multitude of references to its source material, Bionic Commando clearly talks the talk. But does it meaningfully modernize its predecessor's age old game mechanics, or is it merely preying on our nostalgia?

The story takes place 10 years after the events of Bionic Commando: Rearmed, and casts you as Nathan Spencer, a cybernetic supersoldier with a particularly grim worldview. You can't blame him-after being imprisoned and stripped of his bionic arm, he's conscripted by the very government that locked him up to clean up a mess of epic proportions. As it happens, a group of bionic terrorists have detonated an experimental weapon in Ascension City, leveling the teeming metropolis and washing it in toxic radiation. When you consider the gutted, irradiated environment, where solid ground is at a premium, it's hard to argue that this cybernetic Tarzan isn't the right man for the job. But that doesn't mean he's going to like it.

Neither will you, unless you're a fan of heavy-handed performances and predictable plot turns. It feels like every other word out of Spencer's mouth would get bleeped on primetime TV, and you can see most of the major twists coming from a mile away. At its worst, Bionic Commando aspires to Metal Gear-style navel-gazing self-indulgence, but fails to achieve it. But when it's at its best, you'll sometimes find yourself wondering whether you're laughing with it, or at it.


Source: Capcom

You wouldn't assume as much from looking at it, but Bionic Commando is actually quite linear. The game is broken up into three substantial acts, which are further divided into a series of checkpoints that vary in length and content. During some, you'll have to fight your way through clusters of enemies, both humanoid and mechanical. During others, you'll swing your way through a precarious environment, contending with the game's thrilling interpretation of the platforming sequence. Most of the time, it's a combination of the two, and during its best moments, Bionic Commando soars.

Ascension City isn't a sandbox in the Liberty City-sense, but it does have some open-ended elements. If your objective is to simply reach a distant checkpoint, you can sometimes avoid the enemies you encounter en route. You'll also have a choice as to which path to take; grapple points are never in short supply, and propelling yourself through the varied environments is one of the game's simplest pleasures.

Not surprisingly, Bionic Commando is at its most aggravating when you hit a wall, invisible or otherwise. Some sections of the city-which are, at times, smacked in the middle of the most seemingly-intuitive paths-are blocked by radiation, the sort that will kill you if you stand in it for more than a few seconds. You'll suffer plenty of deaths for inadvertently taking a wrong turn, and in sections where checkpoints are particularly far apart, this will make you want to pull your hair out.


Source: Capcom

Similarly, some checkpoints can only be activated after you kill a predetermined group of enemies, which you'll sometimes miss if you take an odd route. There's an incentive for exploring-tons of collectibles are scattered all around the environments that unlock art gallery items. It's just unfortunate when the hunt for unlockables takes you so off the beaten path that you miss a crucial enemy spawn-point. Hunting for the red dots that represent enemies on the mini-map is no fun.

You'll be surprised by how substantial Bionic Commando's multiplayer game is. Though it downplays the arm mechanics by necessity (after all, you probably wouldn't bother with guns half the time when you can one-shot humanoids with your lethal grapples), the game's wild focus on mobility translates very well to a competitive game. The deathmatch option, which includes a team version, is more or less what you'd expect. Capture-the-flag, though, takes a turn for the exhilarating when you consider the mobility afforded by the game's swing mechanics. During a tight match, stakes feel high, since skilled flag-runners can lose you in a second flat. But all it takes is one missed winch to send you back to your end of the map.

You can blast through Bionic Commando in around 10 hours. It fluctuates depending on how often you die or how much you choose to meander. The game's high points are wonderful, but the last real boss battle is disappointingly routine. And while it's too early to say whether or not the multiplayer will mature into a long-term online hit, it's certainly well-conceived enough keep you occupied in the short term, regardless of how much Capcom decides to support it post-release.

You feel like an utter klutz for the first hour or so, but once you get the hang of the bionic arm-swing, you're free as a bird. You can use your arm to propel yourself from winch-point-to-winch-point, "zip" yourself up, down, or laterally, and climb onto vertical surfaces. The game makes it easy to discern where you can and can't connect via HUD guides, and once you get a feel for swinging, you'll be able to clear crazy distances with ease. Imparting this freedom of mobility was clearly one of Bionic Commando's goals, and it fires on all cylinders.


Source: Capcom

The bionic arm is also your most effective weapon. Combat abilities utilizing the arm are unlocked as the game progresses, and this process gradually makes all the special weapons feel more and more situational. A fully-empowered Spencer can grab enemies with his arm, "kite" them up in the air, and hurl them into their comrades, usually killing all involved. Failing that, he can perform the same routine on, say, a loose boulder or trashed car, and finish them off without a shadow of a doubt. In the latter half the game, you unlock a super-move that's particularly devastating-once it's powered up, Spencer will swing his arm like a two-ton lasso, obliterating most anything it comes into contact with.

Indeed, you'll probably find yourself shunning traditional firearms in favor of Spencer's secret weapon. This isn't to say they're not effective. In fact, there are certain times when you simply have to use them. You'll often stumble across a sniper rifle right when you're under siege by enemy snipers, for example, and likewise with heavily-armored mechs and grenade launchers. There's even one boss battle that's probably impossible without surface-to-air missiles. But the fact is, Spencer's arsenal is nowhere near as gratifying to use as his arm. Where the bionic arm feels thunderous and brutal, the weapons come off as quiet and wimpy. It's no contest.

The game's combat would have been mightily improved if it allowed a little more improvisation. When you're fighting enemy soldiers, you pretty much have free rein in regards to how you'll dispatch them. But this changes when you're fighting giant robots. If there aren't any crates, rocks, or cars around, you'll just have to wait until they show you their weak points, or pray there's a grenade launcher nearby. You'll occasionally run into enemies that break apart after you damage them, allowing you to use their shattered frames as weapons, and you'll find yourself wishing you could do this more often, and more meaningfully. Just like when it comes to movement, Bionic Commando's combat is at its best when it gives you room to improvise.

Bionic Commando's core elements work well, and they thrive in an environment that was designed specifically to showcase them. While it's too bad that it didn't go farther with some of its best ideas, particularly how the arm factors into combat, it succeeds at making you feel like a high-flying, gorilla-gripped supersoldier.

It won't "wow" you with its technical presentation, but in terms of scale, Bionic Commando is mighty impressive. It was a feat to design an environment around such a challenging gameplay mechanic as swinging, and the end result hits the mark: all of Ascension City's districts feel like actual places. Ravaged highways dotted with road markers and desolate industrial wastes give way to dank catacombs and lush forests, and the transitions never feel forced. One minute, you'll be swinging from one end of a neighborhood to the other in a span of seconds. The next, you'll be soaring up to the top of super-tall building. It makes you feel very small.

When viewed up close, things can look a little crude, and the action can stutter a bit when things get a crazy. Humanoid enemies look pretty awkward when caught in your bionic arm, and they have a tendency to react oddly with the environment when flung into tight spaces. Spencer himself, though, animates remarkably well. When you witness the way he flails his arms when propelled into the air, you almost feel scared for him.

Spencer is voiced by Faith No More lead singer Mike Patton, who does a passable job of channeling Solid Snake for his performance. The results are as gruff and world-weary as you'd expect. The music generally compliments the action well, but it's not all that memorable.

Bionic Commando's bright spots are occasionally book-ended by frustrating sequences. After playing it, you come away wishing that it focused more on what's best about it, namely, the bionic arm's potential as a weapon and means of mobility. You have to give the game credit, though-it admirably delivers on a concept that seems very difficult to realize, and the results are usually a lot of fun. Let's hope Bionic Commando swings back our way soon.

Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.