Capcom and GRIN spring Nathan "RAD" Spencer from prison, dust off his shiny metal arm, and turn him loose against the forces of evil in Bionic Commando, the sequel to the original NES classic.
Much has changed since Nathan Spencer first took on imperialist Nazi forces on a mission to rescue Super Joe. Ten years later bionics are now illegal, and Nathan is about to be executed by a country that betrayed him. Luckily for him, before the execution is carried out an experimental weapon detonates in Ascension City, and only one man and his special arm can infiltrate the ruins, eliminate the invading BioReign terrorists, and clear his name.
The new Bionic Commando takes the running, gunning, and swinging of the original game and drags it kicking and screaming into the current generation, no doubt leaving large metal finger furrows in the concrete as they did so. Was the effort worthwhile, or was this one franchise better left unarmed?
Swing, Swing, Swing: The swinging mechanic in Bionic Commando has certainly come a long way since I first played the game at E3 2008. GRIN really nailed the physics of the swing, to the point where the indicator that flashes on the screen when you are at the fastest point in your arc isn't really all that necessary. Making a long series of difficult swings is extremely rewarding, to the point where you can almost forgive Nathan Spencer's uncharacteristically exuberant cries.
Armed Assault: The true star of Bionic Commando is the arm, and I found that the most fun I had during my time with the game involved utilizing the huge metal appendage to cause mayhem and destruction. Whether I was tossing cars and rocks at giant mechs or yanking myself towards enemies to deliver a swift kick, manipulating people, places, and things with the bionic arm is extremely satisfying.
The Challenging Sweet Spot: Bionic Commando isn't a very forgiving game. If you screw up, you die, and if you're anything at all like me then you will die often, but you'll keep going back. Like its platforming predecessor, playing the game is often a matter of finding the best way to deal with any given situation. Aside from some radiation and water issues, there aren't really cheap deaths in Bionic Commando. Every lost life feels like an excuse to go back and try harder. I understand that difficulty is a personal thing, but for this person, Bionic Commando's standard difficulty felt just right.
Magic Moments: Scattered throughout Bionic Commando are several giant set pieces and scripted events that really pack a punch, delivering the sort of experience gamers will be reminiscing over for years to come. From swan diving off of a waterfall and catching a tree branch with your arm just before you become an impact crater to the sudden appearance of an enemy as tall as an office building, there are plenty of breathtaking moments to be experienced in the game.
Polished To A Glossy Sheen: When it comes to presentation, Bionic Commando is all aces. The graphics are stunning, ably representing the large scale of the game's various levels. Dust swirls, water splashes, and automotive glass shatters as you toss about cars like children's playthings. The soundtrack is suitably epic as well, with classic Bionic Commando music remixed into the sort of score you'd expect from a big-budget action flick.
Nathan Spencer Is A Dick: There's a thin line between bad ass and asshole, and Nathan Spencer long-jumped across it at some point between the first Bionic Commando and this new one. Sure he's been in prison, lost his wife, and been betrayed by the country he once served, but Nate lays it on a bit thick. Faith No More's Mike Patton grunts his way through Nathan's generic badassery, coming to life only during some of the more "humorous" phrases, which seem completely unnecessary given the circumstances. What kind of grizzled, jaded hero cheers like a high school kid during a particularly long jump?
Radiation Therapy: The joy of potentially limitless exploration is cut short by GRIN's terrible choice of player leashing mechanisms, radiation. Drop too low, and the radiation kills you. Climb too high, and the radiation kills you. I'm no scientist, but I wasn't aware that radiation formed corridors. The mechanic feels very cheap, and oftentimes spoils the fun of a nice bout of precision swinging.
Aw, Shoot: While some of the heavier weapons in Bionic Commando can be a literal blast to fire, the small arms leave much to be desired. Killing enemies with guns is a matter of looking in their direction and holding down the fire button. You can zoom in order to get a closer look at what you are shooting at, but the slowdown that comes with the enhanced view is often more trouble than it's worth, leaving you open to enemy fire.
Multiplayer Meh: I wasn't able to find many people playing Bionic Commando multiplayer matches, and when I did get it, it became readily apparent why. As much fun as swinging and climbing is, the shooting isn't. Unfortunately, the other players wish to kill you instead of simply enjoying swinging about in their colorful outfits, so multiplayer matches involve a great deal of concentration on maneuvering, brief flashes of gunfire, and many corpses falling out of the sky. It was nice of GRIN to try, but as a whole the experience just falls flat.
Pacing Back And Forth: My only other major issue with Bionic Commando lies in the game's pacing, or lack thereof. One moment you're running through a level that consists solely of a tunnel filled with enemies; the next you're engaging in huge, multi-objective battles across giant open areas. One level in particular seemed to have been created solely to house a cut scene. I suppose not knowing what to expect keeps the player on their toes, but a little more consistency would have been appreciated.
True, Bionic Commando may have many failings, but what developer GRIN and Capcom have managed to accomplish with this remake is subtly astonishing. They've managed to mix current-generation graphics and game play with old school arcade feel and difficulty. Bucking the trend that sees many of today's games becoming too easy to please the more hardcore crowd, Bionic Commando is unforgiving and unapologetic. Instead of holding your hand, the game gives you a giant mechanical monstrosity attached to your left shoulder and says here, hold it yourself. It can be frustrating, but it makes overcoming the obstacles presented that much more rewarding.
Bionic Commando is definitely a game worthy to carry that esteemed name, and while it can be a complete and utter bitch at times, good times await those not afraid of a little challenge.
Bionic Commando was developed by GRIN and published by Capcom for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC. Released on May 19th. Retails for $59.99. Played PlayStation 3 version. Completed story mode on normal difficulty, played through multiple rounds of online multiplayer across all three game types.
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