Based on the classic NES 1988 classic Bionic Commando Capcom have brought the bionically enhanced Nathan Spencer to current gen systems, although not the first time as Bionic Commando Rearmed debuted on the Xbox Live Arcade not so long ago. As a leaping super soldier armed to the teeth with big guns, an even bigger attitude and of course the very useful attached bionic arm which serves as the gameplay’s main fixture. Is this all swinging and all dancing Bionic Commando game worth getting excited for?
At its heart Bionic Commando is a third person action game whereby you’ll be going from point A to B across varied post nuclear city based environments. There’s a touch of green thrown in for good measure amongst the crumpled buildings and radiation filled streets to keep things from being too repetitive visually. Armed with various guns – which can be found as you progress through the game – Nathan Spencer is a protagonist with a score to settle. Not only spending the last five years in the slammer, his wife is also missing, and therefore is a good motivation for playing like the super grunt he is.
You could say from the offset, that the game sounds just like any other generic third person offering, and in simple terms you’d be correct; however after spending five or ten minutes playing you’d realize it has its own gameplay quirks to wrestle with and master, separating it from its peers. Nathan is reasonably skilled with the tried and trusted weapons that fall from the heavens before him and although the shooting is a big feature, there are more options available to the player thanks to the rather cool and retractable bionic arm.
Nathan’s arm is not only very tough, as you’d expect from something ‘bionic’, but is quite handy for grabbing things, and swinging from them or snatching objects and using them as projectiles. You see, the main element of traversing the levels is by use of Nathan’s swing ability. It’s this mechanic that you’ll have to learn to use, and then try and be masterful. There’s a decent use of the 3D space here whereby taking to higher ground is often recommended – running seems painstakingly slow in comparison – and more often than not, you’ll be required to swing across huge gaps which cannot be crossed any other way.
The swinging is an art form because rather than have the game auto attach to any nearby surfaces, you have to aim at a surface and hold down an attach button (RT). This is pretty easy to get to grips with (excuse the very deliberate pun), but the real challenge lies in the actual swing itself. The game offers a very small launch window for the type of swing you can perform, of which there are a few. For fast moving swings that gain little height, you’ve got to release quite early (an indicator highlights the right time to let go). For more vertical swings you need to release later etc. Getting the balance between the types of swing is a challenge in itself and does require quite a bit of patience and practice. It’s very easy to mess up in this game, and suffice to say when you do mess up it’s can be quite punishing (a restart at checkpoint – which at times feel pretty spaced apart). It’s probably safe to say that at times your most dangerous threat is the environment itself. The levels are filled with all sorts of swinging opportunities and when you throw in a few heavily armed opponents, and you’ve got yourself some serious encounters. The biggest test is of your own skill and how accomplished you feel you are at the game. Sure, the shooting is pretty easy to master, but making a series of death defying swings is not so easy. There will be times where you’ll go for it and feel like Tarzan on steroids, but due to the fast paced flow of swinging around the levels, you’re bound to come a cropper every so often as you try the unthinkable and mess up.
The attach mechanic seems to work in the most haphazard of ways because at times it may appear you are able to attach to a surface, yet the reality is something different. No doubt on a number of occasions you’ll be close but not close enough to a surface and simply fall, and keep falling until…well, until the game over screen. A sour taste might form when perhaps you’re literally inches too far away (Nathan’s arm has a max length) from a surface an head for an untimely demise. Outside of the wonderfully realized swinging, Nathan is quite clunky when it comes to movement, and you’ll probably notice this when swinging onto very narrow ledges and objects, only to find Nathan can’t move very well and simply fall off rather than stand perfectly still. OK he’s not a gymnast, but it wouldn’t have hurt to give him a little more stability for these moments.
Nathan can use his bionic arm in other ways too…no not like that…he’s able to perform special attacks as he regains his lost skills throughout the story. These come in most useful, and if you see an opportunity, can be more effective than using the conventional weapons on offer. A particular favourite is being able to lift up a police car and then throw it at a group of incoming enemies, crushing them in the process. These actions are a great way of saving the very limited ammo and look pretty cool to boot.
The overall look of the game is pretty decent, with a city torn to pieces by nuclear weapons being rendered well enough. There’s some reasonable diversity to the levels as well, because you’ll also head underground, and swing about some more lush looking areas. The sense of scale is good, and the element of open vertical, but linear space is welcome.
The game does have its fair share of glitches though, and whilst not game-breaking, can test your patience when you’ve got bullets playing tag with your behind, and Nathan getting stuck trying to pull himself onto an object. The camera works well enough, and although there is a quick turn feature assigned to the d-pad, it’s something you’ll use a lot or forget about using entirely, as it’s a little fiddly and not a necessity.
The sound is a mixed bag because although we get to hear the lead singer of Faith No More (Mike Patton) act out the part of Nathan, the dialogue is of the up most cheese, which is probably deliberate. This doesn’t help reduce the pong of predictable lines, an overuse of gravely voices and a story that a five year old could fathom easily. That said, there’s some beautifully crafted music on offer which really sets the audio well above par…if you can forgive the dialogue.
Bionic Commando offers a reasonable length game, although this is probably elongated by the many unforced errors and checkpoint restarts. All said and done it’s probably of an average length once you’ve mastered it. There are collectibles and some very well designed achievements on offer to help you along the way. The biggest gripe here is the fact that the replay option is separate from the main game, so although you can retry any level you’ve already beaten, you’ll be informed that there are no saves and all challenges and achievements are disabled. So in reality, the replay level is merely for fun and not really part of the main game. The other sticking point here, is the way you cannot restart levels, and the game does not save your progress should you fall foul of bad timing or over-zealous enemies. It’s quite the old school mechanic and makes death even more painful.
The game offers a multiplayer mode which can be played via system link or online via Xbox Live. The game’s swing mechanic once again separates it from it’s peers, although the seeming difficulty here might turn away more than it gains by being different. With the usual assortment of modes on offer there’s much fun to be had if you’re patient enough to learn how to play first.
Bionic Commando as a third person action game is pretty average and not necessarily the most accommodating of games – especially in regards to the masses of gamers who want instant gratification pick up and play experience. There’s a real sense of learning with this game, which ultimately rewards those who invest the time, and potentially sticks two fingers up and those unwilling to adapt their gaming habits. The words ‘adapt or die’ spring to mind here. With its impressive but broken swing mechanics you’ll get a sense of achievement when things go to plan, although equally when you mess up your blood may start bubbling over.
As a game in its own right then Bionic Commando is a welcome and refreshing action game that takes to the skies and offers fiddly but challenging scenarios that will keep you well and truly hooked (and yes that was another deliberate pun). It’s great that Capcom are thinking outside the box and trying new ideas, although for some, new is not necessarily better or even good.
That said, overall the game is impressive for being different, and for those gamers who ‘get’ the whole point of it (or are fans of the series) will be left with an accomplished glow around their gaming hands. There’s heaps of cool here, although is somewhat marred by the inconsistencies and sometimes contrived difficulty. If you’re after a game that steps away from the shackles of the commonplace and tries to do something a little different, engaging, testing, and fun, then this is a game well worth checking out. If you shy away from new horizons in your gaming, then perhaps you should rent first to give yourself a better idea of what Nathan and his arm is all about. Bionic Commando isn’t necessarily worth getting overly excited for, as it does little to re-invent third person action games despite the additional layer of verticality. However, the game is well worth playing, because if you do gel with it, then there’s a lot of satisfaction to be gained here.