Bionic Commando Xbox 360, PS3
First impressions are everything they say, and if that idiom holds true then Bionic Commando gets off to a rocky start.
About 10 minutes after things initially kick-off you’ll arrive at a hole in the side of an office building. Looking out from this sky-high vantage point you see buildings stretch away into the distance. At this point in the game you have just found your bionic arm, which allows you to grab onto certain objects and swing about. You’d now expect to make a leap out of the building, use your bionic arm to attach to one of the many neon signs you see before you, and swing away towards the horizon.
But that is not what Bionic Commando offers you. Instead, you jump from the hole, and simply fall to the ground far below. You can then run up the street, grab onto the neon signs, practice swinging on them. The swinging is arguably more satisfying then what was seen in the Spiderman games, although it needs to be babysat quite a bit. Then you try to reach the roof of the buildings seen just seconds ago, but find it impossible, before running into a broken drainpipe and get greeted with a 10 second loading screen.
Ultimately, these opening moments of gameplay are an insightful glimpse into the biggest problem Bionic Commando has as it continues. Namely, that it is always trying to restrain you. Whether it is mines you must turn off to advance, radiation that prevents you from venturing off-track, or dreaded areas filled with water, if you try to go anywhere the game does not want you to go you are punished with a quick death. Water is undoubtedly the most annoying, as you sink when you hit it due to the weight of your bionic arm. This means if you don’t use your arm to hook onto something quick to zip out, you’re dead.
These facets all serve as the game’s invisible walls, to try and herd you in the right direction. Of course, there is nothing overtly wrong with invisible walls in games, as it would be worse to continually get lost and have no idea where to go. But for the most part they are far too prevalent in Bionic Commando, so common that they are a detriment to enjoyment.
The game only really begins to change its colours as it edges closer towards the end, literally going sky high in its swinging efforts before coming to an abrupt end just as things start to get really good. This final hour almost serves as a small fleeting thank you from the developers for putting up with the game’s eccentricities for so long.
Let’s not be unfair though, there are other highlights too, which come along before the credits roll. These mostly happen when you finally get into a rhythm with the game, teamed with reaching some of the better laid out swinging sections. When this happens everything seems to click; you leap from signpost to lamppost into battle, shoot a guy, hook onto another with your bionic arm, do a zip-kick attack into him, and swing away to the next location. These moments are rare, but when they do occur they are very satisfying.
The most basic enemies don’t put up much of a fight though, usually just standing and shooting at you with no inclination at all to seek out cover. If you run away they will just run after you, which can be helpful for the smaller guys as it basically makes them cannon fodder to your main weaponry. However, this limited AI turns out to be rather annoying for the bigger robotic foe. Particularly when two or three attack at once, as they will continually dart around, following you everywhere you seek cover, making your life hell.
Thankfully, the further you get into the game, there are more attacks to be unlocked, making battles with the bigger guys a bit easier. This unlocking is done in a Metroid-esque style, having your character remember moves as you work your way through the game, usually right before you first need to use them. This certainly opens up your attacking options, particularly when you finally get to chuck around cars and boulders using the power of your bionic arm.
With a good portion of your attacking moves unlocked, there’s a mid-game meeting with a mechanical worm boss that is not only the game’s shining standout moment, but probably one of the better boss battles in recent years. Without giving too much away, the encounter uses just about everything the game has taught you up to that point. It is portrayed in a quite spectacular way, not once resorting to QTEs, but still well presented, asking a lot of the player yet still keeping things fun and entertaining.
However, the game also has many other little niggles that drag things down. For example, sometimes the subtitles for conversations run before people talk due to an autosave kicking in, which seemingly interrupts the voice acting. Speaking of saving, the checkpoint system is far from perfect, at times knocking you back 5+ minutes after a death. The difficulty is also somewhat awry, with even the medium setting spiking into the unfairness you’d expect from a top tier difficulty level. Also, the amount of loading screens is a bit on the high side and breaks up the pace.
Presentation wise the game is top-notch. Ascension City is a well-realised fictional setting, although one that is full to the brim with adverts for Capcom games like Dark Void and Bionic Commando Rearmed. The city legitimately feels like it was devastated by the bomb that hits in the opening moments of the game, resulting in large, multi-tiered environments to play through. The destruction is not akin to the “destroyed beauty” setting used in the likes of Fallout 3 and the Gears of War series, as the city remains full of bright vivid colours. Instead the destruction plays more into the game’s swing mechanic, with bridges broken, buildings teetering, and gaps in the landscaped ripped apart to traverse through.
If you like a good tale to be told in your games, then there is not too much on show for you here, as Bionic Commando’s story is pretty much throwaway. It sees main the protagonist Nathan “RAD” Spencer looking for his wife, Emily, who has been missing for 12 years. Through the 5-or-so hours the game lasts, the story unfolds as you listen to angry military blokes shouting in your ear. It has some interesting, albeit clichéd twists and turns, along with an ending revelation that is borderline touching. But for the most part the game seems a little too serious for its own good. Like most other games today, more of the story is revealed should you want to collect and read various text logs dotted around the city.
I really should love Bionic Commando, as I absolutely adore games with verticality. To climb to the highest room of the tallest tower, and then look back where you came from is an awesome feeling, and any game that boasts such features is on to a winner in my book. However, there is something about Bionic Commando that just does not click.
It’s not a terrible game, far from it in fact, but for everything there is to enjoy there seems to be moments to annoy in equal measure. This results in multiple occasions where you try to beat certain sections out of sheer spite rather than enjoying what you are doing. Nevertheless, there is something about the game that makes you want to soldier on through these though times.
Ultimately, Bionic Commando should really be applauded for trying something new. It would have been very easy for both Capcom and GRIN to turn the 8-bit series into another samey run of the mill third-person shooter that plagues the market at the moment. Instead they went for something a bit different, and something that honours the roots of the Bionic Commando series. However, even these best intentions cannot hide the fact the game never consistently hits the epic feeling most will feel it should.