Confession time: We had long expected Capcom and Swedish developer GRIN’s pact to resurrect the 22-year old Bionic Commando series to be a bad idea. Surely it would only serve to infect rose-tinted memories of yesteryear with some seriously bad juju. For one thing its overly macho style and dank color palette is more Gears of Yawn than retro chic. For another, the opening stage misfires massively by using an environment unsuited to its hero’s bionic arm-enabled swinging skills. And the mechanics of swooping around with said arm are unforgiving. Your character feels like a wrecking ball instead of a mechanically-enabled Spider-Man until you grow accustomed to it. So to say we were surprised by the finished game’s high level of quality is a big understatement. The good news is, we’re not simply surprised; we’re also thrilled.
The first hour introduces Nathan Spencer, the man with the bionic arm, and gifts him with a handful of neat moves but fudges things by hemming him in with BC’s answer to invisible walls – radioactive areas. So this vast, open area is actually more like a hamster habitat made up of clear plastic boxes connected by transparent tunnels. But the second hour introduces more open areas including an industrial wasteland, a park and a series of rocky fissures. All of a sudden, the previously staccato nature of Spencer’s swing mechanic becomes an elegantly flowing thrill ride. Dull linear missions give way to startling set-pieces that turn your stomach as Spencer swan dives into the atmosphere.
That is, assuming you’ve come to terms with the controls by then. Using the right stick to locate points that your zippy cable-arm can grasp while simultaneously guiding your body with the left stick, hoping to keep your all-important momentum maximized and aimed in the right direction. If you can’t get the hang of it, Bionic Commando will make you hate it. If you can, you’ll feel the wind in your hair as you soar through one devastated landscape after another.
But what Spencer giveth with his left (bionic) hand, he taketh away with his right. The shooting is the game’s weak link, with sissy guns and little “pop”. Not to worry though, because Spencer’s bionic implant is good for more than swinging. Who needs guns when you can zip-launch yourself like a feet-first missile right at your enemy’s face? Or snag a flaming car and hurl it at a speedily approaching mech? Not us. The sheer variety of attacks at your disposal combined with incredible freedom of movement make for a game that’s rarely less than thrilling.
When you do encounter those less than thrilling moments, it will probably relate to the convoluted story or the fact that there’s no hacking mini-game like there was in the old days. When something needs hacked, you just stand there while your arm-puter does the work. Functional, but not exactly ambitious design.
True, it lacks the polish and sophistication of much of Capcom’s output. There are far too many load screens, too few checkpoints and some of the level design is questionable. But when a game is built around a single mechanic that is employed so well, so often and so entertainingly it’s hard not to overlook its flaws and just enjoy yourself. Or go with the swing of things, so to speak.
May 19, 2009