I was a huge, huge fan of the first Bionic Commando Rearmed - to me, it was a perfect HD update to a beloved NES classic, with slick visuals, a kickin' soundtrack and intentionally cheesy, over the top dialog. The new coat of paint was all well and good, but the real draw was the multipurpose bionic arm, and how every single aspect of the game was built around this one ability. The arm extends outward like a grappling hook, snatching platforms and swinging the hefty Nathan "Rad" Spencer through each level with improbable speed and grace, and it doubles as an offensive weapon that can deflect bullets or push baddies to their death. Most notably, the arm can grab ledges as you plummet into a bottomless pit, saving you at the last second and swinging you back onto solid ground. It's an amazing, entirely unique sensation that only Bionic Commando (and Rearmed) have pulled off.
Above: Moving through the air with no ground in sight... that's Bionic Commando
Rearmed 2 follows this formula, but the level design, bosses and regular enemies never quite take advantage of your special powers and come off as watered-down versions of the first game. Instead of creating gravity-defying opportunities for you to overcome, most of the levels are content to throw bland enemies in the way, or pause your progress with locked doors that need multiple switches flipped. Even the bosses, which are typical pattern-based affairs, appear more than once throughout the game. I didn't mind fighting them the first time, as conquering rote platformer bosses is actually a lot of fun, but having to do it again just a handful of levels later feels a bit lazy.
There are a handful of additions in Rearmed 2, most notably the ability to jump. Yes, before this Nathan was so weighed down by his bionic arm he could only pass obstacles and gaps by swinging or ascending with the arm. That's why it was so integral to the look and feel of the series - it literally took away your ability to jump. Seems like adding a jump button would be a big deal then, right? It should affect the whole feel of the game, but in actuality it's just kind of... there. You can even opt to play the whole thing without jumping if you wanna be super hardcore about it. I'd say the jump doesn't hinder or help the game either way, but I wonder... is the jump the reason why the levels aren't as acrobatic and daring? Did Fat Shark make a concious decision to simplify the environments and add a jump button to potentially lure in new players? Whatever the case, jumping has almost no bearing on actual gameplay. If you use it, great, some areas will be easier. If you refrain, they'll be harder. Take it or leave it.
Above: Ruins, jungles, factories... all the usual 2D level designs are here
Rearmed 2 introduces new weapons and abilities, which are scattered throughout the game's many levels. Most require other powers to reach, so there's a backtracking, Metroid-esque aspect to collecting all of them, but as with jumping, they don't come in particularly handy very often. Well, except for one - early on you can find a regeneration upgrade that refills your health as you play. You can only have one equipped at a time, and even with several other powers at your disposal, there's rarely a reason to swap out the regen power, and even if you want to, you have to pause the game and do so via a menu. Meanwhile the weapons can be cycled with the shoulder buttons at any time. Hey, the L2 button is just sitting there guys, doing nothing - maybe that could have been used to move through the abilities?
The final topper is how pulled-back and choppy the graphics are in comparison to the first Rearmed. The camera is farther out, making everything feel less substantial, and the overall fluidity is noticeably less smooth. For the sake of comparison, I fired up the original Rearmed and played a couple of levels again to confirm these thoughts, and yes, the original looks sharper and cleaner. The shading, animation and design of everything is more interesting, the levels really push you to use the arm and the bosses require some intense concentration to best. Rearmed 2 never really pulls it all together like that.
Above: The new challenge rooms are bitch-ass hard, but will sate expert players' appetite for harcore swingin'
But at its core, BCR2 is still based on an awesome premise, so even a downgraded follow-up is pretty OK. I did still have a decent time completing it (single player with a bit of co-op thrown in), and did notice improved controls when making minute adjustments while dangling from the arm (the first game was kind of a bastard about that). And to be honest, there's a level late in the game that ticks all the right BC boxes, demanding pixel-perfect grabs over insane pits in an equally insane location. If they'd focused more on that experience, rather than leading up to it, BCR2 could've been something greater.