Bionic Commando Review
The appendage-enhanced star of Capcom's classic Bionic Commando has a lot to live up to. Not only does Nathan “RAD” Spencer need to appease the rabid fans of the NES original, but it also must impress anyone who played last year's awesome XBLA and PSN remake Bionic Commando: Rearmed. In fact, it's probably more Rearmed that's set the bar especially high because few were expecting GRIN's little reboot to be as cool as it turned out to be; after all, it seemed at first like little more than a teasing bonus to the full-on, big-budget current-gen update that recently swung onto our consoles, but it turned out to be one of the sleeper faves of 2008.
Despite the odds of living up to last year's near-perfect revamped 2D effort, and the fond memories—which are always better than the actual game—fans hold dearly of the original, Capcom and GRIN have mostly done the franchise and the now-dread locked Spencer proud. The game has some flaws, and definitely hasn't done itself any favors by releasing alongside the better inFAMOUS, but it does succeed in capturing much of the magic of the original, while also standing on its own as a solid current-gen third-person action title.
As expected, the focus of the gameplay is on that ass-kicking arm, which of course is used for navigating the broken, war-torn terrain of Ascension City. Whether latching, zipping, leaping, or climbing it works well as a grappling device, and although it takes awhile to get the hang of it, once you do you'll enjoy moments of sheer exhilaration as you chain one grapple after another. The environments are riddled with items you can attach your meat hook to—if your reticule turns blue over a structure or piece of terrain, feel free to grab on. While this mechanic provides some of Bionic Commando's biggest thrills, it's also where the game let me down occasionally; while there are moments where you feel as free as Tarzan in an urban jungle, this freedom never quite matches the unrestrained level of the Spider-Man games. Because Nathan's navigating a destroyed, enemy-populated metropolis rather than a living, breathing city, he's constantly running into obstacles such as snipers and death pits or, the worst, fun-siphoning radiation zones.
Given what he's up against it makes sense Nathan can't just free-wheel it through the terrain. But because there are some unmatched moments of greatness when it's just you and your bio-engineered arm, you'll miss them when you're falling into a pit or being picked off by a dead-eye shot. Thankfully, swinging around like a pissed off ape isn't all the arm is good for; it also works as your best weapon, allowing you to grab baddies, reel yourself towards them, and feed them a foot. Even better, once properly upgraded you can hurl environmental items—even cars—at oncoming grunts. You can even toss enemies at each other; Ascension City is crawling with futuristic menaces—mechs, hovercrafts, super-soldiers—and sending one hurtling into one of its own for a quick kill is just as fun as it sounds.
I actually found myself depending on my bionic arm far more than the games' brimming arsenal of traditional weapons simply because it's far more satisfying to take out baddies with your projectile-chucking arm than it is by more familiar means. Still, those seeking some good ol' running-and-gunning will find a solid shooting experience as well. Pistols, rifles, and grenades are all there to compliment whatever bad guy-beating style you choose. You'll need everything at your disposal, too, because Bionic Commando has recruited the best of the bad guys. The AI is good, but sometimes relentless in their pursuit of Nathan. A little pre-skirmish planning will usually keep your ass lead free, but a few encounters come close to controller-tossing frustrating. You'll understand the first time you're faced with a screen full of snipers.
I often criticize development teams for putting too much of their resources towards tacking on a multiplayer component just so they can sport that all-important bullet point on the back of the box. GRIN is guilty of this, here, not because Bionic Commando's multiplayer is bad—it is, in fact, mildly entertaining—but because it's forgettable and I'd be surprised if anyone was still playing it six months from now. This would be acceptable if the solo experience was perfect, but as I've pointed out, there are areas that could've benefited from a bit more polish.
I'm a fan of both the NES original and last year's remake, so my criticism may come off a bit harsher than actually intended, but this one is close to my gaming heart. The truth is, I had a great time with Bionic Commando, despite its flaws. And while the gameplay stumbles a bit in some areas, it's also spot-on for much of the experience. The audio and visual presentation is also top notch; Ascension City is breathtaking to behold in all its ruined beauty, and the explosive effects and voice work will be music to your surround sound set-up. RAD's return had a lot to live up to, and it mostly succeeds at rebooting a long-loved franchise, delivering a title fans of the original will appreciate, while introducing newcomers to an excellent action game that hopefully sees a sequel.