Back in Action
Bionic Commando, a classic from the 8-bit era, was a rather unknown quantity to all but a handful of older gamers up to just a couple years ago. However, GRIN’s Bionic Commando: Rearmed, arguably the best downloadable arcade title to hit the PC and next-gen consoles, changed all that. The exquisite, undeniably difficult platform gameplay was re-imagined to perfection by the Swedish developer. Not surprisingly, GRIN did a very nice job translating the addictive action of the franchise to their latest 3D adventure for PC, Xbox 360, and PS3: Bionic Commando. Still, a few key missteps hold the title back significantly, making this fun title one not everyone will enjoy.
Despite the game’s retro-moniker, this is not a remade version of the NES title; this next-gen Bionic Commando is actually a sequel to it (and, subsequently, that of Bionic Commando: Rearmed). Of course, the franchise’s flame-haired protagonist, Nathan “RAD” Spencer, is back and ready to dish out the pain. The story in Bionic Commando centers on a new threat, called BioReign, made up of remaining elements from the defeated fascist Imperials and rogue TASC operatives. You see, many TASC agents decided to go rogue after public sentiment concerning the use of bionics turned south in the wake of Spencer’s folly. Nathan Spencer, the first Bionic Commando and hero that saved the world from Albatross, was convicted of treason following his denial of a direct order to eliminate two bionic prototypes. The political fallout that ensued is known as the Bionic Purge, as all bionics were mandated by law to turn in their bionic appendages or have them forcibly removed. Whilst on death row, waiting for execution, Spencer’s life is saved by one-time friend and commander, Joseph “Super Joe” Gibson – the man that betrayed Nathan in the first place. Naturally, in a Rambo 2-like scenario, Spencer is pulled from his incarceration in order to go on a covert mission to save the world from the new threat in the wake of a massively destructive attack launched on Ascension City.
If this story sounds convoluted and ridiculous, that’s because it is. In fact, the storyline in Bionic Commando is one of those missteps I alluded to earlier. The narrative never succeeds at driving players forward. While the franchise it’s based on has always been known for its over-the-top plot, the humorous magic captured in the 2D versions falls completely flat in this 3D version. Despite the story’s poor transition, I did enjoy the insertion of homage elements such as hacked relays, intercepted conversations and communiqués, radioactive areas, and not-so-subtle enemy weakpoints.
Thankfully, the gameplay in Bionic Commando is a ton of fun. What’s more, it can be very difficult at times. GRIN did a great job of implementing the swinging, platform action in an interesting 3D world. At first, I was very worried about how difficult the controls seemed. However, after just about five minutes I was swinging around competently, and after an hour I was money – pulling off sick maneuvers that would make RAD himself proud. Truly, the grappling, vertical platforming is the game’s greatest strength. Anyone who puts the requisite time into learning the control scheme will have a lot of fun with the mechanic. I found myself getting very creative in the way I was tackling objectives. Even though the progression in Bionic Commando is largely linear, the world is actually quite open, offering players myriad ways to skin the proverbial cat, due solely to the unique bionic arm element of the game.
Spencer’s bionic arm is not solely an implement for grasping and swinging around the environment, it is also an effective weapon. In truth, players will likely use the arm for the vast majority of their kills, reserving standard firearms for specific situations. Performing simple moves such as zip kicks, rip kills, and kiting, as well throwing and smashing people and objects with the appendage never really get old. Moreover, once your Adrenaline Gauge is unlocked and advanced powers, such as the room-clearing whip spin and the mecha-demolishing finishing move, become available, it’s hard to settle for hum-drum gun kills. Nevertheless, an assortment of weaponry will be made available to players throughout the game in limited quantities. The third-person shooting mechanic is simply implemented and easily mastered. In no time, players accustomed to shooters will be able to plink their way through sticky situations.
An excellent feature brought into the game is that of 8-bit collectibles, challenges, and rewards. Strewn throughout every section of every level are a set number of floating, pixelated orbs. Players will be tested by these goodies to not only beat the level’s main objective but to master the art of using the wire to collect all of them. This not only encourages players to investigate and explore the world, it also feels like an honor to both the game’s graphical roots and to the era in which the franchise was born.
As fun as the gameplay and collecting elements are, the game can be quite difficult. While I’m always up for a stiff challenge, sometimes it can get annoying. This is exacerbated by the fact the game will start players back at a distant auto-save checkpoint. This can get especially frustrating considering you’ll have to suffer through load screens every time and all of the collectibles and challenges you’ve unlocked (more on those next) are reset. This leads to a lot of unnecessary re-trekking. While this does inextricably link the game to its ire-inducing predecessors, it’s a game mechanic that feels dated and gratuitous.
As previously hinted at, much like the collectibles, challenges of ever-increasing difficulty will also pop up throughout the game. These include pulling off a certain amount of kills with a specific weapon, killing a set number of enemy types, pulling off a maneuver in a special way, etc. Furthermore, upon completion, these challenges are often accompanied by rewards. These rewards act as perks, improving Nathan Spencer’s armor, accuracy, reload time, and more. I found the challenges, enhanced by the rewards, to be a great meta-game that kept me plugging along in spite of the lackluster story.
Naturally, accruing all the 8-bit collectibles and clearing all the challenges the first time through is, dare I say, an impossibility. This doesn’t seem like much of a problem on the surface, but it becomes a true point of consternation. While the game will allow you to go back and explore specific levels, you’re not able to do so in order to amass the last bits of your collection. Astonishingly, you’ll have to start from the beginning to accomplish these feats. That makes acquiring all the Trophies or Achievements for console players truly a trying accomplishment. In the end, this also had the effect of discouraging me from even looking for many of the hidden goodies, and got me really frustrated when I wasn’t able to clear several of the active challenges.
Outside of the single-player story, players can also head online and try out their swinging skills in multiplayer. I really enjoyed the unconventional maps that forced players to use their bionic arms for locomotion. That being said, taking players out with your special bionic abilities is not feasible. That’s because multiplayer battles in Bionic Commando are ruled by gunfights, making the competitive online features less unique than they otherwise might be. Along those same lines, no innovative modes of play are on offer, as Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag are your only choices. As such, multiplayer action feels like a tacked-on afterthought rather than a bankable feature. Consequently, players will grow tired of the novelty of online play in just a matter of hours if not minutes.
Graphics in Bionic Commando are nicely rendered. The environments are well thought out and highly detailed. Character movement and cutscenes are very smooth. All in all, the visuals are very sharp. However, incessant screen-tearing is a real nuisance. Finally, Nathan “RAD” Spencer’s character design is minion-cheesy. He has absolutely no resemblance to his former self, and that’s a shame. Graciously, players can eventually unlock a revamped model of the 8-bit RAD. Still, I can’t believe this design wasn’t used in the first place. Aurally, Bionic Commando uses appropriate musical themes to depict the action. Though competently composed, the tracks never inspire the player to glory. Similar to the patchwork story, though the kitsch voice acting fits nicely with the series in general, it doesn’t quite work in this contemporary interpretation.
In the end, Bionic Commando is an interesting single-player experience many gamers are likely to enjoy. Disappointingly, the multiplayer experience is entirely forgettable, and not all of the wonderfully tacky elements of the series were well translated this time around. That being said, the uniqueness of the bionic arm and the depth of gameplay tend to make up for most of the title’s flaws, though arguably so.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.1 Graphics
The world is very nicely rendered. Constant screen-tearing is troublesome. 4.1 Control
While initially somewhat of a doozy, the controls quickly grow on you, making the game a good deal of fun to play. 3.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The intentionally cheesy dialog entirely misses the mark. The musical themes prop up the sonic presentation but are also nothing special. 3.8 Play Value
There is a lot of fun to be found in the single-player experience. The interesting action platform gameplay makes up for a number of glaring flaws. 3.8 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.