Bionic Commando (Xbox 360) review
"Development team GRIN, also responsible for Bionic Commando Rearmed, have created an immensely playable game. Unfortunately, it's not the fount of creative goodness that its predecessor was. Although the game is speckled with phenomenal moments, too much of Bionic Commando is spent casually running through empty cities."
He stopped by the library. Not for the literature, but because a secret weapon was supposedly stored there. After walking through aisles of neatly-shelved books, he hunkered down in front of the computer and, with one hand, typed in the codeword: "Carrion Device". The phrase reminded him of Master D's "Project Albatross" from several years back. That was a fine mess, and he was pretty sure this would turn out even worse.
As Nathan "Rad" Spencer tried to hack into the Federal Archives mainframe, a high-pitched voice echoed through the building, taunting our hero with an over-the-top German accent. Damn. The empty library soon became a hornet's nest of activity. Snipers positioned themselves around the ceiling's perimeter; mechanical drones buzzed in through the top of the dome; heavy gunners primed their machine guns; an entire platoon swarmed through the aisles. Nathan rolled behind a nearby bookshelf, avoiding a four-man crossfire as best he could. A grunt (armed with stun-rod) tried to sneak up on him, but Nathan crushed his skull with his metallic left arm.
Casting a glance towards the ceiling, our hero revealed his greatest secret. His titanium hand, attached to a steel wire, detached from his arm, launched upwards, and gripped the edge of the balcony. By retracting the wire, Nathan was able to pull himself to the upper level and bash one of the sniper's heads in. He grabbed the sniper's corpse, then flung it across the room, knocking another sniper from his perch. Taking advantage of the momentary respite, the bionic man pulled out a firearm of his own; a grenade launcher. As he prepared to aim, two more grunts unexpectedly approached from the side. Nathan turned and reflexively launched a grenade, blasting the two to death. But it was too close; Nathan was caught in the blast, and everything turned red. With a dozen soldiers hunting him down, spraying the room with machine gun fire, Nathan leaped from the balcony down to the floor below and darted from bookshelf to bookshelf, letting his body's natural endorphins kick in. No matter how badly he's hurt, endorphins eventually make the pain go away. As long as he stays alive, that is.
His spirit renewed and vitality restored, Nathan launched his bionic arm towards a beam spanning the center of the room. He swung. With ridiculous bravado, he swung through the center of the room, bullets zipping by all sides, and then . . . he let go. Our hero soared through the air. The sensation of free-flight was almost calming. Nathan spread his arms and basked in the moment, before casually loading an explosive charge into his metal arm. Then he plummeted to the ground fist-first, straight into the middle of a group of soldiers, the impact detonating the explosive he had prepared just seconds earlier. He called that attack "death from above". The blast sent four soldiers flying backwards into the shelves, knocking books all across the floor. Nathan didn't hesitate; he targeted a grunt across the aisle, latched onto the poor fellow's chest, then retracted the wire.
What the enemy grunt saw: one bionic warrior flying through the air feet-first towards his face. What the grunt saw next: nothing ever again.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is Bionic Commando. And when it's on, it's on. Every action, every animation, every little detail described above is real; the epic library battle's events require no embellishment. The breadth of technique available during firefights is staggering, and the control is flawless. Within an hour, I had mastered the bionic arm. Within an hour, I could swing from street-sign to street-sign, gathering out-of-the-way collectibles, or scale a building to kick a sorry sniper's butt. And the rousing music -- much of it culled from the classic NES game -- makes sweet moments even sweeter.
Development team GRIN, also responsible for Bionic Commando Rearmed, have created an immensely playable game. Unfortunately, it's not the fount of creative goodness that its predecessor was. Although the game is speckled with phenomenal moments, too much of Bionic Commando is spent casually running through empty cities (the populace has been conveniently disposed of), empty fissures (one stage literally has no opponents), or empty forests (I suppose the animals were also disposed of). Each of these areas spans a lot of stages; sometimes as many as six or seven. That's a far cry from the relentless assault and varied backrops provided by the NES game. Even when Bionic Commando did throw enemies at me, they were the same enemies -- or minor variations thereof -- that I had fought throughout the entire game. A bit more variety (or a few more bosses) would have gone a long way.
In each of its vast stages, Bionic Commando provides a lot of freedom for players to swing around and hunt for hidden collectibles. I never found an annoying car blocking an alleyway, because I could simply leap over the car (or hoist it into the air with my arm and fling it aside). Nathan can't swim -- that arm's heavy! -- but monorails and floating mines are liberally sprinkled around the levels, so even large bodies of water didn't block my progress. At one point, I actually pulled train cabins down into the water, then leaped on top of them as though they were big metal rafts. There was another method to cross the river. An easier method, actually. But that's the method I chose.
Then I encountered the radiation. Even though Nathan can run/swing/raft-ride almost anywhere, the designers didn't want players going too far off the beaten path. Run in the wrong direction, and radiation suddenly starts frying Nathan's skin! If I didn't turn back the way I came, then it was GAME OVER. This was really annoying, because sometimes the quickest way to the goal appeared to be leaping over a waterfall to the ground below. After leaping, the radiation symbol appeared. Before I could climb back up to the non-radiated zone and find the route the developers wanted me to take, I died. Then I had to repeat the earlier parts of the stage that I had already painstakingly crossed. And that also meant I had to re-locate and re-obtain hidden collectibles -- some of which are suspended in mid-air and difficult to reach -- because the game doesn't retain uncovered collectibles or earned "challenges" until a save point is reached.
So, even though the controls and technique are peerless, the actual game design has some issues. This leads me to believe that GRIN is probably best off refining someone else's creative genius, rather than developing their own games. I do have to admit, it's blatantly obvious that the designers had big ambitions. The storyline attempts to be deep, meaningful, and poetic.
It fails, but the effort is genuine.
When I started playing Bionic Commando, I had one rule: "If Nathan Spencer's arm starts talking, I'm outta here!" The game passed that stringent test, but the storyline is still a bit jumbled. The NES game had a clear goal -- rescue Super Joe, hero of Capcom's classic Commando. I loved Commando, so that concept excited me! In the new game, aside from "stop the Imperial army", Nathan's goal is muddy. He doesn't trust his boss, information is being kept secret, and the revelations are too slow to come. They throw an estranged wife on top of it all. For most of the game, Nathan just follows a series of green way-points from one objective to the next, and things happen. When pieces do come together, they come together in an "edgy" way that actually craps all over long-time Capcom fans. When I say "long-time", I mean from back when Capcom started making video games. So if Rearmed was your introduction to the Bionic Commando universe, then you're probably safe. If you got an NES for Christmas 1985, then you may have the same issues I did.
Also, for God knows what reason, Nathan "Rad" Spencer's trademark red hair and shades have been replaced with BLACK DREADLOCKS.
People drop the F-bomb all over the place in this game, so I guess the new dread design fits the "edgy" theme better than spiky 80's red hair. This new Bionic Commando establishes a world where Bionic Commandos are no longer cool enough to have nicknames like "Rad". It shows a past where Nathan Spencer was hurt and betrayed, causing him to develop a grudge against Super Joe.
The problem is: it doesn't establish these things convincingly.
We didn't know Nathan had a wife until this game, and by the time we play, she's already been gone for years. The "bionics purge" isn't portrayed in a way that touches the heart. Nathan comes across more as an angry adolescent than as a man fighting for his own personal sense of justice. But I'll be damned if his adolescent fight isn't fun. Bionic Commando doesn't live up to its predecessor or its apparent ambition, but the phenomenal controls and exciting combat make for an entertaining diversion.
Special Tip: Be sure to fight the "Mohole" boss a few times. Every now and then, when your commander tells you that you'll "just have to fight it", that line is replaced by an amusingly vulgar out-take . . . and Nathan's perplexed response is equally amusing.
Staff review by Zigfried (May 26, 2009)
Zigfried likes writing about whales and angry seamen, and often does so at the local pub.
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