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Bionic Commando (Xbox 360) artwork

Bionic Commando (Xbox 360) review

"I liked it when Bionic Commando was simply a game. You control a guy with shades and red hair, you fight Nazis (or their equivalent), and you save a guy named Super Joe. The bionic arm you used was one of those brilliant game mechanics that would have revolutionized the industry if it didnít feel so singular and unique. Maybe Iím still too young to reminisce about ďthe good old days,Ē but this is what gaming used to be about. Exposition in games was once used to set the groundwork for ..."

I liked it when Bionic Commando was simply a game. You control a guy with shades and red hair, you fight Nazis (or their equivalent), and you save a guy named Super Joe. The bionic arm you used was one of those brilliant game mechanics that would have revolutionized the industry if it didnít feel so singular and unique. Maybe Iím still too young to reminisce about ďthe good old days,Ē but this is what gaming used to be about. Exposition in games was once used to set the groundwork for big fun (for lack of a more pretentious way of putting it); nowadays, equally simplistic narratives are expressed in many more words, and in exchange, ďinnovationĒ isnít a word I find myself using very often.

Developer Grin did their best to yank the nostalgia lever when rebooting the series; the fantastic soundtrack screams neo retro, and a short tutorial mission teases us with a red-haired Ladd recreated in Diesel engine glory. By the time weíre brought up to date with his current predicament, heís grown black dreadlocks, changed his name to Nathan Spencer, and started saying ďfuckĒ all the time. Heís been betrayed by the people he worked for, including Superintendent Joseph (see what they did there?), and voice actor Mike Patton wrings every ounce of angst he can out of our protagonist, angrily shouting and growling and snarling all of his lines as if channeling the Prince of Persia channeling Clint Eastwood circa Warrior Within. Not since that catastrophe has a game tried so hard to be dark and edgy where said darkness and edginess felt so out of place.

Itís all surprisingly well-scripted given how stupid it is, though I suppose you wonít feel insulted until the gameís finale. The writers hit you with a surprise twist thatís supposed to be the gameís emotional climax, but itís so aggressively dumb that it inspires laughs rather than tears. It concerns the whereabouts of Nathanís missing wife, and while I canít ruin it for you, Iíll invite you to think of the dumbest possible explanation for what happened to her in the context of the Bionic Commando universe, and whatever you're thinking, that's probably what it is. It took me by surprise, though not in such a way that the developers probably intended.

This new Bionic Commando still had enormous potential, and when it throws the plot-related bullcrap out the window and merely focuses on being a game like its predecessor was, it is fun in the purest of ways. I just wish it hadnít tried so hard to be something more.

The bulk of the game still has you playing around with Nathanís retractable biotic arm, which he can use to grapple onto distant objects and swing from them or yank himself forward. Despite the city setting, Grin sidestepped the temptation of making Bionic Commando an open-world game; the vast outdoor environments evoke a true sense of scope, but the radiation left behind by a nuclear blast keeps players focused in the objectives. Itís hardly a thorn in the playerís side, as the levels are still large enough to encourage exploration, and once you clear the first fifteen minutes or so (easily the weakest segment of the game), Nathanís arm can latch onto nearly anything in the environment.

I note with just a tinge of regret that the swinging mechanic isnít quite as graceful as it could have been, though it merely takes some getting used to before youíll feel comfortable flinging yourself across the vast cityscapes. Iíll grant that the burst of speed Nathan exerts at the peak of each swing was intentional, but Bionic Commando blatantly ignores the established physics of our own world and smugly invents its own rules. Nathan doesnít move momentously from one objects to another, and his motions often seem influenced by some unseen ethereal force. Heís a pinball on a rope, and everything in the environment is a flipper, including the air.

You do get it down, eventually, and Bionic Commando benefits from eventually opening up its level design a bit and letting players go wild. But youíll have fun (and progress more quickly) if you ditch the Spider-Man act and make use of the bionic armís retractable wire instead. The process goes something like this:

1. Nathan aims at object.
2. Nathan fires grapple.
3. Nathan latches onto object.
4. Nathan retracts grapple.
5. Nathan arrives at object.

Needless to say, it doesnít feel like five steps when youíre doing this twice a second. Itís like someone took the hookshot from Zelda and based an entire game around it, where every physical object is made of vines. Enormous levels that other characters would take ages to trek through are cleared in moments flat thanks to Bionic Commandoís lightning pace; Nathan is occasionally prompted to yell ďAh-ooooooooo!Ē after a particularly exhilarating leap, and I echo his sentiments. While the physics could certainly use some touching up, the controls are tight enough to counteract any gripes I might have. Itís fun enough that Grin occasionally tossed the combat aside for large portions of time just so players could admire the scenery and then promptly fling themselves across it.

I take issue with that, though, because the combat is arguably the best thing about Bionic Commando, and Iím surprised to see myself writing that. You can use guns, but you rarely will; Grin narrowly avoided succumbing to peer pressure and didnít implement a cover system, and itís all for the better, because they want you out there using your bionic arm. Grapple onto an enemy from afar and fling yourself iron boots-first into his ribcage, then bounce off of him and take out the rest of his squad in the same manner, without ever touching the ground. Snatch an enemy off of his feet and fling him into his buddy, killing both. Kite an enemy into the air and slingshot yourself into him. Hide behind cover and wait for enemies to approach, then punch the object that was obscuring you into the air, leap up, and slam it into the squad of soldiers below you. Itís incredibly versatile; this all sounds fun, but I assure you Iíve barely scratched the surface of whatís possible here.

I imagine that the gameís up-close-and-personal approach to combat frustrates on higher difficulties, and even on the normal setting, some of the major battles (and especially bosses) are more tedious than enjoyable. On the other hand, thereís no real final boss, and the last few minutes are nothing short of breathtaking, ending the game on a surprisingly beautiful note in spite of the ludicrous twist that had been presented only moments before. For everything that initially feels off-putting, Bionic Commando offers enough reward for the patient to make it more than worth budget price, where it currently sits. I canít defend Nathanís dreads, nor do I want to, but the purists who dismiss this new entry may be missing more than they think.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (February 06, 2010)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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randxian posted February 06, 2010:

Excellent job. A couple of things really impress me here.

1. You manage to bring those of us who haven't played this game up to speed early in the review, and without spoiling too much to boot.

2. You score it a 7/10 and the writing seems to reflect that perfectly. I think 7/10 reviews are hard to explain, but you seem to pull it off well here.
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Suskie posted February 07, 2010:

Thanks a lot. I just finished this game yesterday and immediately wrote this, and I should do that more often. I tend to vocalize my thoughts more clearly when the game's still fresh on my mind.

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