Review: Bionic Commando

Nearly 20 years after the release of the original Bionic Commando, Super Joe has returned to grace our modern consoles with a new installment to the franchise, simply titled Bionic Commando. Sorry, arcade purists – he won’t be found in the limelight here. You’ll be taking up the mantle of Nathan “Rad” Spencer, star of the hit NES title, instead. Were you excited? In the spirit of taking classic franchises, slapping an ill-conceived sequel onto them, then marketing them as XTREME and mindblowing, Capcom presents us with a direct sequel to the original arcade hit. While it proves a decent amount of challenge, as well as obvious graphical improvements, it ends up conjuring, well, every OTHER third-person shooter I’ve ever devoured.

Fast-forward to the future, where bionic commandos are dismantled and treated like scum. Conveniently, no one remembers how Super Joe saved the world so long ago. When a pro-bionic terrorist group sets off a “weapon of mass destruction” deep in the heart of Ascension City, it’s up to Nathan Spencer (along with the help of Super Joe) to reclaim Ascension City, which the terrorists have begun to encroach on. Of course, Spencer is filling the shoes of the antihero to the general populace, previously having taken the blame for a singular incident inciting hatred for all bionic individuals. While the plot is decent enough, it aches of just another reason to dredge up an old franchise and “breathe new life” into it (read: appeal to younger gamers who enjoy playing the same formulas over and over again). A good setup, but we could have gone with another simply XBLA title instead.

As you may have guessed, the game is practically made by Nathan’s bionic arm. Makes sense, as in the original game the bionic arm helped set the game out from the rest of the cookie-cutter arcade games in days of gaming past. Unfortunately this isn’t the case these days, as every Tom, Dick, and Harry in video game land come equipped with special abilities that allow them to shoot, swing, slice, dice, and Julienne – go figure. In an interesting turn of events, the beginning of the game finds Spencer running from the authorities without use of his bionic arm and relying only on a gun to start with. While this reeks of other familiar third person shooters, Nathan’s retrieval of his bionic arm does not liven up the game in any identifiable way. No, in fact, things get even more frustrating from there.

Nathan’s arm is used primarily for swinging, which is likely the most awkward usage of the mechanic I’ve seen in recent years. Even Spiderman: Web of Shadows provided enjoyable and easy-to-perform swinging that kept you eager for areas in order to exercise the privilege. Bionic Commando’s swinging feels dated and clunky. Onscreen prompts meant to assist your swings will often hinder rather than aid you in judging the distance you’ll need to keep in order to make a successful jump. You can also perform vertical jumps, which work much better than swinging. Unfortunately, you’ll be relying on Nathan’s bionic arm quite often. Some may say the jumps need only require perfect timing and you’ll be pulling a Tarzan in no time – why should they take practice when one can make seamless leaps to and fro between buildings in a game that should (in many’s eyes) be inferior to a revival of a classic?

What’s more, swinging leads to making blind jumps. Blind jumps are never good for progressing within a game, but Bionic Commando ups the ante. If you happen to miss the area in which you planned to land, you’ll find yourself faced with instant death via an irradiated area or even some water. Though Nathan can use his bionic arm as a grappling tool, you won’t be able to pull yourself out, and that means beginning at wherever your latest checkpoint happened to be – with all of your items gone. I can understand pushing for a return to classical arcade difficulty, but with the way games have evolved over the years – how much time and effort you must place into completing some, this kind of archaic punishment just for an accidental death is almost too much. Just get better, you say? How about not being punished because I couldn’t gauge my jump correctly due to wonky design?

Swinging, grappling, and jumping isn’t the main focus of the game, thankfully. Nathan can perform melee attacks, use firearms, and stealth kill enemies as well. There are some entertaining uses for his arm that don’t always involve frustration – I’ll give the game that. For instance, zipping straight to an enemy for a kick straight to the chest is pretty darn cool. As I drew comparisons to Spiderman: Web of Shadows before, you’ll be able to perform many of the same tricks old Spidey can, such as an attack where Nathan can swing his arm in a circle, effectively offing anyone who happens to be caught in his, ahem, web. Of course, you can always opt for usage of firearms, but guns provide just as dull of an experience as Nathan’s bionic arm.

When you’re not plowing through the baddies in order to get to the bottom of Bio-Reign’s hijinks, you’d think that you could take your time to explore the open world that’s placed before you. This is not the case. Once you’ve traversed a certain area, you will not be allowed to go back and scout out anything you may have missed. For a game that touts itself as less linear than fellow third-person counterparts in the industry, this is a pretty glaring design flaw.

True, Bionic Commando feels more like a retread of other shooters you’ve experienced as of late rather than as sequel to one of the most easily recognizable retro franchises, but its presentation is quite nice. Mike Patton of Faith No More (don’t lie – you sing “Epic” regularly in the shower) lends his vocal talents to Spencer for a sarcastic, growling ne’er-do-well rather than a dependable hero type. Variations on the Bionic Commando theme make for entertaining musical interludes when you’re not listening to the rat-a-tats of enemy fire. The game is also simply gorgeous, though many may not appreciate Nathan’s redesign. Of course, those will likely be the same crowds who found it productive to complain about racism in Resident Evil 5. A little change is necessary in some cases. In fact, I wish they had let loose quite a bit more. But if you’re feeling particularly ballsy and require a good beatdown, you can take Bionic Commando on the road via Xbox Live multiplayer. The long and the short of it? You’re not missing anything.

Bionic Commando had so much potential, and I feel it has fallen quite short. Rather than keeping in lockstep with the with the games that are so widely accepted these days, why not stand out with some interesting and viable usage of Spencer’s bionic arm? Does everything have to be a cookie-cutter image of each other? At the very least, I can say this with confidence: it’s leagues better than Damnation.

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