Inside Pulse 12

Review: Bionic Commando (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Bionic Commando
Genre: Action
Developer: Grin
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: 05/18/09


Developers resurrecting franchises and characters from the past is nothing new at this point. The fact that the game industry has been around long enough that companies can actually do this is kind of amazing if one actually stops to think about it. Nintendo is looking to bring back Kid Icarus, Sega has dropped some classic characters into their more recent releases, Tecmo and Konami have turned two of their oldest characters, Ryu Hayabusa and Solid Snake respectively, from forgotten relics of the past into corporate icons, and Namco is bringing back Splatterhouse, among many other examples. This is by no means a bad thing, and that’s not just nostalgia talking. There’s nothing wrong with revisiting the past and revitalizing an old, retired franchise for a new generation of gamers, both because it allows older gamers the opportunity to see classic favorites again and because if the game is good, it allows these classic characters a chance to wow a whole new generation. The key phrase here, of course, is “IF the game is good”. If it isn’t, it does nothing for anyone: it ruins the reputation of the character, makes the developer and publisher look like they’re desperate for money, and generally taints the legacy of the franchise in general.

Which brings us to Bionic Commando. The original arcade game was largely enjoyable, if not great, but the NES game that followed is a game that most folks remember fondly, because it was pretty interesting and more than a little complex. Aside from a Game Boy Color release a few years after the fact, the franchise had lapsed into obscurity until recently, when Capcom announced that they were bringing it back with a vengeance. There was a remake of the NES classic as well as a brand-new next-gen release. The remake, Bionic Commando ReArmed, was a fantastic rendition of the NES classic that, aside from winning “Best Remake/Re-Release” in our awards last year, also generated much faith in the coming next-gen reimagining of the franchise. The developer, Grin, showed much promise because of this solid remake of a classic. The multiplayer demo that was released not too long ago was also promising, if not entirely convincing. It was pretty fun to play around with and showed that there was definite potential for the franchise to be a big success for Capcom, assuming the core game was as amusing as the multiplayer demo made it out to be.

This did not quite work out the way they had planned.

The story in Bionic Commando once again sees you take on the role of Nathan “Rad” Spencer, the titular Commando who is Bionic. Time has not been kind to Mr. Spencer, because DRAMA, and when we come into the story, he’s been on death row for a while because he did some bad things for his government, and they hung him out to dry. Spencer is drafted back into armed service by his old friend Super Joe, but since Joe is apparently the man who hung Spencer out to dry, their relationship is a bit strained. Spencer is tasked with trying to shut down a terrorist organization who has taken over an island from being bad. In return, Spencer is promised his freedom and information regarding his missing wife, so Spencer elects to take on the mission, albeit bitterly. From there, we hit all of the standard storyline bullet points: the hero is bitter about his false imprisonment and constantly throws this back in his former friend’s face, the former friend is reticent and conflicted because of his proud service in the defense of his corrupt armed forces, we get the typical idealist bad guys and the jerkass head honcho who has no tolerance for the main character, and OF COURSE there’s a huge plot twist at the end regarding Spencer’s wife because DRAMA.

Look, I know we all loved Rambo and Metal Gear Solid and Evangelion and whatnot, but I think we can all agree at this point that if you’re just going to rehash the plots of THOSE products more-or-less verbatim without dressing them up in any significant way, you have nothing to say. In fact, the whole thing is just one stereotype after the next, from Spencer’s corny one-liners to the whole, “betrayal by a close friend for the good of the cause” (which, amusingly, happens several times) and beyond, and it’s hard to know if the writers thought they were writing some sort of grand homage/satire of 80’s action films or if they were legitimately trying to play this straight. The end result is a plot that feels too “serious” to be considered a parody, too absurd to be considered an homage, and too contrived and stereotyped to be considered good. It’s not even, “so bad it’s good” like Resident Evil 4, thanks to the ham-fisted writing. Instead it’s simply, “so bad it’s pretty awful”. It also doesn’t help that EVERYONE in the story is a dick, from Spencer to Super Joe to the secondary characters and beyond, to the point where you can identify with no one because NO ONE is likable. The only “interesting” things that happen in the story are the two major plot twists that come up towards the end of the game, and they’re only “interesting” because OH MY GOD, THEY ARE SO BAD. You won’t see them coming because no one with any faith in the developer would have considered that they’d even consider such twists, and frankly, if you do see them coming, you’re a hell of a lot more bitter than I am.

(Also, is it just me, or does the entire bionic/human conflict seem contrived and absurd? The conflict, in essence, boils down to humans fearing bionics because they’re overpowered and might go crazy. In turn, Bionics are hating humans because humans want to take away their augmented limbs and make them para/quadriplegics, which is stupid on a base level. The humans look like idiots because OF COURSE taking away someone’s robot legs is going to piss them off, and the bionics look like assholes because OF COURSE running at Mach Ten is scary if someone uses it to do awful things. But if you can use bionics to make people super-strong and super-fast, can’t you, I dunno, make them NORMAL strong and NORMAL fast? Couldn’t you just give someone bionic legs that work like regular legs? I’m not saying this wasn’t addressed in the situation, but I AM saying the game never makes this any sort of a point. This either says that the writers are idiots for not considering it or thinks we’re idiots who wouldn’t consider it, neither of which is very flattering. And don’t tell me, “It’s supposed to be bad lulz” because if your excuse is, “it sucks because it’s supposed to”, then again, you obviously haven’t played Devil May Cry or Resident Evil 4.)

The visuals in Bionic Commando are quite nice, all in all. The wrecked cityscape is very well assembled and designed, and the character models are well animated and look good, both stationary and in motion. The water, lighting, and special effects are also very nicely done and look very good, which helps the visuals immensely. The music is also quite nice as well, and compliments the game properly when needed. Most of the tracks alternate between driving tunes and orchestral pieces, including a few nice compositions of the original Bionic Commando theme.. The sound effects generally fit in with the post-apocalyptic theme of the game as well, and the voice acting is mostly quite strong across the board. I say “mostly” because the performance of our protagonist, Mr. Nathan Spencer, is not particularly… good. Now, Mr. Spencer is voiced by Mike Patton, of Faith No More fame. While Patton is a generally talented-but-bizarre musician and his voice work in The Darkness was stellar, his work here comes off as TOO “intense.” If Bionic Commando was a live-action film, they wouldn’t need to disassemble the scenery after his performances.

Because he would have eaten it all, you see.

Ahem.

The original Bionic Commando was a 2D side-scrolling affair that involved launching your bionic arm at things to swing and climb around the game environment while shooting at enemies as needed. Transitioning this into 3D doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult thing. Cross Spider-Man with The Punisher and you’ve got it, and this is mostly how Bionic Commando does things. You’ll spend most of your time using the left and right sticks to move and look around respectively, While the left trigger launches your bionic arm and the right trigger fires whatever you’re carrying at the moment. The face buttons are mapped with your jump, context-sensitive look (for when the game offers it), and light and heavy punches with the bionic arm. The left bumper allows strafing, the right bumper allows you to choose your weapon from your inventory, clicking the left stick reloads automatically, and clicking the right stick in lets you zoom in for aimed shots. Fans of the third-person shooter genre will be able to pick up the controls almost immediately, but the bionic arm controls might be a little bit confounding to anyone who hasn’t played a Spider-Man game in the past few years.

Basically, the bionic arm is a large metal arm that is usable for a number of functions, including combat, locomotion, and moving obstacles. You’ll find that its most vital function is that it allows you to swing and pull yourself around the environment, much like, yes, Spider-Man. You’ll see a lock-on target on-screen as you run around, showing you where the arm is aimed at the time, and you can pretty much lock-on to anything in your field of vision. The catch is that you can’t lock onto anything you can’t see, meaning you’ll have to make sure you’re looking at what you want to grab onto before you go throwing yourself into the air. You can also use the bionic arm to pull yourself up onto elevated platforms by grabbing them with the arm, pressing a button to reel yourself up, then jumping up onto the platform, which is helpful for getting to higher ground, especially in later sections where the city will be flooded or worse. As you progress through the game, you’ll discover additional uses for the bionic arm, including ripping down obstacles, grabbing onto foes and ping-pong bouncing off of them to deal massive damage, and launching things into the air to spike them onto enemies like a volleyball player. All of these give you plenty of options to wage war against the opposition. Around the midway point, you also get an Adrenaline meter, which essentially allows you to whip out damaging bionic arm attacks and finish off huge armored foes with ease, which, again, makes the bionic arm even more useful than it first seems.

You’ll also have access to all sorts of nifty weapons as you progress, though unlike the ReArmed remake, you’ll only be able to carry three at one time. You’ll pretty much always have your pistol and grenades, but your third weapon will change in and out depending on what you need at the time and what Super Joe has launched out to you. You’ll find all sorts of weapons as you progress, from shotguns to sniper rifles to machine guns to grenade and rocket launchers and beyond, each of which has its own effectiveness and usefulness depending on the situation. You’ll need the help, as there are all sorts of powerful enemies looking to end your adventures, from low-level armed grunts to gigantic robotic monstrosities, helicopters, and other fun things. Fortunately, Joe is pretty liberal with the weapon drops and you’ll find your arm is often as good as any gun, so you should be able to strike up a decent balance between “shooting enemies” and “tossing enemies around like dolls”.

There is also a multiplayer component to Bionic Commando, and surprisingly, it’s pretty amusing. You basically run around maps swinging from place to place, shooting the crap out of your enemies, much like a single-player game, only EVERYONE has bionic arms, which is kind of neat. There are the standard Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag modes to play around with, so the variety isn’t great, but the multiplayer is certainly amusing and feels a little more engaging than many other single-player games with tacked-on multiplayer components. The core game is around six to eight hours long, depending on your skill level, and there are hidden collectibles to find in all of the stages that unlock concept art, if you’re into that sort of thing. There are also multiple difficulty levels for you to come back to, if you like the game and want more of a challenge for another go.

The biggest problem Bionic Commando suffers from is a pacing problem. Ideally, when you make a game, you want to start the game off at a level where it’s easy enough to pick up and learn but challenging enough to inspire the player with the interest in continuing. Bionic Commando does not do this. Instead, the first few hours after you get your arm are spent learning the swinging mechanics and how they work as well as how the game expects you to do things. Make no mistake: Bionic Commando does not give you much time to learn everything. You will be thrown into the thick of things from the get-go and will have to learn the mechanics of the bionic arm, how to properly play the game, and what the game expects of you AS you play, and it’s a steep upward climb for the first few hours. A properly paced game would, for example, start you off in simple areas with few enemies, then ramp things up progressively as you move forward, boosting the difficulty as it gives you new abilities. Bionic Commando, in contrast, starts you off in situations where falling to your demise is not only possible, but likely, and sets groups of enemies upon you who can slaughter you in seconds until you learn the mechanics of play by force, and at that point… well, the game never really ramps up the challenge much. Well, okay, that isn’t exactly right; it DOES become more challenging, to a point, but it does so concurrent with your developing new abilities that basically allow you to rip the game asunder. The first few hours are far and away the worst, between learning how the swinging mechanics work while falling into bottomless pits or swinging into lethal radiation, unlearning every lesson most third-person shooters teach you, and generally trying to get a handle on the game. Once you understand how Bionic Commando works, it’s a good bit easier, and while some folks may like the challenge, the game’s poor pacing makes a HORRIBLE first impression, so much so that many players won’t want to get much further than the first few sections.

Fine, let’s assume you have the patience to learn the basics and really get a handle on things. Well, then you have to deal with the radiation walls. Now, most games that offer the ability to explore a bit but don’t offer “free” exploration do so by way of invisible walls. Bionic Commando instead offers radiation clouds. When you go into an area you aren’t supposed to go into, you’ll be given a helpful radiation symbol that tells you “DON’T GO HERE”. This is fine when you’re walking, as you’ll be able to turn around in a hurry and abscond. Not so when swinging forward; in this case, you zip head-first into a radiation cloud you didn’t see only to die as you’re frantically trying to leave, forcing you to load from the last check point. This is annoying for numerous reasons… restricting the field of battle and exploration, killing you for being curious, making you start over for not seeing a virtually transparent cloud, the list goes on and on, but the biggest annoyance of all is that IT HAPPENS CONSTANTLY. Oh, and every time you die you have to sit through a fifteen to thirty second loading screen ON TOP OF the fifteen to thirty second loading screens you encounter each time you change zone, meaning that you’ll be spending a WHOLE LOT OF TIME staring at the controller layout. That the loading takes forever is bad enough, but the fact that the game has to reload the entire zone every time you die (which will be often, at least at first) further compounds the frustration. There’s also the fact that the checkpoints are spaced a considerable distance apart from one another, which often means going through a whole mess of bullshit just to get to one large, painful fight, dying at the end, and having to replay the previous mess of bullshit to try again. Oh, yes, and there are about a billion advertisements in the game, for Pepsi, Alienware PC’s, and Nvidia video cards, if this sort of thing annoys you.

Look, it isn’t that Bionic Commando isn’t fun or entertaining, it’s that Bionic Commando isn’t fun or entertaining for long periods of time, and the fact that ELEMENTS of the game are fun does not excuse the fact that the game as whole, more often than not, isn’t. It’s pretty, mostly sounds okay, and generally plays fine once you get a handle on how everything works, and there’s enough to do in both single and multiplayer to have some fun with it. The problems are that the story is an abomination, Mike Patton is not a good actor, the pacing is unbalanced as sin, the loading times are atrocious, the “invisible walls” KILL YOU, and the game just ultimately becomes a balance between “fun” and “annoying” that only dedicated gamers will be willing to tolerate. A dedicated, tolerant person will ultimately have lots of fun here, make no mistake about that. If you’re willing to really invest the time and patience in the game it’s worth a look, but Bionic Commando will be, for most people, a wasted rental that will culminate in a thrown controller and a torrent of curse words, because even if you DO manage to master the mechanics of the game, fight your way through the whole thing and beat the game, well, the ending isn’t even WORTH the effort.

The Scores:
Story: BAD
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: BAD
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: POOR
FINAL SCORE: MEDIOCRE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Bionic Commando tries very hard to be a compelling and challenging experience. In some respects istsucceeds, but how successful it is will really depend on how high your patience threshold is. The visuals are great, the audio is mostly quite solid, the gameplay is fun and creative once you learn how it works, and there’s a solid single player campaign as well as a decent multiplayer component to play around with. Unfortunately, the story is horrendous, Mike Patton is not a good Nathan Spencer, and the pacing of the game starts out punishing and will most likely put off all but the most dedicated gamers. Even if you can deal with that, between the lethal invisible walls, the frequent and lengthy load times, the awkward checkpoint placement, and the abundance of annoying advertisements may well put you off. Even if THAT is tolerable, the knowledge that you’ve essentially completed the game “just to do it”, since there’s nothing rewarding given to you for doing so, is enough to make even the most dedicated gamer second-guess their decision. It’s not that Bionic Commando is bad; there are some legitimately cool things in the game that are worth checking out, but it just does too many annoying things too often to be worth investing in.

  • Heh heh. The “ending.” The less said about that, the better.

    I played through this yesterday and I can’t say I would really have much to add to this review. I enjoyed it, but I guess I like a little punishment every once in a while. It was a fun playthrough, but, man, does the “story” stink. There’s so many loose ends I don’t even know where to begin.

  • Mark B.

    Well, it’s a fun game, to be sure. But there’s no reason to replay it, the story sucks, and I have no idea who (aside from the hardcore crowd) would want to devote three hours to learning how to play an eight hour game.

    And this is coming from a guy who likes Kings Field and Monster Hunter.

  • Ian

    It seems like games now-a-days either suck because they give up all the attack abilities too soon and the player gets bored, or they give them away too slowly and they get a review like you dished out.

    I’m taking it in a different direction with mine of the PS3 version. Maybe it’s just because I’ve played so many bad games this year that this title seems to shine brighter.

  • Mark B.

    Well, I don’t think they took too long to dole out the rewards, I just think they didn’t really ramp up the difficulty of the game to match up with it. The game starts out hard and gets easier, and I don’t care for that much.