I’ve always been a sucker for cool methods of movement in games – the glide/dash jets in Exteel nearly sold the game for me – so, when I took that very first leap of faith in Bionic Commando, snagged a nearby signboard with my grappling arm and swung back into the air, it was hard not to feel a little thrill.
Then I faceplanted directly into the side of the nearest building. That kind of killed it for a bit.
Bionic Commando is the latest iteration of what could cynically be seen by some observers as an attempt by publishers to capitalize on gamers’ nostalgia for days gone by. To its credit, Bionic Commando makes every effort to tie back to the original game. After the events of the NES game, the public started to fear bionic-enhanced soldiers for their superiority (see also: X-Men) and all the existing bionics were hunted down and purged. After spending five years in prison, the Bionic Commando – aka Nathan Spencer – is freed, given his bionic arm back, and sent to tackle a group of rogue bionic terrorists who have attacked and destroyed a major metropolitan center.
It’s clearly a much darker and grittier game than its kid-friendly NES predecessor, though the connection makes it feels slightly awkward at times: Nathan may be dropping the F-Bomb every ten words and shooting BioReign grunts messily in the face, but he’s still taking orders from a guy named “Super Joe.”
Less awkward in transition is the core gameplay of Bionic Commando: You have a robotic arm with a grappling hook, use it to swing and to inflict pain on your enemies. The physics are a bit strange at first – momentum never quite seems to carry over from leap to leap, for one – and I’ve actually been told that it’s this way intentionally. It can take some time to get used to the game’s less-than-accurate physics, but once you’ve got a grasp on it and are accustomed to the controls, swinging around the desolate ruins of Ascension City is pretty damn fun.
Not only is grappling your way through Ascension City a good time, it also looks great. The fact that the ruins make it look like the city was hit by a massive earthquake rather than a nuke is largely irrelevant, because there’s just something bleak and hauntingly gorgeous about the place. Logic be damned, the levels look freakin’ fantastic, and there were times where I found myself taking a break from Spider-Man swinging action just to admire the scenery. That said, there’s one crucial shortcoming – but hold that thought, I’ll come back to it later.
While Nathan also has an arsenal of perfectly functional weaponry like pistols, machine guns, sniper rifles and grenades, his trusty bionic arm is by far the game’s most satisfying tool of destruction. It doesn’t start out that way, though: Initially, all you can do with your arm is a basic grab-and-kick, and while that was functional and entertaining enough, it left me feeling underwhelmed. As the game goes on, though, Nathan re-synchronizes with his arm and remembers more and more of his abilities … and that’s when the combat begins to really pick up.
Nathan is able to put his super-powered arm to good use. He can grab enemies and fling them into the distance, he can grab bits of the scenery (rocks, signposts, cars) and fling them at enemies, he can grab enemies and fling them at other enemies – with the full powers of Nathan’s arm at your disposal, combat is easily the most entertaining part about Bionic Commando.
The problem with the combat in Bionic Commando – other than its sluggish start – is that … there really isn’t much variation with the enemies you’ll face, and the variants that do exist are hardly all that different from each other. Nathan will be flinging and shooting his way through the same enemies from the beginning of the game to the end, and it gets repetitive. The game’s handful of boss battles are some of its best moments – but they’re unfortunately few and far between.
In fact, repetition is probably Bionic Commando‘s most obvious Achilles Heel. Even the breathtaking scenery starts to look a little same-y after a while: Fighting your way through the rubble of an underground highway tunnel is cool the first time, but the subsequent identical-looking tunnels are yawn-inducing.
There are so many concepts in the game that are really cool the first time – or even the first few times – you encounter them, but then they fast wear out their welcome. “Hey, I can rip a train car from the tracks and throw it at enemies! Awesome!” gives way to “Oh, it’s a train car, I bet I’m supposed to throw it at something. Meh.” There’s a triumphant, heroic music track that really got my heart pumping when it played during the game’s first boss battle – but when they used the same music for every climactic fight past that? Not as cool.
A flaw that’s readily visible from the get-go, on the other hand, is the game’s excruciatingly frequent load times – made worse by the fact that every time you die, you’ll have to sit through another one as it re-loads the level. Death is commonplace in Bionic Commando, whether from enemy bullets, swinging into irradiated areas, or drowning in neck-deep water because Nathan’s bionic arm is just too damn heavy… and sitting through a loading screen every single time is adding insult to injury.
These are all blemishes on an otherwise solid title, but nevertheless, they hold the game back – there are raw sparks of greatness here, but even those sparks lose their luster, and you’re left with a game that’s merely “above average” to “eh, it’s good, I guess.” Maybe if the game were actually shorter, it wouldn’t have worn out its welcome like it did.
Bottom Line: After a slow start, there’s a lot of cool stuff in Bionic Commando – the combat is brutal and fun, swinging through bleakly beautiful ruins is exhilarating once you get used to it, and it has some awesome boss fights. But these awesome ideas are marred by overuse, and it wears out its welcome after a while. Also, you’ll probably hate loading screens after beating the game. I know I did.
Recommendation: Give it a rental before you buy, but make sure to spend enough time with the game to get past the sluggish first few hours.
John Funk wishes he had a grappling hook arm.
This review is of the Xbox 360 version of the game.