It's hard to believe that it's taken Capcom more than twenty years to publish a sequel for Bionic Commando. When I played Bionic Commando back in the 1980s (first in the arcade and then at home on my 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System), I was struck by how cool the character was, how much fun it was to swing about and how I could routinely surprise myself by narrowly making insane grabs to save my life. I was so into the game that I even picked up the remixed version found on the Game Boy, hoping that it would continue the story. It didn't. And instead I was forced to sit patiently for 21 years before I learned what happened to Nathan "Rad" Spencer.
This new game takes place about a decade after the events of the original NES game, which in turn took place in 198X. From the outset one thing is definitely clear: The 1990s were not a cheerful time in the fictional Ascension City. Thanks to political strife and a radioactive blast, Ascension City is in dire straits. The city is practically unrecognizable in its current state, full of city streets being sucked into the earth and buildings ready to fall over. But that's not going to stop our hero from swinging into action and saving the day.
There's a fairly weak story here, one that revolves around Super Joe (captive of the first game, hero of Commando) breaking Nathan Spencer out of prison and giving him his life back ... at a cost. Apparently some of the bad guys from the first game have started to cause trouble again, so THE Bionic Commando is forced to go from area to area kicking ass and making the city safe again (well, as safe as a city rocked by a massive earthquake can be). Nathan agrees to do this, but only because he's desperate to know what happened to his wife, who he believes to be long-dead.
There problem with the story is that it never makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it doesn't need to, I don't remember the first game having a memorable storyline yet I still love it. But this story doesn't feel very natural. I don't really buy the premise of the game, for one thing. Plus, time in prison has turned Nathan into kind of a dick. You can tell that the stuff about his wife was added to soften up his image, but I never found myself connecting to this fairly boring character. The other problem is that the story tends to be light at first and then get bogged down with predictable twists and turns. Couple all this with one of the least satisfying endings I have ever seen and you have a story so incoherently awful that you're better off just ignoring it.
Thankfully developers GRIN (who also worked on last year's stunning Bionic Commando Rearmed) have done a better job with the gameplay than the storytelling. It's okay to be nervous about turning one of the most iconic 2D action games Capcom ever made into a slick 3D third-person shooter. Anybody who has suffered through playing through the game on the NES will tell you that it's hard enough swinging around in 2D, you would think that the added perspective would just get in the way.
Oddly enough, I actually found myself having a considerably easier time playing the game in 3D than I did in 2D. For one thing, the arm mechanic is infinitely more forgiving, allowing you to clamp on to just about any surface that is within reach. In fact, you don't even need to push a button at just the right time to deploy your bionic arm. All you need to do is hold the left trigger button and wait for a ledge, lamp post, traffic sign, cave ceiling, whatever, to get in your way. For the most part you can find something, even if it means working your way back up. You will still fall to your death more times than you would like to admit, but at least in this game you have a real chance of saving yourself at the last moment.
GRIN really managed to capture the magic of swinging around and climbing tall surfaces with your bionic arm. Every single level is designed with the arm in mind, which means that you will always have plenty of places to explore and latch on to. At first the bionic arm feels a little strange; while it's forgiving, it's nowhere near as forgiving as something like a Spider-Man game (which is a better comparison than you may initially realize). You will still need to latch on to things, but all this is made easier with quick look buttons and a reliable trigger button. Once you get the hang of swinging you will have a lot of fun, even if it's marred by radiation zones that keep you from going too high (or low).
Unfortunately the game's gunplay is not nearly as interesting. In fact, some would argue that it's downright poor. For the most part you are stuck with your basic hand gun, which gets the job done but is slow and doesn't hold enough bullets. You can pick up other weapons, including a basic machine gun, a grenade launcher, a missile launcher and something that resembles a shotgun. Using these weapons can be a real pain at times, especially when in a clutch situation. Fiddling around to aim in, find a target and shoot is a real nuisance and definitely gets frustrating the further you get.
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