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.
About halfway through the game you earn an alternative to wasting all your bullets. The game actually teaches you (for the second time, assuming you did the forced tutorial at the beginning) how to pick up large objects with your arm and whip them at your opponents. Not only is this incredibly effective, but it's about the most fun you can have in the game. There's something satisfying about picking up a car and throwing it into a large gathering of baddies. Most of the time a direct hit means instant death, and if you can time it right you can knock out multiple enemies with only one object.
But that move, along with several others earned in the game, come only after you've mastered swinging and beaten up hundreds of bad guys. The rest of the game plays out with you frantically trying to dodge bullets, climb ledges and not get yourself killed. You do not want to get yourself killed. If you do manage to die, you will be forced to start back at the checkpoint, which could be quite a ways back. Even worse, all of the items you picked up along the way are reset back into the level. The same cannot be said for all of those hard to reach hidden items. If you die, you will likely have to go out of your way to collect all of those hidden items all over again which contributes to a good chunk of my frustration with the game.
But as frustrating as I am making it out to be, it has nothing on the 2D original. In that game you could get hit once and die. This new Bionic Commando sequel takes into account the last twenty years of gaming making, which means that it's not nearly as difficult as its 8-bit predecessor. You don't have to worry too much about getting hit with a bullet or two, you just need to hide for a few seconds and regenerate your health. Without a life bar (or instant deaths) the game feels considerably easier, and with the exception of only one or two spots, I always felt like I was in complete control. Thankfully there are a couple of harder difficulty settings, but no matter how hard you make it, the game will never be as frustrating as that first game.
The levels are all interesting, though none of them break any new ground. For the most part the game is linear, but the levels are wide enough to give you multiple ways to attack them. You can take the high route, which involves you climbing buildings and avoiding the riffraff on the streets, or you can take the low path and shoot your way through. Not every area has these kinds of choices, but enough of them do to keep you looking around for multiple ways to complete a mission.
The game's story isn't open enough to have you covering a lot of diverse locations, so you'll find yourself mostly fighting your way through different parts of the now-crumbling Ascension City. You start in the destroyed downtown area, but quickly you'll be swinging your way through tunnels, a giant park and even an oil rig. Those that played through the original game will feel right at home with most of these locations, though a little more diversity wouldn't have hurt. Don't go in expecting a lot of wild and crazy locales, you aren't going to go from the freezing cold to a flaming mountaintop. Instead you're going to go from the city park to that big building that is right next to the city park.
And while it's not a huge deal, I did notice that there was an awful lot of advertising lining Ascension City. Everywhere you go you'll see commercials for cell phones, other Capcom games and Pepsi. Way, way too many Pepsi ads. Then again, since this game takes place in 199X, these Pepsi ads feel right at home. Still, the advertising can really pull you out of this fictional backdrop.
Despite all of the drastic changes, the game still feels like a Bionic Commando game. Using your arm is just as much fun as I remembered it back in the 1980s; only now with considerably better graphics. In fact, the only thing that hasn't improved is poor old Nathan "Rad" Spencer. This post-Prison Spencer has changed, and not for the better. He went in a skinny red-head and came out a muscular brunette with dreadlocks. If he's Conan O'Brien in the first game, then he's a buffed up Jake Gyllenhaal with Bob Marley's hair. Thankfully Bionic Commando Rearmed owners can type in a code to unlock the classic look. Either way, Nathan has come a long way since the NES cover art.
The game's graphics are good, for the most part. There were areas in the game where I slowed down the camera and just to study the details of the level. Some of the underground locations are stunning looking. However, the game's visuals don't look nearly as crisp when the people begin speaking. What's more, I found noticeable slowdowns when battling large groups of bad guys (and a certain boss). Technical imperfections aside, the game does have a strong look from beginning to end. Any complaining would just be nitpicking at this point.
Bionic Commando isn't an especially long game, either. Most gamers shouldn't have trouble getting through the game in less than ten hours, though I suspect a dedicated gamer could cut that time in half. The cinemas add some minutes to the clock, but none of them are interesting enough to watch more than once. And, like I said, the story has too many imperfections to even be bothered with. At one point you're introduced to a female character who is never explained or resolved. She meets a fate that implies that maybe we won't get resolution with her character, either. Actually, that's the whole problem with the game. It has all of these great idea, but we never get any closure. Nothing much gets resolved. Even after you've beaten up all of the bad guys, it doesn't really feel like anything will change. I'm sure this is just the set-up for a Bionic Commando 2 (or 3, as it should be), but it's hard to be satisfied by the way this game wraps up.
Outside of the short single-player campaign, there's an online multiplayer mode. Like the single-player game, the online mode has a lot of untapped potential. It's hard not to get excited about a Gears of War-style multiplayer game that allows you to climb huge buildings and swing from one place to the next. And at first this game does exactly that. The problem is that it doesn't do anything else. All of the multiplayer modes are as generic as they come and there isn't enough content to keep you going for very long. As great as this idea is, it's going to take another installment or two before Capcom gets it perfect.
Bionic Commando is a strong action game, but it's nowhere near as groundbreaking as the first game. The groundwork has definitely been set for this franchise and I'm excited to see where Capcom can take it. As a first attempt it's not bad, but GRIN plays it a little too safe for my taste. It's great to have Nathan "Rad" Spencer back, how about next time we send him on a much more ambitious battle.
Bionic Commando is a lot of things. It's an exciting action game full of great set pieces. It's a great way to demonstrate how much fun swinging around a destroyed city can be. It's a great way to show off your art talents and ability to remix classic music. But try as it might, it is NOT as good as the original game. You'll have a lot of fun with this new Bionic Commando, but he ultimately plays it safe in his first adventure in twenty years.