Review: Bionic Commando

Review: Bionic Commando

Format: 360 (version tested), PS3
Release: Out now
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Grin

The problem with agility in games in that the greater it is, the more it requires. The same goes for power: the more your hero can do, the more he must be given. There are few heroes as strong and agile as Bionic Commando’s Nathan Spencer, and few games that better demonstrate the pitfalls.

This is the same Nathan ‘RAD’ Spencer who swung and shot his way through Capcom’s famed NES game to rescue Super Joe, who here adopts a supporting role. In a setup that deftly mirrors the series’ real-life situation, he’s spent most of the intervening years locked away, isolated from a world that doesn’t know what to do with him. The powers of Spencer and his fellow ‘bionics’ are the army’s dirty little secret, and until now there’s been no crisis great enough to warrant use of the telescopic, Akira-like mass of servos and tendrils that bolts to his crippled shoulder. That changes, though, when an experimental weapon shakes Ascension City to its foundations.

Back in our world, it isn’t a crisis that’s sprung this man but an opportunity, signalled by games like Crackdown, Infamous, and the one that bears the closest resemblance, Spider-Man 2. Finally, there are worlds big, dangerous and beautiful enough to accommodate those who can cover whole city blocks with flicks of the wrist, or scale entire buildings in the time it takes to plummet back down again unscathed. Unknowingly, however, Bionic Commando poses a difficult question. At what cost?

Looking like Ginger from the Wildhearts but voiced by Mike Patton of Faith No More, and ever at odds with the orders from his earpiece, Spencer still knows how to swing. Neatly split between fulcrum and momentum, Grin’s mechanic maps the technique to the most instinctive actions: an A-button stab to launch, a trigger-pull to latch. Importantly, you can idle in the latter position with your finger clenched, knowing that any nearby surface beneath the reticule will automatically connect, saving you from a deadly fall. Spencer can survive any drop but not, ironically, into water, the weight of his arm giving him few precious seconds to hoist his way out. And Ascension City has sprung many leaks.

There’s a lot of radiation, too, which is the game’s way of fencing areas off to keep you on-mission (and out of an undeveloped limbo). Like Mirror’s Edge, Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, and one notorious level of Resistance 2, Bionic Commando wrestles awkwardly with the illusion of an open world. In early missions especially, trying to flank a target, search for bonus items or simply have a bit too much fun will flash up an urgent warning and, seconds later, the Game Over screen. This is not helpful when you’re slave to mechanically assisted, pendulous flight, course-correction often impossible within this toxic grace period.

Like another Grin game, Wanted: Weapons Of Fate (reviewed in E201), this one’s full of loading screens between checkpoints and restarts. Couple that with our hero’s flimsy armour and you have a gradual erosion of derring-do in the tactics you select, Spencer’s attacks lacking the speed and vigour of his airborne movements. In that sense, he’s a bit like the costumed crime-fighter who bursts on to the scene but gets his cape caught in a revolving door: dead, much of the time.

But there’s a bigger problem than that, which is the aforementioned lack of fodder for his abilities. The game looks wonderful for the most part, with striking contrasts between its crumbling skyline, underground caverns and verdant valleys, all furnished in far greater detail than a ‘proper’ open world would allow. Its mechanised enemies do a great job of hounding you across this terrain, seldom granting an easy or long-range shot. But the overriding impression is of a game that’s physically too big for its action. Vast portions of each level, none of which have any narrative structure, exist solely to prolong Spencer’s journey between battles that struggle to impose themselves within these huge arenas. When they succeed, such as during an early encounter with rooftop snipers, the game excels.

More often, though, even its ideas seem stretched, its ‘core loop’ involving some impressive-yet-laborious uses of its interactive scenery. Its idea of difficulty is a small (and unseen) energy bar and whichever number of enemies is trying at once to reduce it. Fair enough, you might say, but not in later stages when the ratio swings wildly into ‘old Capcom’ territory. There’s a simple rule about games like this, which is that they should always give more than they take. This one likes to dance back and forth across that line, often to extremes.

That its arrival has been so heavily postponed is no surprise. For an update of an 8bit console game – it owes less to the original coin-op – this is a colossal undertaking, probably the most ambitious hyper-real action game since Crackdown. But its horizons are so vast, taking in the finer points of both linear and open-world designs, that instead of freedoms you see limits. There are enough good ideas here for any action game, but then this isn’t just any action game. King of the swingers? That’s still old Spidey.

This article originally appeared in E202.

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