The year 1988 saw the release of Capcom’s Bionic Commando on the revolutionary Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) to both critical and commercial success. It was innovative for platform/action titles in the fact that you couldn’t jump, and you needed to make use of a Bionic arm to swing your way across ledges and destroy enemies in certain ways. It stood aside from other games in similar genres and has stood the test of time. That was over twenty years ago, does the same premise offer enough to stand ahead of the pack in the current generation?
2009’s Bionic Commando takes place ten years after the events of the NES title and places the gamer back into the shoes of Bionic Soldier Nathan “Rad” Spencer. In the course of these ten years, Bionic Soldiers have been outlawed in the military and society and have either slipped through the cracks or have had their bionic augmentations removed, or worse, executed. The game jumps right into the action as we witness the detonation that obliterates Ascension City, destroying buildings, streets and of course the main population. Spencer – who has been imprisoned due to the outlaw on Bionic Soldiers is released – is sent into the combat zone to discover who is responsible for such an act.
What sets the scene for a potentially sound storyline is let down by pure B-Grade cheesiness with some of the dialogue and cutscenes. Regardless of these shortcomings, voice acting work is delivered superbly through all the characters with the stand out being our hero Spencer who is voiced by Mike Patton of Faith No More fame. Characters are brought into the story to connect it back to the original title, yet more often than not they feel forced rather than detrimental to the story progression. Overlooking all this, Bionic offers some interesting plot twists. It’s not the amazing story some might find in other games, but it’s certainly strong enough to keep you compelled to continue the adventure.
What set the first title apart from the rest was the implementation of the Bionic arm and GRIN have excelled at making the arm an integral feature of the gameplay mechanics and not just a tacked on gimmick. Spencer has been separated from his arm since his incarceration, meaning he needs to remember all of his abilities, which are taught to you along the way via checkpoints and training exercises. It’s easy to learn, but takes a little to master which is a tie back to the original game. There is a sense of accomplishment when you chain together a series of precision placed swings followed by a zip kick.
The targeting reticle turns blue when Spencer is able to use the arm to grip onto something and once you have mastered the art you will be firing off your pistol before swinging via a ledge onto a platform and then taking a moment to assess your next move. Having said that the ability to swing and grapple your way across Asscension City isn’t all roses. Falling to your doom, landing in deep water or hitting some nasty radiated spots will result in you respawing at a checkpoint, minus all the equipment you have collected along the way. This will be frustrating for some, but for fans of the original title (or last years Re-armed remake) it will be familiar territory.
The arm is used for much more than swinging around like a not so friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. Spencer has an arsenal of attacks ranging from the effecting light or heavy punches, zip kicks which will have you attaching your arm to an enemies chest and then retracting it to kick them in the chest, kiting enemies into the air and throwing objects such as cars, blocks of concrete and even trains! All the attacks work seamlessly with the controls being accessed with some careful timing and some quick button presses.
In addition to these awesomely cool Bionic Arm attacks you will also gain access to weapons throughout your journey. Spencer is armed with a standard issue pistol which is accurate and deadly, but through weapons drops in the field you will come across grenades, shotguns, sniper rifles and the like. Unfortunately while these weapons are fun, ammo is so sparse for said weapons that the fun is short lived. It’s not a deal breaker as the arm attacks more than make up for it, but it would be wise to conserve your ammunition for when you need it.
Bionic Commando provides us with a seemingly huge concrete jungle to frolic through yet due to it’s linear gameplay it doesn’t offer enough opportunity to go exploring. Once you have passed through a section of the game there is no going back, so if you are wanting to collect all the collectable items and the like, you better check, and then check again before you move onto the next point. It’s sadly disappointing as Asscension City offers a terrific landscape to explore, yet we are constricted to the contraints of a linear pathway. It doesn’t ruin the experience as such, but it makes you wonder what we are missing out on, or what a less linear path would have provided us with.
Multiplayer is a rather forgettable experience. Featuring sixteen maps to fight with up to seven other opponents on, you’ll soon put it down after a few rounds. It’s not ground breaking, it’s no engaging, it’s not fun, it’s just there. That’s not to say there is anything wrong with it, it features your standard Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag modes, it’s just not at all compelling like the single player experience. It’s a fun time waster, but we won’t see it hitting Call of Duty or Halo online status anytime soon.
Graphically Bionic Commando is up there with the best. Assension City is littered with papers blowing in the wind, dust and particles from fallen buildings, and fantastic lighting effects at the sun sets down across the town. The game camera is rarely ever annoying and feels just right, and little features like dust covering the camera as buildings fall is a nice touch. Character models are a bit cartoonish, but that’s the setting of the game. It’s not a mega realistic title ala Gears Of War. The game manages to keep a consistent frame-rate, which is emperical to the swinging element of the title. Lagging as you were swinging at fast pace through the city would totally ruin the experience. The only time you will even notice the tiniest bit of frame-rate dip will be during some of the larger battle sequences, but it’s not enough to even really notice that often.
The city feels like it’s actually a city, not just a landscape created for the game. Buildings look tattered and used, everything is coated in dust after the explosion, buildings, the ground, cars and transport literally are crumbling all around you. My one gripe is the blatant advertising that is present throughout the city. Pepsi, nVidia, Alienware and other signs from companies litter the city, and while it has been seen before, in this pertiular title it really takes away from the experience.
As I mentioned before the voice acting is top notch, and Mike Patton provides yet another memorable character in the video game realm (See: The Darkness). Musically the title will strike a chord with veterans who will recognize some of those eight bit sounds jazzed up a little during the musical score that just suits the title perfectly.
The Final Verdict
So has twenty years been too long for Bionic Commando to have any relevance in the modern day video game world? Capcom have proved that an old classic can be turned into something modern day. While the story isn’t taken to it’s full potential and the title is extremely linear, Bionic Commando offers enough innovative, and stylish gameplay mechanics to make it worth your while.
Full Review can be read here