There’s little gamers appreciate more than a great swing mechanic. The sensation of leaping from an Ozone-bothering structure, attaching to a distant object and flying towards it in an elegant arc is one that is hard-wired to the escapism and fantasy of videogaming at its purest. There’s no doubt we can never experience anything like it in real life, but it’s the easiest – not to mention safest – way of suppressing the inevitable depression that accompanies not actually being Spider-Man for every single one of us with a Y-chromosome. Before Bionic Commando has had even the chance to load up, it’s already at a crippling disadvantage because unfortunately for Grin and Capcom, the last generation’s Spider-Man 2 tie-in scratched that aforementioned itch quite nicely.
A lot to live up to, then. It’s probably slightly unfair to compare the two; after all, the 1980s Bionic Commando introduced the defining grapple-based platforming experience both at home and in the arcades and it would take ol’ Webby the best part of twenty years to surmount anything resembling a challenge. Despite the overwhelming elephant in the room, expectations for the first true successor to Nathan “Rad” Spencer’s old-school outing were soaring like The Albatross, largely thanks to his blistering return in 2008 – under the guidance of Capcom, Ben Judd and Grin were able to give the crusty original an unprecedented lick of paint in the aptly named Bionic Commando Rearmed. Everything melded ridiculously well, with Simon Viklund’s reworked, pounding, 8-bit electro soundtrack playing off the gorgeous, vibrant visuals as the perfect presentational accompaniment to the near-untouched gameplay. The developer had created one of the year’s best; it was slick, well presented and felt dewy-morning-at-sunrise fresh, everything a remake should be.
After the love and care evident in spades with Rearmed, it could only be assumed that the main event would be similarly fantastic. Early signs were mostly positive, the first trailers showing off the central mechanic to promising effect. Though the levels were linear, they looked large and open enough to encourage pushing the arm to its limits, right? Chaining perfect swings through lengthy sections seemed a very plausible and exciting prospect, and the implementation of the titular robotic body part in combat appeared thoughtful.
You can almost taste the colossal “but” coming. After a year of cautious optimism, dreams of a continued franchise revival are now dead in the water thanks to a plethora of ill-advised design decisions so ludicrous they’re verging on offensive. The lack of open world play should have allowed the level designers to go nuts and create a fluid and imaginative backdrop, but – ironically – such heights are never scaled. The experience, especially for the first two thirds, feels horribly constricted. The environments are often immense in scale and at their very best breathtaking, yet still they fail to capitalise on the tantalising potential.
Brushes with genius are never far off, though remain perpetually – agonisingly – out of reach. For every beautifully cohesive swing section, there’s an irritating enemy encounter around the corner. Cramming Spencer’s abilities into an enclosed space on anything more than an irregular basis could and should have been avoided, but alas, corridors and cubed office rooms abound. Combat is a standard affair, with a touch more vague blasting than Grin’s fanfare would suggest and though the arm is employed frequently, its boundless potential is never exploited and alternative melee fighting moves are introduced far too late on. Indeed, criminal under-use of the ability can be applied to the product as a whole. Why can Spencer tug only train carriages? What of the cars and rubble strewn across the cityscape? That a man with an incredibly powerful extendable bionic limb should need to “remember” how to use it by degrees is a mystery that, like so many others in Bionic Commando, is never explained.
One of the few occasions the player is actually informed of reasons for the designers’ choices comes in the final level with the conclusion of the story. Well, not the final final level, for that’s a two minute long wet fart that reeks distinctly of QTE. No, the plot arc wraps up in such a ludicrous way, it almost inspires pity. On the whole the story is incredibly infantile and limp. Cut scenes involve gruff military men shouting at other gruff military men, lots of double crossing, “THAT IS AN ORDER SOLDIER!”, objective-switching and other such nonsense, none of which makes any sense or warrants inclusion in a game bearing the brand name. Rather than indulge again in the fun, self-aware cheese of the ‘80s action hero rip-off original, it goes for “grittier” territory, coming off far more wooden and preposterous in the process.
So, poor design decisions permeate the entirety of this game’s periphery and obfuscate the sublimely crafted central mechanic. Some things are excellent, others are atrocious, five out of ten and we can all go home. But we’re not done yet. One feature has a special place reserved right here at the bottom of the review. It’s something that is not only barely justified within the fiction, poorly devised and half-heartedly implemented, but is more memorable – for all the wrong reasons – than any of the things the game gets right.
Bionic Commando is forever condemned to be recalled by all who play it as “that game with the bloody blue stuff”. Blue, nuclear… gas, or something, lies around each environment. Its capacity to instantly kill only those with bionic implants is astounding, as well as the way it often remains colourless until one is immersed in a thick cloud of the substance. Mistimed swings are to be kept to a minimum, and the same goes for exploration of areas; it’ll pop up when everyone least expects it! Frequent deaths for all, with the added bonus of schizophrenic checkpoint placement, so you’ll never know how many dozens of minutes of your life are needlessly squandered!
It’s sad that the defining feature of what was originally a game about a bloke’s huge metal arm is one that causes such frustration and bears scant few links to the core premise. The blue stuff could be an analogy for the game at large – unexpected, cool to look at, but utterly, maddeningly infuriating and with little resemblance to what the forces that birthed it set out to achieve. Bionic Commando is enjoyable in places and competent for much of its duration, but the magnitude of this monumental wasted opportunity cannot be understated.