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Bionic Commando

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: GRIN

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PS3/X360/PC Preview - 'Bionic Commando'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on April 22, 2009 @ 9:00 a.m. PDT

Taking its inspiration from its 8-bit namesake released on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1988, Bionic Commando features Nathan Spencer (voiced by former lead singer of Faith No More, Mike Patton), a government operative who represents the ultimate fusion of man and machine. After distinguishing himself in a fierce conflict against the Imperials, Spencer is betrayed and falsely imprisoned by the very people he unquestioningly served.

Genre: 3D Action
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: GRIN
Release Date: May 19, 2009

Bionic Commando was perhaps one of the most fondly remembered NES ports. Even today, if you mention it to hardcore gamers, what comes to mind is the NES title, not the original arcade title or the little-known handheld sequels. It shouldn't be a tremendous surprise, as for the time, Bionic Commando was a tremendously unique and innovative game, and the gameplay held up well enough that the remake, Bionic Commando: Rearmed only needed to perform minor updates to make a game that was fun to play even by modern standards. Despite being so fondly remembered, Bionic Commando is a franchise that has languished in obscurity since the days of the NES. Fortunately, Capcom's recent retro craze has brought the series back in a big way. First was the release of Rearmed, which updated the original game while retaining the same great gameplay. Now comes the first real sequel in the form of the slightly confusingly named Bionic Commando.

Bionic Commando is set five years after the events of the first game, although in a surprisingly dark and depressing future. The success of Nathan "RAD" Spencer's bionic strength in defeating the evil Imperials caused a tremendous increase in the use of bionic abilities. However, the government feared the increase in bionics, especially since certain brands had the habit of making their wearers unstable, and thus began bionic purges, in which most bionics were destroyed. Spencer was betrayed by the government and sentenced to be executed. Then a group of pro-bionic terrorists detonated an experimental bomb in Ascension City, and the effects were like a tremendous earthquake combined with massive amounts of lethal radiation, devastating the city and preventing the government from sending in regular forces. The terrorists have control over the city, and the only man who can save the day is a certain soon-to-be-executed bionic commando.

Bionic Commando takes the leap from 2-D to 3-D, and with it comes most of what you'd expect from a modern third-person shooter. Spencer is quite easy to control, with the left analog stick moving him around and the right analog stick aiming and turning. Dodging attacks can be done by pressing the left bumper and then moving the analog stick in the direction in which you want to dodge. Perhaps most importantly, it seems as it Spencer has learned how to jump in the five years between games. Unlike the original game, Spencer now has a regenerating health bar, much like the kind found in Gears of War and similar games. Get injured, and the screen slowly grows steadily more red until you keel over dead. Stay out of the enemy's line of sight for a while, and you'll quickly recover from damage. Don't mistake this for thinking Spencer is invincible, though. He can survive a lot of indirect fire, but getting too close to enemies can lead to his quick and painful demise. Fortunately, Spencer isn't your average sort of guy.

It wouldn't be Bionic Commando without the franchise's trademark bionic arm grappling hook. While Spencer is more than capable of jumping in this game, his newfound mobility doesn't really help him much in the earthquake-ravaged city, and your primary mode of transportation is still going to be his bionic arm's built-in grappling hook. Fortunately, using the hook is a breeze. In addition to the main crosshair on your head's up display (HUD), you'll see a second crosshair around the closest possible object that you can grapple onto. If the crosshair is blue, you can hook onto that, and if it isn't, then you can't. Holding down the left trigger will cause Spencer to grapple as soon as he can.

Once you're hooked, you've got a lot of movement options. You can scale walls by "zip-jumping" up the wall and grappling again, or even just hang there for a moment to rest. Your primary method of movement is going to be swinging. As long as you're on something that can be swung from, wiggling the left analog stick will cause Spencer to rock back and forth and build up momentum. Let go at the right moment, and he'll rocket forward, allowing you to swing across ruined areas like Spider-Man. Fortunately, figuring out the right timing is easy, as the HUD gives you an indicator at the exact moment to let go. Those who prefer a more challenging game can turn off this indicator. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but once you do, Bionic Commando's grappling is a breeze, and you'll find yourself zooming across the landscape with ease, which is good because the city is a dangerous place.

The aftereffects of the terrorist attack have left the city covered in radioactivity. This is represented by a glowing blue fog hovering above the city and in certain areas, and in glowing blue ooze on certain surfaces. This is basically what limits the player's ability to move around, as Spencer's bionic arm is weak to radiation and is incapable of grappling any surface covered with that goo. Furthermore, the blue dust can and will kill Spencer in a matter of moments if he gets too deep into it. While this may sound extremely limiting, it works fairly well. You'll receive a lot of warning as to where radioactive areas are, and you'll rarely fall into one without expecting it. Spencer's other great weakness is water. That bionic arm is too heavy to swim with, so this commando sinks like a stone in water. Fortunately, GRIN didn't go with a "touch water and you die" idea. If Spencer falls into water, he'll slowly begin to sink, but if you can grapple something outside of the water and pull yourself up before Spencer's oxygen meter drains, you'll be fine, if slightly damp. It may sound a bit frustrating to be so artificially limited, but each area in the game is large enough that you'll rarely notice the barriers.

The "commando" part of Bionic Commando comes from Spencer's rather impressive collection of guns. Unlike the NES title, guns are a lot less important here, but they still have their uses. Spencer's main gun is the Tungsten pistol, which he keeps on him at all times. It's the weakest weapon in the game, but ammo is plentiful, and it is extremely accurate. A headshot to any unarmored foe can kill him quickly, although body and limb shots become almost useless as the game progresses. The real firepower comes from the other weapons that Spencer can find. Besides the Tungsten, Spencer can carry one other weapon at a time, ranging from shotguns to machine guns and a rocket launcher.

Don't mistake this title for a common shooter. These special weapons are only for emergency use, since each has a very small amount of ammo, and you're not going to find many refills. Furthermore, no enemies in the game carry weapons that you can use. You can only change your weapon if you find a "drop pod" located in the city. Each drop pod contains a single full weapon, which you can switch for your current weapon. If you leave behind a weapon, don't expect to go back for it later, and if you waste your ammo, you'll have to make do for what you can find for the Tungsten. In addition to his guns, Spender can also carry a small cache of grenades, which are useful for clearing crowds or damaging enemies with little risk to him.

Spencer's real strength is in his bionic arm. While he begins the game without it, he quickly gets it back, gaining a lot of powerful combat abilities that he can use at will. Pressing the B button smacks enemies with a quick jab, and once he gets an upgrade, pressing the Y button knocks enemies or objects into the air. Doing so allows you to quickly leap into the air and spike your victim toward a target for massive amounts of damage. Even if you don't do that, simply hitting enemies with your giant metal arm can send them flying.

The real fun comes when you start working with the trademark grappling hook, which can be used to swing around and hurt enemies. As the game progresses, Spencer gains the ability to grab enemies and objects with the hook, which allows him to perform a number of particularly lethal moves. Pressing the Y button after grabbing an enemy, for example, "kites" him into the air, which causes him to hang there, suspended by the hook for a few moments. You can choose to unload your gun into a suspended enemy, but the real fun is in throwing him. While he's suspended, you have a few moments to readjust your aim and throw whatever you've kited at another enemy. You can also retract the arm and pull Spencer toward the enemy as you would an inanimate object, although if you do this to a squishy person, Spencer's iron boots will impact squarely with the enemy's face.

It's worth noting that certain foes can use your hook against you. Strong foes can yank Spencer toward them to stun him and get in some free hits; even weak foes can shoot bolts of electricity up the wire if you hold them for too long. However, if you can stun these foes or sneak behind them, you can grapple their weak point and use it to your advantage without taking damage. Spencer can also use the hook to reach high places as a weapon. By getting high above the enemy, he can drop down with his iron boots to deliver a special Death From Above attack, which causes a massive shockwave and squishes any foe unfortunate enough to be in his path.

Spencer also has special adrenaline moves that can be performed in special situations. Every time he defeats an enemy, his adrenaline meter fills up; fill it to max, and you can perform one of two adrenaline moves: Wire Arm and Finisher. The Wire Arm move isn't really fancy, but it is useful for clearing out rooms. Pressing the B and Y buttons at the same time causes Spencer to whip his arm in a 360-degree circle around himself, much like he did in the overhead scenes in Bionic Commando: Rearmed. Anything hit by this suffers massive damage, usually enough to kill grunt troops or wound heavily armored soldiers.

Finishing moves are one-hit kills that can be used on certain foes. If you can find and grapple that foe's weak point and you have a full adrenaline meter, pressing the B and Y buttons together will activate a finishing move, and Spencer will instantly defeat the enemy. This may not sound very fancy, but the enemies upon whom you can perform these moves are the toughest in the game, and they usually take multiple shots from the strongest weapons to kill. When you're facing two or three heavily armored robots, it can be a great advantage to instantly take one out of play.

Spencer regains most of his basic bionic abilities as the game progresses, but Bionic Commando also features an interesting leveling system. With each new ability or weapon he finds, he'll be given a challenge, which is very similar to Xbox Achievements or PlayStation Trophies, and many of the challenges overlap with those awards. They can range from the simple, such as killing a grunt enemy with a melee attack, to the complex, such as killing a series of enemies while swinging on your wire arm. Completing these challenges will unlock new things, including extra challenges and new abilities. Most of the power-ups are in the form of improved versions of Spencer's current abilities, including a greater damage threshold or better accuracy. You don't actually need to complete any of these challenges to finish the game, but they make your life a lot easier, and if you favor a certain weapon, you'll probably find yourself racking up completed challenges with ease. There are also various collectibles scattered around the maps, most of which require careful swinging to reach. These collectibles can unlock special bonus features once you've completed the game, although the specifics are still under wraps for the moment.

GRIN has shown that they've got a fairly good grasp of what makes Bionic Commando fun. The new Bionic Commando does a surprisingly good job of combining modern mechanics with the iconic Bionic Commando NES gameplay. We only got to play through the first chapter of the game, but what we saw had us hungry for more. The swinging mechanic was great, and perhaps the only complaint I could put forth was that I see little reason to use guns when the bionic arm is so powerful and much more fun than simply shooting unfortunate foes. Gamers looking for a nostalgia trip or a fun 3-D action/platformer will want to keep their eyes peeled for this update of the 8-bit classic when it hits stores in May.

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