Genre: 3D Action
Release Date: May 19, 2009
I hate Nathan Spencer. I really hate him. You'd think a hero with a bionic arm and the ability to fling taxis at the enemy would be too awesome to hate, but alas, Bionic Commando has been able to provide a hero who manages to become unbearable within moments of opening his mouth.
And that leads us to the problem — despite being a fun, very challenging and diverse gameplay experience, the characters in Capcom's latest action title go to the extremes to be as over-the-top, contrived and as ear-bleedingly annoying as possible. Throw in a story held together by Scotch tape and balsa wood, and you've got a game that shoots itself in the foot with a shotgun.
There's nothing wrong with a little B-movie campiness, especially when it comes to action or sci-fi games, which have a tendency to sometimes take themselves too seriously. Goofball parody can be entertaining if it strikes the right chord. God Hand poked at beat-'em-ups. Psycho Mantis moved your controller in Metal Gear Solid. Max Payne has visions of a head's-up display in his dreams.
But this game doesn't strike chords. It razes them with napalm.
Spencer's not just angry in a dramatic or even comic sense. He's insane angry, slathering every word in venom and then spitting it out. It's not enough for one of the bad guys to sound like a caricature of a Nazi war commander — he has to hit us with the heaviest, molasses-thick accent heard this side of old Hollywood, where at any time you're expecting him to uncork a "Vee have vays of making you TALK!!" in your general direction. But wait, there's more! You've got a stick-in-the-mud defense secretary, the conflicted female operative and of course, your Colonel Trautman-molded commanding officer. Each time they spoke brought me closer and closer to muting the television.
It's a shame because the history of the Bionic Commando name, as well as the game itself, are both full of intriguing possibilities. Part of the game's buzz comes from the nostalgia of the first Bionic Commando, a side-scrolling action game that enthralled both arcade and early console players in the late 1980s. It featured a hero outfitted with an extendable metal arm that functioned as the ultimate grappling hook, enabling the player to swing from ledge to ledge like a pseudo-Spiderman. The story line also had references to the Nazis and their attempts to resurrect Hitler (all of which were tweaked for North American audiences).
However, the Spencer character came into play with Bionic Commando: Rearmed, a remake of the side-scroller that sported all-new visuals, redone (and outstanding) music, and new boss characters built from scratch. The ending to Rearmed is part of lore, as it culminates with the hero blowing up the head of final boss.
This segues into the newest incarnation, meant to be the ultimate Bionic Commando experience. The story focuses on Spencer, who we learn was imprisoned after the events of Rearmed. Five years pass, and the government needs him again to take on a terror group that nukes mythic Ascension City, turning it into a wasteland of blown-out buildings and blue clouds of radiation. It's the standard "only one man can do the job" plot, but it's enough for a starting point.
Other things you learn are that in addition to doing time, Spencer's also pissed about not knowing what happened to his wife, who disappeared when he was sent to prison. There's also plenty of backstory regarding how bionic soldiers were generally treated as outcasts, as well as the origins of the pro-bionics terror group causing all the trouble. With this knowledge and a quick briefing from your superior, Super Joe, Spencer is dispatched into Ascension City with a new bionic arm.
Like the glaive from Dark Sector or the Blades of Chaos from God of War, the arm is an awesome singular piece of equipment. A quick tutorial does a solid job of educating you on all of the arm's abilities.
Aside from its natural properties as a grappling hook, you can also use it to snatch goodies, yank switches, pull signs and cable cars off railings, clear surrounding enemies and ultimately, to latch onto surrounding debris (like vehicles) and launch them at the enemy. As cool as the arm is, it comes with a bit of a learning curve, as you are asked to aim with the right thumbstick and fire the arm with the left trigger. It sounds simple, until you realize that you have to make several mid-air adjustments. Then there's the swinging, where mastery of momentum and swing speed is attained by looking out for a blue-hued, on-screen marker that tells you the ideal moment to release the arm's grip during swingtime. However, it helps to know when to obey the blue alert and when to follow your instincts, unless you enjoy the notion of overshooting your next grip point and falling to your death.
You don't have the arm's full skill set at the start of the game. Since Spencer just got reattached to the arm, it takes time for it to recalibrate and in a sense, "remember" all the stuff that it used to do. You use the expanses of Ascension City as your personal playground, swinging and hurtling yourself from place to place.
The city felt like a massive single level as opposed to something broken down into stages, even though there are plenty of loading screens to transition from one area of the city to another. If you're not climbing the spires of the once-formidable downtown and business centers, you'll be lost in the lush, green expanses of the city park or taking in the subterranean sights of underground caverns. You'll even get to leave the confines of the city, taking to the sky in the game's final stages. In a way, Bionic Commando teases you. It visually offers a sense of unrestricted freedom but rudely interrupts that notion with the blue radiation clouds blanketing the skyline. Stay in a radioactive area long enough, and Spencer dies. The element of water plays an important and, at times, morbidly frustrating part of the experience. Spencer's bionic arm isn't exactly ideal for swimming, so missing a jump and landing in the drink also signals death for our hero in mere seconds. In shallower waters, players can actually save themselves if they move the cursor to a grip point and reel themselves out of the jaws of certain death. However, I can count on one hand the times I was actually able to do that.
In addition to the clouds of death and water are the BioReign terrorists. These guys are fun to kill, mainly because they are all in a verbal competition for the world's biggest douchebag. Like drunk, angry frat boys who watched too much UFC and are coming from a Linkin Park concert, these guys constantly pepper Spencer with calls of "Bring it bitch!!" and other unprintable aural gems until he slaughters them with a variety of weapons. He comes with a standard issue pistol, but Super Joe sends the occasional care package equipped with stuff ranging from sniper rifles to rocket launchers outfitted with Robotech-style multi-missile launchers. Of course, the car toss is still the most fun way to deal with groups of them.
There are also heavy-duty enemies, such as Biomechs, which are powered battle suits the terrorists use to even the odds. There's some variety to the mechs: Some fly, some have laser cannons, and some are built for hand-to-hand combat. It's quite a test of reflexes and skill if you're taking on several of them, which the game asks you to do on multiple occasions. There are also flying mini-cruisers called "polycrafts," which try to shred Spencer with machine gun fire and missiles. No Capcom game would be complete without large-scale boss battles, one of which includes an armed gunship while another pits Spencer against a giant, tunnel-digging robo-worm.
The game also makes sure that you're not just simply swinging around and shooting people. It does a pretty solid job of changing up the action. One sequence had me hopping on a small plane, yanking off a hatch, latching on with the arm and effectively "piloting" it to another plane. Then, I had to jump and hook up to the other plane to do it all over again. It's one of the cooler moments of the game.
A lot of these elements add up to moments of brilliance, but there are also several things that I found troubling. First, you'll find yourself doing a lot of backtracking, bounding from one waypoint to another and then back to the same spot because the story dictates that you should be there. It's not a game killer by any stretch, but there are some moments when it doesn't make sense, and it incrementally adds bits of tediousness as a result. Many have knocked the game's difficulty, but there's been much harder fare than this. While there are moments of pure cheese on the part of enemies or boss characters (there are times when I've yelled, "How the hell am I supposed to avoid that??"), the game simply demands more of out of its players. I can live with that.
However, Bionic Commando also demands that you listen to some of the most ridiculously painful voice work and dialogue I've heard this year, or perhaps a few years. I mentioned some of the others earlier, but Spencer is the absolute worst. Every word sounds infused with steroids, especially during battle, where he'll bellow "Eat that!!!" or "Chew on that!!!" or "Got yaaaa!!!" after he kills a group of enemies. He chuckles like someone watching scrambled porn for the first time whenever he picks off someone with a sniper rifle. He makes sure to force an f-bomb out of his mouth at the strangest points in conversation. He always seems like he's yelling for no reason.
The confusing part about this is that the voice of Spencer is Mike Patton, former lead singer of Faith No More and a talent who was spectacular as the voice of The Darkness, the demonic being who consumed a young mobster in a 2K game of the same name. What the hell happened? Conversely, the in-game music is phenomenal. Die-hard fans will tear up at the newest rendition of the Bionic Commando theme, and the rest of the music mixes in somber violin tones to ass-kicking, fast-paced beat-down rhythms. The seriousness and quality of the music clashes harshly with the goofy sounding chatter.
The game's story is almost irrelevant. It felt pieced together from the clichés of other action movies, and it never explores any of the more interesting plot points. It's simply content to glaze over everything, so you never feel connected to what you're doing or why the mission is so important. Before you know it, the game ends, and you're still not sure what you just did.
As a playing experience, Bionic Commando is certainly worth some hours of your life. There are some nifty ideas explored in the game's multiplayer modes, and the arm mechanics are simply too cool to ignore. I would suggest, however, that you think about playing with the sound turned off. You have subtitles. Do yourself a favor.
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