Reaching into the past with a bionic grip
HIGH Mastering the arm and swinging effortlessly through levels.
LOW Some checkpoints are set too far apart.
WTF The elements of a great story are here, they're just hardly used.
I don't often write reviews in response to other reviews, but in the case of GRIN's Bionic Commando, I was willing to make an exception.
A quick scan of the Internet reveals that several critics call the game out for things that hardly seem applicable; things that can only be due to several cases of misplaced expectation. Dinged for "‘flaws" like not having an open world design, or having a reduced emphasis on firearms and gunplay, I found it quite ironic that many of these same critics seem to assert that this revamp of Capcom's 1988 NES classic misses what made the original so great.
I couldn't disagree more—I found Bionic Commando to be incredibly faithful to its inspiration, both in terms of design and concept. As someone who has genuinely fond memories of the source material, I've got to wonder whether some of these critics even played the original at all. I don't think doing so is a prerequisite to reviewing GRIN's game, but it certainly might have helped give the proper perspective for it.
Focusing on the game itself, the titular commando in question is Nathan Spencer, a bionically-enhanced soldier who was imprisoned when public opinion of modified troops turned from pride to fear. On the day he's to be executed for so-called war crimes, a devastating bomb set by pro-bionic terrorists decimates sprawling Ascension City. In an effort to fight fire with fire, the government repeals his sentence and sends him (and his mechanical arm) in to clean up the mess.
...And what an arm it is.
Obviously, the main element shared between GRIN's Bionic Commando and Capcom's original is this mechanical appendage. Its main purpose is to be used as a grappling hook of sorts, attaching to nearly any surface and giving Nathan a way to swing incredible distances and scale vertical structures. It also functions as a staggeringly effective weapon, able to handle enemy soldiers like rag dolls and toss chunks of rock or totaled cars with lethal bludgeoning force. It's not at all an understatement to say that mastery of Nathan's arm is crucial to the entire Bionic Commando experience, and a player's enjoyment of the title will hinge upon whether or not they can get the hang of it. (Pun partially intended.)
With that in mind, let's get one thing straight: this game is not intended to be Gears of War on a wire, it's not an iteration of Spider-Man with big guns added, and it's certainly not an aerial Grand Theft Auto in any way, shape, or form. Anyone coming to the project with these sorts of notions will naturally be disappointed. However, players able to take Bionic Commando on its own terms (terms essentially set by its predecessor) will find that it's an extremely gratifying experience.
Given that Nathan is a lone soldier infiltrating a vast city populated with enemies of all sorts, it makes sense that GRIN asks players to approach each situation tactically—after all, the player has the immense advantage of the bionic arm. Spencer is not bulletproof, and he's often outnumbered and outgunned. Anyone trying to play the game in spite of the arm instead of capitalizing on it will find themselves frustrated and defeated. Conversely, when the arm used to the fullest advantage, Nathan Spencer is an unstoppable force.
There is nothing quite like leaping from the top of a crumbling office building, freefalling for what seems like forever, and then grappling onto a nearby streetlight to catapult away from unyielding pavement at the last possible second. There is little more exciting than standing atop an unfinished construction site a mile high, jumping backwards into space to grapple onto a rusted beam on the way down, and then using the inertia to whip forward and latch onto an otherwise unreachable skyborne enemy. This is electric, visceral stuff.
It's no surprise that death often comes from above for the hostile occupying forces, and rather than stealth or firepower, mobility is revealed to be the player's greatest asset. Although none of Bionic Commando's areas could properly be described as open-world in the truest sense, they certainly allow the player quite a bit of freedom while never feeling unfocused or empty. There are always multiple approaches to each situation, and thinking vertically is always rewarded handsomely.
In terms of production, the game is pure polish. Nathan's adventures in Ascension City take him through several stunning locales, all rendered with a great amount of detail. The remains of the city and its shattered skyscrapers are quite convincing, and the green, forest areas of abandoned parks and arboretums are just as beautiful. Several times, I found myself stopping to take in the view, the vantage points accessible thanks to the climbing abilities of the bionic arm providing multiple arresting vistas.
As an aside, although I don't usually pay much attention to music in games, I would like to give special praise to Bionic Commando's score. The new arrangements of the classic songs were extremely well-done, and certainly worth the mention.
Although a few more boss battles wouldn't have hurt and there are perhaps two or three places over the course of the adventure that could have benefited from more frequent checkpoints, my only real issue with Bionic Commando is that the story and characters never gain critical mass. The gameplay is certainly strong enough to carry the player from start to finish, but the cast of characters goes largely unused. The only other friendly bionic makes too-brief cameos, the central villain is largely absent until the final sequences, and an incredibly interesting twist late in the plot is all but ignored. There is real potential for Bionic Commando to tell a gripping soldier's tale, and I must admit that I was left more than a little baffled as to why it went untapped. Without more dramatic segments to help the player connect to Nathan, the vital opportunity to build some "star quality" and rise to gaming's top tier is missed.
Although some reviewers may malign the title, when all was said and done, I've got nothing but praise for it. The attention and effort put into this game is evident in all respects, and the central concept introduced so many years ago still holds up to this day; in fact, I'd say GRIN's work is superior to that which inspired it. Putting aside expectations of what some uninformed writers may think it should be, I was quite glad to take Bionic Commando for what it is—an absolutely faithful reimagining of an undisputed classic, smartly crafted and brought elegantly into the current generation.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately nine hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed one times. No time was spent in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains Blood and Gore, Strong Language, and Violence. Although children might like the idea of swinging from place to place, it's really not appropriate for them. There are multiple instances of salty language, and the game has a rather frank, dark tone when it comes to violence. It's not excessively gory, but the player is tasked with killing scores of enemy soldiers via firearms or use of the bionic appendage. It'll be all right for teens (and older, natch) but keep the kids away, okay?
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: You should know that subtitles are available for all dialogue in the game, except for ambient chatter from nearby enemy soldiers or radio transmissions. Those things aren't vital, but it would have been nice to have them. Otherwise, the game is very playable and doesn't rely heavily on audio cues. It's easy to see enemies via an onscreen map and tell where bullets are coming from, so it all works out fairly well without sound.