Bionic Commando Review

By Justin Fassino - Posted May 19, 2009

There aren't many video game characters who are old enough to drink, but 'Bionic Commando's' Nathan Spencer is still relevant and still kicking around after 22 years. Capcom and GRIN bring the NES classic 'Bionic Commando' in full 3-D glory to the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC and we check out the remake in this X-Play Review.

The Pros
  • Great musical score
  • Dizzying sense of vertigo
  • Epic boss battles
The Cons
  • Gameplay elements don't mesh
  • Collision detection problems
  • Incredibly linear

It’s been 22 years since the world was first introduced to Nathan Spencer and his swinging, flinging bionic arm. After two decades, fans and newcomers might both have serious questions about the franchise: did GRIN strike gold a second time in their efforts to introduce the modern gaming populace to Bionic Commando? Did the classic gameplay from the NES original make its way to 3D without missing a beat? Will we get a satisfactory explanation for why Nathan’s hair went from red and wavy to musty brown dreadlocks? The answer to all these questions is: not quite.

It Don’t Mean a Thing…

Bionic CommandoPicking up several years after the end of the first game (in which Nathan successfully rescues Super Joe and kills the resurrected Imperial leader Master D), the world has turned upside down. A backlash by governments and the general populace against bionically augmented soldiers causes a witch hunt among the ranks of the FSA, landing Nathan Spencer in jail and Super Joe running the military. Meanwhile, former bionics and the remnants of the Imperial army go underground to evade capture and punishment. Enter a nuclear terrorist attack on Ascension City from a bionic terrorist organization called BioReign, and it’s up to Nathan “Rad” Spencer to save the day once again.

Reuniting with his bionic arm, Nathan can now stretch his legs outside of prison among the dizzying heights of the Ascension City ruins. Functionally, the swing mechanic is similar to web swinging in Spider Man games. Grabbing most surfaces is as simple as lining up the auto-aim cursor over a surface, getting within range, and holding the left shoulder button. The auto-aim cursor is pretty dependable in pointing at what you want, but that’s about the only thing that works well. Momentum is another story, as letting go at the right time in your swing results in Nathan flying further and higher; the game tells you during the tutorial to let go when the blue swing icon appears on your screen to get optimum distance. In practice, however, the icon stays on screen for far too long after the ideal release point, oftentimes causing you to let go and simply fly straight up, frantically searching for a new grab point before you fall to your death. Swinging and climbing itself is also a disjointed experience. There is simply no rhythm to the swinging, platforming, or gunplay aspects of the game; they all feel like they were developed entirely separately from each other and then glued together in Frankenstein fashion. The sense of high-flying flow that should be here is just not found.

Combat is merely serviceable in Bionic Commando. The weapons are you standard variations on rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and the like, but none of them feel like they have any kick. Enemies also go flying like they’re made of paper mache, leaving Nathan as the only object in the world that feels like it has any weight. Enemy AI also is non-existent; what fun is it to toss a guy 300 feet off an oil rig with your arm if he mysteriously walks towards your cover position backwards? Perhaps the worst offender of the combat design is the auto-aim cursor. Some enemies have specific weak points that require you to grapple them using the bionic arm; unfortunately, the cursor that works so well for swinging works TOO well for swinging as it frequently just will not target the enemy you’re facing, even if you’re within 10 feet of it, leaving Nathan to grapple the ground and the enemy to punch half his life off as it gets up.

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Out of Swing

Bionic CommandoAnother infuriating design decision is the inclusion of invisible walls that kill you instantly. It’s respectable that the developers tried to replicate the difficulty factor of the original, but invisible death walls were not the solution. These walls take the form of radiation clouds floating on the edges of each stage, and egress into them will cause Nathan severe damage over time, killing him in a couple seconds. What’s not clear, however, is where the clouds begin or end aside from a throbbing radiation logo that appears to warn you you’re about to die. The problem with this system is that most of the time, you’ll be frantically trying to escape from gunfire or flying mechanized robots via swinging to safety, only to land (and subsequently perish) in an invisible cloud of death that looked like a safe touchdown point from afar. Finally, and the biggest offender of this design, is that all levels have an invisible death CEILING as well. What good is it making a game where the focus is on swinging through the air at amazing heights and exploring for hidden tokens if the game caps you from climbing most of the buildings in the area? It’s bizarre and seems to defeat the spirit of what Bionic Commando is all about.

What results are extremely linear, large-scale environments that taunt you with their openness but never deliver on the promise they seem to hold. In fact, most of the game adopts a completely linear “get from point A to point B” attitude. For the first 50 percent of Bionic Commando, there’s really no story to speak of; you’re simply swinging and shooting through brown and grey urban city ruins or brown and grey underground caves.

On the Upswing

Bionic CommandoIt isn’t until the second half of the game that things pick up considerably and the pacing becomes better. Suddenly there are a multitude of boss fights -- which are the best parts of playing Bionic Commando; they’re huge and difficult and very impressive -- and cut scenes that finally answer (some of) the questions posited from the intro. The endgame, especially, is a fantastic romp through different gameplay types and set pieces while the story, outside of taking a lot of inspiration from the Metal Gear Solid series’ penchant for absurdity, ties up some loose ends from the original Bionic Commando nicely.

This, then, is a good example of a lot of style over substance. The musical score is perhaps the best thing about the entire game and the sound design is excellent. Outside of a couple stupid sub-plots relating to Spencer’s wife and a mysterious figure seen twice through the entire game, the story is a worthy addition to Bionic Commando canon.

Swing Kids

The pacing needed some serious tweaking, however (why oh why couldn’t the second half of the game be like the first?), and the level design should have been entirely re-thought. Multiplayer could be a fun diversion if the swing and shooting mechanics were locked down and polished more smoothly, but they weren’t. There’s a decent game here if you manage to get through the first half of this swing fest. Even though this is a solid try to revamp the series, this swing fest feels like a letdown when you restrict movement so much with the inclusion of invisible walls and even a killer ceiling. As a game, Bionic Commando is merely okay.

Article Written By Justin Fassino