The old Bionic Commando on NES was incredible. It really revolutionised the swinging mechanic in video games and above all, it was brilliant, simple fun.
Back then, you were fighting imperialist Nazis trying to resurrect Hitler – but times have changed slightly with GRIN’s latest iteration of the series. You’re now fighting against a terrorist organisation threat in the form of “BioReign”, hell-bent on destruction.
Naturally I was enthusiastic for this one, for nostalgia alone it was worthy of a sitting.
The 2009 iteration of Bionic Commando takes place ten years after the NES version of the game. You are Nathan Spencer, a commando for the government agency TASC (Tactical Arms and Security Committee).
On his last mission, Spencer is betrayed by TASC and pinned as a fall man. Stripped of his bionic arm and sentenced to death, all hope seems lost.
However, just prior to the execution, a weapon of mass destruction detonates in downtown Ascension City, which completely devastates the city and eradicates its population in one foul swoop.
The terrorist force, “BioReign” emerges – and to counter this new threat, Spencer is released from death row and reinstated as a TASC operative. Now he must single-handedly (Pardon the pun) take on BioReign and help Bionics become legal again.
The staple diet of Bionic Commando is the Swinging/Grappling Mechanic. Essentially everything you do in the game world will hinge around what is possible with your Bionic Arm.
The basic stuff, attaching to a ceiling, grappling and swinging to your next objective is what has always made Bionic Commando special. Walking and jumping around becomes mundane and a chore. Why spend all this time walking around when you can grapple and swing in much less time?
Similarly, grappling onto an enemy is simple in execution, but has much more desirable and advanced effects. With the control of your grapple cord, you can swing enemies around, use them as meat-popsicle projectiles and throw them at clusters of other enemies. Or zip-line them back to you to perform a melee attack combo.
It is this originality, function and form that defines the Bionic Commando experience. Using the arm and the grapple to throw stuff about (everything from people to cars) and adapting it to suit your situation.
GRIN have taken a more intricate line with the grapple mechanic however. Many have likened Bionic Commando to games such as Spider-Man 2, which had a sort of auto shoot-and-forget grapple system. Bionic Commando though, really forces you into an awareness of your surrounding environment.
Subsequently, you can’t just grapple anywhere. Your zip line doesn’t just fasten itself to some magical invisible wall above the battlefield out of sight. Its entirely up to you to control where and how you move around using the grapple with the aiming reticle. This is both a gift and a curse.
On the one hand, you have this amazing versatility and option. Where you may be restricted in other titles as to where you want to go, that option is now entirely up to where you’ve aimed the targeting reticle and how good your judgement on distance was. You see, the arm grapple has a limited range, quite limited. And getting your head around this early on in the Bionic Commando experience can be a tedious and ever-frustrating task.
On the other hand, this does tend to detract from the action. You come swinging into an area littered with enemies – and immediately you’re getting peppered by bullets and targeted by laser-sights from snipers.. but all you can do is focus on the next building, the odd sign-post, a chunk of piping hanging from a wall, so you can grab the next swinging point and continue until you’re able to shoot from somewhere safely or grab some cover. Or fall into the water and die (thanks to heavy Bionics, Spencer can’t swim) trying to manage both.
There’s two really distinct game play elements in Bionic Commando. There’s grappling and swinging about like Spider-Man, and then there’s the action. The two don’t really collide like they could. You don’t zip into an area, immediately see an enemy at arms reach, grapple to him, zip-kill and grapple to the next enemy. Its not smooth and fluent, not amalgamated – you sort of concentrate on the grappling, then concentrate on the action.
All of this is contained within “corridors” of game space. Each area of the game is connected by a tunnel, or doorway – traversing each of them triggers a loading sequence (so you’re not bothered by loads during the actual game area) and venturing out of the game space is met by certain (and very quick) death, thanks to the glowing blue radiation left behind by the experimental weapon that destroyed Ascension City. As a result, the game is quite linear and very easy to follow, even down to the checkpoints that lead you around each of these corridors. However, it lacks any freedom.
Challenges & Collectibles
The vast majority of the game functions by its ‘challenge’ system. Everything you do, from killing enemies, to advancing through boss battles, collecting items and finding your next target is some sort of “challenge”. These challenges are numerous and varied. For example, you have a “Barrage” challenge, which requires you kill a certain number of enemies with a specialised special move. Another, the “Can you dig it?” challenge relates to completion of a boss fight.
Challenges have rewards, ranging from new attacks, to weapon upgrades, to increased abilities.
There are challenges for collecting all of the Collectible items in an area as well. In Bionic Commando, Collectibles are little nostalgic glyphs from the old NES title surrounded by glowing halos and dotted about the map in often difficult to reach – or well hidden places.
Nostalgia in a sphere…
You might spend ten minutes circling around the current corridor area, finding all of the collectibles and retracing your path making sure to grab them all, attacking a few enemies, unlocking some challenges and bonuses, only to get right to the end of the stage, miss a grapple point, fall in the water and die.
Now in most titles, that wouldn’t be a drama. Reload the area and progress through, the challenges and collectibles are already achieved, just a case of fighting enemies again. But in Bionic Commando, this is not so.
All of your challenges are reset to the start of the save point. All of the collectibles you found are gone too, reset to where your last save was made. So you’re forced to re-do all of this over if you want the in-game progress.
The strange part of all this, is Challenges are tied to Trophies. So you might come to the end of the game, with a PSN Trophy for every challenge complete, but the game hasn’t awarded you for that progress because the in-game statistics show, that after numerous deaths and reloads, you’re now missing a couple of challenges.
Its a system that is poorly managed. I can understand the nostalgic tones here though, what they’ve tried to accomplish. Its an “all or none” approach like the old Sega and NES games. You die, you lose everything – but its an approach that doesn’t work when you have a Trophy system, awards systems, hundreds of collectibles that are hard to reach to start with, and a much longer and larger game space available.
Saving and Loading
As mentioned above, the game auto saves at the beginning of a new area, usually at the start of a corridor – but occasionally mid-way, after a key point or boss battle. You have no control over saving, so the game feels much more like the classics in its approach. Losing all of your accumulated progress from an area is a regular occurrence if you couldn’t (as I often experienced) make it to the next area.
Gorgeous, but sometimes pushing the hardware to its limits…
This reset of progress also results in long load times as it reloads the entire area after a death. So if you have a few quick deaths in succession, or during boss fights in particular, you have to frustratingly endure another complete loading sequence.
Its a minor detail, especially considering what they’ve accomplished on the graphics side of things as well as how quickly the world has to stream in as you’re swinging around, but it does hinder the progress when you quickly want to get back into the action right after another death!
Guns and Ammo – and your Arm
At all times, you have three available weapon slots. Two are unchangeable (basic pistol, basic grenades) with a third changeable inventory slot. Throughout the game you get weapon drops, a kind of drop-pod that crashes into the ground near you at hotspots and boss battles.
You can then choose to exchange your current weapon for the weapon in the drop-pod.
Weapon types range from Shotgun to the ‘Tarantula’ multi-target Rocket Launcher (very cool) with a selection of speciality weapons like the Sniper Rifle.
Ammo for the basic weapon types is abundant, ensuring you never really have to worry about having at least pistol ammo to hurl at enemies, but the speciality ammo, particularly for the Rockets and Sniper Rifle are quite hard to come by. An ammo pickup for the Grenade Launcher for example only nets you 1 ammo for the weapon. So the speciality weapons aren’t the forefront of combat usage in Bionic Commando.
As you’d expect, your Bionic Arm is the key to successful attack. While it is primarily used for swinging and grappling, it will be your predominant attack tool as the game progresses. Saving precious Grenade ammo for a later BioMech and using your grab attacks against lesser BioReign enemies will be mandatory – and what’s more, it becomes much more fun.
Don’t think the arm’s going to get me out of this hole..
Unlocking arm upgrades and new skills, such as the heavy punch, allow you to whack rocks into the air, then pelt them towards enemies. You can cover great distances with the throw attacks and arm combat. At close range, two hits are usually fatal to any unarmoured foe.
The “Death from Above” attack is also very useful – think a Hulk Smash, but instead of a big green man, you’ve got a small man, with a green shirt with a bionic arm. Same sort of damage, throwing and stunning enemies in the blast radius.
Bionic Commando really nails the boss fights, they feel like that incredible style of old – HUGE, seemingly indestructible enemy, armed to the teeth, armoured to the wazoo – with one little Achilles heel you need to exploit to gain advantage and victory.
The boss battles are set up on big solo stages, have multiple paths, parts and breakdowns and after figuring out what is required of each, they’re really memorable and immensely enjoyable.
Bionic Commando has a multiplayer addition, with support for up to 10 players at a time. Instead of the in-game Spencer or playable characters, each person is a sort of generic Bionic Commando – just in a different colour.
You’re still in possession of the bionic arm and can still use it online as a grappling hook (the same goes for most of the attack moves in the offline campaign).
Voice chat works well making the experience much more social and enjoyable, but the invite system can be a bit tricky at first. You can’t simply send an invite to your mates on PSN. They’re shown as ‘offline’ originally and as a result, can’t be sent an invite. So you send your mates a message telling them to get into playing Bionic Commando so you can send them a message. Still showing offline.
In fact, your mate has to be playing Bionic Commando, AND online in a lobby waiting for an invite before it can be sent. So if they’re playing the campaign, its impossible to send invites out. Somewhat confusing and would have been nice to see a ‘global’ PSN invite system like other games have.
Despite this, the few multiplayer games I’ve tried now have been enjoyable, and quite lag-free even with mates from the UK. Whether it has the legs to keep you occupied for more than a few rounds though is another question.
The whole setup feels a little tacked on and rushed, like it could have benefited from a variety of smaller maps (especially when playing against less than 4 people) or a few more game modes.
Bionic Commando has an interesting graphic style, the environments and surroundings are very realistic, modelled well to look like actual broken cities. Skyscrapers are often caved in, windows blown out, pitched over, sinking into the sodden ground. Pieces of freeway network litter the landscape, and the whole area is undergoing the slow process of being reclaimed by nature with water from the ocean pouring in at hotspots and flooding the landscape into a Venetian-esque shell of its former glory.
There are hints of earthquake damage contributing to this, asphalt and concrete chunks litter the landscape. The entire area has become a ghost town, with empty cars and vacant shops.
Underground sections are also done well with a great feel for huge chasms and cave networks faithfully recreated. You find yourself grappling to ancient stalactites, swinging over huge voids in the ground with seemingly endless pits.
Progressing into the game there are also some amazing jungle/forest sections that feel much in the same vain as Uncharted and Wolverine, with their thick forest canopies and rays of light seeping through. Collapsed buildings and gardens break up the wilderness.
Character modelling is very different however, the faces and textures look more like something out of an anime movie, perhaps to make a bloke with a giant mechanical arm look a little more believable. Nonetheless, its a winning combination and on the visual front, Bionic Commando is a success.
As mentioned earlier, there are often long load times before areas, to cache everything before you go in to a new corridor – but unfortunately this doesn’t eradicate some very low-framerate areas, more noticeable later on in the game after 70% completion (and mainly in the jungle/forest areas) where there’s a lot more landscape and environment detail.
The slow down isn’t game breaking though and is usually cured just by looking in a slightly different direction or after moving through an area. thankfully they haven’t coincided with any high level or intense action sequences, so it really has no bearing on game play.
Menu systems and navigation is quite unique, with a sort of aim-and-click pointer, which also acts as your scroll tool when reading textual menus and intelligence documentation.
Overall its a polished front in the graphics department though.
I don’t usually comment with a specific section regarding sound, but I thought it was worthy of its own section for Bionic Commando.
If you’ve played previous games or have any hint of appreciation regarding nostalgia, you’ll probably love the sound in Bionic Commando. Even from the opening Capcom title screen with its classic sound pitches, its laced with throw-backs and audio style from memory lane.
The music is also quite at the forefront of game play. Often, superb orchestral pieces will be playing in the background as you are grappling through a forest corridor, only to have the solemn sounds broken and interrupted by an upbeat synthesised score as you encounter an enemy encampment.
Its a pleasant change to hear a well choreographed musical score grace an action game of this type.
Bionic Commando is an enjoyable and fun title – albeit with a significant learning curve and some niggling issues relating to game play and progress.
Initially, it felt terrible, the grappling mechanic clumsy and difficult to adjust to – but once you realise its not a race, get used to swinging at a certain point and holding it there until you’ve planned your next point, instead of parading through the level like Spider-Man, it works.
“Is that a big health bar, or are you just happy to see me?”
There are glimmers of absolute brilliance, but you get this feeling that some ideas and concepts just didn’t get enough attention, like they could have been amazing with a little more development time from GRIN. Like there was a looming deadline and they cut a little corner here and there.
Overall, none of it is game breaking. The issues relating to lost challenge and collectible progress is a perfect example. It doesn’t break the game, it doesn’t ruin the experience if you’re just out to play and enjoy, but if you like completing games, going for a Platinum and hunting Trophies – or just getting the maximum out of a title, its going to be a long, frustrating and sometimes tedious task.
Once I gave up on getting all the collectibles on my first play-through, I really, thoroughly enjoyed my time in Bionic Commando. The only disappointing aspect of this is I’ll probably never go back to try for 100% completion with these issues present.
At the end of the day, its a title I’m glad I’ve played – a title I’d recommend everyone take a look at, simply because it is actually good fun once you get past some minor problems. You will either love it or hate it, there’s no in between – but you need to give it a chance. Thus, had I still been doing my ‘Initial Impressions’ threads, it would have been a very bleak outlook for Bionic Commando. However, after 10 hours or so with the title, there are many more positives.
I loved it from a strictly ‘story mode’ point of view, but its not one I’d play to death either.