Bionic Commando Throwback Review

… Bionic Commando?

Rarely has a franchise left audiences so persistently unconvinced. You probably reacted to this review as incredulously as players did when Capcom initially unearthed the property as a would-be seventh generation franchise. Counter to the prior success stories of Dead Rising and Lost Planet, Bionic Commando didn’t seem to satisfy anybody. Polite critical reception pretty swiftly gave way to potshots at its ridiculous narrative and product placement, while sales in its first two weeks amounted to a fifth of its downloadable prelude (Bionic Commando Rearmed). Most telling would be the fact that Bionic Commando Rearmed got a sequel, while a sequel to the primary title remains conspicuously absent.

Within a generation, Bionic Commando was cast aside as a legacy act. The excellent 2.5D Rearmed faced diminishing returns with its sequel (at this point no longer a remake of the original title), the supposed smash hit at the center of this revival didn’t even get a chance. Bionic Commando is remembered as a franchise killer, a studio killer, and a killer of Capcom’s financial momentum, perhaps because those dishonorable tags stand-out more than, deceptively novel time killer.

Bionic Commando is a shooter centered around mobility. This isn’t completely alien in a world that now has Sunset Overdrive and has enjoyed Uncharted and Ratchet and Clank prior but even alongside these, Bionic Commando stands out. Played as a standard over-the-shoulder third-person affair, Bionic Commando is a misleadingly ordinary experience. You are Nathan Spencer, a bionically-enhanced soldier who looks like Jonathan Davis and grumbles like… his voice actor Mike Patton. A generally pedestrian, occasionally mortifyingly hilarious narrative mostly serves as justification for you to be funneled from one urban sprawl to the next.


Enemies are merely half the challenge in game

Overgrowth and technological overrule are at persistent war with each other. Towering skyscrapers and control towers bely a broken foundation damaged by radioactive weaponry and engulfed in flora. In one respect, environments are noticeably linear, players restricted by aqua colored wafts of radiation that swiftly chip away at the player’s health. Level progression resembles that of an acrobatic maze more than a sandbox and it’s an emphasis on acrobatics that subverts expectations and makes Bionic Commando its own methodical beast.

Every surface across each level of Bionic Commando can be swung off of or at the very least zipped to for the sake of tactical traversal. Spencer’s arm is bulky and its use can first and foremost be perceived as lumbering. Individual swings rely on timing and planned direction, no sort of autopilot is at play and Spencer swings about as many times in an entire level as Spider-Man can in a single minute. Swinging is not a one-shot press trigger to traverse forward process. Spencer is merely the weight at the end of pendulum, whose unwavering rhythm guides players. Once you catch the rhythm, Bionic Commando reveals its more conventional trappings as a Trojan Horse for a uniquely agile playing experience.

The linear restriction of its level design allows every piece of architecture to serve as a means to your destination. The presence of collectables encourages taking your time after firefights to explore the environments, engaging in informal acrobatic puzzles, mastering the mechanics in an otherwise short campaign. The collectables are hardly a challenge to find, but getting to them is often a test of ingenuity beyond mindless meandering. I found rewards or completionist tendencies to be irrelevant to the pursuit of the floating trinkets, merely swinging to the levels’ edges to grab them was rewarding enough.


Uncharted territory; Courtesy of Steam

Where Spencer’s bionic enhancements really come into play however is in their anchoring of the combat. Bionic Commando’s biggest strength and weakness at once is its refusal to make gunplay the roots of your success. Bizarrely, your guns retain the sort of peashooter quality of the original Bionic Commando or Metal Slug, despite the obligatory modern third-person shooter posturing much of Bionic Commando employs. With the exception of spectacularly absurd headshots scored by the sniper rifle, which loses no power in the hands of enemies, the conventional ranged arsenal in your hands plays second-fiddle to the methods of destruction that are forever attached to your person.

Realized to full player potential, Spencer becomes some sort of amalgamation of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and The Hulk whose methods of taking down faceless terrorists know no restraint. The ambidexterity of swinging from tower to tower with a machine gun in the opposite hand melded into a shockingly coherent playing style is just the start of it. Just as every surface is a corner to swing from, vehicles and shrapnel scattered across your environments are present just to serve as weaponry. The frailty of gunplay is countered by the ability to take out entire mobs of enemies with a thrown passenger vehicle (with an appreciated lock-on speeding up the process). Whether a result of intentional balancing or a lack of refinement in gunplay (the latter of which being an admitted weakness of Grin’s output), you are encouraged to rely on Spencer’s most elaborate combat techniques, transcending the standard third-person shooter presentation.


Armed and dangerous

Bouncing off the walls around enemies and/or using the weight of your body to rupture enemy bases (Pac Man World style) is a kinetic experience; one that assembles the joys of third-person shooters and platforming in a manner that isn’t really paralleled in more renowned shooter platformers. Enemies are often distributed across multiple plateaus, be it snipers eager to intercept your flight or lumbering defense bots who can only be damaged through overhead flanking. Bionic Commando is the polar opposite of a cover shooter but it nonetheless relies on player defense. Staying still for mere moments is suicide, constant traversal is a defense mechanism, a commonality of most shooter platformers but given a singular approach here.

It is effectively impossible to progress in Bionic Commando without perpetually traveling airborne between corners of a given area. Enemies generally appear in clusters across decently expansive levels ensuring that platforming is a part of the experience to the same extent as combat. This balance redeems the fact that in terms of level design, Bionic Commando settles into a bit of a routine early on. Spread between urban and forested areas, roughly half of the game is spent in pursuit of computer towers, markers at the end of the areas in control of minefields that must be disabled for progression’s sake.

In the latter half of the title, Bionic Commando becomes more generous with its setpieces but the bulk of enjoyment hinges upon your appreciation of the mechanics. The game surrounding it can suffer from a slight deficit of inspiration, for as much of a cop-out as this is, without the bionic arm Bionic Commando would be one of the most generic shooters of its generation. The bionic arm redeems this and makes the game a consistently enjoyable experience from start-to-finish, but it’s easy to characterize Bionic Commando as a compromised vision, molded into a self-serious triple-A competitor, with more standard tropes than its mechanics deserves.


Witness a dystopian universe where Pepsi beat Coke

This places the ludicrous narrative and in-game product placement in a weird spot. In presentation, Bionic Commando unknowingly feels like a direct-to-DVD sci-fi special forced to fashion itself otherwise. Bionic Commando was partially funded through sponsorship, not an isolated occurrence in the game industry, but it means towering Nvidia ads and Pepsi machines clash with Ascension City’s own fictional products and dystopian environment. More confounding is an infamous twist at the end of the story (Spoiler: your deceased wife’s spirit resides in your bionic arm), that further cements it as some sort of absurdist comedy where publishers perhaps weren’t in on the joke.

Bionic Commando reaps the benefits and curses of the generation it was released in. As a product of the seventh generation, its levels are large and detailed enough for airborne and on-foot combat to mutually coexist and be resoundingly satisfying to play; but the game’s heart is in a simpler time. Bionic Commando is not the sort of self-consciously stern powerhouse Capcom was eager to present it as (the sorts alleged to “push narrative in gaming further”). Bionic Commando is the antithesis to a slow-burner relative even to Gears of War, and on those merits deserves its second chance. Perception as a swing and a miss at first glance does a disservice to the farcical enjoyment on offer.


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