In 1988 a game called Bionic Commando was released on the Nintendo Entertainment System by Capcom, it was a tough side-scrolling platformer featuring the Bionic claw of Nathan “Rad” Spencer. Moving forward twenty years, Capcom has taken the 2D concept, and turned it in to a fully-fledged 3D experience. The new game keeps many of the original ideas, but adds a couple of twists, whilst taking advantage of the somewhat more powerful processing the PlayStation 3 can provide.
As the game starts the player sees Ascension City explode in a ball of atomic light, as it’s attacked in a terrorist act. Much time has passed in the BC universe, our hero is facing a death sentence having spent the last five years in prison, stripped of his implant. As luck would have it, this new terrorist threat has killed millions, an event that gives Spencer his freedom, in order to track the bad guys down and eliminate them.
For the preliminary five minutes of the game, Spencer has to search for his bionic implant, which for some bizarre reason is sent separately to the kill-zone. Ammo is on the short in supply side, and for the first level of the game that is all there is to kill people with. Once the metal limb is in place, there is less reliance on bullets, the bionic arm makes a fantastic tool for all kinds of mayhem. Then something odd happens, the player suddenly finds himself in a virtual reality training room.
The tutorial does a good job of preparing the player for the real challenges ahead, introducing the concepts at a good pace, but it yanks the player out of the game’s story. Grappling is not immediately intuitive though, and it does take a bit of practice to get the timing of the swings right. The main bug bear here is that grapples have to be aimed, something that gets trickier when a lot of action is going on as much of the environment allows the arm to hook on. The control system isn’t overly complex, but some dexterity and practice is needed to time the more complicated moves, such as throws and punch-ups if they have any hope of being effective.
As swiftly as the tutorial yanks the player out the game, it chucks him right back in, but without any of the skills learnt there – they are slowly regained as the game unfolds, under the premise that it’s been a while since our hero has used this special appendage, needing time to remember what it can do. Spencer emerges through a blast hole in the side of a sky-scrapper, and it’s a very long way down, the cityscapes are tall and expansive, and considering it’s just been hit by several megatons, most impressive. There are some very nice uses of depth-of-field to give a sense of scale to the proceedings, and also well used when zooming in to snipe an enemy at longer ranges. With the green way-point flashing in the distance, it’s a matter of finding the best way forward. Hitting these markers usually causes a loading screen to pop-up, and there seems to be a fair number of them in quite short spaces of time.
A lot of care has to be taken around enemies who will kill the player in short order, the same is true of radiation – as daft as it sounds, Spencer’s bionics are highly sensitive to this atomic poison (yet is sent in to the middle of newly nuked city), so dies in a matter of seconds if he finds himself in the wrong location. It’s a mechanism used to force the player down a certain path, particularly in the first city environment, where it feels like it should be open to exploration – in actuality the levels are pretty narrow in scope. The game-over screen becomes somewhat of a friend as it’s seen often, thankfully it doesn’t take too long to get back in to the action, and the auto save points are relatively close together. There will be some re-tracing Spencer’s steps, but it’s nothing that causes too much pain to the senses.
As the player gets more familiar with the controls, swinging through the environments gets a bit easier. It soon becomes clear that your thinking of how to play through a level has to have a high degree of vertical awareness. Spencer rarely dies from falls, partly because he can drop a fair distance and take no damage, but also because the grapple button can be held down. Should anything be targeted that can be held, that saving bionic extension will take hold, leaving him swinging in the wind.
By the time the first couple of bosses are encountered, it is absolutely essential to have mastered Spencer’s moves – boss battles are difficult and need precise control. These battles can require a couple of attempts while the player works out how to defeat them, but this isn’t a case of frustration. There’s a definite feeling of accomplishment when the first of these fall. It’s clear that the developers, Grin, spent a lot of time modelling these end level nasties as they are superbly detailed.
The developers have also cleverly littered a number of collectables about the environment, some of which are mightily challenging to get, but rewarding when nabbed. Keeping an eye out for these is essential, as there’s no audio cue as to where they are; getting all of them is rewarded with a platinum trophy.
Whether Bionic Commando will be enjoyment personified will depend on one simple thing – having the dedication to master Spencer’s Bionic Arm. It takes time, something that the more casual gamer might give up on too early. Only when this becomes second-nature does the game really open up, swinging while you’re winning. Whilst the story really is a bit nonsensical, and the journey is a little on the linear side, the ticket price is worth it for experiencing the boss battles. It’s not an absolute classic, but it’s certainly a worthy sequel to the 1988 game on the NES.