A sequel to one of the great side-scrolling shoot-'em-ups of the '80s
As a kid, I biked five miles just to rent the original Bionic Commando on the NES and I played it straight through in a single day. Over twenty years later, my enthusiasm for swinging around an urban jungle gym like a half-mechanical Tarzan hasn't waned one bit. Hell, I can feel my pulse climbing before I get the disc into the machine.
- Blissful acrobatic control, attack repertoire, crisp and detailed graphics, spectacular moments, challenge/reward system
- Limited enemy and environment variety, some poor checkpoint placement, unimaginative multiplayer, throwaway story
Bionic Commando never develops its own ideas far enough, or flies quite as high as it should, but it still manages to be a wonderfully unique and enjoyable swing-set action adventure. The grappling mechanic is a well-executed and interesting concept but it's a shame that the game isn't consistently great. Still, I can't help but keep my fingers crossed that the next chapter won't take another twenty years to appear.
Only five years have passed in Nathan Spencer's world, but times are tough. An explosion has turned the once stable concrete and asphalt avenues of Ascension City into a flooded and irradiated mess of teetering architecture and crumbling highway interchanges. After picking off introductory goons, my dreadlocked hero surveys the city from the exposed edge of an office building. I take a deep breath, launch out into open space, and the ground hurtles toward me. My iron boots guarantee that I won't die from any impact, but I've got higher aspirations than mere survival. I hold down the trigger that controls my mechanical arm, and hope for the best.
The balletic swoops and lingering airborne hang times that follow are undoubtedly the greatest joys I found in Bionic Commando. Water, radiation, and mine fields mark the boundaries of each beautiful environment, and discourage my bolder attempts at exploration and collectible gathering, but GRIN has filled even the most arbitrarily cordoned path with opportunities for deeply satisfying superhuman gymnastics. I occasionally became frustrated with some instances of frame-rate slow-down, frugal checkpoint placement, and downright sadistic platforming, but I never once got tired of swinging from ledge to street sign to tree limb with the aid of wonderfully intuitive but unobtrusive visual indicators.
There's more to well-rounded gaming satisfaction than the pleasure of movement, though. Ascension City's villains must've been hit hard by the recession, because they come in surprisingly few flavors, and the majority are trained to do little but run and shoot in your general direction while they await the merciful release of death. Grunts are only trouble when they show up by the dozen, flying Polycraft gunners can't seem to track you around a corner, and the hardest blue armored Biomech beast is a breeze to kill once you realize it's limited to maybe three different canned behaviors. Even the boss battles are more about pattern recognition and exploitation than any swing-and-gun finesse.
On the other hand, we're talking about a sequel to one of the great side-scrolling shoot-'em-ups of the '80s. Maybe such patterned behavior is intended as an homage to the design proclivities of a lost age.In all fairness, there are a truly ridiculous number of ways you can dispatch these swarming opponents, however thick-headed and repetitive their tactics might be, and hearing Mike Patton (the Faith No More frontman voices main character Nathan Spencer) shout "yeah!" after a particularly gratifying maneuver never gets old. Grab a goon's face with your fist from a distance and "zip kick" him into next week, pound the ground from a great height to thin a crowd, smack debris into nearby assailants, or "kite" a car and whip it into distant ones. You'll have an easier gaming experience if you rely on predictable projectile weapons with fancy names, like the HIKER shotgun and Bulldog grenade launcher, but you'll have more fun if you eschew them in the name of bionic melee grace, and make a point to attempt a long list of optional combat challenges.
The Big Picture
Bionic Commando occasionally works surprisingly hard to get your jaw to drop. A section of highway disintegrates here, a giant snake erupts from the ground there, and you'll hop from plane to plane in a truly stunning (and yet fundamentally simplistic) sequence that'd bankrupt any Hollywood studio. But the flow of adrenaline is simply too inconsistent to earn the game a place with the classics. For every intense set-piece battle against a boss or battalion there's an inexplicably long section of uneventful cave-traversing, or yet another relay to track down and hack with the push of a button. The big battles reward you with true spectacle; the other business rewards you with unnecessary expository text and frequent load screens.
Even multiplayer is a strange blend of inspiration and worn convention. Players boast arms that stretch significantly farther than Nathan's, so each of the detailed and delicately balanced maps becomes a zoo populated by brightly colored and incredibly agile high-tech spider monkeys. Tragically, you're limited to plain vanilla deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture-the-flag modes with just eight participants. Where are the swing races, the free exploration mode, and the ability to toss debris at each other? Where's the imagination that eventually surfaces to give the solo campaign the most memorable final minutes we've seen in months?
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