Capcom has had a monumental influence on the videogames industry over the years by conjuring up new ideas and creating some innovative game mechanics that have managed to stand the test of time, as well as motivating others along its illustrious path. Bionic Commando, a 20 year old NES and arcade classic, is a prime example. Capcom took the platform genre and spun it on its head, demonstrating perfectly how it has the ability to think outside the box. Unimpeded by conventional constraints, the Japanese developer took this popular genre and put its own spin on things by doing away with the traditional jump button and incorporating a swing mechanic that added a whole new dimension to 2D platform hopping. As a result of its ingenuity, the original Bionic Commando is still a game that is talked about to this very day.
So, it was with great anticipation that Capcom announced a new console version of Bionic Commando, a sequel to the side-scrolling classic of yesteryear. Though this latest iteration has received the obligatory next-gen graphical makeover, it still incorporates the basics from the first game in the series, including the swing mechanic. Essentially, Capcom has adapted and refined the old swing-and-shoot gameplay from its 1980’s side-scroller and has, evidently, done a remarkable job in the process. As a result of its latest efforts, Bionic Commando's gameplay still feels incredibly unique and stands out among the deluge of standard run-and-gun titles currently on the market.
The story of Bionic Commando takes place ten years after the NES version and follows Nathan Spencer, a government agent who has been wrongly imprisoned by his own employer and then stripped of his Bionic arm. The story picks up on the day that Spencer faces execution for the crimes he has supposedly committed, but a terrorist attack on Ascension City changes things drastically. An experimental weapon is detonated downtown, causing an earthquake which devastates the city and makes buildings crumble to the ground. With the entire population wiped out, terrorist forces move in to occupy the area and Spencer is offered a lifeline by the FSA who want him to help investigate and eliminate the terrorist threat in return for his freedom.
Spencer isn’t your normal run-of-the-mill army commando. His Bionic arm wields enormous power and projects a grappling hook that allows him to move around the city both horizontally and vertically by latching onto various objects and buildings. Swinging across the devastated metropolis of Ascension City, main missions generally involve heading from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ as you hack into relays, see off enemy grunts and indulge in mini-boss battles against a range of Biomechs. There are also a significant number of side objectives and collectibles to pick up along the way, all of which actively encourage you to use and make the most of Spencer’s swinging ability.
Initially, the swing mechanic does take some getting used to. During the initial training level, we often fell to our death by mistiming jumps, so assumed that gameplay would become even more frustrating once we actually began the main mission. While there are some extremely challenging environments to traverse -- especially if you stroll off the beaten track on the search for collectibles -- it actually took us little more than half an hour of playing the main mission to get to grips with swinging. By that point we were hooking onto suspended roadways, monorails and lamp-posts, chaining swings together and zipping up the side of skyscrapers. A few minutes later, we were taking leaps of faith from massive heights, expertly latching onto piping on the way down and then swinging ourselves with pinpoint precision smack bang into the middle of a group of unsuspecting terrorists. You also have total control over camera angles throughout the game, so there's no dodgy camera issues to impede your jumps. It's a feature that helps immeasurably in making swinging an enjoyable and free-flowing experience. Furthermore, it means that swinging relies purely on your skill as you try to get jump angles right by tilting the camera around, getting your timing spot-on, and of course making sure that when you let go off an object there’s something to actually latch onto. Having environmental awareness plays a big part in your success or failure.
The grappling hook can also be used for fighting and manipulating objects to use against enemies. Using the hook is a refreshing change from just gunning down foes; with so much choice at your fingertips there are a number of entertaining ways you can tackle grunts and bosses. You can latch onto an enemy and then hoist yourself hurtling toward them and zip kick them, grab a car and launch it toward them, or even pull down a piece of masonry to crush them. Alternatively, you can swing on a lamppost above the head of your enemy and, making sure you get enough height on your swing, let go and tap ‘triangle’ repeatedly to pull off a ‘Death from above’ attack, which sees you dive down at speed and pummel your Bionic arm forcibly into your attacker. It’s this smooth and intuitive swinging mechanic that ultimately makes Bionic Commando so much fun.
Bionic Commando wouldn't be as enjoyable if it wasn't for some brilliantly designed locations. Ascension City is an engaging multi-tiered environment boasting crisp graphics and a high attention to detail. It's a cleverly designed playground with multiple routes to the main objectives and branching pathways where you can explore and search for collectibles. A deep field of view creates the feeling of scale and makes Ascension City look huge, so it’s extremely enjoyable to spot a waypoint far away in the distance, or a craftily placed collectible, and then have to work out how to get there by scaling rooftops, zipping up the front of a skyscraper or swinging between floating mines.
Though the towering buildings and deep canyons do provide a stunning backdrop to Spencer’s hook-swinging antics, the environment is quite deceptive and not actually as open-ended as it initially appears. Capcom has used the devastation caused by the terrorist disaster as an excuse to block pathways. Burning cars and fallen bridges ensure that you can’t explore as far as you’d like, while radiation effects, which reveal themselves on buildings with a faint blue glow, prevent you from latching onto certain objects. Seeing buildings and structures far away in the distance and not been able to get to them is a little disappointing, especially when we were expecting a sandbox environment, but the balance between exploration and action is still very appealing thanks to some cleverly designed locations and the high graphical quality throughout the game.
Furthermore, Bionic Commando encourages you to experiment with the range of skills and moves as you navigate Spencer's surroundings. There are dozens of challenges on offer that unlock new powers, give you better armor or improve your weapon skills. We’ve also spent a lot of time enjoying unlocking as many Trophies as possible, such as ‘Kick In The Back,’ awarded for the first time you hook onto an enemy and use your zip line to kick him, or ‘Swinger,’ which you gain by executing three consecutive swings in a row. By far the most fun we’ve had though, aside from the main missions, is searching for the 150 collectibles that are hidden around the landscapes. Though they only unlock art assets and don’t affect the game in any way, searching for collectibles in Bionic Commando is an intriguing and addictive side-game. It’s testament to the smooth swing mechanic and the excellent level design that we've really enjoyed a task that can sometimes be quite mundane in other games.
Bionic Commando's gun-play isn't quite as compelling; neither, if truth be told, is combat in general. There are some entertaining mini-boss battles, against the giant mechanical worm Mohole for example, but you can generally find their weak spots without much effort and soon work out how to avoid their attacks. Problems with A.I. also crop up on occasions. Grunts are good at picking you off from a distance, especially snipers, but close up they have trouble finding you and they're generally easy to outmaneuver. In the first boss battle, for instance, we found a blind spot right next to a Shield Biomech and we just stood there and watched him just swipe at thin air while we pummeled him. If it wasn’t for Spencer’s array of grappling hook moves combat would be fairly lackluster, with battles and shoot-outs generally lacking in real excitement or visual flair. The array of weapons is partly to blame, with your first gun, the semi-automatic pistol, doing the job intended but lacking real punch. Even the likes of the rocket launcher or the impact of a grenade lack the same power as a lot of other shooters. Nevertheless, Bionic Commando's imperfections don't ruin the fun. In case you need reminding, this is a game that's all about the swinging, and it's that mechanic that is Bionic Commando's biggest selling point.
If you’re not working out inventive ways to reach a waypoint, killing enemies by swinging off lampposts and crumbling bridges, or pulling the landscape apart to bring it down on them, you’ll be having a great time weaving between towering skyscrapers, dangling off girders high above the city, and searching far and wide for those elusive collectibles. Combat isn’t as intense as we had hoped, but the Bionic arm comes to the rescue and ensures that you don’t have to rely entirely on the rather boring weapon set. When all is said and done, Bionic Commando is still a breath of fresh air at this notoriously slow point in the gaming release calendar, and a worthy remake of the 1980s classic.
|Bionic Commando Review by Steven Williamson|
-The Final Word-
A classy remake of a classic title, Bionic Commando is the undisputed King of Swing.