Bionic Commando

Game Description: Bionic Commando is back, now on the Xbox 360, 20 years after the NES classic was initially released. And returning with it is the swinging bionic arm game mechanic that made it so popular and critically acclaimed. Bionic Commando makes the move to 3D, and gamers will be able to grapple, swing, and scale a giant environment filled with buildings, canyons, and more.

Bionic Commando Review

Reaching into the past with a bionic grip

Bionic Commando Screenshot

HIGH Mastering the arm and swinging effortlessly through levels.

LOW Some checkpoints are set too far apart.

WTF The elements of a great story are here, they're just hardly used.

I don't often write reviews in response to other reviews, but in the case of GRIN's Bionic Commando, I was willing to make an exception.

A quick scan of the Internet reveals that several critics call the game out for things that hardly seem applicable; things that can only be due to several cases of misplaced expectation. Dinged for "‘flaws" like not having an open world design, or having a reduced emphasis on firearms and gunplay, I found it quite ironic that many of these same critics seem to assert that this revamp of Capcom's 1988 NES classic misses what made the original so great.

I couldn't disagree more—I found Bionic Commando to be incredibly faithful to its inspiration, both in terms of design and concept. As someone who has genuinely fond memories of the source material, I've got to wonder whether some of these critics even played the original at all. I don't think doing so is a prerequisite to reviewing GRIN's game, but it certainly might have helped give the proper perspective for it.

Focusing on the game itself, the titular commando in question is Nathan Spencer, a bionically-enhanced soldier who was imprisoned when public opinion of modified troops turned from pride to fear. On the day he's to be executed for so-called war crimes, a devastating bomb set by pro-bionic terrorists decimates sprawling Ascension City. In an effort to fight fire with fire, the government repeals his sentence and sends him (and his mechanical arm) in to clean up the mess.

...And what an arm it is.

Bionic Commando Screenshot

Obviously, the main element shared between GRIN's Bionic Commando and Capcom's original is this mechanical appendage. Its main purpose is to be used as a grappling hook of sorts, attaching to nearly any surface and giving Nathan a way to swing incredible distances and scale vertical structures. It also functions as a staggeringly effective weapon, able to handle enemy soldiers like rag dolls and toss chunks of rock or totaled cars with lethal bludgeoning force. It's not at all an understatement to say that mastery of Nathan's arm is crucial to the entire Bionic Commando experience, and a player's enjoyment of the title will hinge upon whether or not they can get the hang of it. (Pun partially intended.)

With that in mind, let's get one thing straight: this game is not intended to be Gears of War on a wire, it's not an iteration of Spider-Man with big guns added, and it's certainly not an aerial Grand Theft Auto in any way, shape, or form. Anyone coming to the project with these sorts of notions will naturally be disappointed. However, players able to take Bionic Commando on its own terms (terms essentially set by its predecessor) will find that it's an extremely gratifying experience.

Given that Nathan is a lone soldier infiltrating a vast city populated with enemies of all sorts, it makes sense that GRIN asks players to approach each situation tactically—after all, the player has the immense advantage of the bionic arm. Spencer is not bulletproof, and he's often outnumbered and outgunned. Anyone trying to play the game in spite of the arm instead of capitalizing on it will find themselves frustrated and defeated. Conversely, when the arm used to the fullest advantage, Nathan Spencer is an unstoppable force.

There is nothing quite like leaping from the top of a crumbling office building, freefalling for what seems like forever, and then grappling onto a nearby streetlight to catapult away from unyielding pavement at the last possible second. There is little more exciting than standing atop an unfinished construction site a mile high, jumping backwards into space to grapple onto a rusted beam on the way down, and then using the inertia to whip forward and latch onto an otherwise unreachable skyborne enemy. This is electric, visceral stuff.

Bionic Commando Screenshot

It's no surprise that death often comes from above for the hostile occupying forces, and rather than stealth or firepower, mobility is revealed to be the player's greatest asset. Although none of Bionic Commando's areas could properly be described as open-world in the truest sense, they certainly allow the player quite a bit of freedom while never feeling unfocused or empty. There are always multiple approaches to each situation, and thinking vertically is always rewarded handsomely.

In terms of production, the game is pure polish. Nathan's adventures in Ascension City take him through several stunning locales, all rendered with a great amount of detail. The remains of the city and its shattered skyscrapers are quite convincing, and the green, forest areas of abandoned parks and arboretums are just as beautiful. Several times, I found myself stopping to take in the view, the vantage points accessible thanks to the climbing abilities of the bionic arm providing multiple arresting vistas.

As an aside, although I don't usually pay much attention to music in games, I would like to give special praise to Bionic Commando's score. The new arrangements of the classic songs were extremely well-done, and certainly worth the mention.

Although a few more boss battles wouldn't have hurt and there are perhaps two or three places over the course of the adventure that could have benefited from more frequent checkpoints, my only real issue with Bionic Commando is that the story and characters never gain critical mass. The gameplay is certainly strong enough to carry the player from start to finish, but the cast of characters goes largely unused. The only other friendly bionic makes too-brief cameos, the central villain is largely absent until the final sequences, and an incredibly interesting twist late in the plot is all but ignored. There is real potential for Bionic Commando to tell a gripping soldier's tale, and I must admit that I was left more than a little baffled as to why it went untapped. Without more dramatic segments to help the player connect to Nathan, the vital opportunity to build some "star quality" and rise to gaming's top tier is missed.

Although some reviewers may malign the title, when all was said and done, I've got nothing but praise for it. The attention and effort put into this game is evident in all respects, and the central concept introduced so many years ago still holds up to this day; in fact, I'd say GRIN's work is superior to that which inspired it. Putting aside expectations of what some uninformed writers may think it should be, I was quite glad to take Bionic Commando for what it is—an absolutely faithful reimagining of an undisputed classic, smartly crafted and brought elegantly into the current generation. Rating: 8.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately nine hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed one times. No time was spent in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains Blood and Gore, Strong Language, and Violence. Although children might like the idea of swinging from place to place, it's really not appropriate for them. There are multiple instances of salty language, and the game has a rather frank, dark tone when it comes to violence. It's not excessively gory, but the player is tasked with killing scores of enemy soldiers via firearms or use of the bionic appendage. It'll be all right for teens (and older, natch) but keep the kids away, okay?

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: You should know that subtitles are available for all dialogue in the game, except for ambient chatter from nearby enemy soldiers or radio transmissions. Those things aren't vital, but it would have been nice to have them. Otherwise, the game is very playable and doesn't rely heavily on audio cues. It's easy to see enemies via an onscreen map and tell where bullets are coming from, so it all works out fairly well without sound.

Bionic Commando Art Gallery

Interview with Dan Eriksson, producer of Bionic Commando

Photo of Dan Eriksson, Producer of Bionic Commando.

If you've been reading this blog then you will know that I was quite impressed with the recent Bionic Commando game, updated and re-imagined by Swedish developer GRIN. So impressed, in fact, that I felt motivated to track down someone on the development team and ask them a few questions about their superb effort.

Thankfully, Bionic Commando producer Dan Eriksson was quite willing to chat with me for a bit about the work involved in reinventing such a classic game.

Special thanks to Gunnar Johansson for arranging the interview, and to Matt Weise, Dan Weissenberger, and @thiefofhearts for their questions.

As a Swedish developer, how do you approach a Japanese franchise and re-imagine it for a dominantly American market? Is there anything about the final game you consider Swedish? Is there anything about it you consider Japanese? How do these aspects mesh with regard to its intended audience?

The whole idea with Bionic Commando was that Capcom wanted a game that catered more to the western market. That's one of the reasons they chose us to develop the game, another reason being our flexible and advanced proprietary engine. But that doesn't mean it has to be a carbon copy of other games, we have kept some Japanese feel to the game like the Biomechas, and the boss fights.I wouldn't say there's anything Swedish in particular in the game other than our sense of design and aesthetics. I think the mix works very well, and it has given us more experience that we can use in new games.

What was your philosophy in crafting the difficulty curve of the game? Do you feel it strikes a balance between old school design and newer gameplay conventions?

A lot of us grew up with Amiga and NES games, which were generally a bit more difficult and demanded more from the player. Sadly it seems that the trend today is to "dumb" down the games and hold the players hand all through the game. This takes away too much from the game experience and the game feels more like an interactive movie than a game. We want the player to learn how to play and master the game, this gives a feeling of satisfaction when you complete the game.

Bionic Commando Screenshot

How long did it take you to refine the swinging mechanic into its current form? It only takes a few moments to become acclimated to, and it has a very instinctual, natural feeling. Was it quite difficult to nail such a crucial part of the game?

Being the core mechanic of the game the swing had to be great. We have iterated over a lot of different implementations before getting it to where it is today. It has been tough to nail it and get the perfect blend of realistic natural swinging but easy enough to learn.

Outside the swinging mechanic, how much was the team consciously trying to connect back to the original Bionic Commando in terms of things like art style, color palette, level design, combat mechanics, and so forth? Additionally, the orchestral score based on the original NES music is unforgettable. What was the vision or feeling the composer was after when updating for this new version?

Trying to tie back the art style from an 8-bit "pixely" game is not an easy task. But of course we kept influences like the red uniforms for the enemies, the leader being German and then of course the pixelated collectibles. We also strived for a bit more colorful world than you're used to in current gen games, we wanted more color than 4 shades of brown. Especially since you travel very fast when swinging, it's crucial that you can distinguish objects swooshing by. The vision for the music was to get a more epic feel, but still keep the original theme.

Bionic Commando Screenshot

Throughout the game, there are many small touches which show a great deal of thought and care. Specifically, things like Nathan ducking his head when he's under fire, or the way certain bits of dialogue are randomly replaced at times. Can you tell us a little about the design process behind this, and whether or not it was a reaction to other current characters or character design?

The ducking is our automatic cover system, we decided that we had enough features as it is, so instead of having an active cover system where the player has to press a button to get into cover, he will duck down behind object when he's in combat. Also, the enemies can be both above and below you, which can make it hard for the player to see if he's actually in cover or not.

The way Challenges and Achievements are woven into the core gameplay was quite brilliant. How did you strike upon such an idea?

Bionic Commando Art - Nathan Spencer

It was just the natural way to tie them together.

What was your vision for Nathan's character? He seems so sullen in cut-scenes, but so exuberant and chatty during play with his audible yells and comments. One theory we have is that it might be the "connection" between Nathan and his arm itself changing his mood and lifting his spirits. Was that at all intentional?

Nathan has been imprisoned for a while for following orders. Being free and having his arm back makes him happy. Most cut-scenes involve "Super Joe" who was part of sending Nathan to jail, of course he's a bit pissed at him.

In terms of story, could you tell us about how the plot of the game changed over the course of development, and what elements might have been left out? For example, there are some clips available online that show certain scenes not found in the final game like Nathan's wife in a canister, and so on. Additionally, several of us were left with the impression that the story was meant to be told from a soldier's perspective, meaning that the behind-the-scenes actions and certain parts of the story were held back because Nathan himself would not have been privy to them. Was this effect intentional, and if so, do you feel the story was successful?

Being on tight deadlines there are certain things that needs to be cut or changed during development. So instead of cutting down on features or game-play, we had to cut down some story parts. All scenes in-game are either scenes where Nathan is present, or dream sequences about his wife. To fill out the blanks of the back-story there's a comic up on the website.

Examining specific parts of the plot, was there ever discussion of re-inserting Master-D (a.k.a. Hitler) into the game? Groeder seems very Germanic and vaguely fits a similar role, although not quite. Can you tell us about the process of crafting this aspect of the story?

We wanted a connection to the old game without repeating the story, that's where Groeder fits in.

Bionic Commando Screenshot

Can you expand on Nathan's motivation for the final scenes of the game? He seems very driven to find out more information about his wife despite actually finding some very telling pieces prior to the endgame. Is he in a state of emotional denial? Finally, the actual ending itself has been the subject of some controversy. Personally, we are great fans of its boldness and vision here, but the game ends on a very dark, somber note that caught many players by complete surprise. Was there ever concern about how this ending would be received?

Even though he had an idea of what happened to Emily, he doesn't really know. He want a final answer from Joe. Of course we discussed the ending and knew it would surprise some people, but having that said, you don’t actually know what happened to Nathan.

Certain reviews have taken a fairly negative tone with Bionic Commando, specifically in regard to things like the way radiation limits movement in certain areas, as well as the quality of the story. What does your team make of the criticism (specifically in regard to the way this new Bionic Commando is a re-imagining of an older classic and not a brand-new IP) and do you feel it?s fair? What, if anything would you do to address these criticisms in the future?

Everyone are entitled to their personal opinion on what makes a game good or bad. However when there's reviews complaining on stuff like: "it's not an open world sandbox game, so it sucks", feels a bit unfair. The game never intended to be an open world sandbox game so the critique is not really valid. It's like saying that Grand Theft Auto 4 is a bad game because it doesn't have a swing mechanic. It feels like a lot of the negative reviews expected a totally different game, and based their review on what they thought they game would be instead of actually reviewing the game for what it is. Of course we take valid critique seriously and take notes on what to think about in future games.

Bionic Commando Screenshot

Is there any talk of a sequel? Bionic Commando was one of the few games in recent memory that genuinely left me wanting more. Nathan seems like such a capable character, and there are so many directions the series could go. For example, the arm seems custom-made for tackling huge bosses, even larger than what we saw. More lengthy segments featuring the swinging mechanic itself would be quite welcome, and challenge segments similar to those found in Rearmed would be a treat as well. What can fans of this new Bionic Commando look forward to?

I would personally like to see a sequel, however it's entirely up to Capcom to decide.

Infinite thanks to Dan Eriksson for the words, and here's hoping that Capcom will see fit to grace players who know what's good with a second installment to one of the most enjoyable games of 2009.

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