This article was originally published at Kombo.com on June 15, 2009.
Building on the momentum of 2008's Bionic Commando Rearmed, Capcom and GRIN have put together a full 3D action game that skips ahead to several years after Nathan Spencer rescued Super Joe and ended the Imperial plan to revive their leader and conquer the world with the Albatross. We rejoin Spencer shortly after the Federation capital of Ascension City is incinerated with nuclear weapons. Super Joe — now in charge of the Federation's Tactical Arms and Security Committee — springs Spencer from prison, reunites him with his bionic arm, and sends him into the radioactive ruins in search of the people behind the bombing. Spencer's ultimate objective unfolds as the story progresses as part of an engrossing narrative that keeps players guessing all the way to the end as Spencer's past keeps catching up with his future.
Bionic Commando has taken a lot of heat in the gaming community and I've already taken the time to defend what some see as key weaknesses and failings, and as I've played through the game I've come to realize that some players are judging this game based on its gun-toting combat capabilities, but evaluating Spencer's adventure with an eye on his arsenal is not what Bionic Commando is all about. Spencer's best weapon is, by far, his bionic arm. Locking the arm onto a target takes plenty of practice and patience. Most players will fail early and often while - pardon the pun - getting into the swing of things. In skilled hands, however, the arm becomes the most important tool in the game. Just about every major item or object in the game is snaggable by the arm, allowing Spencer to climb just about anywhere. Small and medium-sized items such as rocks and cars can be tossed at enemies with crushing force. The arm can even lock on to enemies to hold them in place as Spencer leaps into the air and delivers a harsh kick to the target. Most impressively, mastering the bionic arm allows players to swing through the air again and again without stopping with momentum carrying Spencer across great distances in mere moments. Swinging madly is just plain fun, and Spencer's enthusiastic howls and shouts prove that he's having just as much as I am.
I wasn't expecting Bionic Commando's storyline to dig quite so deep, but the amount of world-building going on here reminds me of the extensive backstory running through Metroid Prime. Take the time to hack the enemy communication terminals and there's all kinds of backstory to learn. While eavesdropping on the enemy in Rearmed offers thinly disguised gameplay tips, here we learn about why Spencer was in prison, when his wife left him, which of his friends turned against him, how the Federation carried out the so-called Bionic Purge, and many other optional story elements. Players can plow through the game start to finish without reading these communiques and skip most of the narrative, but the extensive plot is there for those eager to read it (and, frankly, you really should follow the story to get the most of out this game). Moreover, there are plenty of references to Rearmed and its cast of bombastic characters weaved into the story. Some of the spoken dialog even changes slightly during repeat plays to help keep things fresh.
For everything that it does right, Bionic Commando does have a few missteps. Much has been said about the special collectible items becoming unobtainable for the rest of the game if missed or skipped, and while these collectibles merely unlock concept artwork, the frustrating thing about collecting them is that they do not truly count as "collected" until Spencer clears a checkpoint. Pick one up and die before the checkpoint, and you'll have to collect it all over again in order to actually keep it. I don't mind second and third attempts to clear an area, but taking back collected items in this manner is just kicking a player when he or she is down. This also seems to be a good a place as any to say that I do not care for Spencer's modern visual update which includes dreadlocks instead of his previously trademark red buzz cut, but turning on the special retro costume (unlocked with Bionic Commando Rearmed) that replaces the new Nathan with his Rearmed counterpart rendered in glorious 3D cured all of my ills. With the single-player mode being so stellar, I expected similar enjoyment from the game's online multiplayer mode, but came away disappointed. As I mentioned earlier, Bionic Commando is not about the guns and grenades, it's about the arm. Throwing players into an arena where the emphasis is on run-and-gun combat isn't doing anyone any favors. It just was not enjoyable at all. The multiplayer plays like a tacked-on afterthought to the main story mode, and if you've only played the game's multiplayer demo and are judging the whole package negatively based on that experience, you should reconsider.
It is a gaming crime that people seem to be passing on Bionic Commando based on some underwhelming early buzz and a lackluster multiplayer demo on Xbox Live. Nathan Spencer's big 3D adventure is nearly everything that I'd hoped it would be, and while it does have some issues, whenever the grand title theme music kicks up while swinging through the radioactive ruins of the city as I shoot rockets and drop grenades on enemy soldiers below, it's obvious that Bionic Commando is firing on all of its bionic cylinders. There's a lot going on here - a deeply twisting story, intense action, laugh-out-loud humor (for instance, listen for when Spencer breaks the fourth wall before a certain boss battle), reunions with old friends & enemies, familiar music interpreted in new ways, and plenty of special effects eye candy - that would be a shame to miss. Do not believe the negative hype. I cannot recommend Bionic Commando enough.