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Hello, Mr. Spencer!: In Defense of Bionic Commando

Bionic CommandoThis article was originally published at on May 27, 2009.

I'm currently enjoying the Sony PlayStation 3 version of Capcom's new Bionic Commando, and while I will not have a chance to finish the game and write a proper review until after E3, I wanted to take a moment to offer a few thoughts on the game and encourage you to not take the naysayers and mediocre reviews as honest final truth. There's a fantastically fun adventure inside Bionic Commando for those willing to see it, and based on my gameplay experience so far, I'd say that you're really missing out if skip over it. I make it a point not to read reviews of a game before I write my own review, but there are certain supposed definitives about the game that are leaking into the gaming community as a whole. I've heard that hero Nathan Spencer's bionic arm is an unwieldy beast to control and that the seemingly complex controls sink the game. I've heard that the story makes no sense is too linear. I've heard complaints about load times and limited replay value. While I never expect my own tastes to align with the community at large, after hearing these kind of repeated criticisms, I'm starting to wonder if I'm playing the same game as everybody else.

Spencer's bionic arm does take some practice to control efficiently, but that should not be a surprise. It took some time and a little effort to master the bionic arm in the original 1988 Bionic Commando as well as last year's Rearmed remake. Like anything worthwhile in life, practice makes perfect. Being able to swing through the air while shooting at enemy grunts does not come easy, but is so rewarding when done right. After about three hours worth of total playing time I was able to perform three consecutive swings into the middle of a troop of soldiers, shoot one as I approached, drop a grenade on two others, and dispatch the last one by snagging him with the bionic arm and slamming him into Spencer's boots all without losing momentum. Just like performing on-demand headshots in a first-person shooter or power sliding around every curve in a racing challenge, mastering the bionic arm requires patience and training. Automating the bionic arm's lock-on mechanic as some have suggested would have completely defeated the purpose of the game, just as if Mario's jumping were done on-rails or Captain Falcon's car sported automatic acceleration.

Bionic CommandoAs for the story, a frequent complaint seems to be that Spencer's mission lacks a purpose for the first half of the game and that his incarceration prior to the start of the story does a disservice to the character. In a way, I believe that these story elements are part of the point. We do not know Spencer's true purpose in the bombed-out Ascension City any more than he does. That's why there's a story to tell here, folks; if we knew everything at the start of the game, what would be the point of exploring where the narrative takes us? Bionic Commando provides some interesting backstory in the form of a dossier database similar to the one found in Rearmed, but the game is not going to lead us around directly from Point A to Point Z without going through the other stops along the way first. Spencer is not going to swing through the city in search of mission startpoints. This is not an open-world sandbox game, nor do I believe it should be. If anything, I would call Bionic Commando more of a playable action movie due to its from-the-mold character types and major stunts and set pieces. We used to enjoy linear stories all the time before the third-person action genre was hijacked by car theft and vendetta killings, as I recall. Moreover, Spencer has been locked away in prison from us just as we've been kept away from him while his franchise gathered years of dust. I would hope that he's in a different place than when we last saw him.

Finally, complaints about long load times are nothing new this generation, but we've all certainly sat through worse lately, so twenty seconds or so in between checkpoints really should not be an issue. As for the alleged replay value issues, I can agree with the gripes about how the game does not save progress, acquired collectibles, or trophy rewards during the on-demand level jump replay option, but based on how many times I've replayed the original Bionic Commando over the years, I bet I'll want to take another swing through Ascension City in the future via the proper story mode, and when I do there will thankfully still be a few loose ends to tie up.

Bionic CommandoIs Bionic Commando a perfect experience? No, it has its issues just like any other game, but none of the problems I see have anything to do over what the gaming community at large seems to have already passed judgment. You'll hear all about those things as well as some of the best aspects of the game in my full review, but for now I want to encourage you to not take the blanket statements of the community's apparently collective opinion. There's more to love than hate in Bionic Commando. Take it for a swing and find out for yourself.