7.8

Bionic Commando (Xbox 360)

Games Reviews Xbox 360
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Developer: GRIN
Publisher: Capcom
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

ARM-AGEDDON

Can't remember the last time I've had this much fun with a severely flawed game

According to Capcom’s newest installment in the Bionic Commando franchise, the apocalypse is worse than anyone feared. Case in point: the only soda machines in Ascension City to survive a catastrophic WMD blast all sport glowing Pepsi logos (and not even the slick, newly reimagined Pepsi logo, which you’d expect to find inhabiting the game’s supposedly futuristic setting). Unfortunately this innocuous bit of soft-drink product placement offers the perfect beverage metaphor for the Bionic Commando experience. It’ll quench your thirst just fine, but the recipe always tastes a bit off.

We’ve established that there are plenty of things Bionic Commando does miserably. (One final nitpick: when Spencer is speaking outside of cut scenes, the developers at GRIN neglected to make the dude’s lips flutter, which can’t be that difficult, can it? I guess they were too busy designing little self-congratulatory GRIN mouse pads to appear on desks in the game’s intro-level office building.) Even still, you really should play this game, if only to swing around like the dread-locked cyber-soldier Tarzan you’ve always dreamt of being. The mechanic is so deftly executed that you’ll find yourself grinning like a doped-out orangutan in her own private jungle. Once you get down the timing of unleashing your bionic arm at the perfect moment to swing from a bit of construction scaffolding or a rocky outcropping or half-demolished billboard, you’ll forget your complaints, at least momentarily. Just like you’ll forget the last time your bionic boots touched the ground.

Hollywood’s blockbuster sausage factory continues to crank out dismally pedestrian X-Men film adaptations, convincing themselves that storylines about mutant discrimination offer important allegory about the need for tolerating difference (or something about the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, possibly, maybe). And here comes Bionic Commando, late to the party. The public is beginning to distrust veteran soldiers with bionic enhancements. The implication being: if we let soldiers with bionic upgrades live freely in society, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll start trying to marry each other. And how will we stop them if they get that crazy notion in the non-machine part of their brains.

While this new Bionic Commando leaves behind its predecessors’ 2D platforming gameplay, there’s still a jarring 2D rigidity to the moral and emotional complexity of the game’s central characters and the struggle in which they’re engaged. Mike Patton, who’s contributed impressive voice-over work to games like The Darkness and Left 4 Dead, explores emotional nuances in the character of Spencer ranging from pissed-off to super pissed-off. The only problem is he doesn’t sound tough or badass or hardcore. He just sounds irritated the whole time, as if he’s waited in line for several hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles to replace a lost driver’s license only to realize that the proof of address he brought isn’t on the list of acceptable documents. At one point I killed an evil BioReign henchmen and Spencer barked, “You’ll thank me for that one day!” (still trying to figure out what that barb even means). When you hack communication terminals, enemy leaders still bicker like stooges and telegraph the weaknesses of their mech infantry, which worked great in the cartoony 8-bit installment but relentlessly undermines the 2009 model’s flimsy veneer of sophistication.

In this three-dimensional sequel to the 1988 NES classic of the same name, Bionic Commando invites players to once again hop inside the skin of Nathan “RAD” Spencer as he swings about using his bionic (read: go go gadget) left arm, helping rid the world of a terrorist group called BioReign. The game’s plot picks up just after BioReign has detonated a powerful experimental weapon in the middle of Ascension City—an impossibly bland approximation of New York City where the crumbling highway signs point you to imaginative landmarks like “West” and “Downtown.” There’s absolutely zero trace of the millions of people who inhabited Ascension City just minutes prior to the blast so there’s no telling whom exactly you’re supposed to be saving. Even big-budget, post-apocalyptic titles like Gears of War 2 and Fallout 3 have gone to the trouble of peppering their worlds with civilian refugees to increase the player’s emotional stake.