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TVG straps on a bionic appendage and remembers just how hard games used to be...
Being a fan of games that are as difficult as Bionic Commando is a bit like loving hot & spicy food. Any chilli mentalist will tell you that they don't eat a vindaloo to savour the carefully woven flavours that a chef has chosen. Instead, their aim is to test themselves by pushing their heat threshold to the limit. They might sweat profusely, experience the fires of hell in their intestinal tract, and then spend a painful half-hour on the toilet the next day, but it's all worth it for the effects of light-headedness, mild euphoria (perhaps even hallucinations), and the sense of achievement that they get by proving that they're up to the task.
Only fellow chilli enthusiasts understand this; normal people simply look on, disgusted. They'll ask things like, 'How can you enjoy that?', and, 'Don't you think that it drowns out all the other flavours?' But they don't and will probably never understand. Similarly, it's very hard for normal people to understand why true gamers play through the same section of a game, failing time after time as they gurn unattractively at the TV screen, shout a cacophony of swear words at every unsuccessful attempt, and eventually hurl their game controller at the cat.
Controllers Killed The Cat
Of course, the cat only gets injured if you give up on a section of the game and decide to sulk for hours instead. If you do get through a rock-hard level then, not only does little Tigger survive, but you also get a reward: that elation of knowing that you are better than the game; your skills are superior to the hardest thing any game developer can throw at you. Capcom has been the undisputed heavyweight champion of producing games like this over the years and arguably, in a time when games are celebrated for having accessible gameplay with intuitive controls that attract larger audiences, Capcom is the last remaining bastion of the hardcore classes.
Accessible and intuitive, Bionic Commando certainly is not. Hard as nails to the point that you'll need to take out more cover on your pet insurance, it certainly is. Bionic Commando isn't without its back-story and heritage, which are given cursory nods all over this remake, but to say that it's a game with an immersive world, intriguing characters, and stunning production values would be wrong, wrong, and wrong again. But that's not the aim here. Capcom is merely trying to build a game world in the Bionic Commando cannon that will test the sheer will and resolve of those who step-up to the challenge.
Even playing on 'Normal' (that's the game's lowest difficulty setting, by the way), Bionic Commando is a slog, and it's mostly down to the all important swing mechanic on Nathan Spencer's bionic arm. About as friendly to newcomers as a private Counter Strike lobby, this mechanic will punish much more than it rewards. The post-WMD destroyed game world has been purposely constructed to make anchor points for the arm sparse, so every leap between objects is questionable and requires a hefty dose of good judgement. Falling to the ground is an ever present danger and, if you do fall to the depths below, then it'll often be into a cloud of radiation or a lake that has somehow formed at ground level.
Confusingly for a trained Commando, Nathan has the lung capacity of Keith Richards on a cold day which, coupled with him having an anchor for an arm, makes the guy as good as dead whenever he falls into the wet stuff. Similarly, the blue radiation clouds, which are a little bit too conveniently used as level barriers as much as they are supposed to be hazards, also kill Nathan off in a matter of seconds. The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to know precisely where you want to swing to and then time that swing perfectly. Letting go of your anchor point too late will result in losing all your momentum, while swinging too late won't provide Nathan with any flight.
It's a balancing act that Capcom and developer Grin has nailed. Although the mechanic seems alien to begin with, it soon becomes an addictive extension to Bionic Commando's transitive gameplay even if it's never entirely natural. In this way, the controls feel exactly like we'd expect having three tons of military hardware for an arm to feel. Much like with Grin's last game, Wanted: Weapons of Fate, Bionic Commando's tutorial introduces all of the special moves attached to the bionic arm at the start, only to pull them away from you once the campaign gets going. These skills are then recalled by Nathan as the campaign unfolds, allowing him to do everything from hurling cars at enemies to performing vicious 'whip spin' pirouettes that supply a powerful ranged attack.
All in all, Capcom's infamous bionic arm is faithfully translated onto a fully-fledged, third-person action adventure for the current generation of consoles. However, the combat that surrounds this plentiful swinging action is a touch hit-and-miss. Enemy AI is less than bright, with human NPC characters that react with very basic evasion routines once they're aware of your presence. Similarly, as you run for cover, groups of enemies will flock to you brainlessly with no intention of flanking or taking cover themselves, making it very easy to simply drop a grenade into the crowd once they're near and take out the whole platoon.
Thankfully, the combat is well seasoned with mechanoid mini-bosses that pepper the game world and are varied enough to keep things interesting, although we were more than disappointed by the limited number of full bosses throughout the campaign. It being Capcom (not to mention Bionic Commando), we were expecting to encounter formidable bosses all over the game, so we were more than a little disappointed to find that their presence was fleeting. Boss sequences do appear at critical plot points (such as conclusions to the game's three acts) but for the most part, these sections are less than memorable.
Long Arm Of The Claw
At least these three acts provide plenty of game length, with each one weighing in at a good few hours in length that provides a respectable 10-12 hours of gameplay for your money (depending on what difficulty level you're playing with and how many collectables you want to pickup along the way). Longevity has also been bolstered by online multiplayer for up to 10 players, serving up the usual deathmatch and capture the flag modes. Given that gunplay isn't exactly Bionic Commando's forte, don't expect the multiplayer to serve as much more than an added extra. Nevertheless, we were impressed enough by features such as an auto-lock on the bionic arm's grappling hook to suggest that the gunplay will at least stand up to online multiplayer gaming.
Bionic Commando's visual setting is compelling. Grin manages to maintain the illusion of a vast Ascension City, devastated by terrorist attacks, throughout the game's duration. That said, it is nothing more than an illusion and the well portrayed metropolitan vistas that Grin has designed are always infuriatingly just beyond reach (usually because they're obscured behind a fortunately placed cloud of radiation). Nonetheless, this does not detract from the game - it's not an open world title after all - and the graphics manage to be contemporary while maintaining a feel of the series' 8-bit past.
Auditory provisions are a bit slack. The voice-overs are on the overly cheesy side of things, with Mike Patten's dry-wit action hero styling for Nathan Spencer leaving much to be desired. The Faith No More front-man should've probably stuck to the day job (rock stardom is not that bad after all). Some of the effects perked things up a bit. We particularly liked the distorted sonar-type sounds of some of the mechs, but that's about as good as it gets.
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