Super Joe just isn’t as “super” as he used to be.
Bionic Commando is a game that has always had a special place in my heart. I can still remember the feeling of triumph that swelled over me upon the completion of one of the most difficult missions I had ever taken. It was not easy: I memorized patterns, learned the right timing, and made sure I collected every single bullet. But I did it and my victory was sweet. Those youthful days are behind me now, but playing the newest incarnation of the series did leave me with some non-LSD-induced flashbacks to those formative years.
[image1]Somewhere deep in the Capcom vaults, there is a tome that contains the storyline continuity of every game they’ve ever made. They call upon this sacred scripture whenever a franchise gets a revamp or modernization to make sure that the new plot matches up with the vague, pizza-crust-thin sliver of a story from the bygone era of plastic cartridges. Somehow they have used this divine magic to transform protagonist Ladd from a neon-orange haired, sunglasses wearing 80s guy into the gritty dread-headed anti-hero Nathan "RAD" Spencer (say "Rad" in Japanglish and you’ll get it), voiced by none other than Mike Patton, lead singer for Faith No More. Super Joe has gone from being a helpless P.O.W. to a tough I-don’t-give-a-shit-about-you-or-your-robot-arm jerk who bosses you around throughout the game. And the weird thing is, it all somehow works and makes sense (well, at least more sense than you fighting Hitler in a futuristic 198X).
Basically, after you rescued Super Joe in the first game, everything went to hell for bionically-enhanced humans as the people’s fear of the military-only cyborgs grew. Spencer’s arm was ripped from his body and he was put on death row for execution, which would probably explain why he’s a little less Max Headroom in the new game. But it turns out Charlton Heston was right; if you outlaw bio-mechanically enhanced super-soldiers, than only outlaws will have bio-mechanically enhanced super-soldiers. And when a major city is destroyed by a huge frickin’ bomb, there’s only one guy left who hasn’t been shot in the head yet or joined the other side. That’s pretty much where the game drops you in. Not too much more info is given right away, keeping you intrigued and wanting to fill in those blanks between the lines.
Figuring out just what the hell happened in the last few years is not going to be an easy, either. The level of difficulty falls somewhere between the original 8-Bit Bionic Commando title and the modern Ninja Gaiden. It’s not as tough as Gaiden but not by much, and there’s no chance in hell it’s going to take it easy on you. You’re not given an over-abundance of ammo for special weapons, and the enemy A.I. knows how to use the environment and how to overwhelm you easily in large numbers if kept unchecked.
The feature that adds the most depth to the difficulty is the inclusion of challenges, such as killing 4 enemies with one grenade or getting 50 headshots. Completing these tasks is the only way to gain upgrades for your weapons and armor, and most of them are no cakewalk. This challenge/reward system is the best feature of the single-player mode.
[image2]There’s a good amount of replay value to the story mode as well. Items and unlockables are hidden everywhere, and finding all of them on the first run-through or completing all gameplay challenges is next to impossible.
Where the game’s difficulty is at its most ridiculous and unbalanced would have to be the borders. If you go somewhere you’re not supposed to or fly too high up in the air, radiation kills you almost instantaneously. The amount of punishment received for such a simple and common wandering-off-the-path is ridiculous. At one point while doing an automated kill on a mid-air enemy, I apparently went too far up and was killed by all the radioactivity. In a title like this, where there is already such a huge laundry list of problems you have to overcome, being abruptly killed while flying uncontrollably towards an invisible death barrier is just not necessary.
Depending on what kind of a gamer you are, the massive challenge presented is either going to entice you to keep going or make you throw the controller down in frustration. But in a time when most third-person shooters seem like a walk in the park in a gated community, it’s nice to know games can still be tough enough to cause genuine frustration and challenge.
As before, the main gameplay mechanic is the ability to use your robotic arm to swing from object to object, like a gritty, urban Tarzan from the future. The physics of swinging are easy to learn but difficult to master. You should be able to get a handle on them quickly, but there will be plenty of “I think I can reach that” moments throughout… that will just end with you falling into a bottomless chasm and back at the load screen waiting for the last checkpoint. As you play more and more, you will become all too familiar with this screen and grow to hate it in a manner similar to Carl Winslow’s hatred of Urkel. He pisses you off, but just not quite enough to kick his ass. Because make no mistake about it, you will die a lot and see the same controller instruction page over and over and over and over…
[image3]New actions like the ability to throw cars and boulders at enemies or grab onto the bad guy himself before giving him a flying “zip kick” have been added to the catalog of violence. Most of them work great, but some are sloppy and hard to pull off effectively, such as the ground-smashing “death from above”. As with most games with an auto-lock targeting system, you will also sometimes find yourself having trouble locking onto the dude shooting you with the machine gun instead of the rock right in front of him.
While the story mode is plagued with odd imbalances and more blood pressure-raising moments than an IRS audit, multiplayer has nowhere near as many shortcomings. A grappling hook arm compliments a deathmatch too well for it not to be fun. Doing things like hanging off the side of a roof while sniping people halfway across the map and taking place in a freefalling shoot-out are just too cool. It’s the game’s major saving grace and probably where you’ll find most folks spending their time.
Does Bionic Commando hit the nail directly on the head in its attempt at rejuvenating its franchise as much as Street Fighter IV and Resident Evil 5 did? The short answer: No. [That’s what happens when you try hitting the nail in mid-swing. ~Ed.] It lacks the balance it would take to make it something really great, but what is there is fun, just not as phenomenal as some of Capcom’s more recent franchise reboots.