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Joystiq Review: Bionic Commando (single-player)

Justin McElroy

It figures. Right after I reinvent the face of modern games criticism by deciding not to finish a game I hated, a title comes along that really does get better in its second half: Bionic Commando is a pretty good game, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell from the first few hours.

Make no mistake, I'm not talking about the level of disdain I had for Velvet Assasin. I never really considered giving up on this rethinking of the 8-bit classic. But in Bionic Commando's opening hours, it was hard to stop wondering where Capcom had gone wrong.

Gallery: Bionic Commando | 26 Photos

You know the drill, right? Titular soldier Nathan Spencer is reactivated for duty after a long incarceration to halt a new threat after a cataclysmic terrorist attack. At his disposal are a bevy of guns, grenades and (most importantly) his giant, robotic arm.

It's not so much a learning curve as a fun curve.

That arm is clearly what sets the IP apart from the pack and developer GRIN and producer Ben Judd have clearly put the lion's share of their work into making it fun and it is ... eventually.

Swinging through the ruins of Ascension City is not as intuitive as one might hope, as you need to target the object you want to grapple on to as you swing. You'll also have to contend with learning how far your arm can extend (usually not as far as you hope) and the precise timing required to get the full speed after your swing. It's not that hard to understand the basic mechanics, but it took a while before I could swing without dying and really enjoy myself. It's not so much a learning curve as a fun curve.

Once you "get it" the effect is magical, with Spencer hurtling over vast stretches of bombed-out terrain, always seeming to be millimeters or milliseconds away from certain death. The only bummer is the artificial limitation of radiation that quickly kills you off if you stray into an area you weren't meant to go. Knowing that certain death is one bad swing away is a frustrating deterrent to exploration.

Your arm can also wreak some serious havoc on enemies, but it's a while before you get the really impressive abilities (e.g., throwing cars at dudes, throwing dudes at other dudes, etc.). Once you do, it's a thrill, with all the bad guys (and robots) being perfectly designed for the game's unique combat. But, again, it takes a while to get there. It's worsened by the early weapons, which are either underpowered or far too tough to find ammo for.

The waiting for the good stuff isn't made any easier by the game's thin plot or its main character, a stupid, awful, cornrows-clad anti-anti-anti-hero who proclaims stupid, awful things at every opportunity ("Nailed ya!" being a notable example).

The best thing about the game's introductory period are the tiny challenges throughout which offer upgrades for completing tasks like killing four enemies with one grenade. They're not only nice carrots, they help to teach the habits that will keep you alive as the difficulty increases.

About halfway through, the game really hits its stride. I started to figure out how to swing well, both for locomotion and to make combat easier and more exciting. There were some excellent set pieces that were really thrilling to battle in, like the gigantic greenhouse that combined perilous drops and ample space for gunfights. And, it's hard to deny the primal, universal joy of killing a guy by throwing a car at him.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the game's soaring, orchestral soundtrack, which is always more grand and heroic than the neanderthal of a lead character deserves.

By the time the end credits roll, Bionic Commando is an enjoyable, fully-grown action game with a fresh mechanic provided by the bionic arm. I just wish it was able to get past its awkward stage a little bit sooner.

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