CAPTIVATE 08: Swinging into a first hands-on with Bionic Commando next-gen

The Bionic Commando franchise is tinged with nostalgia, making it a wildly difficult proposition for Swedish-developer GRIN to attempt a next-gen reinvention.

“I think there’s a sweet spot as to how long you can let a franchise sleep,” producer Ben Judd told us, “and I think it’s about five or so years. Maybe ten.”

“But it’s not twenty,” adds GRIN founder and the game’s creative director, Ulf Anderson.

“It’s not f**king twenty,” agrees Judd.

So with fond memories of Capcom’s original 2D side-scrolling, it was with great caution that we approached the the upcoming Bionic Commando for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. At GDC, our minds were changed, and we came away impressed. But without getting our hands-on the title, we’ve remained cautiously optimistic.

At last week’s CAPTIVATE media event, GRIN and Capcom were showing off an updated — and more importantly, a playable — version of Bionic Commando. I’m still impressed by how the team has transitioned the classic franchise into 3D, and I’ve learned one thing: even though all of the swinging may make you think otherwise, Spider-Man this ain’t. It’s better. 

More after the jump. 

There are two focuses of Bionic Commando, and that’s swinging on s**t and blowing s**t up. Fortunately, both of these feel pretty damned good in the game. But before grabbing the controller for the first time, you really need to know one thing — you can’t play this game like Spider-Man.

“In general, I think swinging mechanics in games are all f**king stupid,” says Anderson bluntly, clear to differentiate it between grappling hook mechanics, which he feels have been done right.

“The idea is to put the player in control of the swinging and the cable action,” adds Judd.

“It’s really skill-based. In the Spider-Man games, you’re really just hitting the button rhythmically,” Anderson tells us, mocking the repeated pressing of one button, “it’s not very skill-based. [In Bionic Commando], you really feel like you’re in control of it. When you do good, and when you improve, you know it. You feel it.”

He’s right. Pulling the left trigger will shoot out the bionic arm, which can be connected to multiple points throughout the environment. A blue icon will appear when a connection point can be made, a greyed out icon will appear when you’re “almost” near it (and perhaps can be made with a jump). Once connected, use of the left analog stick will cause you to swing, and you can pick up momentum in any direction.

While my first inclincation was to press the “A” button (jump) to hop out of the swing and forward, this is — as I said — not Spider-Man. Instead, pressing “A” will cause you to retract the arm, pulling you towards the object you’ve attached to. Pressing the button again will let you hop on top of the object, and will automatically center you so that you don’t fall. 

It took some getting used to, especially since the Spider-Man games had “trained” me a certain way. But I soon became used to the Bionic Commando method: simply releasing the button at the right point will fling you off and forward. When in the air, you have two options — manually move the reticule to find another attach point, or simply pull the left trigger again and let the game find an appropriate point for you along the vertical axis.

With this swing mechanic, you’re really given more options than the Spider-Man control scheme, and it certainly gives you a better feeling of control. While it’s easy enough to swing throughout the environments and let the game smoothly find it’s own attach points, it’s nice to be given more options and freedom.

The game’s environments are surprisingly manipulatable and interactive — in one area, the hook was used to pull an object out of the side of a building to continue on. With the right upgrades, it’s also possible to punch objects up and towards enemies, including cinder blocks and entire vehicles. It’s also interesting to note that items in the world have a noticeable weight; for instance, larger items (like cars) may keep you on a platform if you hook to it, but smaller items (like rubble) would get yanked off as you fell. 

Bionic Commando‘s shooting mechanics are typical for third-person shooters, up to the point where you aim your reticule and pull the right trigger to fire. One new weapon we were shown was the Tarantula, which allowed you to “paint” targets Rez-style, and unleash between three and ten heat-seeking rockets (the game’s weapons are upgradable). Getting close to enemies allows for some punishing hand-to hand blows, as well.

Running out of ammo may never be an issue; ex-Faith No More/Fantomas/etc. vocalist Mike Patton (the voice of the game’s hero, Nathan Spencer) will angrily growl, “I need more ammo now!”, before a pod of weaponry is delivered in a pod. (For fans of the classic, this a nod to the weapon delivery of the original game.)

But the bionic arm and opens up a world of other combat solutions as well, in case you do run out of traditional ammo. For instance, it’s possible to aim your cable at enemies to grapple them. Once clawed, you can jump in the air and pull yourself towards them for a zip kick, or pull them towards you for a context sensitive finishing move. 

The levels we that were playable (a city torn by a bomb, a city partially underwater, and a park) were vast, with plenty of room to swing and play. Clearly, the design emphasis was on giving players open spaces, and opening up choices in terms of where and how to attack certain situations. I played through each level a few times, with each encounter being slightly different each time. 

While some people are going to argue that GRIN have taken the game to next-gen aggro extremes, I think closer examination reveals that’s not the case. Aesthetically, the game does a pretty good job of remaining faithful to the original title. While the initial trailers showed off a darker, more washed out visual style, tweaks have been made to accentuate objects with brighter, primary colors that make objects in the world pop — brighter enemies, colorful cars and scaffolding.

As far as the game’s main character, Nathan Spencer, if you’re not a fan of his look, you have another option — a classic skin closer to the original style. Available immediately to you if you own the digital download Bionic Commando Rearmed on the same console, the skin is definitely a response to outright fan criticism, and a nice gift for those who loved the original series. 

So here’s the thing — if you’re a fan of modern third-person shooters and you have a soft spot for the original game, it doesn’t look like GRIN is going to disappoint. If you have a woody for the retro, but tend to shun things like violence and high-definition graphics, I think the appeals might get a bit cloudier. You may appreciate the subtle touches and nods to the original, and the swing mechanic does give the game a distinct “Bionic Commando” feel. But at its heart, Bionic Commando next-gen is really a modern action title. 

That said, it looks like GRIN are completely on the right track. The enemy AI could use a little work, and the radar system made it difficult to track enemies above and below, due to how vertical the levels are laid out. (I made a decent suggestions about that one — I hope they listen!) We should get another chance to go hands-on with an update build of the game at E3, and we’ll be sure to let you know then if things are still looking good.

Nick Chester