I broke down and finally decided to get Bionic Commando last Sunday. I'm really glad I did. The game isn't without problems, but honestly: what is wrong with the critics? It's not bad at all. I'm finding it a hell of a lot of fun, frankly. I could barely pull myself away from it Monday and played it almost the whole day.
The only way I can explain the reviews is that people were expecting something else. They were expecting something across between Gears of War and Spider-Man 2, and what they got was... well... what they got was a 3D version of Bionic Commando. God forbid there'd be a game you actually have to get good at before you begin to feel really empowered. Being a bionic badass is not easy, I'm sorry. It takes some skill and practice, but once you get the hang of it (pun intended) you feel all the more satisfied because it was you who performed that amazing stunt.
I only really began to master the arm last night, and it was immensely satisfying to intentionally execute a complex strategy that required absurd acrobatics. It was the part where you fight your first flying machine, which looks like some weird futuristic hover-bot. I realized that my arm--which was capable of smashing the robot to pieces--couldn't reach it, and my other weapons were useless. I noticed that it was hovering high above and in the center between four connecting catwalks. I knew the only way to get to it was to back flip off one catwalk away from it, spin around in the air, and use the momentum to slingshot myself around the catwalk and up directly into reach the machine. Everything went smoothly and for a moment I felt like a ballet dancer--albeit a muscular one with a rocket launcher--gliding in zero-gravity.
Yes, the radiation zones are a little annoying... although not nearly as annoying as the reviews suggest. Yes, the story is goofy... but no less goofy than the original (although the dialed-up macho-ness is moderately aggravating). But seriously, overall Bionic Commando is a very satisfying experience, with design elements noticeably derived from the classic original. Of all the criticisms levied against it, I am especially baffled by the common complaint of it being "linear". Unless you were expecting GTA, it's not linear. It basically follows the same format as the original game of progressing through levels, finding hacking points, weapon drops, etc. The levels have a progression, but they are hardly linear in the strategic sense. The way you approach new enemies are always improvisational, and there are very few obvious paths in the platforming. I would say it has big, wide-open levels that progress along a loose "path" confined by some constraints. I actually prefer this, because it allows for more focused level design, more meaningful level architecture. It's not the random free-for-all you'd find in a GTA-style world. I like the idea that I have a specific problem, like 10 soldiers on the top of a building, and I just have to deal with it using whatever I can find in one square city block. The mechanics and affordances feel perfectly balanced and suited to environments of this scope. It's all intentionally designed this way and it works.
I'm sort of fascinated by games like Bionic Commando, games that on the surface seem like they are following the lead of modern triple-A games but in fact hold secret allegiance to their classic roots. I think it is similar to ExciteTruck in this way. ExciteTruck was also a game that critics seemed lukewarm to, but I thought it was fantastic. To look at it and even to play it for a bit it seems like it has very little in common with its NES-era original. But after a while, the more you play it, the more you realize that, as a system, it is really expressing the same experiential concepts as ExciteBike. ExciteBike was all about managing your engine heat so that you can jump as spectacularly as possible in order to get ahead of other racers. Guess what? That's exactly what ExciteTruck is about. Once I realized that I saw the game for what it was: a marvelous update of a classic game that shrewdly targets and preserves certain key aspects of the original game experience. This is also a good description of what Bionic Commando does.
It is interesting to think what it means to update a classic game, as a design problem. It seems like many developers express their fan-love for a classic game through mechanics, even more-so than through story and visual aesthetic. Bionic Commando, of course, has a "modern" visual aesthetic targeted at today's market. The hero is badass by the standards of 2009, not 1988, and the world is full of brown tones and brooding characters. But under all this Bionic Commando does its damnedest to make you feel like the original game did 21 years ago. It's all about precision swinging, near-death drops from absurd heights, and surprising enemies from behind only to leap off into nowhere for a daring escape as you reach for something--anything--to save you from falling. Unlike Spider-Man 2, in which falling is not very deadly, Bionic Commando is about making you fear the ground. Rad Spencer is a super hero of sorts, but one who's far more mortal than Spider-Man. One missed swing and its over. "Death defying" is a term often used when describing game experiences, but it seldom means anything in the literal sense. Mistakes in Spider-Man 2 are not fatal, so the player isn't really defying death. In Bionic Commando they are... and that gives the experience a certain thrilling edge that more forgiving games lack.
Apparently I'm not the only one who feels this way about Bionic Commando. If you want a really excellent review of the game, try this. I think the reviewer sums it up well when he says:
Bionic Commando improves when you do, and you've got little choice but to improve. It's one of a startlingly few games out there which drives a real wedge between newcomers and seasoned players - not because the latter have levelled up a thousand times, or bought a cannon that fires electrified African Elephants, but because their skills have actually developed through practice, allowing them to soar and tumble through Ascension City's architectural thorn bush with an ease that is entirely self-made.