Bionic Commando has fooled me into loving it.
It’s the confusing girl at school. She’s not particularly attractive, and has strange food for lunch. But she’s got an infectious personality, and she’s just /fun/ to be around. She makes you laugh and shake your head, and you keep coming back to her even though she smells of cabbages, and that slight quirk in her smile unsettles you. Now imagine that girl is a psychotic bloke with a grappling hook for an arm, and an army of terrorists to kill.
Yeah, I know.
It starts with a basic premise; war hero turned war criminal, put in prison because the public was afraid of his super human abilities, then pulled away from death row because terrorists have blown up a city, and they need someone with super human abilities to stop the terrorists. It’s a fair weather country. And no one knows why the terrorists blew up the city, apart from the fact they’re terrorists, and that’s what terrorists like to do, obviously.
So you’re dropped in, given the ability to latch onto anything living, dead or non-organic, and told to get on with the mission. But you don’t get on with the mission. You spend the first 20 minutes just swinging from billboards, because it’s hilarious fun. The sense of motion, speed and gravity in the game is something I’ve not had any experience of since Spiderman 2, the first Spiderman game to actually make your web stick to stuff. Except where, in Spiderman 2, the joys of swinging where only really hinted at, here they’re realised to the full potential.
Nathan Spencer (voiced by the ever versatile Mike Patton), is the eponymous Bionic Commando, and he only extrapolates the fun with his psychotic interruptions, whether sadistic chuckling when he snipes a soldier, or howling like a monkey as he drops hundreds of feet down a fissure in the earth, only to fire out his arm at the last minutes and swing to safety. His attitude is infectious, and when you hear him gloat ‘Nailed ya!’ at the latest hapless foe, you begin to have an inkling at how little this game takes itself seriously.
It’s in the details, like Spencer’s iron boots, which somehow make him impervious to fall damage. It’s the hilariously over the top German villain, resplendent with manic laughter and corrupted morals. It’s the obvious twist, seen coming from miles and miles and miles away. It’s the utterly bonkers story, the big, unended plot strands, and the righteous vengeance of the protagonist. Bionic Commando is about as gamey as a game can get.
That’s not to ignore the huge, glaring flaws in the game. There is no manual saving and dozens of badly placed checkpoints; enough, at least to stop me playing for that particular moment out of frustration. Biomechs, the game’s minibosses, have the utterly uninspired weak spot on their back, and while it seems to be a bit of an inside joke in the game, that doesn’t make it anything less than arduous to kill them. Having Xbox controller buttons on screen at all times, even when no Xbox controller is connected to the computer, is unforgivable. Intermittent crashes hardly help, either, and the graphics options are a joke, with the joke being there are none.
From what I’ve seen, either no one is playing multiplayer, or the lobby system doesn’t work. From what I’ve read, even when a game does get going, it’s likely to get dropped hastily by dodgy netcode. You could say the single player was a little on the short side, but it’s certainly doesn’t feel /too/ short, not too long. Taken individually, some of these things may seem to be deal breakers, and together they’re little short of damning, but just because that girl smelt of cabbage, that didn’t stop you from wanting to be around her.
These flaws are as nothing, really, when you actually get to play the game. There are a few ways to incapacitate (read: kill) your foes, from flinging them hilariously into one another, flinging them off into the distance, hearing their cartoonish cries dwindle and diminish, throwing cars, rocks and dead robots at them, or just shooting them. A favourite tactic of mine became flinging a man into the air, then quickly retracting my arm to hoof kick the guy in the chest, sending him flying from elevation. Then again, you can always just drop on them from a great height.
The fights are only there to break up the swinging, of which there is a good deal, with lampposts and the aforementioned billboards making up the bulk of that which you swing from, but nearly anything that isn’t irradiated (the games not-so-clever way of keeping the levels contained) can be attached too, so you can abseil and catapult yourself from almost anything. It’s joyous, pure and feels so entirely natural that when going back to any other game, the urge to swing from anything you see makes you do some truly stupid things.
I can’t remember the last time I replayed a game directly after I completed it. I may have begun the second playthrough, but I’ve rarely followed it through, instead fizzled out naturally when I found my appetite for the game’s core mechanics dwindling. With Bionic Commando, however, the sheer Newtonian appreciation of gravity has kept me returning again and again, to the extend where I’m playing the single player section through a third time. It’s something of an oddity in my gaming habits, albeit a welcome one.
What all this is trying to say is that my love of Bionic Commando could well be a freak occurrence. There’s plenty you can get upset about, from the shoddiness of the port, to the various misses in enemy design and missing plot elements. On the other side, there’s not a huge amount to cling on to when looking for positives, beyond the joyously brilliant swinging, the lushness of the environments, and the utterly charming, psychotic personality of the game.
To recommend Bionic Commando is to recommend a somewhat divisive band that doesn’t really have many redeeming qualities, but for some reason you can’t stop listening. Something about it grabs you, and you’re not sure what, so to explain it to friends seems pointless. Bionic Commando is the game that I shouldn’t like, but I really, really do. As usual, it’s an experience that’s entirely, completely subjective.
We recently managed to wangle an interview with Mike Patton, the voice behind the Common Infected in Left 4 Dead, The Darkness in the game of the same name, and the eponymous hero in Bionic Commando. Oh, and I heard he did the Anger Sphere of GLaDOS. He’s also one of the driving forces behind Faith no More, Mr. Bungle and more recently Fantomas. After hearing about the voice acting process from some of the boys at Valve, we wanted to find out a bit more about the process. Being one of the few voice actors who we knew by their real names rather than the characters they played, Mike Patton was an easy choice to ask about it. Carry on down to have a gander at what he had to say.