When you're propelling Spencer at great speed around the various environments in Ascension city, linking together swings with the fluidity of a prize-winning chimp acrobat, Bionic Commando is a great deal of fun. The thrill of leaping into a giant chasm, only to latch on to a ledge moments before you prepare to smash into the ground with great force is something that few games can offer. Playing as Robocop meets Spider-man should in theory be one of the best gaming experiences around, but a few niggles prevent Grin's effort from joining the upper echelons of Capcom's back catalogue.
You play as Spencer, an ex-soldier, and no ordinary one at that. He's bionic, which means his left arm is a very heavy piece of machinery. He's been doing time in prison for acts committed while serving his country, but with a new enemy in town he's released and forced to work for the same corporation that put him behind bars. It's all a bit cliché, but sets up the action that's to follow quite nicely. The story and characters you meet feel rather incidental to the combat, but fans of cheese should be happy - some of the dialogue in this could give the lines from Resident Evil a run for their money.
Early on Spencer has a few problems remembering his full arsenal of moves, having been separated from his arm for some time while rotting in jail. It comes flooding back soon enough, though, so before too long you'll be latching on to enemies and zipping into them with your feet, flicking objects into the air and then smashing them into enemies or just grabbing things and lobbing them Dr. Octopus style. He can also smash into the ground to stun or kill nearby enemies, rappel up walls and swing from just about anything - as long as it's not in an irradiated zone.
While the game often gives the illusion of being open world and free to explore, it's really not, with blue-tinged areas essentially blocking your path by way of death if you veer from the correct route. You're always moving towards waypoints or relay beacons, which can be hacked into in order to turn off the electrified hovering mines that provide you with a dangerous path to the next section of the game. It's all rather enclosed really, with moments of pure swinging being all too fleeting.
Swinging does take some getting used to, with the timing of your release being the key to successfully pretending you're Spider-man. Thankfully a handy on-screen display tells you when it's the ideal time to release your grip and propel forwards (although this can be turned off if you don't want the assistance). Release too early and you'll head straight down, but let go too late and you'll fly straight up - not ideal if you happen to come down annoyingly in-between two grapple points, unable to latch onto either. The PC version allows for both joypad and keyboard and mouse control options, and both have their pluses. Mouse control allows easier targeting of lock-on points and enemies, but using a controller (such as the Xbox 360 pad) feels more natural due to its trigger-based catch and release system.
The core problem with Grin's Bionic Commando (the same studio that created Rearmed for Capcom last year) is that fiddly shooting gets in the way of the often exhilarating swinging. Gun-play is decent enough, but it doesn't feel as natural as it does in top class third-person shooters. You have other combat options of course, but in the heat of battle (and things get extremely hot towards the end of the game), trying to use a variety of moves is easier said than done. To say the waves of enemies that come at you is cheap might be a bit unfair, but combined with some dodgy checkpoints you're likely to be frustrated a little too often for your liking.
Another problem is enemy variety. The generic grunts come in a few guises (the heavy gunners and snipers being the core trouble makers), and you'll encounter guardian robots too, again in a number of different forms. These guys all have the same weak spot though: a glowing point on their back. To defeat them you need to latch onto this point and rappel into it. Do this a few times and they bite the dust, and if they happen to be the last enemy in the zone the blocked path opens up.
Sadly the game's real highlights, the boss fights, happen fairly infrequently. Our highlight has to be a fight at the top of a massive skyscraper against a very nimble attack chopper. With plenty of overhead beams to latch on to this small area proved to be one of the most exciting playgrounds the game has to offer. Armed with a multi-target rocket launcher and letting all three go as you saw through the air headfirst towards the imposing war machine is just superb. Had the game managed to hit this level of fun and excitement throughout we'd be putting Bionic Commando on the same high pedestal as many of Capcom's in-house classics.
One area of the game that rarely disappoints is the visual presentation. Built using developer Grin's own engine, rather than Capcom's own MT Framework that is behind the likes of Lost Planet and Resident Evil 5, Bionic Commando regularly dazzles with the scope of its environments, some beautiful lighting and a generally smooth frame rate on a decent gaming rig. It's worth noting that frame rate drops while swinging can be disastrous for timing, so don't push the settings beyond what your PC can cope with. Certain areas look a little bland, but if you're moving as fast as the game allows you're unlikely to notice these slight blemishes. The soundtrack picks up excellently from where Rearmed left off, but the voice acting is definitely a few notches behind Hollywood. Rather surprisingly the game can also be played straight off the disc without having to sit through an install, which is nice.
On top of the single-player campaign is online and LAN multiplayer for up to eight players. This works as you might expect, with the usual selection of game modes and plenty of mid-air combat, but it doesn't (at least from what we've played) reach the combat heights of the single-player game. It's also incredibly unforgiving when you're new, so until you're up to speed with the controls expect to finish last more often than not.
Bionic Commando will frustrate many gamers, but get past the initial swinging learning curve and you'll find a highly entertaining action game that tries to do something a bit different. It's not a must-own classic that Capcom has become renowned for making, but with smart presentation and some thrilling gameplay it still comes highly recommended.