Bionic Commando

I’ll return to Gun at some point (really, I will), but I played all the way through the new Bionic Commando last weekend and wanted to take some time to gripe about it.

I’ll put the good upfront.  The music is excellent.  The swinging mechanic not only works, but feels pretty good, which, in 3d, feels like a minor miracle.  Some of the touches of animation are really nice, like how in combat our character automatically ducks down behind cover.  Overall, I had fun, in a mindless sort of way.

But what a dumb game it is.  This is most obvious in the storytelling and narrative.  Having characters generally take themselves so seriously when they exist within such a silly world just didn’t work.  But even putting tone aside, the game rivals Lost Planet and Gears of War for sheer disjointedness of narrative.  “Wife-arm” is the most obvious example, but so much of the story of the game is laughably under-explained.

The funny thing is, there might be an interesting story in there somewhere.  The discarded heroes of the previous war being forced into service again at a time of dire need.  It’s not an original trope, but there’s a very human sort of appeal to it.  MGS 4 certainly made it work.

As I said before, Grin gets props for making the swinging work.  However, they should have put more thought into the combat, which was rarely either fun or rewarding.  One of the great lessons of Halo and Gears of War is that every weapon in the game should be satisfying to use, and useful in its own distinct way.  If you’re going to, through ammo and carrying restriction, force the player to rely primarily on just one gun, then it’s even more imperative that it be a good one.  The pea-shooter of a pistol that I’m forced to use in Bionic Commando is weak (both in feel and effect) and the only good thing about it is the feeling you get when you know you have so much machine gun ammo that you’re not going to have to use the pistol for a little while.

I think the idea was to try to emphasize the use of the bionic arm in combat, and I think that was a mistake.  The animations for them are too long and cumbersome, so using them sucks the dynamism out of combat.  They all lock you more or less stationary until they’re done.  I would have been happy with a single, quick, powerful-feeling arm-extension punch attack that at worst only briefly halted player movement.  It could even have a knock-back on it, and pulverize enemies against a wall if you wanted to get all graphic.

Actually, the current moveset is especially bad, since it doesn’t combo very well with the swinging mechanic.  Hence, a typical combat scenario will have the player land in a group of enemies, and then stand still in a hail of gunfire, slowly grabbing each enemy in turn and either lunging into them, or throwing them, only using a swing again to escape if they notice their health getting low.  30 seconds of fun it is not.

The solution (in addition to better guns), I think is to have a more generous aiming mechanism – either a Crackdown-style lock-on, or a Gun-style auto-aim.  That way, you can play up shooting while swinging while shooting, to emphasize the unique mobility of the character.  You could even slow down the swinging a little, both to improve aiming, and the make escaping combat slightly more challenging.  A side-benefit of this is that it could actually make traversal more engaging, since a slower swing would allow for more precision, which could allow for more challenging environments.

The other big change I would make to the game would be to make it open-world, not in a GTA style, but more a Metroid style.  You could keep the ruined city – you’d now be able to get the feeling of actually exploring it, and get a lot more mileage out of the swinging mechanic in the process.  The collectibles and key-cards would make more sense now.  You could do away with the awful (and awfully implemented) radiation mechanic, or you could keep it but have upgradable radiation shielding that would allow access to new areas.  It’s not just the story that feels non-cohesive in the game, it’s the environments.  All these places could exist in a city, but there’s no feel of them all fitting together or leading into each other.  You walk out of a tunnel, or a cutscene, and you’re somewhere entirely different.  A Half-Life 2-style Citadel that was always visible wouldn’t hurt either.

Last, briefly, some other complaints.  I didn’t feel like I was getting enough feedback about how low my health-state was.  And stopping the game to have a tutorial for some of the moves available in the game, but not all of them, and then saying at the end of the tutorial that some unspecified ones of these abilities that it just trained you on aren’t actually being granted at this time is weird and off-putting.  The radar range is too large to be of use in combat, and useless for scouting ahead since it only shows enemies who are in a combat cycle.  You just end up with a red blob in the centre when there’s a fight.  And Japanese-style pattern-based boss fights just do not work with a recharging health system.

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