Having spent the day playing the first half of Bionic Commando, so soon after falling in love with Street Fighter IV, it's tempting to accuse Capcom of finally getting its act together with remakes. This hasn't always gone well for the Japanese company (Final Fight: Streetwise, anyone? No? Correct), but thanks to the persistence of devoted fanboys within, like SFIV producer Yoshinori Ono and Bionic Commando's affable Ben Judd, the company's on the verge of hitting a rich vein of form. It also helps that in both of the above cases, the big old boxed games have been preceded by excellent downloadable versions strictly mentored by the original source material.
In Bionic Commando's case, however, the publisher has not only delegated development to GRIN (all hail Ballistics!), but has green-lit the Swedish outfit's risky 3D reincarnation, which takes the 2D original's seldom-matched grapple-and-swing mechanic and applies it to relatively sprawling environments. As a biomechanically enhanced soldier - with an arm that happens to spit out a hook on an extendable metal chain - you're a sci-fi Spider-Man bound to the logic of momentum.
The problem, as the newly fleshed-out fiction has it, is that the government of the day has been thoroughly spooked by rising public uncertainty about bionic commandos, and decides to order everyone's implants removed, leaving veterans in wheelchairs, if not worse. You even end up on death row for some reason, except you're saved at the last minute because the army needs to send you into Ascension City, which has been floored with WMD by terrorists who you soon discover are Bionic Reign - a pressure group (I'll say) set up by some of your fellow bionic commandos.
Once there, you're given orders by headset and sent around the ruined city to uncover what's gone on - guided by waypoints on your mini-map to objectives like relay stations that can be hacked to deactivate minefields (the aerial mines make handy grapple points) and obtain intelligence on the enemy. In another case you're sent to investigate a downed friendly plane that might hold survivors.
With the city in such a state - gutted skyscrapers and crumpled up streets, with entire districts that are half-submerged by the neighbouring ocean - the bionic arm is the best way to get around, and you control it with the left trigger, grappling onto virtually any surface when you get within range, as indicated by the grapple icon turning blue. Horizontal objects like street signs, rocky outcrops, fractured overpasses and the metal framework of industry work best, as they give you a trapeze-style swing that you can use to slingshot your way over distance. Time your release correctly and you can propel yourself for hundreds of metres, and then control your descent somewhat to line up another swing without hitting the floor. Time it poorly, and you drop short or spoon up in the air and have to rapidly turn to regain a grapple-hold.
Along the way you encounter enemies sporadically - soldiers mostly, but also larger biomechs (mechanised walkers) and polycraft (flying mechs), which have certain Capcom-style weaknesses like exposed rear circuitry and armour that buckles under rocket-fire or the impact of cars. Although the game is superficially open-world, these encounters are staged and the environments shoehorn you towards them, restricting your moment with areas of intense radiation, even though you might prefer to dodge around the flying mech thing with dual machineguns.
Good thing, then, that you aren't just limited to standard weapons - as you progress you "remember" more abilities, beginning with the zip-kick, where you grapple an enemy and then reel yourself in to deliver a boot to the face. You can chain zip-kicks because on impact you're propelled upward again, allowing you to lock back on or seek another target. Later you get to toss heavy concrete blocks, crates and rocks by teeing them up with an uppercut, jumping and smacking them with your arm. The targeting is automatic - enemies in your path will be sought out expertly, providing they're in suitable range. Later still you can grapple larger objects like cars, 'kite' them up with the grapple and then smash them down on your enemies like a whipcrack.
Conventional weapons are weaker, mostly because, with the left trigger so concerned with the arm, you have no lock-on. If you're in arm range of an enemy, grappling them will centre your view like a lock-on, serving the same purpose, but over distance you just point and either click in the right stick to zoom a bit before firing with the right trigger, or spray. It's never as comfortable as a Gears of War or Call of Duty, because the analogue is better suited to surveying for grapple targets, where there's a degree of compensation on the part of the mechanics to let you hook on without having to be too precise. That said, the sniper rifle's perfectly compliant, and the tarantula rocket-launcher, which locks onto multiple targets a bit like Panzer Dragoon or Rez, always runs out of ammo before you become bored of its explosive brilliance.
Despite the awkwardness of weapons combat though, the game remains fluid and engaging providing you master the swing mechanic. This will cause a few problems, but it's more forgiving than it was on the last two occasions we looked at it, and I liked it fine then. After about four hours of the single-player game, I was able to swing competently around the environment, occasionally having to pause and re-engage with the scenery, but generally making good progress. You can get a better idea of how I did in the videos I paused to record for Eurogamer TV.
And the combat, as long as you rely on the arm-related moves, fits in smoothly. Tackling a polycraft is a game of trying to swing close enough to lock on and crush it with zip-kicks, or take it out with heavy machinery propelled by the arm, and there's no end of fun to be had picking off a single soldier with zip-kicks, retrieving his body and using it to pummel his mates.
It's not all good news though. Although levels are fairly open, those radiation borders are a pretty blatant analogue for invisible walls, except they kill you if you linger. There's a lot of water, too, and with your heavy arm this virtually always kills you unless you can scramble onto nearby dry land within a few seconds, which isn't very easy because you have to aim from below and the submerged camera doesn't show you anything but blurry outlines of things above the waterline. In one particular case, I lost my bearings and ended up dying repeatedly as I struggled to jump between a series of deactivated aerial mines. Were I a better swinger, I might have been fine, but it seems trivial not to punish struggling players with such a harsh watery death so frequently. The first half of the game is also broken up too regularly by load screens and building interiors, which make the enjoyable side of combat more awkward.
GRIN still has a bit of time to iron out these issues - the build I've played, though extensive, isn't by any means final, with multiplayer still to be introduced for one - and the bulk of the action is engaging and distinctive, marrying a good swing mechanic to fluid physical combat unlike anything in your average third-person shooter or platform adventure. The story's enjoyably cheesy too, thanks to some nicely hammy opening cut sequences and silly voice-overs, and there are a good few neat Capcom touches, like collectible 8-bit sprites from the original NES game.
Overall, I'll be surprised if we have to batter the final game with superlatives in two months' time, but I can see it earning a happy recommendation, and perhaps more if the right tweaks are locked into place. Capcom certainly won't scale the same critical peaks with Bionic Commando as it did with Street Fighter IV, but as another example of the Japanese publisher attempting to restore dormant intellectual property to its former glory, there will be more applause than consternation.
Bionic Commando is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on 22nd May, with a PC version to follow shortly afterwards.