Version tested: Xbox 360
Capcom has been riding the download train pretty hard this past month or so, offering up rejigged remake-sequels to both 1942 and Commando. This latest jaunt to Do-Over City is perhaps its most faithful yet - while also deviating most from the source material.
In both gameplay and structure, Rearmed is a spruced up remake of the NES version of Bionic Commando, almost down to the last detail. Click those blue words and you'll see what I mean. You play, somewhat predictably given the title, as a soldier equipped with a mechanical arm. This can be used to swing across gaps, pull yourself up to higher platforms and to grab distant objects. You can also use it to clobber enemies, although your arsenal of weaponry is considerably better suited to this task.
Levels are selected by guiding a helicopter over a map, with the option to touch down in enemy territory to start the action, or at a friendly base to restock and learn new actions. In every case you make your way up and across the level using your arm. Doorways in enemy levels lead you to communications rooms where you can opt to hack into their system, via a new and rather fun maze-style mini-game, or report back to base, essentially acting as a checkpoint. These communication scenes are utterly faithful to the 1988 original, although the cheesy dialogue is now deliberately tongue-in-cheek, and boasts at least one cheeky dig at Metal Gear's lengthy codec scenes. Indeed, the whole tone of the game is slyly humorous, playing up to the bombast of gaming history without ever feeling disrespectful. "Isn't this silly?" the game seems to ask, "But also awesome fun?"
However, this fealty to the source also means that the gameplay may feel clunky to anyone not versed in the previous games. There's still no jump button, for instance. Upward movement is by the arm only, and this can be stymied by inconsiderate stacks of barrels or crates on the platforms above. Progress therefore becomes a question of working out your vertical route, rather than simply running and gunning. This is fair enough, but it's still rather jarring to have a 2008 action hero incapable of getting past waist-high obstacles without something above him to swing from. He's also incapable of dropping down to platforms below, leading to situations where you're blocked by simple scenery, and have to walk off the edge of a platform and make your way back up again. Forcing the player to rely on the arm at all times shows off the game's unique selling point, but there are times when it's clearly unnecessary and more than a little frustrating.
The same is true of shooting, with your field of attack reduced to simple horizontal left or right streams of bullets. The swinging mechanic also remains unchanged. The bionic arm can only be shot out in increments of 45 degrees. Left, right, straight up and diagonally at fixed angles. Much like the lack of jump, it's utterly faithful to the original but the sort of thing you'd hope would be improved for modern gamers. The right stick isn't particularly busy, so it would have been nice to assign arm-aiming to that. Instead you find yourself doing the old pixel-shuffle backwards and forwards to get in position to hit an anchor point in just the right spot. It's certainly not enough to spoil the fun, but for all but the most dedicated franchise fan, it's bound to cause some annoyance.
So while Rearmed does a fine job of honouring its past - and poking a little fun at itself along the way - it's a shame that some of the core mechanics haven't been overhauled to really make the most of their new technological home. Other traditional elements have been changed to cater for modern expectations - you now have a health bar, rather than the one-hit-kills of old - but perhaps they just don't want to overshadow the full 3D remake currently in development. Whatever the reason, I feel sure that a few more concessions to today's more flexible control options would have made this a more successful update without betraying the core concept.
However, there are new elements to Bionic Commando Rearmed, and these more than smooth over the rough edges left by doggedly following a slightly creaky twenty-year-old gameplay design. Multiplayer is the most immediately obvious addition, with co-operative play as well as deathmatch arenas where you and three friends can swing around like gun-toting chimps and try to do each other in. The bad news: it's all offline only, apparently because it was added late in development. A reasonable excuse, but it doesn't really compensate for the fact that this would be enormous fun online.
Look closer though and you'll see that there's another game mode on the menu. It's the Challenge Rooms, unlocked during the single player game, and they're pretty much a whole extra game, for free. Looking not unlike Metal Gear's VR training missions, they take the form of timed obstacle courses. Grapple and swing your way to the exit within the (extremely tight) time limit and claim the top spot on the leaderboards. It's simple and horribly addictive. Here the lack of jumping makes more sense - this is as much a super-fast puzzle game as a platformer, and the urge to shave a few microseconds of each run is extremely compelling. It's no trifling extra either - there are fifty-six Challenge Rooms to unlock, the later of which will test even the best hand-eye coordinators.
Between the multiplayer modes and the Challenge Rooms, there's more than enough innovation to make up for the minor irritations of the retro controls. Far from perfect, Bionic Commando Rearmed is still a much more complete and robust package than either 1942 Joint Strike or Commando 3 and another impressive addition to Capcom's download library.
8 / 10