Version tested: Xbox 360
What with videogame worlds getting bigger and bigger, it's no surprise that we get correspondingly excited whenever someone comes up with a new way to lob ourselves across them - whether it's jumping between rooftops in Crackdown, zooming along Halo in a Banshee, or swinging around the crumbling remains of Ascension City like Tarzan meets Robocop in Bionic Commando. If we're going to commute between the fun, better to do it in style.
And although it takes a while to comprehend, Bionic Commando's swing mechanic is very stylish. As you fall from the rooftops you make a grab for lampposts, jutting girders and carved-up monorail by compressing the left trigger as they flash past, firing out a grappling hook from your bionic arm and slingshotting smoothly beneath at a matching pace, before releasing to send yourself in a preferred direction. Maximum respect goes to the programmers behind the context-sensitive icon that shows where you can hook on, because the distances are intuitively consistent, and with a bit of application the learning curve flattens out and you're able to manoeuvre swiftly and impressively, and catch yourself when you brush up against the limitations of your own dexterity.
But then, of course, Crackdown wasn't really about jumping between rooftops, and Halo wasn't about zooming around in a Banshee, so Bionic Commando can't afford to be about protagonist Nathan Spencer's impressive Spider-Man antics alone. Instead it's most frequently about a succession of fights that call upon different areas of Spencer's expansive arsenal.
On the basic end, he has a pistol and grenades, which you can apply with typical if not particularly great effect. More elaborate weapons, like a multi-firing rocket launcher that locks onto multiple enemies as you tag them with the probing reticule before release, and grenade launchers and sniper rifles, are provided by support pods fired into the city, but the enormity of their influence is mediated by a shortage of ammunition. Handily though, Spencer gradually recalls other things he can do with his bionic arm, like whipping or punching wreckage across the landscape, and latching onto enemies with his hook before reeling in to deliver a kick to the face - the latter even more handily rebounding you into the air for a follow-up.
There's enough of a toolbox there to enforce experimentation, and the menagerie of beastly biomechanical monsters often has you rummaging around. Gorilla-like berserkers are susceptible at the rear and if you can penetrate their facial armour, but close the gap to the player at dangerous pace, forcing you to work quickly if you're limited to smacking them with the scenery, and to reach for stun moves like 'death from above', which allows you to clatter to ground with dizzying force. The aerial polycraft flyers keep their distance, wary of damaging zip-kicks, and the less animalistic but no less predatory human snipers have you dancing between their visible sighting lasers as you struggle for cover and tactics. A range of mini challenges (with corresponding Achievements) gives you new ideas, too.
But it's when the more interesting battles are brought together with the swing that Bionic Commando stands out, as when you're dodging snipers in the industrial district (and later as you work through the park), trying to maintain aerial momentum to evade the beams. My favourite though was a battle with a Buraq helicopter on top of a skyscraper, where the exposed steel framework creates a jungle-gym or potential manoeuvres and the threat of the chopper's machineguns and backup polycraft compel you to make use of it. By the time you have secured enough rocket launcher rounds to outdo your hawk-like aggressors, you know you've been in a fight.
Not that the game tries to leave you in any doubt about that once it gets going. The plank-brained grunts of the terrorist occupation force are barely worth the more elaborate ends you can put them to, but when they're reinforced by machinegunners, or deployed in greater numbers, they're sufficiently pesky to kill you. And it's in this way that developer GRIN aims to regulate the difficulty level: more enemies! Checkpointing is generally only worth the odd grumble, but there are a few real spikes, including a very frustrating battle in the FSA Archives building late on, where the enemy force goes through several waves of fiddly projectile-spitting fodder, which comes off as cheap - especially as it's merely the filling between not being able to access something and suddenly receiving authorisation. What tactical depth should be available is neutered by density.
Less frustrating, but more surprising, is that Bionic Commando never goes properly open-world, preferring a halfway house that offers freedom as far as the eye can see and then a slow radioactive death to dissuade you going any further. You're forever working your way to the next yellow checkpoint icon on the mini-map, which is often a relay beacon that disables aerial minefields, opening up the way to the next waypoint. There are a few hidden 8bit capsule-toy style icons to uncover per area, but between the orienteering and frequent load screens you come to accept that this is a corridor action game - it's just that the corridors are broad and nicely decorated.
And this they are, and only occasionally to the detriment of the frame-rate. Ascension City may be on its last legs (if not knees, or slumped over in a pool of its own effluent), but it's as imposing as Crackdown's Pacific City and as detailed, and in its haunting desolation and abandonment, almost as characterful as GTAIV. The haze is sometimes off-putting, and I do wish we didn't have to go inside or underground so much, but the water, lighting effects and sheer scale are achievements, particularly in areas like the glass-domed park and cavernous fissure running beneath the city.
There's variety too, as illustrated by the diversity of multiplayer playgrounds for the eight-player online games, within which you can gather for deathmatch and CTF variants. As you may have discovered in the recent Xbox Live demo, however, it's a dangerous place to tread if you're still a novice with the bionic arm, and a rudimentary lobby system also does a poor job of recommending it. Where it ultimately falls down though is in the relationship between players, which can't match the battles between a fully tooled Spencer and increasingly overpowered, Capcom-spec enemies in the single-player campaign.
By the time I reached the end of that campaign, I was experiencing mixed emotions. GRIN has certainly taken the load off combat boots wearied by too many open worlds with great effect, but although you travel over rather than along them, they are still highways of debris passing beneath your feet, and all you are doing is pausing occasionally to dispatch the people you meet and consult the A-to-Z. The result, though stylish and engaging, is something rather more primitive than the more enjoyable battles - where the bionic swing and core combat work in closest collaboration - really deserve. Bionic Commando succeeds in resurrecting a good idea lost to the Capcom archives, and giving it a new lease of life, but it falls foul of a few old standards in the process.
7 / 10