Now that Bionic Commando Rearmed has finally made it onto our Internet (complete with special Eurogamer Challenge Room - did we mention?), it's time to turn our attention once again to Capcom's more expansive, thematically bleaker 3D re-imagining of the series. Developed in Sweden by GRIN with occasional input from some of Capcom's most seasoned hands, Bionic Commando is a cross between acrobatic platformer and third-person shooter, bringing a twenty-year-old, inspired idea into the modern era.
We first explored Bionic Commando's development of the NES original's setting and themes earlier this year; at Leipzig, we had the chance to play around in a few different environments to see exactly how the game - and the multiplayer - are going to work.
The obvious comparison - indeed, the one that the Capcom people themselves have been making - is the Spider-Man movie games, but actually Bionic Commando gives you a lot more control over leaping and swinging than Spider-Man 2 ever did. There's a crosshair in the middle of the screen, and anything that can be grappled onto is highlighted by a blue reticule when you aim at it. Given that highlighted objects comprise pretty much the entirety of the levels, though, it's safe to assume anything you point at can be swung from, so there's no panicked search for an arm-hold in the middle of a freefalling swan dive from the top of a building.
Holding the left trigger extends the grapple, letting it go sends you soaring through the air. There's an unobtrusive indicator to tell you when to let go for maximum velocity, but the timing quickly becomes second nature. It's perfectly intuitive, and a far cry from Spider-Man's practically automatic system. Stupid Spider-Man. Spider-Jerk.
The vertical structure of the levels and perfect leaping, swinging and diving animations all contribute to a real sense of acrobatic freedom. You'll never take damage from falling, and the inspired addition of quick turning on the d-pad means you're always in full control of swinging between beams, trees, buildings or whatever else comes to bionic grapple-hand. With the left trigger held down, it's also possible to run sideways on walls, zip yourself up onto whatever you're hanging from and perform a variety of other stunts with the face buttons.
After five minutes experimenting with the bionic arm, we found ourselves speedily navigating the half-collapsed walls and exposed beams of shattered buildings that make up Bionic Commando's broken cityscapes, developing an eye for the best route through the carefully laid-out environments. The game embraces variety in its settings, seeing its hero swoop around dense jungle foliage as well as the post-apocalyptic Ascension City. The design of the multiplayer areas, too, seems excellent from what we saw, offering a liberating abundance of vertical space to zip about in.
Despite the intuitive and easy-to-learn way in which the bionic arm is implemented, there's a lot of room for skilled acrobatics; Bionic Commando has the potential to be a punishingly challenging game on higher difficulties, but crucially, you feel completely in control. Failure, in our experience with the game so far, has always been down to our own unpractised ineptitude rather than any fault with the camera or controls.
The shooting is slightly less effortless than the grappling and swinging. Clicking the stick switches to an over-the-shoulder aiming mode, which is useable but a tad imprecise - there's no automatic lock-on in sight here. Melee attacks, including a particularly enjoyable move that punishes everything within a certain radius by flinging the grapple around in a spinning death-circle, change up the third-person blasting a bit. The real fun in combat lies, once again, in the implementation of the bionic arm to fling enemies around or pull yourself towards them before shooting them in the face or kicking them off a cliff, or stealing their cover and blasting it back in their direction with satisfyingly raw force.
The bosses and mini-bosses, which pop up with impressive frequency over the course of the single-player game, prove far more interesting to fight than the drones, demanding creative thought as well as fast reflexes. We're told that this is the area in which Capcom has had the most input, and it shows in their creative attack patterns and subtly signposted weak points. So far our experience of Bionic Commando's bosses has been limited to the small-scale, battling a nippy robot with monkey-esque climbing abilities and an annoying habit of grabbing the end of your grappling hook, but the finished game promises larger-scale, more cinematically impressive battles.
The multiplayer has the potential to be a real hit. The combination of traditional deathmatch modes with bionic arm abilities and environments conducive to their full exploitation is inspired - swinging out in the open makes you visible and vulnerable to other players, so deathmatches can become tense battles of will with small numbers of players, waiting for the others to come swinging around a corner. With the full complement of ten players things are a bit more hectic, with bionic soldiers zipping around all over the place in a race for the homing rockets. There's also a form of capture-the-flag that is far more a test of acrobatic ability than combat, and a confirmation of the long-suspected race mode.
Our anticipation for Bionic Commando hasn't faded since we last saw it. The core of the game - swinging and shooting - is immensely appealing, and the implementation strikes a good balance between acrobatic freedom and ease of control. That core appeal, partnered with the polished animation and dark but wholly unpretentious art and plot direction, makes this reinterpretation a compelling one. The multiplayer especially is proving tremendously popular on the Leipzig show floor, and it's not hard to imagine it replicating that success online when it's finally released at the end of the year.
Bionic Commando is due out on PS3, 360 and PC this winter.