Arm race

Bionic Commando, the first in an ever-expanding series of big-budget 8-bit retreads

Bionic Commando

(GRIN/Capcom; PC, XBOX 360, PS3)

GAMER Reading faithfully from Hollywood's remake-happy script, the game industry has learned to cannibalize its history. Bionic Commando is the first in an ever-expanding series of big-budget 8-bit retreads; Splatterhouse (Namco Bandai) is due out later this year, and more are sure to follow.

Bionic Commando slots you into the futuristic combat boots of Nathan Spencer, voiced ably if bombastically by Faith No More's Mike Patton. Spencer is equipped with a bionic arm, a telescoping grappling hook of a limb that enables him to cling to his surroundings and swing, Tarzan-style, through the game's various levels. The arm is the game's defining feature, imbuing an otherwise unremarkable third-person action title with a giddy, kinetic thrill.

Physics-based acrobatics are a passable reason to resurrect a moldering NES franchise, and it's too bad Swedish developers GRIN couldn't revamp the production values as well. The game is rated "M," for mature, which means the characters curse like it's going out of style, but the story is insulting to anyone with intelligence even approaching maturity, when it makes sense at all. Stop me if you've heard this one before: a scientifically-augmented super-soldier is released from prison in exigent circumstances, made hostage by withheld knowledge of his missing wife-slash-daughter-slash-favorite toy, and charged with saving the world by sinister higher-ups who are totally not going to stab him in the back at a crucial moment.

Despite its free-swinging promise, the game's lushly designed levels are disappointingly linear. Wide-open areas are liberally slathered with "radiation," an ugly blue texture that acts as a wagging finger of disapproval every time you try to go somewhere the level designers didn't want you to. Swing too high? Death by radiation. Too low? Radiation. Too far to the left? You get the idea.

Also frustrating is a profusion of tepid, gun-based combat, and when you're not using your arm to throw cars at things, you're frantically trying to put bullet-shaped holes in the helmeted henchmen of Gottfried Groeder, a cartoon fascist with a German accent that would make Major Toht blush all the way down to the Headpiece of Ra-shaped scar on his palm.

Given these drawbacks, multiplayer proved to be a refreshing pleasure. Radiation-free and adrenaline-heavy, the game's death matches make you feel like Master Chief crossed with Spider-Man, and the bionic arm provides all sorts of invigorating possibilities. There are possibilities of a sequel too, judging from the post-credits teaser. If someone makes the rounds at GRIN headquarters installing bionic brains, I might be interested.

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