I played through this game in December and I really wish I’d written about it then. So intense was my vitriol that it would just spew forth to whoever I was talking to. I wanted to tell people about it so much that I would take the time necessary to explain what the game was to them just so they could understand what it was I hated so much. As it stands, my fervour has subsided, although hopefully I’ll get all worked up as I write and start hammering the keys in frustration. I was faced with a choice between sitting down and doing this now or playing through the game again in order to give a fair (and hopefully more entertaining) account of the game. I asked the advice of a friend and he quite plainly stated, “Colm, under no circumstances play through that game again. Don’t do it to yourself.” And he was right. So here are my two month old thoughts on Bionic Commando. They won’t be as intense, but they have had longer to fester.
Be warned that this is going to be all over the place. I don’t think it’s even possible for me to plan a piece like this. It’s long and it’s wordy and I think I’m as incoherent as the game itself, but that’s how this experience requires me to express myself. If anyone thinks this would be more entertaining as an audio file, do let me know and I’ll do that, but that just seemed a little self-indulgent.
I’d like to prefix what comes next with something: I absolutely love Bionic Commando: ReArmed, the remake of the original NES game that Grin made for XBLA. It was truly perfect. I can’t comment on how it compares to the original game, but the concept and application of the mechanic, the design of the levels, the music and the bosses were all wonderful. And it was only 800 points. I think it may still be my favourite XBLA game, but Perfect Dark is coming up soon. Why this is important is that it shows the pedigree that Grin had. That game is really intricately designed; you could tell that extreme care, attention to detail and love had been put into this game. From what I can tell they’ve cleaned up the story too and made it a lot more coherent although, as a product of the age, it’s still rather thin. There are some really funny exchanges accessed by hacking the enemy network which also reveal boss weak points: a great idea. The collectibles are also extremely well implemented: one Yashichi per level and they’re thoughtfully and challengingly placed, particularly the one on the construction yard area. The swinging mechanic feels perfect and I’m sure it’s a lot more consistent than in the original game and this precision makes it remarkably robust. It had a fun, if disposable multiplayer as well as some completely new “challenge rooms” which asked you to take your ability with the bionic arm to whole new level. And on top of all that one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard. Now why have I mentioned all of this in a review of a different game? Because, apart from the music, everything Grin, the same fucking company, did oh so right in Rearmed they do utterly wrong in Bionic Commando. And herein lies the true source of the intensity of my vitriol for this game: It could have been so much more.
Before I go nuts with this let me point out that in all areas apart from story the problem with this game seems to me to be that the development team ran out of time and had to put together something they could ship. Whether this was because the project was too ambitious or that they could have been able to do it in the time given, but didn’t work fast enough or misappropriated their time, or whether they spread themselves too thin, I can’t say. But I do know that a lot of the game feels unfinished and poorly thought out and given what I’ve said about ReArmed I know that this is not something inherent to the team. That said, this tragedy leads to a whole lot of bullshit in the game but I wanted to exonerate Grin in some way before I launch into it because I know these guys could have made a much better game if they’d had more time. And maybe in that time someone would have burned the script and shot Mike Patton.
This is easily, easily the worst video game story I’ve ever come across. And I mean that in every facet of storytelling I can think of. It’s way down there worst things I’ve ever seen as well but I don’t know if I’m willing to actually give it that title. That probably belongs to something posted on a Friday at Topless Robot. Let’s start with the characters. One big problem here is that they’ve tried to make the characters badass and gritty and mean. But they all sound like fifteen-year-olds. You know how, if someone’s a bit nasty it’s usually because of something, even if that something is utter bollocks. Being an asshole is supposed to be a symptom of some deeper personality flaw, like pride or greed or something, but as far as I could tell, in this, everyone is just an asshole. That is the long and short of their characterisation and seemingly the philosophy behind the dialogue. But they’re assholes to the extent that it becomes silly. There’s a bit where a brand new character introduces himself quite politely and our protagonist, this is meant to be ME to a certain degree is a complete cock to him for no reason. The exchange is something like,
General: Colonel Spencer, my name is a General Armstrong. I’m the commanding officer on this mission and I just wanted to introduce myself.
You: Ffffffffffffuuuuuuuuuck Yooooooooouuuuuuuuuu. I don’t fucking take orders from fucking nobody, you massive cunt
And this is the first time these two men have ever spoken. So at this point I can understand the general getting defensive with this guy. But I’m meant to be this guy. Now, I like playing as a character in games. I can be that character to an extent. I don’t need the silent protagonist like Gordon Freeman or Link. I’m quite happy to roleplay to some degree as a character who is not me in a situation I would never be in. That’s great. But it becomes impossible when the character is someone you would never want to be. Everyone wants to be a badass, but this character isn’t a badass despite how hard he’s clearly trying. He’s a twat. Nobody wants to be a twat. And all of this is only exacerbated by Mike Patton’s fucking voice. He’s the lead singer of Faith No More,
proprietors of a style of music that evokes a physical reaction from me in my distaste, but different people like different things and I’m not going to talk about the band. But he has that whiney American faux-angsty singing voice. You know the one I mean. And he pretty much talks like that as well, but he gruffs it up a bit and it sounds worse than if I was gruffing up my voice. And he’s not a voice actor either! I don’t know why they hired a singer to do voice work but it’s fucking disastrous. Bad dialogue made so so so much worse. I considered muting the fucking game. And the one liners? Jesus. You’ll be fucking begging to be playing Warrior Within again after this. I sincerely hope no-one was paid for producing the things he says; quips that make no sense and wouldn’t be good even if they did. One of them is “I’ll send you the bill later”. I don’t know what that means! Bill for what? Killing him? But he’s dead, how can you send him the bill? But there’s one that I just can’t describe. After I had shot a man, crushed him with a car then picked up his body and hurled it into a helicopter my character was heard to say, “You’ll thank me for that some day”. But there’s no hint of irony. It doesn’t think it’s absurd and silly and fun. It’s taking itself seriously. It’s meant to be cool. The most tragic thing about it all is that through all of this ridiculous behaviour and stupid swearing he not only fails to be a badass he ends up sounding like a teenager in a strop. As opposed to a war-weary soldier objecting to following arbitrary directions from a system that chewed him up and spat him out but that he still serves out of a misplaced sense of loyalty not even he fully understands he sounds like a 12-year-old who doesn’t want to tidy his room. Take this for example:
General: Spencer, status report!
As far as I’m aware, in a war zone, where time is of the essence, this is a perfectly acceptable way to ask to know what’s happening on the ground. There are no formalities, but I certainly wouldn’t consider it rude.
Spencer: Muhmuhmuhmuhfuckmuhmuhmuh I only talk to Super Joe muhmuhmuhmuhfuckfuckmuh
Then the general pulls rank on him and reminds him who’s providing him with equipment etc. so Nate finally breaks and says
Spencer: The city’s a fucking wasteland and everyone’s fucking dead. <and here’s the kicker> Is THAT what you wanted to hear? Is it?
I mean, that is literally something a child would say. And this nonsense goes on for the duration of the game and it becomes absolutely unbearable. It gets to the point where, despite the fact that the this mission needs to succeed to save mankind or something, the general dude basically tells your character to get himself killed. Not having completed the mission or anything, just fucking die. This cannot be how professionals behave! It makes you want everyone to shut the fuck up because the game would both be less annoying and make a whole lot more goddamn sense. On top of this they’ve given our hero a bit of a redesign. Instead of the blond-haired, sunglasses-wearing, archetypal soldier we have a (brown) dreadlocked, stubble-faced wanker who is clearly not the bloke from the first game. I fear they were trying to make the character “cool” but as soon as you consider that an objective you are doomed to fail.
And poor Steve Blum. He does what he can with what he’s given as Super Joe. But even he’s trying to gruff up his voice and it isn’t quite working. This is Spike Spiegel here, people, but he can’t save this sinking ship.
As you can probably tell from the above exchanges (although they may be a little exaggerated) is that the swearing is terrible. It’s not enough to just have swear words in something. That’s just patronising and shit. If you go into something with the intention of having the characters swear then it’s going to be a fucking disaster. The characters should be speaking and some people swear when they speak. Watch “The Thick of It” for a masterclass in swearing, but the characters aren’t just cursing, they’re talking or ranting or shouting but there are swear words too. All of the swearing in the game is utterly misplaced and always poorly delivered. Like, when you get shot one of the exclamations can be a simple “Fuck!” but he doesn’t say it right. There should be surprise or pain or annoyance or fear in it. It should sound like a reflex. He sounds like he’s been told to say fuck. And say it badass. And it sounds fucking absurd. There are other bits where they forget to mix their curses. No-one who’s a human being will ever seriously say something like, “Oh Fuck! What the fuck was that!? Someone tell me where the fuck these fuckers are!” People don’t talk like that. Committees think people talk like that. You might say something like “Oh SHIT! What the fuck was that!? Can anyone see where these assholes are shooting from!?” Now you could even put in a motherfucker where it says asshole and it would still be ok, but no-one ever uses the same curse as an exclamation, then a modifier, then a noun. That doesn’t happen. Now, Grin were a Swedish company. So maybe this whole thing was written by someone who had English as a second language and that would explain a lot. Even if I spoke French I don’t think I would know where to put the swear words. I mean “Putain!” means “whore” so I would have assumed that is was something you call someone, like asshole. But I’ve seen movies where someone has fallen over and hurt themselves and shouted “Putain!” so I would have gotten that totally wrong. Maybe that’s what happened here. I don’t know. But as I say, the dialogue and the writing itself is terrible, but that says nothing for the story.
Again, this is the most incoherent thing I’ve ever encountered in a video game. You play as Nate Spencer. In the original game he’s a soldier who lost an arm to, I think, a grenade, but was given this bionic grappling hook arm as a replacement by a government scheme. But popular opinion turns against “bionics” and the whole program is scrapped. And I think a whole bunch of bionics are then put in prison for no reason. But the game keeps hinting at some beef between Joe and Nate, but since that’s mostly displayed by Nate being an asshole to Joe, which is how he treats everyone, it loses a lot of its impact. They exchange some cookie-cutter dialogue about something Nate did or didn’t do and how Joe had to let him take the fall or something. I don’t know. It’s never properly explained, like so much in this story. Spencer’s wife has also gone missing. So then some group called BioReign drops a bomb on Ascension City. BioReign is a pro-Bionics terrorist organisation. So they take Nate off death row, give him back a bionic arm and send him into Ascension City to beat them. Now, that’s bollocks but it’s very standard bollocks. All games need some massive central conceit that puts you somewhere by yourself so that’s not really a problem. Nor is the fact that they can send you weapons and power-ups at any point in the game by shooting them out of the sky. So, say you have to fight a helicopter, instead of shooting the helicopter out of the sky they’ll shoot down a drop pod with a rocket launcher in it for you to take the helicopter out with. Again, that’s not bad, it’s standard, but it’s still funny. What is stupid is some of the lengths the game goes to to be “cool”. The casting of Mike Patton and Nathan Spencer’s entire new persona is a testament to how far off the mark whoever conceived this game is in terms of “cool”. Instead of reattaching the arm in a lab where they can make sure everything works properly and fix any problems, or even just put it on in the fucking plane on they way there they send Nate and his arm into the battlefield separately, but instead of parachuting in, or landing or something they have to do it awesome. So Nate and his arm are put in two separate fucking missiles and fired into the side of a building. You then have to find your fucking arm, but you find it so quickly that I have no idea why they bothered, but it was pretty novel to be playing as a genuinely one-armed protagonist for a little bit. Even with all the issues here this is the story at its absolute most coherent, so buckle your seatbelts.
You make your way through the city and at the end of the first level we are treated to what I think is the most WTF cutscene in the whole game. Pod thinks it’s one of the cutscenes towards the end where everything goes nuts, but I still think it’s this one. You get to an arbitrary point in the city and then suddenly FOUR characters appear in the same cutscene with 3 of them not to reappear until the very end of the fucking game. You look across a vista and see a dude in a Dr. Fate mask talking to Gottfried Groeder, a memorable Nazi introduced in ReArmed, but this game is meant to stand on its own so at this point many players won’t know who the fuck he is. I never caught the dude in the mask’s
name or why he was important since he hadn’t been mentioned yet and then wasn’t again until much later on. I knew Groeder already, but I think someone lets you know he has something to do with BioReign. But while you’re looking at these two trying to figure out who they are you’re suddenly attacked by a woman with bionic legs. You can infer that she and Nate know each other but it’s never properly established which wouldn’t be a problem unless the story clearly required an emotional investment in her. The legs make her able to run very fast, but every time she shows up (always completely at random) she gets the shit knocked out of her, so clearly they aren’t doing her much good. So the two of you fight for a bit and then some dude with a Sniper rifle shoots a gun out of someone’s hand. This is the first time he’s seen and he isn’t just a random sniper. He’s Thomas “Sniper” Clarke, a piece of information I only found out in the fucking end credits. He isn’t even actually seen again but he does play a role later. I have no idea what the fuck they were trying to do with this character. Maybe he was meant to be really mysterious but mysterious only works if you have a desire to solve the mystery. We know absolutely nothing about him, but since he’s a sniper he never interacts with Nate making him about as far from compelling as you can get. He’s not mysterious like someone who appears from the shadows and saves your life and says something cryptic. He’s “mysterious” like the person whose shopping you pick up for them and they smile at you. Now there is such a density of previously unmentioned characters popping up onto the screen trying to seem important that I laughed at this cutscene, and that was the highpoint of my enjoyment of the story. After this the story spirals into banality until the end. I have no idea what drove me from location to location. I think I reactivated some communications. Then there was something called the “Carrion Device” that I had to secure but it was so classified the higher-ups wouldn’t tell me what or where it was. I’m still not sure what it actually was, or given what happens at the end why BioReign sent an entire force in to get it. Mag shows up again around this point and gets the shit kicked out of her in a cutscene, then fucks off again. Then it turns out that BioReign have a giant spider walker base thing stomping around the city that I end up on. But that’s after I fight a giant mechanical worm in a car park. There’s also an oil rig involved but I can’t for the life of me remember why. The location sort of jumps around. There’s no cohesion in the cutscenes. Like a cutscene will end at a seemingly arbitrary point and then the next will pick up somewhere equally arbitrary, but it doesn’t feel like when a film is cut together, it feels like something’s missing. Often the gameplay will start somewhere totally different to where a cutscene leaves off which is incredibly disorienting. There’s a bit where he jumps off a building, but he only jumps off the top, then suddenly I’m on the ground in a valley nearby the building I jumped off. I have to assume he landed. They never do the usual thing of having the cutscene camera settle into the gameplay perspective that allows everything to be joined together well and again I think it’s because no-one had the time to add that sort of polish. The whole experience is very disjointed.
Please understand that what I’m about to talk about happens a full game later with no mention in between. That’s a full 8 hours later. At least. And you’ve been learning abilities and PLAYING A GAME between these points. Also, I’ve only mentioned them here because I know they’re important but during the game you pay as much attention to them as you do to the serial number before any piece of machinery with a name, you know like “XG-577 Demolitionator”. But what happens next is that it turns out that Super Joe is a massive bastard as well as an asshole. Apparently he was the dude in the Dr. Fate helmet and has been playing you the fuck all along. This didn’t actually come as that big of a surprise because they’d spent the whole time vilifying Super Joe and distancing themselves from his depiction in the first game and Steve Blum is clearly doing what can only be described as his “evil voice”.
I’m sure someone thought it would be “so fucked up” if Super Joe was the bad guy, but unless you give him some depth and motivation…really? Good guys turned bad only works if they’re fallen heroes not 10p comic superviallains. But the fact that he was this dude I’d completely forgotten from the start of the game? That was a huge shock. So he takes what I think is “The Carrion Device” from you and fucks off in a helicopter leaving you to fight Groeder in a really bad boss fight. If you think about it, the plan was to go into Ascension City and get this device and trick you into going in and getting it as well, killing half of his organisation. I really don’t understand. But at this point you’re too busy fighting the hilariously-accented, psychotic Groeder on a helipad. You kill him in a ridiculously gratuitous manner, which I think is again meant to be cool. I’d really lost track at this point. There’s no established bitterness between the two of you at this point other than what I knew from ReArmed, so it just feels like Spencer’s a complete dick. To be fair, though, Groeder is obviously an insane Nazi Cyborg, so maybe nothing’s gratuitous for a guy like that. You follow Super Joe and I think Mr. Sniper contacts you at this point, but I can’t remember. The General dude is completely nonplussed by this stage. So then Joe goes in and activated whatever the fuck the machine is and it puts him in a mech so ridiculous it would make a Gundam Wing fan cringe flanked by a whole army of slightly less absurd-looking mechs. I have absolutely no idea why he wanted to do this. I don’t know if it’s ever explained. Mag shows up again at this point but gets herself killed this time instead of beaten up. Her death’s meant to be an emotional moment for Spencer but since they spent the entire game shooting at each other, beating each other up and telling each other how much they hated one another it really lacks any punch. There are some character bios that you can unlock and read but I shouldn’t have to do that to understand the story. They’re optional extras. Back-story, maybe, but they’re not meant to be essential to understanding the story being told. Batman: Arkham Asylum might be pretty confusing and random if you’d had no exposure to Batman, but it’s fucking Batman! Plus, you can’t assume that knowledge in any story if the character has only been introduced in THIS story. But BEFORE ALL THAT the BIG TWIST is revealed. Bigger than Super Joe’s betrayal. It turns out that:
YOUR WIFE IS YOUR ARM!
YOUR WIFE IS YOUR ARM!
YOUR WIFE IS YOUR ARM!
YOUR WIFE IS YOUR ARM!
There is nothing I can say, or the game offers, to allow this to make any more sense. There’s no greater context and it’s not explored properly. It isn’t clear if they transformed her into the arm, if they used her DNA to make the arm and she died in doing so. It’s not clear if the arm is sentient. That above sentence is all you are told. The word catalyst is thrown around but it’s just technobabble. Your wife is your arm. That is all. There is nothing I can say that will make this funnier or more absurd. So I’ll just say it again. Your wife is your arm.
My only regret is that at no point does Spencer say “My wife is my arm” otherwise that shit would be on the internet faster than a TMZ photographer’s picture of a celebrity in underwear.
So there’s a boss fight that’s more of an interactive cutscene and you headbutt Super Joe to death and fall into a hole. The End. Really. That’s literally how the game ends. You fall into a hole.
Except there’s a little post-credits bit where there’s a transmission between the sniper and a mysterious thrid (sixth?) party. It’s in code. The first bit is decoded for you. The second, if decoded, is in German, which you then have to translate. This whole thing is hilarious. It takes such a high opinion of the production to do something like this. The alien languages in Futurama work because Futurama’s awesome. The little Ocelot “Mr. President” bit works in Metal Gear Solid because Metal Gear Solid is awesome and I know who Revolver Ocelot is and the Mr. President thing is hilarious. This game does not have this sort of heft. There are loads of little Easter Eggs that are only allowed to be in good games. There are diagetic sources of music that play Mike Patton music. It’s all so self-referential and masturbatory but it’s in such a shitty product that it’s embarrassing. The menus are also very slick, if a little phallic, but none of this should be in there because THEY SHOULD HAVE FINISHED THE FUCKING GAME FIRST. If it meant they could fix the diabolical first level (more on that to come) then the menu should have been a silent black screen with white Time New Roman options and an underline to select. It’s all infuriating. Oh, and that bit of German? Sets up a sequel. Bwaaaahahahahahaha!
Join me in part 2 where I talk about everything that isn’t story-related and also everything that’s amazing about the game.