In the video game world, the phrase “high learning curve” has come to describe a certain sub-set of games that require a little more cognitive investment from the player before they get really fun. This concept isn’t relegated only to video games: certain albums take a few spins before they set in, and some films require a few viewings to be fully appreciated (Adaptation?). Good art isn’t always immediately digestible. The question is, when does the “learning curve” of a game just become an excuse for shittiness? When do games ask *too much* of the gamer? Or, are we modern gamers all just a bunch of pussies?
Pussyness aside, Bionic Commando is where you can start to see flecks of shittiness appear on the whole “learning curve” idea. So far (through the Trent Industrial District area), it’s not solely the finnicky learning curve–via the arm mechanic–that drags it down into shit-land, but rather it’s the bonus “boring curve.” The first few levels are huge, empty, and inventively bland. With limited combat abilities, and a collection of moderate irritants, the game shoots itself in the foot early on.
Bionic Commando’s swinging-arm mechanic is the core that drives the game, and was the defining attribute of the eponymous 80s arcade original. The whole concept behind the new 3D Bionic Commando is a three part move: you jump, attach-to and swing-from shit, in sweeping succession, so that you cover grand, vast distances this way in satisfyingly visceral sequences. Actually realizing this potential, however, is a different story. You’ll need to time your releases very carefully, a bit earlier than feels natural. At first, general moving to and fro like this is a chore. Once you get the hang of it, and hear Spencer let loose a booming mid-flight “whoop!” swinging around is pretty fun.
On that note, Bionic Commando certainly has its fun moments. For instance, latching onto an enemy (when you can find one) and jump-kicking them near a ledge sends them flying off to their death, screaming in anguish . Or, successfully time the “death from above” ability near an enemy far below, and you launch them flailing out of view trampoline-style. When the game works, it works well.
But like any frustrating game, it invents new ways to make you dislike it. Enter: radiation. It works like this. You’re getting the hang of the swinging mechanic. You like it. It’s powerful. You’re kind of cocky about it. With your newfound industry, you decide that this here skyscaper needs to be scaled, and its roof stood upon. You grapple on up, and about 3/4 of the way up, you hear this loud, alarming sound. Then you’re falling, dead. You died. The “radition” killed you. Through this oddly strict disciplinary device, you learn that “radiation” is a kind of fence that keeps you locked in the game’s linear playpen. Stray too far, and get a rolled up newspaper smacked on your snout. On one hand, it’s understandable that designers need to put limits on level size. You can’t just *keep going* off into the horizon forever. What’s beffudling, is Capcom’s decision to make your exploration of the game punishable by death.
Still not bothered? Let me introduce you to radiation’s brother in cheapness: water. See, your mechanical arm is *super* heavy. So heavy, in fact, that if you fall into water, you sink to the bottom and start to drown and die. The whole thing feels cheap, especially since it’s easy to over/undershoot your swings early on and land in water. If you’re not within grapple range of something, you’re hosed. Water-death almost always feels wrong to me, and especially so in Bionic Commando. You’re this ripped badass with a bionic arm, who tragically drowns? It’s all a bit pussifying.
So far, Bionic Commando is a fair action game with a few things that (sadly) prevent it from being great.
More to come…