Playing Games

Bionic Commando
Publisher: Capcom
Developer: GRIN
PlayStation 3, Microsoft Windows, Xbox360
Publisher: Sony
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
PlayStation 3

Bionic Commando. Photo courtesy of Capcom

Bionic Commando is surprising: it asks, “what could ’80s-era stupidity actually mean?” A reboot of a series launched in 1987, the new Bionic Commando retains the macho posturing and goofball premise of its forebears, but instead of merely riffing ironically on its retro weirdness, it tries to consider their implications. What would it mean to run around with a bionic hook-shot instead of an arm? Twenty years ago, this question was half-mechanical and half-whimsical.

Bionic Commando belongs to the platformer genre. It’s like Donkey Kong in that the core challenge of the game is merely moving through the landscape. Different from most such games, Bionic Commando doesn’t rely principally on jumping to get from platform to platform, but rather on shooting a bionic grappling hook into walls and swinging around. That’s eighties innovation for you.

The legacy of this mode of locomotion weighs heavily on the new game. What worked for the 2-D side-scrolling games of years ago becomes tricky, confusing, and occasionally nauseating in today’s 3-D environments. Zipping across Bionic Commando’s post-nuclear cityscape is clumsy and frustrating, and even hooking terrorists and robots with your super arm is a drag.

Bionic Commando. Photo courtesy of CapcomThe new iteration’s adherence to Rambo-esque hero conventions likewise falls flat. The main character’s name is still “Rad,” because that’s what having a bionic hook-arm totally is. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t play this stuff for laughs. Rad charmlessly sneers through his dialogue, which could have been sourced from a Mad Lib based on Escape from New York.

Bionic Commando does make a couple of advances over the days of Reagan, however. Instead of fighting Nazis and a resurrected Hitler, Rad squares off against bionic terrorists, who are fighting a government crackdown on bionically-enhanced humans. Rad works for the government in exchange for his release from prison and information about his missing wife. The ultimate complication of Bionic Commando (which I don’t mind spoiling because I recommend against playing it) comes with the revelation that Rad never actually lost his wife. Not all of her, anyway. Bits of her form part of the tech in his fantastic arm — a stroke of craziness that only the transhumanist milieu of the ’00s could have inspired. As much as Rad’s repulsively over-muscled physique and bad attitude belong to days gone by, so his existential — and risible — crisis of bio-enhancement belongs to the spirit of now.

inFAMOUS. Photo courtesy of CapcominFAMOUS, by contrast, is a thoroughly modern game. You play as Cole, a gravelly-voiced bike messenger whose last package for delivery turned out to be the Ray Sphere, a bomb-like MacGuffin that sucks up “bioenergy” only to release it explosively. Caught at ground zero when the Sphere blows up, Cole not only survives, but gains electricity-themed superpowers. The rest of “Empire City” doesn’t fare as well — thousands die, and a strange plague infects many of the survivors. Cole’s story traces the Ray Sphere back to its source, with plenty of sidetracking along the way.

Rad’s repulsively over-muscled physique and bad attitude belong to days gone by, so his existential — and risible — crisis of bio-enhancement belongs to the spirit of now.

The game embraces three media: open-world video games, superhero comic books, and role-playing games. Cole can travel widely in Empire City, following side missions as he likes, but he moves the narrative ahead by restoring power to the city’s grid. Turning the lights back on also adds to Cole’s repertoire of abilities, a neat way of bonding the character to his environment. His movements express the setting, too. He performs parkour tricks with real weight to them, and, as he becomes more potent, he zips along power lines and cables and railroad tracks as if surfing lightning.

On the whole, however, his powers are unimaginative, mainly guns and grenades dressed up as crackling arcs and blobs of current. These special effects, dull as they are, do complement the rest of the game’s visual style, which borrows heavily from contemporary comics. Much of the game’s cutscenes consist of still, stylized, painterly images with voice-overs, and, even in play, the characters have a hand-drawn look.

inFAMOUS. Photo courtesy of CapcominFAMOUS also attempts to deliver some of the moral complexity of modern comics. Along with a system that allows players to buy powers in the manner of a role-playing game, inFAMOUS boasts a childish morality mechanic. Player choices determine where Cole falls on the scale of good and evil. “Infamous” is the farthest one can advance on the Evil meter — a feat accomplished through “Evil Missions” and evil acts. Worse, most of the enemies in the game are “junkie drug dealers” and homeless people who have taken up arms against the good citizens of Empire City. The moral quandary you may experience is likely not the one that the game makers intended.

But inFAMOUS does have something to say about superpowers — in this game, you don’t get them without taking from other people. Cole’s strength flows from both the city and its populace. He can recharge himself by draining an electrical transformer or a person’s life force, the latter being an evil act that tends one toward infamy. Or he can take power from the grid and use it to heal the sick and wounded. Either way, he remains a parasite. As with Bionic Commando and the current big hit Prototype, inFAMOUS both reflects the transhumanist zeitgeist for its technobabble and articulates fears of the direct, human cost of even a single person’s enhancement.

Ray Huling is a freelance journalist living in Boston. He is working on a book about shellfishing in Rhode Island.

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