In 2008 gamers were treated to the return of Nathan "Rad" Spencer in two Bionic Commando games. However, as it turned out only one of those was actually a treat, with an overwhelming majority of critics and gamers favoring the retro revival of Bionic Commando Rearmed over its big-budget retail counterpart. So it's little surprise that for a sequel we're revisiting Spencer's 2D roots in Bionic Commando Rearmed 2. What is a surprise is the controversial gameplay mechanic added in Rearmed 2: jumping. Does platforming's oldest trick give new depth to the classic gameplay, or is this a commando that should be grounded from further duty?
Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 is a direct follow-up to the 1988 classic and original Rearmed.
Fidel Castro The dictator of Papagaya is threatening to attack the FSA, and so Spencer is sent in along with a whole team of bionic soldiers. Things quickly get out of hand though, and Spencer is separated from his team in the Papagayan jungle. The scenery is much more diverse in Rearmed 2, as you travel between dense jungles, snowy mountains, and industrial facilities in shades of yellow, orange, and blue. The visual style and splashes of color fits the retro 80's aesthetic, as does Spencer's fabulous orange Magnum PI mustache. Though, overall the visuals aren't quite up to the quality of the first Rearmed. The camera is significantly pulled back, allowing for more to appear on-screen, but also making individual characters and enemies appear less significant. Rearmed 2 goes for a sense of scale, with wide expanses in the background, whereas the original Rearmed was filled with finer details giving life to the environments. Rearmed 2 isn't a bad looking game by any means, but an outside observer would probably guess that this game came first and the original Rearmed was the graphically refined sequel.
Since Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 isn't a remake, it afforded the developers leeway to make some changes to the classic gameplay formula. Jumping is the major addition, which many feared would take away from the grappling hook gameplay that made Bionic Commando so unique. Well, I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that jumping doesn't break the gameplay. Spencer still can't jump very high or far, so it's mostly used for quickly climbing over small barrels and waist-high walls. For purists, there's the Retro difficulty setting that disables jumping, though there were two boss encounters about midway through the game that I could see posing an abnormally high difficulty spike if you don't jump. The Retro setting also doesn't unlock until after you have already completed the game, so for a first run any no jumping policies will have to be self-enforced.
The bad news is that it seems the developers relied on the jump mechanic too much in their level design. Most levels feel very large and open, which leaves fewer platforms and objects from which to swing. There is still some interesting exploration, but it feels very spread out and rather empty compared to the tightly knit levels of the first game. The game is at its best in the more industrial levels where swinging opportunities are plentiful, leaving the jungle and snowy levels - while more visually interesting - less interesting to actually play.
Jumping isn't the only change to the gameplay though. Swinging itself feels slightly different from the original. You can now begin swinging while hanging from a platform, making it easier to swing along ceilings with the occasional stop to blast turrets and flying drones. Like the original, Spencer can upgrade and find new abilities and weapons throughout the game. Rearmed 2 adds even more abilities, but allows only one passive and one active ability equipped at any time. With the active abilities this is fine since most are only useful in select situations, but I missed being able to have multiple passive abilities equipped at once. Early in the game you find a health regeneration ability, which is far too useful to bother swapping it out for other skills. However, doing so means never using abilities like a stealth upgrade or iron-tipped boots to wing into enemies for damage. The new weaponry is similarly selective in usefulness due to ammo restrictions. As much as I liked having a shotgun, missile launcher, napalm launcher, and a sort of boomerang/cannonball hybrid, with only four or five shots each they were primarily used for the occasional destructible wall or generator in need of an electrical charge.
Some changes are even for the better. Gone are the top-down truck missions from the first game, as well as the hacking puzzle minigame. These were honestly my least favorite parts of Bionic Command Rearmed, so they were not missed. In their place are infrequent on-rails shooting segments in a helicopter, which are really more of a throwaway feature that the game could have done without. New to Rearmed 2 is a scanning mode, allowing you to find out more information about questionable objects or bosses on the fly. The world map is also much more linear, without any backtracking or hopping to previous levels required. You still can replay previous levels, which allows you discover new paths and upgrades thanks to equipment found later in the game, but there is never any question as to which level you should go to next to progress the game.
Returning from the first Rearmed are the challenge rooms. I'm guessing that the number of challenge rooms is similar to the first game, though I cannot confirm give an exact number yet. The challenge rooms live up to their name and offer a hefty challenge, so I have only made it as far as the tenth challenge room so far. These levels are classic Bionic Commando goodness, relying on mastery of Spencer's swing. In the first Rearmed the challenge rooms were gradually unlocked through the main game, but in Rearmed 2 they are a completely separate entity. This allows players to experience all of the challenge rooms without worrying about finding them in the main game, but since the challenge rooms are unlocked in sequential order it also means that you can't skip ahead if you get stuck on a particularly hard one.
Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 is still a fun game, but it may not be quite what long-time Bionic Commando fans were hoping for. Jumping makes the game flow a little faster, but doesn't change the gameplay as much as most fans feared. It's the level designs where Rearmed 2 falls flat, with fewer swinging opportunities to feel like a true bionic commando. But when the game gets it right, in boss battles and some of the more platform-heavy levels, Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 shows some true signs of greatness. Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 is probably better suited to gamers new to the series as an introduction before moving on to Rearmed, but long-time fans may still enjoy the ride while it lasts. It's at least better than the 3D Bionic Commando reboot of 2008, so hopefully this isn't the last time Spencer rearms himself in 2D.
Note to PS3 owners: The PS3 version of Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 requires your system to be connected to the internet to play. I never experienced any problem with this in my own time with the game, but I can imagine it isn't an ideal situation for everyone so it is worth mentioning.
A copy of the PS3 version of Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 was provided by Capcom for the review. The game was played to completion on normal difficulty as well as unlocking ten of the challenge rooms. There is a co-op multiplayer feature in the game, however I was unable to test this mode so it is not included in the above review.