Even though Bionicle Heroes for the Nintendo DS doesn't do anything that hasn't been done before in other first-person shooters, it does present all of the familiar concepts in ways that fans of the genre and fans of the Bionicle toy line should find appealing. You take on the role of a heroic gun-toting robot and set out to blast away at the scores of enemy robots populating the rooms, hallways, and arenas that make up the game's 37 different levels. Gunplay involves the usual mix of jumping, strafing, and shooting typically found in these sorts of games, and the Bionicle license has been levied to introduce new enemies and weapons, which are all based on Bionicle toys, at regular intervals. The CPU-controlled enemies and bosses do a good job of keeping you on your toes, but what's more impressive is that the developers managed to coax the attractive 3D visuals and responsive controls necessary for a top-flight FPS out of the DS hardware, a feat that prior to this game's release had only been accomplished by Nintendo with Metroid Prime: Hunters. It's a shame that the multiplayer mode doesn't offer any sort of online component, because Bionicle Heroes otherwise delivers everything else that you could want in a first-person shooter.
The game is loosely based on the Bionicle toy and comic book line produced by Lego. In the world of Bionicle, the island of Voya Nui is populated by two races of sentient machines. On the one side are the Toa, which possess powerful elemental abilities granted to them by masks they've handed down for generations. On the other side are the Piraka, a race of evildoers that are constantly trying to steal and misuse these masks. Instead of fleshing out characters or focusing on a particular story, as the comics and toy booklets have done, the game merely shoehorns the basic aspects of the franchise into the framework of a typical first-person shooter. The Piraka have stolen six different elemental masks from the Toa, so it's up to you, as an anonymous hero, to travel to the different temples scattered across Voya Nui, blast every Piraka minion in sight, and retrieve the masks from the Piraka bosses. In turn, these masks unlock new weapons and abilities that you can use to access secrets and to dispatch enemies more efficiently.
The gameplay has a lot of classic FPS elements. Most rooms and hallways are populated with enemy robots that you need to destroy. Once you fixate the crosshair on another robot, it usually only takes a few shots to blow them into Lego bits. However, if an enemy whacks you enough times, you'll fall apart and have to restart from the last checkpoint. The CPU does a decent job of strafing and dodging, and most areas involve multiple waves of spawning enemies, so battles tend to last a while. Boss battles are especially fun because of all of the jump ramps and multitiered floors incorporated into their custom arenas. As hectic as combat gets, the violence never feels overboard, probably because all of the characters are bipedal or insectoid robots made out of Lego pieces. You can tackle each of the six major environments in any order you like and return to previously completed levels at anytime to gather whatever bolts and runes you still need to unlock the numerous cheats and secrets in the bonus menu.
Besides fighting, you'll also have to hunt down switches and solve platform-jumping sections periodically. Some of the Bionicle-inspired touches also add to the game's variety, such as the Lego gears that you pick up for money and health and the loose piles of Lego parts that you can occasionally put together to open a door or create a ramp. The small touches are nice, but what ultimately keeps boredom at bay is that the game does a good job of introducing cool new weapons on a regular basis. You start out with a basic sphere launcher that has unlimited ammo. Every two levels or so, though, you'll gather a mask that will give you a new secondary weapon or piggyback onto a mask you already have. The variety of weapons is great, particularly the lightning and sniper beams, and the abilities you get for piggybacking masks are extremely fun and useful. The completed air Toa, for example, lets you jump higher and hover, while the fire and stone Toa masks let you walk through lava or blast through stone. Once you collect a few masks, you can pull off some really impressive aerial acrobatics.
For most people, especially people that enjoy first-person shooters, the two main concerns going in will be how responsive the controls are and how sexy the graphics look. After all, the DS's touch screen tends to be hit or miss with some games, and the system isn't exactly a 3D powerhouse. Thankfully, Bionicle Heroes delivers the accurate controls and complex 3D graphics that any good FPS absolutely must have. Using the stylus to aim and the directional pad to walk and strafe quickly becomes second nature. It takes a little more time to get used to swapping weapons by tapping their spots on the touch screen, but you'll eventually be able to tap them from memory and keep your gaze focused on the upper screen. Most important of all, the crosshair on the upper screen doesn't seem to have any problem keeping up with fine stylus movements or sweeping slashes made on the touch screen. A good FPS must have reliable, responsive controls, and Bionicle Heroes delivers.
Robot models In Bionicle Heroes are intricately detailed and animate smoothly. Rooms and arenas tend to be ornate and have multiple floors, but the real kicker is that the textures are always sharp and the view distance is always total no matter how big the area is. Many games on the DS don't show everything that's off in the distance, or they resort to fog to limit how far you can see. Bionicle Heroes just shows everything that you're supposed to see. On top of that, the frame rate is always silky smooth, regardless of how many enemies are nearby or how large the area is. The only aspects of the visuals the developers skimped on were the heads-up display and the player gun graphics, which effectively convey all the necessary information but are otherwise very plain. That's not a big deal, though, considering that you'll spend most of the time paying attention to the surrounding environment and the aiming crosshair. The developer also skimped to some extent with the audio. The dramatic music and various laser blast effects don't sound bad by any means, but they often feel tacked on. Some recorded dialogue, particularly during boss battles, would have gone a long way toward helping the audio match the same level of quality as the visuals.
Besides the lengthy single-player campaign, the game also includes a multiplayer deathmatch mode that supports as many as four players. This mode is wicked fun. Battles take place in any of six multitiered arenas, which are similar to those found in the campaign mode's boss battles. That means there are plenty of cubbies to duck into and bounce ramps to take advantage of. Fully upgraded masks are situated throughout each arena, so weapon upgrades and abilities are relatively easy to pick up. To keep things competitive, masks wear off over time, which seems to discourage camping and encourages players to circulate and keep shooting at one another. The only downside to the multiplayer mode is that you have to get people into the same room with you if you want to play against them. That's fine if you actually know someone else locally that has the game, but it renders the multiplayer mode worthless if you don't. Metroid Prime: Hunters lets you play over the Internet, and it came out more than a year earlier. The absence of an online component in Bionicle Heroes is a major disappointment, considering that Bionicle Heroes and Metroid Prime: Hunters are otherwise very similar in terms of design and technical aspects.
Bionicle Heroes for the Nintendo DS is a solid first-person shooter, but the lack of any sort of online capability ultimately limits its staying power. If you're a fan of the Bionicle franchise or think you'd enjoy playing through a rousing single-player campaign in a technically impressive first-person shooter, you should definitely check it out. However, if you absolutely require your FPS games to offer online play, you should stick with Metroid Prime: Hunters for the time being.