Spider-Man has seen more videogame iterations than any other comic-book character -- and not all of them have been good. Last year's Spider-Man 2, based off the hit film, perfectly captured the thrill of swinging through Manhattan , while completely botching the story missions. The mistakes of the past have been addressed in Ultimate Spider-Man, a fitting name for one of the coolest comic-book videogames ever made.
Launched five years ago, the Ultimate Spider-Man comic has been one of Marvel's best-selling books month after month. The Ultimate line stripped Spider-Man of his continuity baggage and returned him back to his roots. Once again, Peter Parker's a high school kid who finds that with great power comes great responsibility. It also leads to a lot of missed classes, late homework and girl troubles.
When Treyarch decided to tap into the USM universe for its next Spidey game, the developer made one very smart decision -- hiring the creators of the comic, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley. With Bendis creating the story and scripting every single line of dialogue and Bagley providing pencil designs for the characters, Ultimate Spider-Man is the most authentic comic-book game around. While other games have generous helpings of comic-book touches, USM is the comic come to life.
The connection isn't superficial flash. USM enables gamers to play as both Spider-Man his foe Venom, in a story continued directly frin the comics. The events of the game's story will affect the future of the comics. This alone might make a USM comics fan ecstatic enough to think he has superpowers (you don't), but those who've never read a panel of the books need not worry. Bendis and Treyarch have made certain to fill in the blanks. You can enjoy the well-told story and then return to your normal comics-free life or you might find yourself inspired to pick up the series. Newbie or long-time fans alike can (and likely will) enjoy what USM has to offer.
Gaming Eye for the Spider-Guy
Treyarch's last Spidey game was set in a fairly authentic Manhattan, with skyscrapers that practically touched the sun and lots of clumsy New Yorkers hanging from the rooftops in need of rescue. Forget the New York of old. Manhattan's scaled down for USM, the skyscrapers truncated and the realism replaced with the four-color world of a comic book. People still cling from roofs screaming for help, but at least they don't have as far to fall.
While at first glance, New York may not appear as attractive as it did in SM 2, the lack of overly-reflective windows is not a minus in any way. The time of day truly transforms the city's appearance. Dusk casts a beautiful orange glow on the buildings, nighttime is brightened by the neon lights of Times Square and mid-afternoon casts marshmallow clouds against a bright blue sky. This is also Ultimate New York, so expect to see comic-book landmarks, including Doctor Strange's house, Empire State University and the Baxter Building.
Treyarch is using a fancy 3D-inking technology that makes the characters, particularly Venom, appear as if they leapt from a comic. The use of moving comic-book panels to frame the story is a continual reminder that Spidey, Venom and all their enemies come straight out of the funny pages. While this trick has been used before, only Comix Zone ajnd Freedom Force have used it to such great effect.
The new technology places a heavy burden on the graphic processor, though, resulting in occasional drops from the usually solid 30fps. The PS2 USM is particularly marred by this, making it a less attractive option than the Xbox or Cube versions.
Show Some Character
Many familiar faces from the normal Marvel Universe have made appearances in the Ultimate Universe in the past five years, but almost all of them have been introduced with a new twist. Some have been modernized and others simply exploited for comical fodder. Even casual Spidey fans will know most of the Ultimate characters, but should be prepared for brand new looks, attitudes and origins. Rhino's no longer a dumb guy stuck in a rubber suit, instead he's a wormy genius driving a war machine. Green Goblin's an actual monster, not just a psycho with a Halloween costume and a glider.
USM boasts the most characters to ever appear in a Spidey game, including Nick Fury (think Sam Jackson with an eyepatch), Green Goblin, Electro, Wolverine, Mary "She's Only Fifteen" Jane and many others. Some characters -- Beetle and Silver Sable -- make their Ultimate debuts in the game. This hefty assortment of bosses and allies appear in quick succession, so you won't have to sit around for long wondering when the next big star is going to show up. There's no drag to the story mode, no boring bosses or unsatisfying cut-scenes.
With so many great characters, there are two noticeable omissions. Though Peter Parker has to travel to the Daily Bugle several times in the story, not once do we get even the faintest glimpse of J. Jonah Jameson. But more shocking is that, in a story focused on Peter's family, we never see Aunt May. Despite Treyarch creating Queens for Peter to call home, Aunt May is never there. As fans of the USM comics know, the Ultimate version of Aunt May is not some frail old lady who sits around waiting for her Social Security check. This Aunt May is an ex-hippie who is a constant roadblock for Peter Parker. She's always home at the wrong moment for poor Peter Parker. I suppose she's on some sort of Bingo binge giving Peter free run of the house for a few days.
The voice acting is quality, even if the cast features relative unknowns. Spider-Man has a high-pitched voice, which can be surprising at first, until it dawns that this kid's still going through puberty. It would have been great to get Samuel L. Jackson to voice his own likeness, but the replacement sounds authoritative enough. And with Bendis writing all the dialogue, the voice actors get to lick their chops on a number of delightful quips.
"Madame Web is faster than you and I don't even get the reference." Classic.
Spider-fans have become accustomed to doing all sorts of neat videogame combat tricks with webbing. In the past, Spidey could web up his hands for punching gloves, create a protective dome or launch a series of web balls to knock out opponents. But this is Spider-Man at the earliest stage of his powers and Treyarch chose to simplify Spidey's controls. No more fancy web tricks. Gone is the long list of purchasable moves. This is Spidey stripped down to his essence as a fighter.
In the comics, Spidey gains an advantage over enemies in two ways. First, he insults them, then he jumps around a whole lot, bouncing from foe to foe, leaping off walls and generally making himself an impossible target. Treyarch replicates this with a simple but effective system that is low on combos, but still enjoyable.
The system rewards players for fighting like Spidey. Switch targets, bounce off walls, use your webbing to effectively corral your foes and gain a boost to your combo meter. As the descriptive meter moves from "Spectacular" to "Amazing" to "Ultimate" you do more damage to your enemies. Skilled combatants can leap into the fray and take down a half-dozen goons in five seconds. Those who aren't so good will find themselves having to punch, kick and throw enemies for some time before taking them down.
Despite the simplified system, you can still enjoy some fun with webbing. Aside from lassoing villains, Spidey can drag them towards him for a double-fisted punch or a bicycle kick. And if you're near a lamppost, you can snap an enemy and leap up, thereby hanging them like a punching bag.
If you fight against the system Treyarch's created, you'll have no fun whatsoever. But as you learn and progress, Spidey's new combat system becomes a real pleasure. It has its problems at times as attempts to attack off walls don't always trigger and sometimes Spidey can get overwhelmed too easily. It's a complete switch from just about any other Spider-Man game. A few extra moves would not have hurt, but the base of the system is certainly one to build on.
Venom is not at all like Spidey. He doesn't do the bouncing around crap. He doesn't insult people, he eats them. Spider-Man may be dedicated to protecting the innocent, but his buddy Venom is a force of destruction. Your goal in the Venom missions are pretty much the same each time -- destroy stuff and kill people.
Venom doesn't have webs like Spidey, but instead can use tendrils to smack or grab victims. There's something immensely satisfying about chucking cars at helicopters, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and feeding off bystanders to replenish his health. Being bad never felt so good.
While it's a whole lot of fun leaping from building to building and smashing everything in sight, it's hard not to consider what a deeper combat system might have provided. If only there were more destructible elements in the environment or a hefty move set. If only playing Venom were just a tad more like playing the Big Green in the latest Hulk game.
You're Not the Boss of Me
As with every free-roaming city game, when you want to start a mission, it's Spidey's duty to swing to the mission marker. The story missions only unlock after meeting certain city patrol requirements. The prerequisites for the entire story mode can easily be fulfilled in an hour or a little more, which should have been padded a tad to help extend the story mode. Once you step into a mission, prepare to be floored. The boss battles are fan-f'ing-tastic.
Most of the boss matches start first with a chase through the city. These generally take place just above street level, which gives the feel of a high-speed car chase. You'll have to zip through alleyways, quickly leap over obstacles, and dodge enemy attacks. With the exception of Venom's chase with Electro, none of these races prove particularly difficult or frustrating -- just a lot of fun.
On occasion, you'll also have to save pedestrians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. For most, you'll need to master a clever mini-game to free a trapped victim. In the Green Goblin battle, for example, parts of a fallen billboard trap three people. Timers appear over each victim, counting down at different speeds. Using quick crisis management, you must choose the right order to help those in need. For some reason this never seems to include a cute college girl eager to give Spidey a proper thank you.
When you grab hold of the debris a meter appears. You need to get the meter's needle into the green section by toggling the triggers. As you do, Spidey begins lifting the billboard. As his positioning changes, so does the green section of the meter, forcing you to alter the rhythm of your taps. It's a great mini-game that is, for some reason, only seen in the story mode and not in normal city exploration.
Once you track down the boss, most of the battles turn old school. Relying on pattern memorization and exploiting the obvious weaknesses of an enemy. But it's still fun. A little of that old school flare never hurts and the best of the boss battles, against the Goblin, has a fight that's about as old school as it gets. Any time the story is progressing, my face has a big fat smile. That's always a good sign.
Bright Lights, Biggish City
Size doesn't matter. Though my girlfriend might argue this point, I'm thoroughly convinced this statement is true. Yes, Manhattan is shorter and smaller than in Spider-Man 2 -- even with the addition of Queens -- but that's not such a bad thing. In fact, I think the game is better served with a more compact city.
New York is still big (it was ridiculously large in the last Spider-Man game) and finding every last hidden comic-book cover and secret token is still going to take serious dedication. But you can now get from Central Park to the business district in two minutes instead of fifteen. The smaller size doesn't mean you won't have fun spending a few hours just swinging around. There are more alleyways and hidden nooks than before and Treyarch takes advantage of this, putting many of the chase scenes at lower levels. Instead of constantly swinging through clouds, Spider-Man is buzzing over cars and zipping through alleys. It's more of an urban jungle than before. Though the brilliant skyline views of the previous Spidey will be missed, the Ultimate Manhattan is not a bad place to visit.
As with the last Spider-game, there are a number of things to do in the city outside of the main story. Along with hidden items, there are 60 races that range from easy to insane and 36 combat tours. The story mode, with at least an hour devoted to touring the city, took me only seven hours to beat. That brief a time from primary gameplay puts a heavy burden on the exploratory elements of the city to really deliver. Unfortunately, this is the one area where USM falters.
The city is divided into different sections, each controlled by a unique gang. It's still a brawl, whether battling ninjas or goons with hi-tech weapons, but your on-the-fly tactics have to change slightly to accommodate your enemies. As random events generate, you'll face different enemies depending on your location. But this really doesn't change the game as much as Treyarch might have expected. You can switch up the enemy's weapons all you like, beating down a few bank robbers is the same thing the first time as it is the twentieth time.
There are only a handful of different events you'll come across as you patrol New York. The majority of events involve a robbery, attempted break-in, gang fight or mugging. It boils down to combat, combat, combat. There are far too many people hanging from buildings for no reason, but with no timer, you can be leisurely about rescuing them. The only really interesting challenge is the occasional car chase.
Every now and then a green shaft of light appears in the distance. This is either a wreckless driver who needs to be stopped (yes, you get to terrorize old ladies who can't drive!) or a getaway car. The thrill is in chasing down the baddie before they get away. The moment you catch up to them, the game takes a step backwards in quality. When you hop onto a getaway car, the perps fire through the roof at Spidey requiring you to lean left or right. Not a problem, except there's a bug in the game that screws with the sound and visual cues sometimes, meaning that even if you think you are dodging at the right time, you may still get shot.
Though not nearly as obnoxious as the events of Spider-Man 2, there's still far too little variety to maintain the interest in saving the city. Early in the game, Treyarch lets players devour a little boy who lost his balloon, a send-up of the very worst repeating event in Spidey 2. Then Treyarch turned around and makes similar mistakes again. The missions are incredible, fantastic fun, while the majority of city events are uninspired, boring or ill-conceived.
To compound the problem, Treyarch weakened the only real strength of Spider-Man 2, the brilliant swinging mechanic. Though swinging is still fun, it lacks the complexity or thrill of the last Spidey game. Spider-Man can only cast one webline at a time and while an added mid-air double-jump is a nice touch, it hardly replaces the fluid swinging of the past. I used to turn on Spidey 2 and just swing around the city for 20 minutes to relax myself. The sensation of speed and the feeling of momentum have been lost. Sure, it's a fully functional swing system in USM, but it's nothing compared to what Treyarch already had in place a year ago. Add to this a camera system that has trouble keeping pace with Spidey's quick turns and trouble consistently locking onto bosses and it can become a bit frustrating.
There is one thing I do really dig about the random events, as limited as they are. Most are taken care of so quickly (often in under 30 seconds) that it's almost as automatic as a web swing. On the way to a bigger challenge, you might hear a scream for help, swing two blocks over, drop a few quick punches to take out a mugger and take off before you even get a thank you. That definitely has the right Spider-Man touch to it. Too bad there's still next to no variety in these events.
All of that swinging is done for one reason, to get some swank rewards. And here again, Treyarch has made some strange choices. Aside from viewing comic-book covers, you have six true unlockables in the game. Beat the story mode and you can free-roam the city as Venom, which can be a blast in short bursts. The other five unlockables are all costumes.
I will say that a couple of the unlockable costumes are really cool, but most of them are worthy of an eye-roll. Almost all the costumes are actually in the story mode in some form and not exactly exciting, especially compared to what it takes to earn them. Where's my Scarlet Spider costume? Why not unlock a Carnage skin for Venom? Instead we're given two Peter Parker alternates.Getting the costumes takes some real dedication. There's no immediate reward for beating all Combat Tours, no cool bonus just for finding all the Location tokens. Heck, it doesn't even matter if you get Bronze or Gold in a race, just so long as you medal.
Normally a reward system wouldn't be that big of a deal, but the longevity of USM rests on the joys of roaming the city. While it's fun and in some ways improved from the previous game, it's not nearly as good as it should be.
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