Back in the early 1990s Acclaim decided it would be a good idea to combine the arcade action of Final Fight with the Marvel universe. This marriage spawned games like Spider-Man & Venom: Maximum Carnage and Separation Anxiety, titles that allowed you to play as your favorite web slinger as he runs around New York City beating up gang members and other baddies. Sometimes I think it's sad that Acclaim went out of business and there is no way for a company to feature these games on a disc, because if ever there was a game that should have had these two brawlers as unlockable extras, it's Spider-Man: Friend or Foe.
While the game may be in 3D and feature better production values, this newest Spider-Man game might as well be the third installment in Acclaim's series of games based on your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. This newest Spidey game from Activision (the second in less than a year) is essentially a 3D brawler in the same vein as Final Fight, Streets of Rage and, more importantly, Maximum Carnage. It doesn't pretend to be anything more than a shallow beat-em-up, the kind of mindless entertainment that used to be a staple of the arcade market back in the 1980s and 90s. That’s not to say it's bad, but it's important to know what you're getting yourself in for when you pick up a game like Friend or Foe.
The truth is that it's hard for a game critic to review a game like Spider-Man: Friend or Foe. When it comes right down to it Activision isn't aiming this game at us older gamers, instead the target audience is 8 to 12 year old boys, the kind of kid who doesn't understand why everybody is complaining about being disappointed by Spider-Man 3. This game is here to appeal to the kind of younger gamer who doesn't feel like exploring the full story of BioShock and doesn't care about the emotions in Mass Effect. We're talking about the kind of kids who just want to turn their system on and start beating people up. Unfortunately that doesn't describe me at all, so in order to do justice to this game I am forced to write the review from a youngster's point of view.
As I already explained, Spider-Man: Friend or Foe is an old school arcade brawler along the lines of Rival Turf and that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade machine. As the game starts Spider-Man is accosted by some very familiar looking enemies, so in true Spidey fashion our hero swings into action and attempts to save the day. But as he investigates the situation he starts to realize that a lot of his former foes have been brainwashed and are completely unaware of their actions. As you might imagine, this does not sit well with these otherwise ruthless and evil villains, so everybody teams up to figure out just what is going on and destroy it once and for all. It's a story right out of a comic book, which is definitely the high point of Friend or Foe.
From there the game becomes extremely predictable, you, and a second character (that can be played by a friend or the computer), set off on tour of the world beating up swarms of bad guys and knocking the sense into some of the most popular Spider-Man villains of all time. In all there are five levels, including Tokyo, Tangaroa Island, Egypt, Transylvania and Nepal. Along the way you will meet up with a number of friends (including Blade and Silver Sable) and have to deal with tons of brainwashed villains. The boss villains play like a who's who was of bad guys from the Spider-Man movies, they include (but are not limited to) everybody from Doc Ock to Venom to Sandman to the Green Goblin. By the end of the game you will have defeated (and teamed up) with most of the major characters from the three most recent Spider-Man movies, which isn't a bad thing if you're a kid who grew up enamored by what Sam Raimi was able to do with those films.
Before each level you will have a chance to select what character you want to fight with, you will always default to Spider-Man, but when it comes to going through the levels you can use any one of the villains you've allied with. Once you've selected your team you get transported all around the world and start kicking bad guy butt. For the most part all of the levels play out the same way, you go from one area to the next kicking and punching your way through droves of annoying bad guys. That's pretty much all you do. The entire game is about fighting off oncoming attackers, which ultimately makes the gameplay very easy to get into. All of the levels are linear, there's never any doubt to where you're supposed to go and what you're supposed to do next. When you beat up a group of enemies a door will open or a trigger will pop up that will take you on your way, which generally leads to another batch of baddies. It's all very simple, which is exactly why Friend or Foe is targeted at a younger demographic.
While the levels are linear, that doesn't mean that you can't go around and explore all of the hidden areas found in each area. Each of the levels holds several hidden DNA strands, each of which you should be able to find if you spend a few minutes looking around the corners and out of the way areas found in the stage. On top of the DNA strands, you will also run across a hidden keycard that will open up a secret door in the level. If you open up this hidden location and beat up all of the bad guys that populate it, then you will be rewarded with a brand new multiplayer level that you can play at any time (more on that mode later). Outside of those objects nothing else is hidden, but if you spend your time destroying all of the containers, rocks and other items found in the level you will collect a lot of upgrade orbs and a few gems that will greatly increase your chances of winning the tougher challenges.
Just like the level designs, the combat in Friend or Foe is extremely simple. Basically it works out where you have a standard attack button that you mash to defeat bad guys and rack up combos. If you hold the button down you will perform a much more devastating attack, which you can then use to start a large chain of attacks and ultimately take out a number of enemies with relative ease. Along with your standard attack button you also get a special move button, which, in the case of Spider-Man, equates to a type of web attack. At first you will only be able to use your webbing to trip villains and throw them at other characters, but eventually you will earn web bullets and an attack that ties your enemies up so that it's easier for you (or the second player) to attack them. Despite the relatively simple attacks, each of the characters is able to pull off some impressive combinations by using all of the buttons to string together these attacks.
It's also worth mentioning that you can upgrade your various attacks by using the upgrade orbs. Before you start a new level you can go to the upgrade machine in the central HUB and upgrade every aspect of your attacks, from how powerful the web bullets are to which combos you will be able to pull off. Assuming that you go through each level destroying the containers and rocks you should be able to completely level up your attacks about half way through the game, which means that for the second half of the game you will feel like a real superhero. Along with the special attacks you will be able to upgrade the amount of life you have, how tough you are, and how powerful your attacks are. You will also be able to upgrade each of the various friends and foes if you feel like it.
While the game has the makings to be a solid action game, there are a few issues that ultimately bring down the overall experience. The biggest problem I have with the game is that it's just too easy, you can go through the entire game (collecting more than 900 achievement points) in around four or five hours without even batting an eye. The way the game is set up is that when you run out of health you don't really lose a life or have to start over at the beginning of the level (or even a checkpoint), instead you simply reappear on the same screen ready to continue your fight. Outside of losing a few upgrade orbs, dying is never penalized in Friend or Foe. The logic behind this, from what I can tell, is that this is for kids who are looking for a fun action game and not a steep challenge. But part of me feel like Activision is selling the youth of today short, I remember playing some of the hardest games of all time as a ten year old kid and still having a wonderful time. We're talking about games like Contra and Ninja Gaiden, the kinds of titles that make you want to throw your control at the television set. I agree that there should be a balance when it comes to the difficulty, but I worry that Friend or Foe is so outrageously easy that some kids may feel like Activision is talking down to them.
Another problem I have is that the whole thing feels very repetitive. Granted, this complaint comes with the territory. Let's face it, Streets of Rage and Final Fight where two of the most repetitive games of all time and yet we still loved them. But I would argue that those games weren't competing against the likes of action likes Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4. What's more, most of those games were only a couple hours long, not four or five. To make matters worse, there's a real lack of variety when it comes to the enemies you face in each of the levels. While it's true that the various baddies "evolve" over the course of the game, they never actually feel very different. All this is especially troubling since this is a full priced Xbox 360 game, which means that you are spending the same amount of money on this that you would on any other game this season.
Thankfully it's not all bad news for Friend or Foe. One of the first things you'll notice when you sit down with the title is that all of the voice acting is well done; the script feels like it was ripped right out of the comic book, one-liners and all. The story itself isn't very deep, but I had a good time fighting each of the brainwashed villains and seeing what Spidey had to say to them. Unfortunately I didn't have nearly as much fun fighting through the levels to get to these bosses, but I suspect that there are a lot of kids out there that will enjoy the easy nature of the game and accept it for what it is.
I also really enjoyed the fact that this game is a solid two-player action game, it's rare to see a co-op action game these days and Friend or Foe is a good way for two people to pass the time. It would have been nice if we could have played these levels online with a friend, but I understand that Friend or Foe is more about having a friend over and going through it together. What I really appreciate about the game is just how easy it is for somebody to start playing mid way through the story mode. At any time the second player just has to push the "A" button to take over for the computer, which is the way all two-player action games should work. Thankfully it's also easy for the second player to be switched back to the computer, all you have to do is pause the game and hit one of the buttons to give the computer full control over player two. I'm so sick of action games that allow you to play with a second player, but only if you start the game and finish the game together.
Speaking of playing with a friend, when you're done saving the world from brainwashed villains and other baddies, you and a friend can go into the one on one versus mode. In a lot of ways this two-player mode reminds me of a stripped down version of Power Stone, one of Capcom's greatest 3D fighting games. You and a friend enter a large arena and run around punching and using your attacks, trying to be the one left standing. By only allowing two players to go in and battle it out, this competitive mode feels somewhat lacking. Had they gone all out and let four players fight in this large arena they would have had something special, but as it is this mode just feels more like an afterthought than a real extra mode.
The graphics in Friend or Foe are very simple, often to the point where you wouldn't know it was an Xbox 360 game. While there are a few effects that look good, the game itself looks more like the licensed games we played on the original Xbox. That's not to say that the game is bad, but you definitely won't be blown away by the simplistic look of the game.
If you're looking for a cute little action game for a younger gamer then you could do a whole lot worse than Spider-Man: Friend or Foe. The game is a fun two-player experience, full of great characters and some really good voice acting. I do question the game's price point and easy difficulty, but this would make for a really good weekend rental. There's some fun to be found in the second Spider-Man game of 2007, but not everybody is going to enjoy it as much as the younger set. There are a lot of really good ideas in this game; I wouldn't be opposed to seeing some sort of sequel that improves on all of the problems that bring this first installment down.
If you're a kid then Spider-Man: Friend or Foe may be right up your alley, but the game is plagued with a high price point, easy difficulty, and gameplay that is far too repetitive. If all you're doing is looking for a good clean game for a younger gamer than you can't go wrong with Friend or Foe, but everybody else may want to give this one a rental before plunking down $60 on this relatively short experience.