For the past several years, comic book games have actually been improving. Gone are the tedious beat-em-up yawn fests of the 16 bit era; we now have hits like X-Men Legends and Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. Spider Man, through his movie rejuvenation, has been at the forefront of gaming too, but his last two outings were only good, not great. The game that accompanied the first Spidey film had considerable depth but was limited to a level-based setup. Spider Man 2’s innovation was a massive, free-roaming New York. Kind of like GTA, but without the low polygon hookers.
There won’t be another movie starring the wall-crawler for at least two years, so developer Treyarch has tapped another area of webhead lore: Ultimate Spider-Man. The comic, launched in 2000, is a retelling of Peter Parker’s early days as a hero, and the game follows one of the series’ most pivotal story arcs: the Venom saga. This is where Ultimate is different from all of the other Spidey games: it lets you play as Venom himself. This new gameplay dynamic is accompanied by the most Marvel characters seen in a game thus far, as well as a refined interface and (finally) some bonus content.
While all of the extras make for a more involved play experience, by far the most attractive element on Ultimate Spider-Man is the story. Spider Man the Movie 1 and 2 dropped the ball in that regard, and the plots of the respective films felt tacked on and at times totally neglected. Not so with Ultimate. Treyarch commissioned the writers of the comic, Mark Bagley and Brian Michael Bendis, to pen the script and create the character art.
The result is impressive; aside from recurring characters, some classic Spidey villains make their Ultimate debut in the game. The plot is also canonical with the comics, a first for comic-game crossovers, so if you’re a regular reader of the book expect to see some fallout from the events of the game.
The graphical style accompanies the comic story with faithful accuracy. Cutscenes, while still full-motion, are framed in fast-moving boxes and panels, and occasionally spoken dialog is represented in stylized text. Even outside of the cutscenes, the game looks like a comic book. I know cel-shading isn’t anything new, but it’s the way the developers use it that makes it special in Ultimate Spider-Man. Everything, especially characters, appear as if it’s been inked. They all have heavy black outlines and vibrant, loud color shading.
The buildings and the background have some questionable draw distance, but the flat, abstract appearance of the city in the distance lends even more of a comic look to the environment.The sidekick to the visuals, sound, also does a good job of bringing the silent pages of a comic to life. The voiceovers are all well done and suitably over the top, even if Spidey and his nemeses are all a bit younger than I’m used to. Parker’s smarmy one-liners are a lot better than Toby Maguire’s vacuous deliveries in the movie games. Music is effective when it shows up, but it lacks a necessary variety that makes the overall score rather bland.
All right, so it’s a slick looker, and it sounds pretty good too. But what about the meat and potatoes, the gameplay? Well, if you’ve played Spider Man 2, you’ve basically played this game. It runs on the same basic principle, the free-roaming Manhattan, and probably even the same game engine. Thankfully, there are some welcome improvements over the sequel game. The city has been scaled back a bit, making the environment tighter and easier to navigate. Spider Man 2’s New York was so massive, with so much empty unused space, that I never felt like Spider Man, like the city was a playground that I had domain over.
All that’s changed in Ultimate. New York feels a lot more relevant now that evry area has a function, a purpose. And with the addition of Venom, I can be more than just a protector. The symbiote terror controls a lot differently than the webhead, mostly because he doesn’t swing on webs. Rather, he leaps great distances, high into the air. I’ll admit, it was a rush the first time I hit the R trigger and Venom shot up several dozen stories, then came crashing down to put a large crater in the pavement. Venom doesn’t have any falling damage, unlike Spidey, but the symbiote is constantly eating away at the health of Eddie Brock, Venom’s tortured alter ego. Venom doesn’t grab health powerups, however; he recharges his strength by draining it from innocent bystanders or enemies, sucking them into his syrupy mass and leeching the life right out of them.
Venom’s story stages are simple, straightforward slugathons through several city blocks. The only object of his missions is to rip, tear, smash and otherwise wreak havoc on the city and anyone who happens to get in his way. Again, it feels a lot like GTA, because Venom’s attacks are decidedly brutal and actually fatal to his enemies. In addition to the aforementioned health-drain, face planting a hapless guard or snapping a guy’s spine like a toothpick is particularly satisfying. But as you cause more destruction, tougher and bigger forces are called in to take you down.
It’s very similar to GTA’s star system, with a score counter at the top of the screen registering just how badly the military wants you dead. You know you’re in trouble when they start radioing for Hulk-Buster units, which means you’re just as destructive as Mr. Big Gameplay-wise, Venom certainly brings something fresh to the table, if a little reminiscent of the Hulk. Spider Man, however, remains largely the same. The swinging is tighter, the combat has been spruced up with lively acrobatics, but he’s still the same wall-crawler, and that’s a good thing. For the most part, the game’s two main characters are a solid offering. It’s the boss battles that get a tad checkered.
It’s not the fights themselves that are problematic. The actual struggles with the likes of Beetle, electro, Green Goblin, Silver Sable and the rest are all epic and heart-pounding. It’s getting to them that has me griping. For some reason, almost every boss fight is preceded with a chase through the city, whether you’re playing as Venom or Spidey. I can understand this if the villain is trying to escape, but chasing down the baddies that are single-mindedly trying to kill you in the first place doesn’t make sense. The chases are rather annoying too; a floating arrow points you in the general direction, but weaving in and out of skyscrapers gets old fast. You’ll find yourself doing these chases over and over again, and they quickly become the tiresome task of pattern memorization. They wouldn’t be worth if they didn’t lead up to awesome battles, masterful cutscenes and story revelation.
As I said, the plot is classic Spider Man, and for a comic book it has some good twists, but it ends all too quickly. I finished the game in two days, race retries included. After all is said and done, you can still roam the city as either hero or villain, but this grows thin as well. The replay value suffers from the repetition that Spider Man 2 had; you’ll be solving the same few crimes again and again, or blindly crashing through the streets until the military turns you into an unsightly ink spot on the pavement.
The unlockable comic pages and extra costumes are a welcome addition, but they’re only eye candy. No new powers or moves, no secret chapters, and you have to work hard for these shallow extras too.Ultimate Spider-Man did a lot to improve on its predecessors, but it still isn’t as deep as it could’ve been. The story was good if incredibly brief, and Venom injects some replay value, but it feels like the last pages of this book are mere pencil sketches, much less inked and colored.
Ultimate Spider-Man delivers a style change and a winding plot with impressive artistic flair. The action is over all too soon, unfortunately, and there isnâ€™t a whole lot to keep you swinging afterwards.