Like most superheroes, Spider Man has walked a rough path when it comes to video games. It wasn’t until the late 90s that the web-head escaped a checkered resume of samey 2D beat-em-ups and graduated into the glory of 3D polygons and textures. 2000’s Spider Man game for the PS1, N64 and Dreamcast was a revelation for true believers in the wall crawler. Although the game was linear and level based, the environments were big enough to show off Spidey’s web slinging acrobatics, and the combat mixed hard-hitting button mashing with some pretty cool web powers. It also helped that the game borrowed much of its thematic elements, visuals and even voice actors from the excellent mid-90s Spider Man animated series. I still remember renting that game from Blockbuster back in the day, my 14-year-old preconceptions snapping in half as I slapped that cartridge into my N64 and experienced the first game to truly get Spider Man right.
Soon Sam Raimi’s Spider Man movies dominated Spidey’s landscape, but the games continued to use Spider Man 2000 as the gold standard. 2002’s Spider Man movie tie-in game followed the same limited level-based setup, but increased the scope of everything—graphics, scale, action, bosses—using the ferocious next-gen power of the GameCube, PS2 and Xbox. Then 2004 brought Spider Man 2, and everything changed. For the first time you could explore all of Manhattan in a dynamic sandbox world, tackling random street crimes and webs-swinging from one edge of the island to the other.
The era of great Spider Man gaming culminated with Ultimate Spider Man, an extension of Spider Man 2’s open world design but set in the cel-shaded Ultimate comic universe. This game was pure joy for a Spidey fanboy, tightening up all of the good ideas from Spider Man 2, adding Spidey’s home neighborhood of Queens to the map, and draping it all in vibrant comic-style graphics. Sadly, everything went downhill from there, with the disaster known as Spider Man 3 severely disappointing both as a movie and a game.
2008’s mediocre entry, Spider Man Web of Shadows,
was the last Spider Man game set in a free-roaming New York and the last developed by Treyarch before they handed development duties over to Beenox. While their 2010 debut effort with Spider Man Shattered Dimensions
was decent, it returned Spidey to a linear, level-based beat-em-up structure more reminiscent of God of War. While I loved the early 2000 games, Spider Man 2’s switch to a free-roaming Big Apple was a serious game-changer, and Beenox’s decision to revert to closed levels felt like a big step backward. The limitations of that design really started to show in Beenox’s follow up, Spider Man Edge of Time, which wasn’t nearly as well received as its predecessor.
With a rebooted movie series poised to return Spider Man to prominence, Beenox has been given the daunting task of making a counterpart game, and apparently they understand Spider Man is meant to web-sling free amid the New York skyline. The Amazing Spider Man puts Spidey square in the middle of the biggest, most detailed Manhattan he’s had in a video game yet. But with Rocksteady redefining just how good a superhero game can be with their groundbreaking Batman titles, can puny Parker still stand tall as his red-and-blue clad alter ego?
Well, yes and no. Amazing Spider Man is the best Spidey game in recent memory, but that’s partly because it borrows a lot from the Batman Arkham games. Beemox might steal some of the Batman’s most recent and successful moves, but that doesn’t make the newest Spider Man game bad. It’s just familiar, and since the familiar elements are lifted from something great in the first place, and now with a Spider Man spin on them, Amazing Spider Man turns out to be a pretty damn entertaining entry in a new formula for superhero games. Rocksteady just happened to break ground in the genre and Beenox has naturally emulated them.
Beenox smartly sets their game apart from the movie, instead of trying to cram all of the new film’s story beats into a sandbox game the way Treyarch’s Spider Man 2 and 3 did. The game is really more of an interquel or epilogue than a straight tie-in; Amazing Spider Man 1.5 if you will. The story takes place several months after the movie, with Dr. Curt Connors—the Lizard—locked up safely in an asylum, and nano-robotics genius Alistair Smythe taking over the R&D labs at Oscorp. Smythe is ostensibly cleaning up Connors’ disastrous cross-species genetic experiments, getting ready to destroy Scorpion, Rhino Vermin and Iguana, test-subject super villains that Connors supposedly created. It’s clear from the beginning, though, that Smythe isn’t being honest on how he’s using Connors’ research.
Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy are taking a tour of Oscorp when these mutated villains break out and escape into the city, spreading a ravenous cross-species virus as they go. Smythe takes the overkill approach by releasing his army of kill-bots into Manhattan, which wreak havoc trying to isolate infected citizens, kill the escaped super villains, and capture Spider Man in the process. Even worse, Gwen is bitten by Vermin during the Oscorp escape, and quarantined with the other infected scientists. Peter Parker now has a personal stake in curing the infection and controlling the escaped cross-species monsters, quickly swinging into action with Smythe’s killer robots on his tail. His only choice is to break Connors out of prison so that they can work on a cure for the disease.
I really liked Beenox’s approach to this game and its plot. It has its own unique story which is a natural extension of the film, it introduces its own new characters while expounding on the ones from the movie, it extrapolates on the freshly minted Spider Man and his powers, costume and equipment, heck it even has its own unique orchestral theme. It was cool to see Connors agonizing over what he did as the Lizard, and Peter and Gwen’s cute, snarky relationship is translated surprisingly well into the game. Aside from a few reservations about four classic villains all resulting from the same mad science experiment at Oscorp, I wouldn’t at all mind if the inevitable movie sequels incorporated the game into their canon.
As for the gameplay, getting back into the spider-tights is a bit disorienting at first. While similar to the Treyarch games, Amazing Spider Man definitely has its own temperament. Beenox has shifted the camera much closer to Spidey and he’s a lot faster and more acrobatic this time—spinning, twisting and tumbling through the air with dizzying speed and grace. It isn’t unusual to feel a few slight waves of nausea and vertigo as you try to get a handle on navigating with the wall-crawler, but once you get used to it this heightened form of swinging is more exhilarating than any Spidey game that came before it.
Leaping headlong off of skyscrapers is now a matter of course, and as you come off of a web swing, flinging yourself into the air, Spider Man will spread out his limbs and practically base-dive toward the streets below with the wind whipping around him. There is a wonderful kind of physicality about this new game, a realness that makes it considerably more believable than any of the Raimi films or their accompanying games. More than any other Spider Man game, the Amazing Spider Man got me closer to believing that the game world is actually kind of plausible, which helped immensely with the immersion factor.
Beenox has also implemented a new game mechanic that is absolutely crucial to managing this new game’s sheer speed: web rush. The web rush feature basically lets you slow down Spidey’s time perception with his spider sense, pulling the perspective behind his visor and into first person where you can pick exactly where you want to go. Predefined perch spots on walls, water towers, light poles, signs and the like are scattered throughout the environment, but you can also use a cursor to highlight the precise spot you want to web-zip to or land on. Web rush makes navigating at such high speeds a lot easier, and for the first time I felt like I could accurately direct Spidey’s movements. You can even highlight enemies for a surprise attack…and that brings us to the combat.
This is where Amazing Spider Man borrows most heavily and obviously from Arkham City. Stealing Arkham’s combat system might seem like a complete lack of creativity on Beenox’s part, but to be honest I really can’t blame them. I’ve played a lot of superhero tie-in games over the years, and until Rocksteady came along and showed everyone how to do the combat right, most developers were stumbling around in the dark. Granted, Arkham’s brilliant combo meter system isn’t a natural fit for all superheroes—I can’t imagine it working for Superman, many of the X-Men or especially for someone insane like Deadpool—but for Spider Man, with a few modifications it works just fine.
Spider Man games are actually one of the better examples of that trial and error combat experimentation I mentioned. As far back as Spider Man 1, the combat was a redundant, jumbled mess of fighting game combos, earnestly but awkwardly grafted onto a third-person action game. The only element saving the combat from complete mediocrity was the web powers; I’d usually just combine a few stalwart, effective button combos with web tricks and that would serve me throughout the entire game. There was no practical reason to master the extensive moves list in those early games, and by Spider Man 2 Treyarch had removed almost all of the cool web powers, so the combat got even more repetitive and boring.
The one standout was Ultimate Spider Man. That game took place early in Spidey’s career before he’d learned flashy fighting techniques, so the emphasis was on simple, straightforward combat that used speedy hit and run tactics. You could make Spider Man pinball back and forth between hapless thugs at breakneck speed; the sheer kinetic force of that game’s simple, raw combat captured the essence of Spider Man’s fighting style. Beenox has apparently been paying attention: Amazing Spider Man’s combat system takes the rapid, back-and-forth target switching from Ultimate and mixes it with Arkham’s pitch perfect attack-dodge balancing act. The end result is just slightly cumbersome at first, but after a little more practice than it takes to get a handle on Batman’s style, it feels natural enough to juggle five or more combatants.
The leveling system is also almost identical—you’ll be gaining XP and tech points by defeating enemies, stringing together combo hits and finding collectibles, and then using those points to unlock new moves and powers. That said, there is more of a learning curve in Amazing Spider Man than in Arkham. Before you upgrade his health and armor Spidey can’t take much damage, so you can sustain maybe a few punches and some gunfire before dying. While Batman’s combat style is a methodical, measured rhythm, Spider Man’s is frantic and much faster; you’ll dole out attacks and dodge when necessary like Batman, but you must be much quicker on the dodge when Spidey’s spider sense flashes, and rapidly switching between targets is more urgent. This switch to a faster combat system with a much narrower margin of error was a little jarring at first and early on I got my butt kicked several times trying to fight like Batman.
Stealth is also more crucial to survival, and it feels less scripted than in the Arkham games. Being Spider Man, you can perch or stick just about anywhere, not just on predetermined stealth perches. Once you’ve upgraded your trap abilities a couple times you can zip down, cocoon a couple enemies and glue them to the ceiling, then retreat while the remaining thugs frantically try to locate you. The web retreat feature was particularly helpful here, letting you zip away to safety, but enemies with spotlights will constantly search the ceilings and shadows, so you must stay on your toes.
The actual mission variety is decent, with a number of typical Spider Man locales. You’ll be exploring shady warehouses, high-tech science labs in the Oscorp Tower and a bank during Black Cat’s heist, and each location gives you plenty of opportunities to use stealth or good old fashioned super-strength. There is more flexibility here on when to use stealth or fists, although admittedly there are sections where attacking from the shadows is much, much easier than going in swinging.
There are a few too many sewer levels, as the textures and look of these areas repeats too much and all the rooms and tunnels start to run together. Still, the sewers have some cool puzzles where you have to re-arrange subway cars. In a few branching hub tunnels you can even do that slick spiderweb trick Peter uses in the movie, where you sit in the middle of the web and examine individual silk threads to detect vibrations and locate where a villain is hiding. The boss battles themselves range from creative to pretty forgettable; more often than not you’ll just dodge attacks and land punches until the villain goes down. Standouts include a hide-and-seek battle with Black Cat in a bank vault, and a delightfully retro rumble with Rhino that will be very nostalgic to fans of the 2000 PS1 Spider Man game.
Amazing Spider Man’s bonus system is cleverly worked into the gameplay, using a photography feature for unlocking collectibles and extra features. Early in the game you’ll meet Whitney Chang, an investigative journalist who lends you her camera. While there are specific photography sidequests in the city, you can also snap pictures of hidden conspiracy evidence during story missions and even take pictures of enemies. All of this snapping unlocks character trophies and concept art galleries, once again very similar to the ones in Arkham City.
You can also hunt out and photograph hidden Spider Man graffiti emblems painted on walls throughout Manhattan; these unlock a wardrobe of colorful new costumes. While these costumes don’t grant any special powers like the ones way back in the PS1 game, it is cool to swing around New York as Scarlet Spidey, the Man-Spider or even the Sam Raimi version of the black symbiote suit. To top it all off there are a whopping 700 comic pages sprinkled around the city. Collecting 500 of them unlocks several digital comic books, featuring the origins of Spidey and several of the villains in the game.
Nabbing all of the pages isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds; the pages glow bright gold and make a distinctive twinkling sound, and the web rush even highlights them, so it’s difficult to swing down a street without grabbing at least ten of them. Once you get 500 the rest show up on the radar too, so I was able to comfortably collect them all in a standard playthrough. The game also has some retailer-specific DLC, including options to play as Rhino and even Stan Lee, but these weren’t available in my review copy and as of this writing they aren’t even up for download on XBLA, so I can’t accurately report on those yet.
The game’s production values are something of a mixed bag, but thankfully the good outweighs the bad. The game has an unmistakable, just-barely-rushed movie tie-in feel to it; a few animations are a little rough and textures repeat in some areas, but overall the game is surprisingly good looking. Most of these rough patches show up during the indoor missions, whereas swinging through Manhattan is a flawless, breathtaking experience. The city feels alive at any time of the day, with brilliant sunlight in the morning and a vista of sparkling skyscraper lights at night, with plenty of pedestrians wandering around and New York’s typical crowded traffic cluttering the streets. In a nice touch of continuity, Peter is house-sitting for an old friend of his aunt May’s, named “Stan.” This apartment is a helpful touchstone in the middle of the city, and knowing just who this Stan guy is makes for a nice little cameo detail for fans…especially when Doc Connors maxes out Stan’s credit card buying lab equipment. ‘Nuff said in that regard.
The character models are all quite detailed and I liked the gnarly, mutated re-imagining of familiar villains like Scorpion and Rhino. One particular detail I appreciated was the damage modeling on Spidey’s suit; as you get more and more beat up during fights, the web-head’s costume gets progressively more shredded until it’s barely holding together. Heading back to Stan’s apartment automatically fixes the costume, but you have to wonder how many spares Peter has in that closet.
While the graphics are much better than in the average licensed game, I have a feeling this game was finished before some things in the movie were finalized. It seems that Beenox might have been working with pre-final concept art; Oscorp Tower looks considerably different than it does in the movie, lacking the distinctive hexagon-pattern girder work on the outside, and Spidey’s suit looks smoother and more professional than the charmingly amateur costume he has in the movie. It even includes a utility belt, new and unique to the game, and after some prolonged webshooter use Spidey will dip his wrists down to his belt to reload. I like to think these improvements are because Pete is just getting better at making his Spidey costumes.
In addition to the design discrepancies, the story hints at a few plot elements that were supposedly cut from the film at the 11th hour, specifically Peter’s more detailed “genetic destiny” as Spider Man, so we’ll see how much of that shows up in future movies and games.
The audio side is more impressive than the visuals. The voice acting is very well done, and while none of the movie cast reprise their roles Beenox has cast a who’s who of experienced voice actors from all over the industry. The prolific Sam Riegel voices Spidey, and while he doesn’t sound exactly like Andrew Garfield, I actually liked that. He sounds more experienced, confident, and maybe just a little older than Garfield does in the film, which implies that Spider Man is more competent and comfortable being a superhero than when he was just starting out in the movie.
The equally prolific Kari Wahlgren did a bang-up job as Gwen Stacy, although I was disappointed she was stuck in a quarantine lab for most of the game. That said, I really enjoyed the chemistry between Peter and Gwen—it mirrors the awkward flirty quality from the film but also feels a little more mature. It isn’t too played up and it feels like Peter and Gwen have been dating for a while now and are more comfortable with each other, joking around but obviously caring a lot too. Riegel and Wahlgren did an impressive job with the material they had here. Of course this great chemistry will be even more tragic if Gwen bites the dust a few movies down the line like she did in the comics.
The legendary Steven Blum is great in whatever he does, and he’s done a lot, but I was surprised by his turn as Dr. Connors. I didn’t recognize him right away, which was cool—he didn’t sound like Spike Spiegel or Jack from Madworld. Claudia Lee Black also did a standout performance as Spidey’s journalist sidekick Whitney Chang, and Ali Hillis—better known as Liara T’Soni from Mass Effect—was mischievous and affecting in a too-brief appearance as Black Cat. Of course Stan Lee makes a voice cameo, calling Peter to inquire about the outrageous charges on his credit card, and Bruce Campbell also shows up in a cameo as the blimp-flying XTreme Challenge Reporter. I guess there are no hard feelings there.
Gerard Marino of God of War fame composed the game’s score. He also worked for Beenox on Edge of Time, so he already has experience in Spider Man games, but his score for Amazing Spider Man has a more epic, sweeping style reminiscent of the score James Horner did for the movie. While the game’s music has some of the same qualities and motifs as Horner’s score, it is also quite distinct; it doesn’t copy any of the movie’s main themes or melodies, to the extent that the game even has its own primary theme music. I really enjoyed the music in this game, especially the pieces when you’re just sitting on the main menu or swinging around the city. I still have to wonder though, if Gerard Marino was just doing his own thing or if the music was another aspect of the game that was finished before the movie was.
For all this game gets right, it still has the same problem most previous Spider Man games suffered from: very little replay value. The game will last you around 10 hours, including all the side-quests, city crimes and even the busywork like transporting sick citizens and asylum patients. Even worse, once you complete all the game’s sidequests there are no respawning city crimes, not even the combat tour challenges from Ultimate Spider Man. It’s kind of frustrating to unlock all of the cool costumes and then have nothing fun to do with them. This makes the decision to rent or buy more difficult than usual.
While Amazing Spider Man is pretty short, there’s still a ton of content to get through and as always, just swinging around New York is a blast. I’m glad to have the game in my collection, not just because it’s the first great Spidey game we’ve gotten in a while, but because it’s one of the few movie tie-in games that is a genuinely good extension on the movie, elaborating on the plot, characters and ideas of the film in a natural and intelligent way. It was very cool to come home from the movie, sit down with the game and believe this is exactly where these characters would be a few months down the line.
I also have to be honest that this game surprised the hell out of me, and that might be coloring my opinion about it. I don’t want to be unnecessarily critical, but after the very linear Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time, I was yearning for the old sandbox Spidey games and secretly hoping Activision would take the Spider Man license from Beenox and give it to another developer. Now I realize I was wrong to underestimate Beenox—they really stepped up their game with this title and delivered precisely the Spider Man experience I was craving. Here’s hoping they not only develop the inevitable sequel tie-in, but maybe another Spidey game in-between. They have the entire city mapped out, so another game or some sizable DLC during the two-year wait for Amazing Spider Man 2 wouldn’t be remiss.
As for the Amazing Spider Man game, while I’m certainly happy to own it, if you’re on the fence I’d recommend doing what I did way back in 2000 with that Spider Man N64 cartridge. Give Amazing Spider Man a rent, and if you get hooked, go ahead and buy it. For true believers, though, this game is worth taking the plunge.