Being the Ultimate Spider-Man geek that I am, it's fair to say that I had astronomically high expectations for the comic-to-game adaptation. I was among the first to salivate over the title when it hit store shelves and among the first to pick up the not-so-rare limited edition copy, which all in all wasn't worth the extra money. But all of this nerdy excitement didn't come without a few reservations - mainly in regards to the length of the game, the significantly smaller cityscape, and the return of those dastardly repetitive city missions. Fortunately Spider-Man's latest turns out to be the best and most enjoyable web-slinging experience yet, with a unique visual style unlike anything console owners have seen before.
If you've been reading up on the comics (and you should be!), Ultimate Spider-Man mirrors the story of its comic book counterpart in just about every way, beginning with issue #35's spectacular fight between Parker and Venom on the school's football field. For those of you who haven't been following the comics (shame on you!), Treyarch has included a great opening sequence that does a wonderful job of getting players up-to-date with the story thus far. And while I could go on-and-on about Bendis' talent for story telling and all the little sub-plots that some players are missing out on, I'll instead fill you in on the basics and a few differences between this Spider-Man and other incarnations, and I'll even do it in beautiful bullet form.
- Parker is a 15-year old (yes, 15) high school student struggling to balance his web-slinging lifestyle with his family, school, and of course, Mary Jane
- The first person to know about Parker's secret is Mary Jane, and this happens within the first few issues of the series, so none of that "Why did you miss my play Peter?" crap
- Aunt May isn't some old hag who can barely walk, but is instead a strong individual who plays a much larger role in Peter's life
- Venom was born through Peter and Eddie's inheritance - a black substance created by the fathers of both characters, that supposedly acts as a human panacea
The reason why I focus so much on Ultimate Spider-Man's storyline is because it is by far one of the game's greatest assets, and it's easy to see why. Bendis has given birth to a Spider-Man that deals with everyday problems, such as break-ups, getting home too late, and swinging through city streets while chasing genetically deformed evildoers. Even better is how Treyarch presents this skilfully crafted story, treating the game as if it was an interactive comic book. Cutscenes look like pages taken straight out of the comics, with Parker leaping from one side of the page to the next, and the camera shifts from one cell to the other as the story progresses. It's gorgeous and couldn't have been a better recreation of what is easily one of this decade's best comic books.
But instead of seeing the story through just Spider-Man's perspective, you'll also witness it through the malevolent eyes of Spidey's arch nemesis, Venom. Periodically throughout the game, the story will shift from one side to the other, with each side offering a completely different style of play.
Venom's levels, for example, consist of either beating up on hordes of S.H.I.E.L.D operatives, chasing an enemy through the city streets with his powerful Hulk-like leaping abilities, or engaging one of the many bosses in battle. Think of it as The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, minus the tanks and upgradeable powers. However, no super-hero, or super-villain for that matter, is invincible, so when you're not breaking backs or tossing cars as Venom, you'll be feeding off innocent civilians by pulling them into your symbiote suit to regain health. Because the Venom missions are more or less few and far between, the same three mission styles never really get stale and even offer up some variety here and there.
The Spider-Man missions, on the other hand, are very similar to that of Spider-Man 2. In order to progress to the next chapter of the story, Spidey has to first complete a set of goals, whether it be beating up on a series of gangs, racing through checkpoints placed throughout the city, or taking part in those lovely city missions. And while the city missions are a bit more varied this time around, you still get the same old 'save man from falling' or 'beat up thug and return kind lady's purse' missions. Luckily, the city goals are over and done with in a matter of seconds, and you really only have to spend a solid hour to complete enough city objectives to play through the rest of the story mode.
The story missions for Spidey are generally of the same style as Venom's. You're chasing someone, fighting someone, or saving a few lives in-between. The chase missions can be a bit of a pain until you memorize the enemy's route, but the boss battles are downright inventive and fun to play. Take the Rhino battle for instance. First you have to lead him over to a pile of wet cement, wait for him to take a swing and get stuck, then head on over to the conveniently placed wrecking ball to knock him off his toes, then finally chase him one more time through the streets before duking it out mano a mano in a car lot.
The combat system and swing mechanics have unfortunately seen better days. In the comics, Spidey pretty much just hops around his enemies, taking quick jabs here and there with a few taunts thrown in for good measure, and in the game, that's about all that happens as well. It all boils down to jumping a few times, striking the opponent, then jumping a few times again. Where are all the upgradeable moves from Spider-Man 2? What happened to the fleshed out combat system from before? The swing mechanic has also been dumbed down so that you basically only need to worry about two buttons, whereas in Spider-Man 2, the system was much more complicated and allowed a greater amount of movement through the city. It would have been nice to see a similar system as in Spider-Man 2, where you can choose between an easier or more complex method of web slinging.
I've seen a lot of people complain about the number of invisible walls and the scaled down version of the city (which is about two times smaller than that of Spider-Man 2), but in reality, those two factors rarely become an issue. In fact, the city is of perfect size and detail. It's big enough so that you can still spend plenty of time swinging away, but small enough so that each individual building gets the detail it deserves.
However, Ultimate Spider-Man's biggest let down is its unreasonable length. The average gamer can easily beat this one over a rental period, or if you're die-hard enough, in one sitting. With only about six hours of a solid gameplay, Ultimate Spider-Man truly is the definition of short but sweet. Worse is the lack of unlockables (comic covers? booo), and the lousy secret costumes with their ridiculous requirements. Two of the hidden costumes are just variations of Parker - so his hood is up now, whoop-dee-doo - while the best costume requires a 100% completion of the game; that's about 15 hours worth of boring city missions to complete. And where did all the cool costumes go? What about Spider-Man 2099?
Even with its short length, the one thing that keeps the game afloat is its drop-dead gorgeous visual style and its faithfulness to Bendis' material. Ultimate Spider-Man literally is an interactive comic book with a visual style unlike anything on the market. You really have to see the game in motion to truly appreciate Treyarch's 3-D inking technology. But all of this graphical glory doesn't come without at least a few gripes. I would have liked to see some wind effects to enhance the feeling of speed when Spidey swings through the streets, and since the game uses an effect where buildings get more detailed the closer you are to them, the view can get pretty ugly when atop some of the larger skyscrapers. Still, Ultimate Spider-Man is one of the best-looking and stylish games ever made.
On the flipside, audio has taken a back seat to the game's stunning visuals. The voice work captures Spidey's cynical side well, but after hearing the same lines, often repeated twice in a row, over and over again, I couldn't help but want the web-crawler to keep his mouth shut for once. In fact, I think I even yelled at the television half expecting it to answer my prayers and mute the game for me. The upbeat musical score does little to impress as well; after 10 minutes of solid playtime, I had the music turned off and never once gave it a second thought.
This turned out to be one of the harder games I've ever had to review - largely due to my bias for the comic book and my love of all things Spider-Man. And as much as I wanted to score the game higher for its dynamic story, fluid gameplay, and of course, its aesthetic superiority, and as much as I tried to forget its shortcomings, I couldn't. This is the best Spider-Man experience yet, but with its inexcusable length and lack of any replay value, Ultimate-Spider Man ends up being a pretty good game instead of a phenomenal one. Does that mean you shouldn't check it out? Absolutely not, because whether you're a fan of the comics or not, Ultimate Spider-Man is still worth every penny.