Ok, hands up. Who out there knows who Spider-man is? Keep them up if you know what he can do. Good, yes, whatever a spider can is the right answer. Now that we're all on the same page, we can move on.
Oh, and you can put your hands down.
Activision currently has ol’ Peter Parker by the spider sac and keeps trotting him out every year and making him swing around for our amusement. The current developer holding the bullwhip is Beenox, who have been doing their best to try and give the webhead something new to do every year. Both Edge of Time and Shattered Dimensions were different but… less than spectacular. There were always some interesting ideas thrown in the pan, but it kept coming out a bit half-baked in terms of gameplay.
But now there is a new film that hopes to reboot the franchise and what’s a superhero movie without a licensed videogame tie-in? Anyway, this game follows almost immediately after the events of the movie, meaning that beyond the standard game plot spoilers you would expect to see in a review you will also be getting some movie spoilers. So fair warning, true believers.
In this version of Spider-man’s universe, he and most of his enemies are actually something they call cross breeds. Basically, these are humans that have been given animal genes or animals that have been mutated with human genes. This is all explained to you in the first ten minutes from Gwen Stacy as she gives you a lengthy first-person tour of Oscorp’s labs as they're trying to deal with the aftermath of Dr. “the Lizard” Conners' actions.
Anyway, long story short, these mutants break out and it is up to Spidey to clean up the town before they infect the entire population. The story as a whole is serviceable and rather above average compared to other licensed videogames. The voice acting is frankly not great. I mean, it's ok, but whatever hope the script had of entertaining you is marred by flat performances. I’m a bit of a voice actor snob so take that with a grain of salt; I'm just not willing to give the game a pass for its wooden acting because “it’s a comic book game so being a little hokey is ok”. There has never been a good excuse for being lazy and in a post-Dark Knight/Avengers world we should all expect more from the genre.
How nice of them to clean Manhattan until it sparkles for me.
The core gameplay feels like the developers have taken what they’ve learned from their previous titles, as well as going back to some of Neversoft’s gems (like Spider-man 2 and Ultimate Spider-man), to give us a sort of greatest hits game. He sticks to walls, shoots webs, swings through the city, and bounds around in battles with the proportionate strength and agility of a spider.
It's been a while since we had the chance to take Spidey for a spin through Manhattan’s skyline. It takes the approach of fun over realism (which is weird to have to point out in a superhero videogame) by allowing his webs to attach where you need them instead of necessarily having to be near buildings and objects to attach to. Complaining about this is sort of like complaining that about how unrealistic the physics in a Spongebob cartoon is. Getting from point A to point B in the city is simple and dare I say fun. So good on Beenox for not making the simple act of traveling a chore.
The ability that definitely makes traversal painless is the new web-rush move. Holding down one of the triggers will throw you into first-person mode and slows down time. There will be a phantom Spider-man that shows where you are currently aiming, which you will zip directly at when you let the trigger go. This technique works for dodging attacks, getting around tricky laser traps, and generally just taking a lot of the headache out of proper character placement. It's a move that feels exactly like something Spider-man should have, giving you the ability to move like him without resorting to automatic zip points or quick time events to pull off.
Combat, on the other hand, feels a bit less like Spidey and a bit more like another stellar action game set in a comic book world. It doesn’t take long before you start getting déjà vu from your time in Arkham City. One button attacks, one buttons dodges (thanks to your spidey sense), and you have more powerful signature moves that open up only if you build your combo meter. Hey, if you're going to copy something copy from the best, right?
The combat mechanics may mirror the Arkham series but it has been infused with more of the agile luchador style that Spider-man would use. As you fight you will unlock more maneuvers that improve you web skills as well as your fighting strength. It's not as satisfying as controlling Batman was, but it sure is fun throwing a dumpster at a crowd of guards and webbing them while they lay there unconscious. You’ll have a lot more fun if you control Spider-man like he was Spider-man and not like Mr. Wayne.
Jazz hands fu!
The one area which they should not have tried to steal from Bats is the stealth segments. Everybody thinks Spider-man would make this excellent stealth character, but he just doesn’t. Spider-man has always been a character of bright colors, bold moves, and having a big mouth. That does not a Solid Snake make. Slowing down all the action to slowly sneak up on henchmen with guns just doesn’t fit the rest of the game, nor does it fit the core of the character. The indoor moments of forced stealth thankfully go by pretty fast once you unlock the ability to perform Spidey’s version of the inverted takedown, which will cocoon a goon to the ceiling, and which clears a room in a few seconds.
Outside of the open city gameplay and full-on combat, the game feels restrictive and - worse - unimaginative by design. There is a lack of anything that would count as a puzzle. Instead you will have objectives including “escort the injured character”, and the ever popular “collect three of item X”. Of course, none of that compares to the disappointment of the boss battles. Whether dealing with another cross breed character or the ridiculously huge nondescript robot city battle, the fights are just too predictable. You simply dodge attacks, wait for an opening, punch, rinse and repeat.
Any possibility of a creative Spider-man styled battle is nullified by having the boss battles in a sealed room or with big invisible walls all around the arena. My hopes of fighting Scorpion all through the city while swinging on the rooftops or having to take down Rhino in the middle of rush hour were squashed. Long-time Spidey fans might be a little thrown to see villains like Scorpion or Rhino being re-imagined as simply an animal mutated to be more humanoid. However, if you have been a comic book fan long enough you should know better than to get too comfortable with any single continuity. That said, these villains are hollow versions of themselves, devoid of any real character, and so interacting with them is less than stellar. Too bad Beenox didn’t notice how important deep, engaging villains were to the experience of Arkham City. There was not a single A (or even B) list villain to engage in conflict with and that makes me a sad spider.
Stop right there Iguana... Man! Oh god why do you exist?
Still, the game looks pretty good. Your costume will sustain damage through a chapter when you take damage, which is a nice touch. The music sets the mood well enough, just don’t expect to be wanting to own the soundtrack. Even with time taken to get the collectables you're looking at around fifteen hours to get through the main story and polish off the side quests. It's become the typical length of an action title, so no real surprise there.
I'm really trying my best to avoid the easy line of “more like average Spider-man” but that is really what this game boils down to. It is far far far far far from the worst Spider-man game ever, but it plays everything too safely to get much of a recommendation at full price. The fun to be had in the game derives from how enjoyable it can be to control a videogame Spider-man, making it a good game to rent, but not so much to own, even for a Spidey fan.