I was delighted to hear that the game based on "The Amazing Spider-Man" movie is going to be a free-roaming epic, similar to "Spider-Man 2" which I've reviewed in the past and which I still believe to be one of the very best licensed games of all time. Lately, the Spider-Man games have taken a step back and have avoided the free-roaming approach in favour of simple, level-based brawling (Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time). After swinging majestically through the open-world streets of Manhattan, I had no interest in dialling down the virtual experience, so I never bothered playing either of these games.
I've often wondered why Activision ever decided to abandon the free-roaming option in the first place. With my excitement surrounding this upcoming game, I decided to examine the last Spider-Man game that used a free-roaming premise; another game I've never played for one reason or another: "Spider-Man: Web of Shadows".
Unlike the trilogy of movie-games, this game isn't based on an existing storyline, giving it free reign to tell its own unique story. The game sees Spider-Man reacquainted with the black symbiote costume after a small piece of the villainous Venom's skin attaches itself to the wall-crawler. Herein lies the primary hook of the game: the ability to switch between the traditional red and blue Spider-Man costume and the black symbiote costume at will. You don't have to go through the main menu or even pause the game to trigger this change - a simple press of the left-analog stick causes the black suit to quickly wrap itself onto Spidey's body.
The two suits have their own distinct moveset, completely distinct from each other. Red n' Blue Spidey is swifter and more skilled at aerial and web-based attacks while the black suit is more about sheer concussive power while Spidey has his feet on the ground, as well as giving Spidey ever-increasing mastery over the black suit's creepy symbiote tendril abilities, allowing Spider-Man to grapple enemies from far away or whip them into submission with vine-like tentacles. When you first play the game, your first instinct is to use the black suit as often as possible. As you progress through the game and level-up the abilities of both suits, you find yourself using the red suit more and more, as it has a wider range of skills and abilities.
In-keeping with the dark psychology of the black symbiote suit, the game gives the player the ability to choose between clean cut justice and darker choices, reflecting the control the symbiote suit has over Spidey. This is where the game really excels, as the outcome of the game depends on the choices you make. It's no Mass Effect, but it gives you a lot more control over what you're doing as Spider-Man. While I dearly love the Arkham games (and while both of them are far better than this game), I often disagree with the decisions forced upon me in those games. Sometimes while playing the story-mode, I don't feel like I am Batman, I feel like I'm taking orders from him. In this game, you get to decide what kind of hero Spider-Man is going to be. In this respect, it makes much better use of the black suit than Spider-Man 3, doing everything that I hoped the latter game would do.
One of the coolest things about the game is how New York changes as the story progresses. In the beginning of the game, it's the same NY we've seen in other games, with typical gangbangers and other more souped-up villains causing grief here and there requiring Spider-Man's intervention. As the game continues, the symbiotes get more and more control over the city, until all of Manhattan is deserted by its citizens, with only creepy symbiote zombies remaining. Even some of the buildings have been mutilated and covered in symbiote slime with hives sprouting out of them.
The combat is greatly improved on Spidey 3. Spider-Man uses a brand new 'web-strike' attack that is quite familiar to how Spider-Man would attack villains in the Spider-Man animated cartoon of the 90s. He shoots a webline at them from mid-air and uses the gained momentum to smack into them at force. The game mistakenly places too much emphasis on this move, however, making it a necessary part of the gameplay, rather than just being a cool new move you can use. I really didn't like how Spider-Man had no concussive projectile abilities like in most of the previous games. You still have impact webbing, but it's not as effective as it was in "Spider-Man 2".
The aerial combat was probably my favourite ability of the Red n' Blue Spider-Man. It's a lot more like the aerial combat in Spidey 2, as opposed to the useless, forced counter-system in Spidey 3. Most of the combat in the Black Suit is great. It's easy to find yourself using the black suit for most of the fights, as Black-Suited Spidey eliminates his enemies quicker and neater than Red n' Blue Spidey. It's a little bit less of a precise science however, and you're not quite as athletic in the black suit, but that's kind of the point. The ability to switch between suits is great overall, but can become very irksome in heated combat situations if your thumb slips and you accidentally trigger a change without meaning to, completely throwing off your momentum and the moves you intended to pull off. In this respect, it was probably a bit of a mistake making the left-analog stick the button you press to trigger the change. Surely the less-used right-analog stick would have been a lot more appropriate as a change-triggering button.
The biggest feeling I had during the combat stages of this game was that compared to the other games' reasonably realistic, credible uses of a man who can shoot webs and walk on walls (heh), this game was just completely overblown and ridiculous. It's like a videogame of a Spider-Man comic from the 1990s where the emphasis was on everything being as "EXTREME!!" and "EPIC!!" as possible, even if it didn't make any sense. A lot of Spider-Man's special web moves in this game make no sense whatsoever given the character's powers and abilities.
Generally, the combat in Web of Shadows is a big improvement, but it still falls into the same familiar trap as "Spider-Man 3" did, by putting too much emphasis on gimmicky context-sensitivity and not enough old-fashioned freedom to the player. Web-strike is great every now and then, but it was a mistake to make it such a central, necessary part of the gameplay.
(from "Spider-Man: The Movie" for PS2. Note the 'invisible ceiling'.)
One of the most iconic things about free-roaming Spider-Man games is the ability to swing around New York like you're really Spider-Man. One of the few things "Spider-Man 3" got absolutely right was how it perfected this mechanic, improving the already-great system in "Spider-Man 2". "Web of Shadows" is still good, but it's not nearly as breathtaking as it was in Spidey 3. There's no button to speed up your swingspeed like there was in previous games (Spider-Man just becomes increasingly faster automatically as the game progresses), which was always one of the most fun aspects of the control-system of the previous games. Not only this, but the developers severely dumbed-down the realism of the web-swinging by bringing back the most maligned aspect of the original PSOne-era Spider-Man games: "Invisible Ceiling-Swinging" whereby Spider-Man's weblines don't anchor to specific buildings and he appears to be hanging out of mid-air. It's nowhere near as ridiculous as in those early games and for the most part, Spider-Man appears to be swinging from building to building, and usually you can't swing in totally-barren buildingless areas, but there's a few notable exceptions to this, unlike the previous two games. It's just really off-putting when you tilt the camera upwards and you can clearly see that Spidey is swinging out of the clouds in the sky.
Seeing as how this game doesn't exist within the continuity of the movies, this gave the developers more freedom to include other elements and characters from the Marvel Universe. Unfortunately, most of the classic characters we know and love, such as the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, most of the X-Men, Nick Fury, Doctor Strange and Daredevil are all absent. All we get is Wolverine, Black Widow, Black Cat and...Moon Knight? Moon Knight especially feels like someone the developers used because they weren't allowed use a better character because of all the different films coming out around the time the game was made. It's also a shame the developers weren't allowed to use Nick Fury (unsurprising, seeing as how the first "Iron Man" came out that Summer) and had to settle for Black Widow as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (this was long before ScarJo immortalised her on the big screen, remember). This is all a bit disappointing, as it feels like you're travelling through a second-rate version of the Marvel Universe, compared to the amazing sightseeing romp "The Punisher" game was.
The biggest problem in the game is its script, its story, its characterisations and above all else, its voice performances. None of these elements are anywhere near as magically strong as in "Spider-Man 2", which showcases the one of the best examples of a script enhancing the playthrough of a game. Storywise, the basic plot of a symbiote invasion of New York is fine and is typical comic-book fare, but we're never given a reason as to why Spider-Man suddenly trusts his symbiotic black suit, which he so desperately tried to rid himself of before. He frequently defends the suit and his choice to use it throughout the game, with no reason given to us as to his change of tune. He also never exhibits any guilt for bringing the symbiote to Earth in the first place, indirectly causing the invasion that serves as the game's plot. Characters frequently call him out on this throughout the game and Spider-Man just jokingly shrugs off any suggestion that he's to blame for this citywide catastrophe. It's an offensively out-of-character representation of Peter Parker.
The actor playing Spider-Man gives the worst, most exaggerated, cringe-inducing performance as Spider-Man I have ever heard (and that includes 1970s Nicolas Hammond and his Japanese counterpart, both of whom were nothing like any Spider-Man I've ever seen or heard). He sounds just about as stereotypically dorky as possible and completely repels you from wanting to watch the game's cutscenes. On the subject of cutscenes, they are among the worst edited scenes I've ever seen in a game. The dialogues are frequently subject to bizarre pauses or interruptions and sometimes it doesn't make any sense what characters are saying. It gets better and more cohesive towards the end certainly, but there's generally an extremely unfinished feel to the game's presentation.
Also, an absolutely staggering misstep in how the game is developed is that it doesn't allow you to continue roaming freely through the city playing side-missions after you've finished the story like all the other free-roaming Spider-Man games (not to mention other free-roaming superhero games, even the really bad ones) allow you to do. The story ends in such a way that the only way to continue playing the game is to play from the start, losing all of the upgrades you achieved throughout your first playthrough. It's bizarre and insane that the developers expected players to just play through absolutely every nook and cranny the game has to offer within the confines of the main story. When it comes to games like this, I always breeze through the story first to see how that part of the game unfolds and THEN I focus on the smaller stuff for a comprehensive experience. It's baffling that the developers didn't feel this way when they were developing the game. I know it would have been difficult to explain the state of the city or how Spider-Man is still able to switch between suits after the climax of the game's story, but frankly I don't care. They should have found a way to make it work. This is my biggest problem with the game. Instead of happily continuing on from my original progress, I've turned the game off and started replaying the Arkham City challenges, instead.
So is this game worth playing?
For the most part, yes. I think it makes much better use of the capabilities of the Black Suit than in the Spider-Man 3 game and while there's certainly plenty wrong with the story, the overall plot is epic and lots of fun to play through. This game captures the silly over-the-top feel of the kinds of Spider-Man stories I grew up with (in the comics and especially in the 1990s animated series) in a way that perhaps the more serious gameplay design of previous Spider-Man games did not. Where the presentation fails, the action succeeds. And as we all know, action is Spider-Man's reward.
It's by no means the definitive Spider-Man game that "Spider-Man 2" comes so close to being. Too much is wrong with the presentation of the story, the combat, the swinging and the absolutely dumbassed decision to effectively steal your progress away from you after you've finished the story mode, but I can't deny that "Spider-Man: Web of Shadows" has a charm all its own. It's not a great game and there's a lot wrong with it, but it's still a really good Spider-Man game and if you're craving some more web-swinging around New York, you could do worse than checking this one out.