Release Date: September 27, 2005
Three years ago, Sam Raimi came out with the Spider-Man movie, and the world exploded into Spider-Mania. The movie captured the spirit of Spidey almost to the letter, and it was a smash almost immediately, scooping up more money in the box office than even Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers would half a year later. A small company known as Treyarch (known mostly for their sleeper titles Die by the Sword and Draconus: Cult of the Wyrm) knew a video game hit would be inevitable, working with Activision to snag up the rights to a movie title as quickly as possible.
Spider-Man: The Movie was an instant success, seeing phenomenally high reviews all around. The game did what no other Spider-Man game had done before: felt like playing a Spider-Man game should be. The days of the Spider-Man game for the Sega Master System and such "phenomenal" titles as Spider-Man: Return of the Sinister Six were over, and the time for good superhero video games was born. Treyarch took things up another notch with the movie's sequel, Spider-Man 2, frequently getting tagged with the "Grand Theft Spider" moniker. Allowing you to freely roam Manhattan, performing good deeds for the townsfolk and occasionally progressing the story if you so pleased, Spider-Man 2 was the closest thing one could get to truly being Spidey.
If it weren't for Treyarch's success with the movie titles, a game spawned from the new Ultimate line of comics would be a completely preposterous suggestion. The Ultimate line, taking an alternate-reality look at the series, changes many characters and plotlines that fans and casual readers alike have grown used to. For example, while the methods that created the Green Goblin are the same, in Ultimate Spider-Man, he's not a high-powered guy in a suit of armor playing with too many pyrotechnics, instead being... well, a giant, Hulk-esque flaming green guy. You'll see that sort of thing all over in the Ultimate Spider-Man world, and if you've been a die-hard Spidey fan for too long, it may be a bit jarring.
That has to be the only serious complaint to be found with Ultimate Spidey; the game plays much like its spiritual predecessor Spider-Man 2. Just like before, Peter Parker dons the red and blue tights and goes swinging across town, righting wrongs and what have you. This particular story picks up in the middle of the Venom storyline, and for those who aren't familiar with the comic, it goes as such: Peter Parker's father worked with Eddie Brock's dad to work on a cure for cancer. Naturally, things didn't go quite as planned, and as Peter and Eddie unearth the concoction years later, hoping to take on their parents' work, it turns out to be the alien symbiote that first bonds with Peter/Spidey, only to get violently ripped apart from him, sealed up again, and locked away. Naturally, Eddie, who at the time is mighty ticked at Peter, snags the black gooey creature again, and, well, the rest is history.
The game starts off at that very first fight between Spidey and Venom, progressing through plot involving both superhero and supervillain. Despite what the commercials for the game may make you think, you don't choose the characters separately; instead, the story switches between them as needed. In between story points, you are free to roam around Manhattan – including Queens, allowing you to fulfill those fantasies of visiting Peter Parker's house and school – to do, well, pretty much the same thing you always do.
Treyarch knows that you shouldn't fix what isn't broken, so if you see a lot of what Spider-Man 2 had in this review, don't be surprised because everything's pretty much the same. You fight baddies, save people from falling off of buildings that they shouldn't have been on top of in the first place, and in the process, find a whole bunch of little tokens that have some relevance to unlocking things, but in a completely arbitrary fashion. In fact, just like Spider-Man 2, it's required to do a certain number of web-sling races, combat tours (basically extended pummel-the-thug sessions) and heroic feats before you can head to the next plot point.
Thankfully, things have been tweaked slightly. The rescue missions are a lot less impossible than before, since Manhattan seems to have thought to make the hospitals a little more easily accessible than in the not-so-Ultimate adventure. In addition, you're not going to be rescuing any more balloons for little kids – the only child with a balloon in this game exists only for Venom to terrorize in the opening tutorials. The "shop" system from Spider-Man 2 is also absent here because Spidey knows all of his fighting right out of the box, and web-swinging upgrades are automatically obtained.
On the other hand, they managed to keep the worst part from Spider-Man 2: the hideous difficulty curve. Missions – especially the ones with the more destructive, yet slower, Venom – are difficult right from the start. The tutorial for Venom shoves him up against Wolverine of X-Men fame, who would out-spry Spidey himself on a good day, much less the hulking black behemoth. It only gets more difficult from there, right down to the infamous Spider-Man chase missions which require you to all but literally swing through flaming hoops backwards while still keeping up with the retreating baddie du jour.
Except for the brawl with Wolverine and perhaps two or three other fights, most of the boss battles are hugely gimmicky. At best, it's a simple "wait for an opening, and then attack," and at its worst, it involves chucking a never-ending stream of cars at a superpowered foe. This isn't helped by the ridiculous simplicity of the common thug outside of story mode, making one either dread the story mode or run full-tilt towards it, with little room for a middle ground.
Graphically, the game is a treat. Cel-shading reaches a pinnacle rarely seen in video games, the game looking every bit as much like a comic book as the quintessential Jet Set Radio Future. In fact, it's a gimmick the game uses quite often for cut scenes, jumping from panel to panel as the action progresses. A particularly emotional moment might be punctuated by panel borders cutting through the scene, and sound effects during the cut scenes are treated with large, colorful letters reminiscent of the old '60s "Batman" show.
Sadly, the sound is slightly lacking. For a game that endorses exploration, it lacks the one thing that Grand Theft Auto and Tony Hawk's Underground both sport flawlessly: traveling music. Swinging about New York is dreadfully silent, save for the occasional dramatic chord or what have you. The sound effects are fairly lackluster, as well; sure, they drive the point home, but really, they're completely generic and add little to nothing to the experience. Voice acting, on the other hand, ranges from spectacular to painful. Each voice is wonderfully pulled off, but in boss battles, voice clips are repeated ad nauseam, leading to a sudden urge to smash your television's speakers.
Ultimate Spider-Man knows exactly where it stands: Spider-Man 2 was a hit with gameplay that was highly reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto, and if the developers can get away with leaving the core game unchanged while they experiment in more aesthetic areas, they'll gladly do it. The omnipresent difficulty and "nothing new" feel might turn off some gamers, but let it be known that for fans and gamers alike, Ultimate Spider-Man is a treat. If you played Spider-Man 2 to death, you might want to rent Ultimate before making your decision, but if this is your first foray into the recent Spidey games, go ahead and give it a go.
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