Release Date: September 27, 2005
A note from the "That's right, I said it" department: I am not a fan of cel-shading. If some tech-head tells me that it's not actual cel-shading, but some other form of rendering, so what? It looks cel-shaded. As our technology continues to expand like Kirstie Alley at the local IHOP, why must game developers take this retro tack? I am certain that total photorealism is just over the cyber horizon, so let's concentrate our efforts on making our games look more like movies and less like the comic books that spawned them.
Last time, I wrote about the new brawler, Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects. This game gave a gritty sense of urban decay that, to me at least, more accurately represents the near future. While I did wax nostalgic about primary colors and spandex tights, I must admit that this look grew on me, kind of like a fungus. That's beside the point, though.
At the risk of being repetitive, I just don't like cel-shading. I didn't like it in Viewtiful Joe, I didn't like it in XIII and I don't like it with ol' Web-head. There is a certain level of detachment that comes with the territory, and I much prefer realistic immersion to comic escapism. Maybe it's just me, but when Sam Raimi unleashed Tobey Maguire on the big screen, all of my adolescent fantasies came to breathtaking life on the screen. And boy howdy, did Mary Jane look good wearing that clingy t-shirt in the rain (tiger growl).
Spider-Man 2: The Game was an open-ended, sprawling swinger, where the pace of the story was dictated by your own whims. If you wanted to just roam the city doing good deeds, you had that option. If, on the other hand, the story was of major import, you could web-zip from story location to story location and get it on with Doc Ock. It had a Grand Theft Auto-esque freedom to it which appealed to gamers across genres. Not incidentally, it also looked absolutely Marvel-ous.
Ultimate Spider-Man took this formula of freedom, and then… (Gulp) cel-shaded it.
If only Activision had adhered more to the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought in the graphics department, I'd be inclined to be more accepting, because all in all, UMS is just a rehash of Spider-Man 2 with new characters, and the aforementioned cel-shading.
From the outset, you use your spider powers to roam an ersatz Manhattan (and its ugly stepsister of a borough, Queens), webbing up bad guys, saving peaceful citizens, and generally being "your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man." The overall tone of the game is more akin to the classic animated series of the '70s than the current crop of mega flicks.
For those of you who have lived in a cave for the last 30 years, young Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and gained arachnid mojo. Peter's father, Dr. Richard Parker, along with Dr. Edward Brock, invented the infamous Venom suit in an attempt to cure cancer, but the best laid plans of mice and men (shouldn't that be "spiders and sirs"?) are often torn asunder. Dr Brock's son, Eddie Jr., vanished in a puff of electricity, along with the Venom suit, and the horror that is Venom was born.
Three months after this terrible fusion, the game begins, and it's up to you to put all the pieces back together again. Here's the twist: In UMS, you get to play as Venom as well.
The television and print ads for UMS play up this duality big-time. What they don't tell you is that you have to beat the game in order to have this total freedom to play as either Spidey or Venom at will. During the initial playing sessions, the opportunity to play as Venom is limited to specific story-based missions.
Let's look at the game mechanics for a moment, shall we? The "Ultimate" series of comics featuring Spidey are set during Peter's high school years, meaning he's 15 years old. UMS reflects this immaturity with a rather limited series of moves. In fact, it is more important to think and act more like a spider, using hit-and-run tactics when facing multiple enemies, and the point system actually rewards players who play this way. You do more damage when switching between enemies during these melees than you would if you took them on one at a time. I also noticed that when he's swinging all over the city, he only shoots one web-line at a time. What up wit dat, yo?
Venom, on the other hand, is a purple wrecking ball, but at times, he is surprisingly nimble, even though he leaves in his wake potholes you could lose a Geo Metro in. (I know, I dangled a participle; sue me.)
Of course, this is a Spider-Man game, so you know that there are a few other characters you can expect to come across in your travels. The first time you get to don the Venom suit, for example, you have to fight Wolverine. If you have played any of the earlier web-slingers, you'll know that eventually, you'll have to take on Rhino, Electro and certainly Green Goblin. No Doc Ock this time out.
I have to ask why game developers are so locked in to the same roster of heavies. Historically, Spider-Man has had more villains to deal with than most any other superhero. How about a little variety? You have about 50 to choose from if you go back and take your old mags out of their hermetically sealed envelopes.
Since I started this topic, let's look a little deeper, shall we? The boss fights in UMS are somewhat anti-climactic, each being based on a "gimmick" of sorts. In other words, you can't just go head-to-head with any of them and hope to survive. You need to find each boss' Achilles heel and exploit it. The first fight with Rhino, for example, rests upon a plot of wet cement and a wrecking ball, and goes from there to finding a way to destroy the power source on his back while he tosses cars at you. No more spoilers, I promise.
As far as the non-story-related gaming, it's more of the same: Pick up Landmark Tokens and Comic Book Covers (which unlock the mandatory "special features"), go on Combat Tours, and race against either Venom, or your old pal, Johnny "The Human Torch" Storm. It's fun, but it has a distinct "been there, done that" vibe.
You won't be getting Tobey or Kirsten talking to you, either, because the Spidey and Mary Jane characters are voiced by TV actors Sean Marquette and Andrea Baker. If you don't know who they are, don't worry, neither did I. Unknown or not, they bring a certain youthful exuberance to their roles that matches the high-school setting of the game.
The voice acting is pretty good, but the shine on the apple comes from the writing. The script was penned by the actual UMS comic author Brian Michael Bendis, and there are a number of laugh-out-loud moments. Two that spring to mind: After being hurled through a roof by the Green Goblin, Spidey quips, "I have officially run out of ways to say ‘OW!'", and my personal favorite, early on in the game where Spidey says to Johnny Storm, "What are you doing in Queens? I HAVE to be here, but YOU?" (Attention, residents of Queens: Please send all hate mail to Activision or Treyarch, not me.)
The city may not be quite as huge as in SM2, but has much more detail, which is very evident when you start swinging around mere feet over the hurtling traffic, and there is a distinct feeling of vertigo when climbing some of the game's taller edifices.
My main complaint with the game (cel-shading issues aside) is with its relative ease and short length. The main story game only took me about eight or nine hours to complete, and most of the fighting gets too easy after a few go-rounds. The designers broke down the city to reflect the control of different gangs in different areas, but let's be real: five gang-bangers are five gang-bangers, regardless of what colors they sport.
In the final analysis, Ultimate Spider-Man is geared more toward comic book fans than hardcore gamers. It's too easy, it's too short, and the overall gameplay is repetitive and highly derivative from what had come before. I'd say this: If you really loved Spider-Man 2, keep playing it, and perhaps rent UMS to see what you think. In the words of Dennis Miller, "That's just my opinion, I could be wrong."
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