Release Date: May 4, 2007
It is difficult to pin down exactly why the Spider-Man movie-based games have been so strong to date. Sure, the solid gameplay and atmosphere are key elements, but how many other games have failed despite tried-and-true game design and familiar characters/locales? It's not enough to simply plug a license into established gaming archetypes and hope that the kids will like it. While the free-roaming environments of Spider-Man 2 had some calling it "Grand Theft Spidey," it was undoubtedly one of the best games to date in the typically laughable subgenre of film-to-game adaptations.
And just as the sun rises with each day, the forthcoming theatrical release of "Spider-Man 3" begets yet another game on any and all active consoles and handhelds. With (at least) eight versions of the game set to release alongside the film on May 4th, the most exciting of the bunch look to be those in development for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. While at Activision HQ in Santa Monica last week, I had a chance to try out each version and see what the next generation of superhero gaming is all about. In regards to the Spider-Man franchise, it's about expansion – of Manhattan (both above and below ground), of Spidey's move set, and of presentational quality.
At its core, Spider-Man 3 looks similar to its last-gen predecessor, as it is still an open-world action title that, while centered on the plot of the film, has extensive additional content and side-missions. In fact, the game contains 10 ongoing storylines, only one of which mirrors that of the film. One other plotline seems to involve a woman named DeWolfe, a police detective who Spidey helps by uncovering evidence and snapping pictures of illicit business deals. In another of the storylines, Spider-Man must keep a watchful eye on a trio of rival gangs that are attempting to take over the city. Maintaining a high level of citizen satisfaction requires the prompt elimination of gang threats, though I'm curious to see what actually happens when mayhem rages throughout Manhattan.
I did not have a lot of time to swing around the city, but Manhattan has quite a bit more visual appeal than in Spider-Man 2. Much of the gameplay that I witnessed took place at night, and the visual rush gained from whipping your way around the buildings has only increased in the last three years. One significant addition to the Spider-Man 3 version of Manhattan is visible neither from the tallest building nor the dirtiest alley. But duck below the ground for a bit, and you'll see a comprehensive, interconnected sewer system that is mapped to the same grid as the rest of the city. When you go underground, you don't warp to some other place – you're actually below the buildings. If you walk 10 blocks north while in the sewers, you'll emerge 10 blocks north from where you started on the street. It may seem like a simple addition, but it should add significant atmosphere and realism to the experience.
Combat in Spider-Man 3 seems faster and more varied than in previous iterations, and there were many opportunities to unleash fantastic special attacks and combos. An extensive tutorial inside a burning skyscraper gets you reacquainted with your inner spider and serves to highlight Spidey's many abilities. When a special indicator pops up on-screen during a battle, you can click the left trigger to dodge an attack, giving you the opportunity to hit a face button for an unblockable counter attack.
The Spider Sense ability has also been expanded, allowing gamers to click the right analog stick to gain an infrared-style perspective that reveals nearby enemies and bombs without those pesky walls and structures blocking the view. This becomes an essential gameplay element, as evidenced by some of the missions I was shown. Also new is a "hot/cold meter," which pops up on the screen while navigating Manhattan. Though a marker will still appear on the mini-map, the hot/cold meter should give you a better idea of how close you are to reaching the site of the next mission.
As with the third film, Spider-Man 3 will focus much of the experience around Spider-Man's "black suit" – a new suit inhabited by an alien organism that makes Spidey a much more aggressive fighter. This is represented in his play; with the black suit on, Spider-Man is faster and more powerful, with additional moves and animations. It seems like a fair amount of the game will be centered on the use of this suit, though if the expected movie plot is maintained, he will likely give up the black suit at some point, which leads to the creation of Venom.
Spider-Man 3 will also play host to several timed button-pressing segments (a la God of War and Tomb Raider: Legend). In one scene, Spidey was forced to navigate a hallway packed with rotating lasers, which meant that I had to press specific buttons or move the analog stick in a particular direction when prompted to do so; otherwise, Spidey would trip one of the lasers and have to do it all over again. These segments also figure heavily into some of the boss fights, including a lengthy subway brawl with one of the more intimidating villains from the film. From what I saw, these sequences are incredibly unforgiving in terms of timing, both initially and during the string of button presses. However, botching an attempt should not set you back more than a few seconds, so be sure to savor the "death sequences" while you figure out the button presses.
Bruce Campbell returns as the smart-ass narrator, doling out advice and hilarious quips as you swing around the city and learn the basics. Most of the principal actors from the film also voice their video game counterparts, and the acting seemed mostly solid all-around. One exchange between Spider-Man and DeWolfe seemed particularly well done, though Spidey's internal monologue following the conversation seemed entirely unnecessary. As the game is still in the polishing stage, it's hard to speculate about the final visual presentation of it all. What I saw was sharp, though frame rate jitters were all over the place. While Spider-Man 3 is unlikely to be a showcase-type title, the massive, well-populated environments should compensate for any graphical sheen that it is perceived to be lacking.
However, those massive environments are the very reason we will not be seeing a downloadable demo for either the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360. A couple of possibilities were considered, though. A full-scale demo with the entire city would have made for a 6GB download, while a blocked-off portion of the game would likely misrepresent what Spider-Man 3 is all about. One producer referred to Manhattan as "the biggest character in the game," so it's easy to see why a demo might be ill-advised for a title of this size.
Based on what I saw and played, the two versions of Spider-Man 3 are largely one and the same, albeit with little differences based on the hardware (including force feedback and Achievements on the 360 end). As previously announced, a Collector's Edition of the PlayStation 3 version will be available at a $10 premium, but the additional investment unlocks New Goblin as a playable character. New Goblin will apparently be controlled via the motion-sensing aspects of the SixAxis, and additional content (such as races through Manhattan) has been created solely for the benefit of the extra character.
Rather than eschew what works (and works well), Spider-Man 3 builds on the success of its last-gen predecessor to create an expanded experience that is enhanced by the immense power of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Producers expect the core adventure to last for 12 to 15 hours, though side-missions and the thrill of exploration may increase that estimate exponentially. Clear your schedules – Spider-Man 3 hits stores on May 4th, alongside the theatrical release of the film of the same name.
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