Ultimate Spider-Man

Platform(s): Nintendo DS, PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox
Genre: Action
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch


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Xbox Review - 'Ultimate Spider-Man'

by Gordy Wheeler on Nov. 1, 2005 @ 12:44 a.m. PST

Take on the role of the world's most famous Super Hero, Marvel's Spider-Man, and one of his most menacing nemeses, Venom, in an original storyline written and illustrated by the creative team behind the best-selling "Ultimate Spider-Man" comic book series.

Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Treyarch
Release Date: September 27, 2005

Xbox | GameCube | GBA | NDS | PC | PlayStation 2

Ultimate Spider-Man starts off with a cut scene, as most games nowadays do. In it, Peter Parker narrates the details of how he became Spider-Man in the first place. "My life used to be like this," he explains, as we watch a spider roughly the size of his head bite down on the back of his hand. "Now my life's like this," Peter continues, and we watch a few seconds of Spidey nimbly swinging through the streets of New York. This scene was worth a laugh or two when I first saw it, but I've got to admit, after finishing up the game, I can see that introduction really works better than I gave it credit for at first, since it serves as a metaphor for the game experience itself. First, the game is like this: fun, energetic action as you swing around the city, fighting gangs and hunting down city events. Heck, if you've played Spider-Man 2, you know how this works. Later, unfortunately, the game becomes more like this: you sitting on your couch with a game controller in slack hands, trying to figure out if you really just beat the game in less than 10 hours.

If you're really quite good, you can finish off Ultimate Spider-Man in just above the time it takes to do a no-cut-scenes run of Metal Gear Solid 2, although you won't have tackled 100% of the game's challenges. The story mode, however, can simply be plowed through; only the optional races and collectibles would keep you playing beyond story completion.

This is kind of a shame because it's a good story, and Ultimate Spider-Man absolutely isn't a bad game.

It isn't worth what they're asking for it, and it isn't anywhere near as good as Spider-Man 2 was, but that doesn't mean it's bad. Really.

Look, let me go into a little more detail. I'll start with the graphics, because they're a very easy and obvious starting point. They're also pretty awesome-looking. Treyarch has made a big thing out of their latest improvement to good old cel-shading technology. Honestly speaking, they have a good reason to be proud. Ultimate Spider-Man comes across solidly in the sharp bold comic-book colors that you would expect. Everything is broadly detailed, and the textures are crisp and don't devolve into a mass of blurry pixels when you get close to them. That's just in gameplay; the cut scenes take it to another level of shading and really pull off looking exactly like the comic book would if it were 3D. This is the first game I can recall that really looks like Spider-Man ought to look, complete with "panels" used for effect during cut scenes. Good work there, I'd say.

This attention to detail sadly does not extend to the audio in-game, which only makes a halfhearted effort at holding up its part of the bargain. You get decent voice acting and some rock-solid one-liners from a very young-sounding Peter Parker, and Venom's growly tones pretty much extend only to snarling "Feeeeed!" at people just before he devours their life force. Sound effects are, if I may coin a word, onomatopoeia-tastic. You fight enemies and big CRACK, BAM, TWHACK word bubbles pop up, and it actually sounds like that too. Pretty much perfect. Even the thwip of Spidey's web-slingers sounds just about right.

The downside of the audio section is that the music is frankly awful. Sorry. It kicks in when you're doing one of the race levels or a low-level street thug fight, and it sounds like something that came pre-loaded on Spidey's iPod. There was a hopeful high note, in that the back of the box claimed custom soundtrack support. Alas, no option for this was found in-game. What a shame, since this game just screams to have that 1960s Spider-Man cartoon theme song blaring while you do whatever a spider can.

That brings us to the gameplay.

Can we all say "Mixed bag," boys and girls? Sure, I knew you could!

In the Ultimate universe, Peter Parker's dad and Eddie Brock's dad worked together, brilliant science-guys that they were. Their combined efforts nearly produced a cure for cancer, a sort of black goo that bonded with the body to repair internal damage. This being a comic book, of course, Something Went Horribly Wrong. When Peter put on the black goo, it formed itself into a spider suit around him, which was handy because it enhanced his already awesome abilities.

Then it tried to eat him from the inside out. That wasn't so much fun. After getting it off, the suit went after Eddie Brock and bonded with him instead. Eddie was weaker than Peter, so it had no trouble overpowering him. This leads to a showdown between the two friends on a rain-soaked football field, which is where the game starts.

The first thing you'll notice about the gameplay here is that boss fights are high-impact frenzied battles that tend to wreck whatever location you're fighting in. The next thing you'll notice, once Parker takes Venom down, is that you have no say in when you change characters. After a more complete introduction to the spider powers, you'll swap over to Venom and duke it out with Wolverine in a bar fight. (Let me tell you, the ability to knock Wolverine through a pinball machine or two just about makes up for the rest of this game.)

After being introduced to both characters and getting something of a feel for their play styles, you'll settle into kind of a rut. Spider-Man's gameplay involves semi-free-roaming around the city (you'll be limited to one area via invisible walls if you try to swing too far away from where the game wants you to be) looking for city events like break-ins or carjackings.

Minor characters like The Shocker or Boomerang will show up here to harass you, rarely, but they're not treated any differently from any other thug. To progress the plot, you'll need to complete one of your goals for the free-roaming segment, such as a race or combat tour. These are activated by landing on icons and activating them, which starts the race or fight. After you finish the race, you'll have to chase down the bad guy in a prolonged pursuit. Even if you catch him, you'll have to wait until you reach the goal area, and then you have a boss fight. Repeat for the next boss, and the next, and then you're Venom again. Venom doesn't get to free-roam, as mercenaries are understandably trying to kill him. So it's off to a specified objective point, after which you have to chase down a boss and have a boss fight.

Keep doing this, and after a handful of chapters, you've finished the game.

Yeah, I was surprised too.

If it stopped there, if the world had never heard of Spider-Man 2 and if maybe there were a little bit more to do after you'd finished with the game, this wouldn't be so bad. You can still spend a lot of time doing races with Spidey's move set if you like, honing your skills. You can do combat tours and revel in the fun and hyperkinetic combat system, which is really what stands out. Playing as Spider-Man and fighting enemies with quick attacks that bounce you back and forth feels good, even if they did somewhat break the fun spider-sense technique from Spider-Man 2. It's still in here, but it's reduced to "jump straight up when you see the flash" instead of dodge-and-counter combos. If you're a master at the combat system, you can rebound from enemy to wall to other enemy, flicking out webs and thumping bad guys without ever touching the ground.

Fighting as Venom feels completely different since he's a big ol' tank of a character and can send people flying off into walls or break a car over his head without visible effort. Most of the boss fights actually revolve around this when you're playing as Venom – he can whip a car into next week. The problem is that Venom doesn't get the swing-moves that Spidey does, so a lot of his "chase the boss" segments can be a real pain. The worst of it is the Electro chase, where, for no reason, they take away Venom's super-jump maneuver and leave you running after him as he leads you up and down buildings. Fall too far behind, and you fail. This chase is the number one cause of controllers embedded in TV screens in the country, as far as I just made up.

The storyline also deserves mention as being rock-solid, written by Brian Michael Bendis, and is generally not too bad. It's worth playing through at the least. Again, though, if you play through a handful of chapters, you've won. There isn't even much to unlock, aside from a comic art gallery and some extra costumes. In my eyes, that spells "rental," and maybe not even a full price rental. Maybe you've got a free rental somewhere as a birthday present from your great-aunt Whatsit. That's what Ultimate Spider-Man is for. It's a quick fix of fun gaming that really doesn't need to be lingered over.

Score: 7.3/10

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