Reviewed: September 20, 2005
Released: September 20, 2005
Vicarious Visions have already proven themselves to be adept with the NDS and the Spider-Man franchise with their DS launch title, Spider-Man 2 last year. Ultimate Spider-Man borrows on that game engine then takes it to the next evolution with some serious enhancements to gameplay and control and delivers it all with a stunning comic book panel presentation that makes the most of the dual screen format.
Ultimate Spider-Man on the DS mirrors many of the core story elements from the console version but switches up the 3D gameplay with the more traditional side-scrolling action that made the last game so much fun. In fact, if you played last year’s Spider-Man 2 then you’ll feel right at home when it comes to swinging, crawling on walls, and web-zipping to walls and ceilings.
Just like the console version, you get to play as both Spider-Man and Venom. Both characters are very unique; both in their gameplay, objectives, and the way you control them. Venom can actually be controlled with the touch screen by clicking on a target and having him attack or feed. You can also grab one of his tentacles and drag to a destination to have him whip-swing to that location.
The touch screen integration has been tweaked significantly but it’s still not as important as it should be. It’s cool to control Venom with the stylus but he works just as well (possibly better) just using the buttons. With the exception of a few mini-games and action elements the touch screen is seldom “required”, but it does make navigating the menus easier.
Ultimate Spider-Man is still all about the combat but the designers have managed to mix in some rather ingenious puzzles, some of which are integrated into the gameplay and others that appear as mini-games in the lower screen. Some of the mini-games are as mundane as a "Simon Says touch the on-screen buttons to match a real-time pattern" to something as integrated as sweeping the pen from bottom to top to lift a car off a trapped civilian or sideways to pry open a door.
Much like the console version, you will often have numerous objectives that require quick prioritization. In one early scene you have a guy trapped under a burning car and another trapped by a downed electrical wire. Noting that the man under the car is dying quicker than the other you have to jump the power line, hop over the car and punch/kick the fire hydrant to put out the fire then lift the car off the man.
This concept gets much more intense in later levels like the one with Ultimate Beetle. In a mission that mirrors the console version you are pursuing Beetle across the city and he will periodically bomb buildings and put innocent civilians in danger. Often you will have three or more targets to rescue.
Combat is just as intuitive as the previous Spidey game with an assortment of punches and kicks along with numerous specialty moves that you can assign to right trigger. Each of these moves requires a certain amount of power on your special meter. As you engage in normal combat this meter slowly rises and when you reach the required limits you can invoke these special Spidey attacks for massive damage.
The new Create-a-Combo feature allows you to string together individual attacks into powerful combos, and the new dodge move lets you spin out of danger in graceful Spidey style. Venom has similar moves but not nearly as many as our web slinger, plus you are always racing against the ever-feeding suit that requires you to feed on innocent civilians.
Boss fights are typical of the genre; find their weak spot and exploit it. Rhino requires a special downward attack, which is handy since you’ll be sticking to the ceiling to avoid his charges. Shocker needs to have his hands bound with webbing before you can move in for a quick one-two punch and kick. The game is pretty good about offering hints and tips for fighting these villains.
There is a surprisingly thick plot for Ultimate Spider-Man that includes a branching storyline and missions that unfold in unique ways based on your actions in previous levels and your choice of paths at key decision points. It will take you several passes to see all of the major variations but even then there may be some subtleties that you might not see without excessive replays.
The cel-shaded goodness of the console version is slightly lost on the smaller DS screen, but the game does manage to convey a true comic style with thick outlines and rich colors that look like they were inked by a professional artist.
Ultimate Spider-Man oozes with presentation value making full use of both screens for large images and authentic comic book panel story design. Sometimes the game plays in the top screen with menu options, attack options, or mini-game screens on the bottom, and other times the game shifts to the lower screen, particularly in Venom’s missions.
Regardless of which screen you are playing on, there is always something going on in the other, even if it's just stylish comic book panels complementing the action or the story. Each time you punch or kick the movement is recreated as a comic panel in a series of still images moving from left to right.
The interface is seamlessly integrated right into the gameplay with circular health meters for each target that slowly tick away as they take damage or exclamation marks that slowly empty as you beat on thugs and bosses. Whenever you pick up a key or a citizen in need of rescue the destination, whether it be a locked door or a green safety zone is indicated by an icon on the edge of the screen.
Cutscenes, dialogue, tips, and other words are all printed in traditional dialogue balloons in the standard comic book font. The entire game is perfectly designed to give you an interactive comic experience like no other.
The music is outstanding with plenty of sensational tunes to mirror the superhero action and maintain the necessary intensity during boss fights and creating tensions during the longer rescue and chase sequences.
Sound effects are powerful, even with the built-in speakers, and it only gets better with a good set of headphones. The visual panels during combat really add a subliminal “punch” to the sound. Explosions are loud, fire crackles, water sprays, and your web shooters sound just like they do in the animated series.
There is plenty of speech, both in the cutscenes and in random encounters during the levels. Spidey is the master of quips, sarcasm, and bad jokes, and this game is in no short supply of any of them. The bosses are also voiced with over-the-top performances that make them larger than life and add to their powerful presence.
While there is no single-card play, if two gamers both have a copy of Ultimate Spider-Man they can engage in exciting versus combat in up to eight locations and choosing from five characters. One person can host the game and pick the venue for the fight and then you can test your combat skills with some wireless play.
I was worried about the length of Ultimate Spider-Man when I first started playing. I got 30% through in less than two hours, but things started to get tough with the Ultimate Beetle chapter and it ramped up from there. The branching story allows you to explore alternate paths if you do get stuck, including levels you can play as Venom.
In all, you can expect about 12-15 hours to finish Ultimate Spider-Man, possibly less if you are a true gaming master, but there is still a lot of combat and combo potential to explore.
Ultimate Spider-Man has all of the exciting gameplay that you’d expect then adds new moves, combos, special attacks, and even a chance to play as the ultimate evil, Venom. The levels are designed to give you the freedom to try different solutions to puzzles, while prioritizing those in distress.
If you loved last year’s Spider-Man 2 on the DS then it just got a whole lot better, and there is no denying that playing as Venom is a guilty pleasure that is long overdue. This is definitely the ultimate superhero experience on the DS, making the most of the dual screen for presentation and gameplay and a valiant attempt at touch screen control.