Reviewed: September 22, 2005
Released: September 22, 2005
Most comic book fans can recall having seen, somewhere, at least at some point in their lives, the now-famous backstory of Peter Parker, Spider-Man, reprinted countless times in dozens of Spider-Man comics, comic-related magazines and so on. It consists of a few panels with a whole heck of a lot of text over them, explaining in classic Stan Lee style how Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and imbued with the proportionate abilities of one himself, including the ability to climb walls, perform amazing feats of dexterity and strength, and even sense impending danger.
At the very beginning of Activision's fun new game, Ultimate Spider-Man - based closely on the popular new comic of the same name - we are given largely the same sequence, but instead of a block of text as long as the chemical name for SPAM, it all happens through pictorials and sound. At last, a quick and easy introduction so we can get straight to the action. This is an example of the good that can happen when two forms of popular media cross over.
And Ultimate Spider-Man doesn't stop there. It takes a lot of the best parts from a well-regarded comic and really brings them to life on the screen and under the control of the player. Of course, this is hardly the first good Spidey game to come along in recent years - Spider-Man 2 was a pleasant surprise and still remains one of my favorite superhero games. But Ultimate Spider-Man's radically different visual style and fresh take on the Spider-Man tale gives it a host of advantages - and disadvantages - compared its immediate predecessor.
In many ways, Ultimate Spider-Man is a direct descendant of the last critically acclaimed Spider-Man game, Spider-Man 2 (based on the movie). Those of you who've played that title aren't in for too many surprises. For the rest of you, what this means is a very dynamic feeling to controlling the web-slinger as he web zips, wall crawls and swings all over New York.
The web physics of Ultimate Spider-Man are as out there as the idea of the superhero himself, and just as much fun. Web zips treat Peter Parker as if he were a ball bearing, pulling him at impossible speeds across short distances, while standard swinging makes him seem like he might weigh even less than Charles Atlas did before his fabled transformation into Mr. Universe. He practically floats between swings, with plenty of time to catch the wall on the way down. This flexibility, while certainly not adding to any sense of realism the game might have, does make it a blast to play.
The game's basic form of traveling is swinging on a web rope from building to building, using gravity to build momentum for the next acrobatic leap, complete with a gymnastic spin and twirl at the apex of the jump if you charge up for it. A simple one-button system makes swinging between skyscrapers come like second nature after about five or ten minutes to get adjusted.
Wall crawling is similarly easy (basically just jump up onto the wall and start crawling). A few of the more complex maneuvers, such as the web zip, take a little longer to get used to. Overall, though, getting from point A to point B in Ultimate Spider-Man is just about as fun as it was the last time around.
Then again, "just about" isn't the same as "just as." It's hard to put a finger on it, but something about this game makes it not as exhilarating to move around in as Spider-Man 2 was, despite sporting an expanded play area from any previous Spidey title. As near as I can figure, it has to do with the building graphics. The comic-book style of the game is a welcome treat (and more on that in the Graphics section of my review), but it makes the skyscrapers and death-defying freefall maneuvers between them look not as imposing as they could have been.
No Spider-Man game would be complete without bad guys to beat up, though, and Ultimate Spider-Man has them in droves, from random thugs on the street to story-driven boss fights against a rogues gallery of familiar nemeses including such classics as Rhino and Electro. The hand-to-hand combat is still easy and fun as always, as are the wide array of special moves utilizing Spider-Man's web fluid.
Unfortunately, the two types of moves do not transition as well between each other as they should have, leading to a lot of instances where I simply found one or two cheap moves and pounded away with them over and over again until I won. For example, as the game has it, you should be able to beat up a foe to the point of no resistance, then sling them over a nearby lamppost for the police to collect, then hit the ground running and defend against several more opponents. In my experience, Ultimate Spider-Man is a game in which this sort of deft maneuvering can be very difficult, because of the trouble with chaining together melee and web-fluid moves easily.
One of the biggest selling points of Ultimate Spider-Man is that it lets players control the destructive Venom as well as Spider-Man. Peter's first contact with the Venom symbiote is played out through a story sequence near the beginning of the game, including a mini-game that has players helping him escape from being absorbed by it. From then on, players can expect not only playtime as the infamous baddie, but clashes between him and Spidey as well. The sequences with Venom at the helm are much more about beating everything up, while avoiding the organization S.H.I.E.L.D., particularly its agent Nick Fury.
Venom's morphing capabilities allow him great flexibility in battle, including a way to regain lost health by more or less absorbing the life energies of those around him. Although Venom's part of the game is fast paced and can be very fun at times, it didn't offer enough in the way of variety to raise it above the level of a simple brawler sequence. What's really more interesting about Venom than his gameplay is how his story and Spider-Man's overlap.
Ample cutscenes drive the action in between bouts of free roaming time and sequential missions, covering Peter's "ordinary" life as a student and all of the troubles he faces trying to keep a dual identity balanced with a full schedule. The game does a nice job of telling a fun story that is in the spirit of the Ultimate Spider-Man comic, both in art direction and plot content. It's sleek, fast-paced and trimmed down to the basics for a lean, enjoyable story whose characters fill in the details through their actions rather than long bouts of discussing backstory. It's too bad that the gameplay isn't quite as well-done as the story sequences, but even then, the gameplay isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination. Things can't keep getting better forever, I suppose.
If I had to choose one word to describe the graphics of Ultimate Spider-Man, that word would be "cool." I say this even as someone who doesn't personally like Mark Bagley's "big head, big hands" art style. The whole package has been put together so nicely, it's hard not to be impressed. This game is probably the closest thing to actually playing a living, breathing comic book (in terms of graphic style) that I've seen since the days of Comix Zone on the Genesis.
During cutscenes, characters are loosely framed by a comic book panel, and one or the other of them usually ends up outside the frame before the scene is through - a technique used by plain old paper-and-ink comics as well, to enhance the feeling of strong emotion or dynamic action. During actual gameplay, clouds that look hand-drawn rotate slowly overhead in a uniformly blue sky, and objects in the game are outlined in black, further adding to the feel of the game as a moving comic book.
Character animations are great, slightly exaggerated but fluid and realistic in execution. Ultimate Spider-Man the game, and Ultimate Spider-Man the comic, are such look-alikes it'd be hard to tell which was which if you compared the right still frames.
Music in Ultimate Spider-Man, such as it is, is generally fade-into-the-background stuff. None of it is bad, but it's not particularly memorable, either. Where this game really shines is in the sound effects. All of the whooshes, cracks and booms you'd expect to read between the covers of an action comic have been faithfully reproduced. This is a better treat than any "BIFF" sound card flashed on the screen during the old Batman TV series ever was.
Voice acting is top-quality, although I think everyone has their own ideas about which characters would sound what way. I particularly liked Arthur Burghardt's turn as Venom, although all of the voice work was above par in the game. Add in a goodly amount of non-superhero sound effects (minor character voices, car sounds and so on), and the end result is a very nice sound package.
I can't think of any great reason I'd want to play through Ultimate Spider-Man a second time after beating it once. It's the same problem as with comic books: unless it's an absolutely stellar and very satisfying experience right from the start, most comics are read once or twice and then filed away or thrown on the bedroom floor. What is one of Ultimate Spider-Man's strengths in other places - the fact that it successfully emulates a comic book - becomes a failing in this category. The Dark Knight Returns, this ain't.
That being said, the first playthrough of Ultimate Spider-Man should prove to be wicked fun and a decent challenge for any fan of the web-slinger. Just be aware that the game isn't terribly long, by itself: one playthrough ought to give a good solid 12-15 hours of play, but that's all. Side missions can occupy your time further, but only until you tire of engaging in races, beating up bad guys and looking for hidden items to collect.
My personal recommendation is that you wait until the price drops at least to $39.99 - at that point, it'll be a worthwhile investment. But if you just can't wait to get your hands on this game, at least take comfort in knowing that there are plenty of lesser games you could have spent fifty bucks on.
Ultimate Spider-Man has a singular style that catapults it beyond your average, run-of-the-mill action title. Its graphics are really quite astounding in the way they so closely resemble a comic book. Both the exaggeration and the unrealistically unified style of a comic are here in full force. High production values in voice work and sound effects don't hurt this game a bit, either. Just remember that its gameplay really isn't quite as blow-you-away impressive as Spider-Man 2's was, even with the added fun of playing Venom - although it does come close.
For a relatively short foray into the parallel realm of comic books, Ultimate Spider-Man the video game is a great little title and is sure to become a must-own for fans of the Spidey franchise, once the price drops a little bit.