Reviewed: September 22, 2005
Released: September 22, 2005
You can’t walk into a software store these days without getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of superhero games. With games like Fantastic 4, Punisher, The Incredible Hulk, and Batman already behind us, X-Men Legends 2, Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects, and Ultimate Spider-Man are all hitting in the same week. Suffice to say, if you are a super-villain it might be time to look for a new career.
Spider-Man is arguably the best comic book superhero of all time, so it’s no wonder he has seen the most game time when it comes to video games. He’s had a rocky start with a few lackluster titles, but no one can deny the epic open-ended Spidey adventure that was, Spider-Man 2, a game so massive that many have yet to complete every last objective contained within the sprawling city of Manhattan.
Without a feature film to turn to, Treyarch and Activision had to seek new inspiration for their obligatory sequel, and what better place to look than the Ultimate Spider-Man comic. Sure, it’s only been around for about five years, but it has proven to be one of the best reiterations of the Spider-Man saga and one of Marvel’s best-selling franchises.
With a great franchise comes great responsibility and Treyarch went straight to the top, tapping into the creators of the comic, Brian Michael Bendis, and Mark Bagley. With Mark creating source artwork for the game designers as well as whipping up some original designs for characters like Ultimate Beetle you can be sure that this game looks like no other video game you have ever seen…EVER.
Brian, not only created an original story for this ultimate adventure, he also scripted every last line of dialogue, so you can be sure that the characters all remains true to their comic book roots. With these two geniuses helming the project the end result is nothing short of the perfect marriage of comic book and video game. It’s hard to find a moment in the game when you aren’t totally immersed in this “living comic book”.
The story picks up somewhere after Issue #39, so fans of the comic will be able to identify and place the game within the comic timeline, but even if you’ve never picked up an issue, the game does a great job of getting you up to speed in the opening and subsequent cutscenes.
Great news for fans of last year’s web-slinging and wall-crawling adventure; the gameplay is nearly identical to what you already know with a few significant improvements. First and foremost, you can now “climb the web” while swinging. I can’t say I ever noticed that I couldn’t do that last year, but now with this added ability, plus the inclusion of obstacles courses and unique acrobatic tricks that require this new move, I can’t imagine having ever played without it.
Much of Manhattan has returned for this latest adventure, although the city is a bit smaller in overall size to allow for the inclusion of Queens. You still have all the important landmarks like Times Square, but this historic borough of NYC adds a whole new flavor to the game’s environment and story not to mention unexplored territory. There are even a few new locations like Empire State University, the Baxter Building, and even Doctor Strange’s house, that diehard fans will pick up on.
This is “old school Spider-Man” and not the DNA genetically enhanced version from the movies. Peter Parker actually uses “web shooters” in this game, and while you have unlimited web fluid there are parts of the game where you don’t have your shooters and your movement is astonishingly restricted by your inability to swing.
The game plays out much like Spider-Man 2 with specific missions mixed in with the free-roaming exploration of the Big Apple. At any point in time the next mission to progress the story is indicated on the map, but until you trigger that mission you are free to swing around town and help the citizens with their various problems.
Ultimate Spider-Man also introduces Venom, as a playable character that allows you to unleash your “dark side”. Venom has an entirely unique set of moves and abilities. While he can crawl up walls like Spidey he uses his tentacles to catapult himself across long distances. He also has grab attacks that can be combo’d into devastating finishing moves like the face plant or he can just slap around multiple enemies with his flailing tentacles.
The most interesting element of Venom is his ability to heal by feeding on the inhabitants of New York, and even more disturbing is that the game rewards you with more health for feeding on innocent bystanders. Sure, you get a bit of health when you scarf down a thug and they are dead when you spit out their lifeless corpse, but the real power (and guilty pleasure) is chasing down that screaming housewife and munching down.
Venom's missions are inserted into the main storyline of Ultimate Spider-Man, so at pre-determined times you will break away from the "goody two-shoes" exploits of Peter and dabble in the dark side of villainy. There’s nothing more wickedly fun that hurling a Hummer into an advancing army of soldiers. In some ways, the Venom levels reminded me ever so slightly of the latest Hulk game that shipped last month.
All of your favorite villains are back to put Spidey to the “ultimate” test such as Electro, Rhino, Silver Sable, Green Goblin, and even Nick Fury makes an appearance. Venom even gets to go a few rounds with X-Men’s, Wolverine in a classic barroom brawl early on in the game. Ultimate Spider-Man has the largest collection of heroes and villains ever assembled for a single video game, and for the first time ever we see a fully realized and redesigned “ultimate” version of Beetle, who just so happens to have one of the most engaging chase sequences in the game.
As I was chasing Ultimate Beetle around the skyline of NYC I was reminded of the chase events with Black Cat in Spider-Man 2, only in this game Beetle is causing these mini-disasters along the way and you have to rescue civilians before resuming the chase. Not to mention all the force fields and other diversions he throws at you. It’s a very exciting sequence and quite long, so I was thankful they included checkpoints at major milestones along the way.
There is a bit of logical reasoning and puzzle solving with portions of the game. Often, you will have multiple targets in need of rescue. Their imminent danger is indicated with a circular health meter that slowly ticks away over their heads. It’s up to you to gauge the speed of these meters and save the people in the correct order.
The combat system has been tweaked and is still based on core and advanced moves plus all new abilities that you earn as you go deeper into the game. Spider-Man increases in power and abilities, but not in a traditional RPG sense. Instead, he gains upgrades as he reaches checkpoints or completes certain goals within the game. For instance, your three Swing Speed Upgrades come courtesy of defeating Johnny Storm in three different encounters, while Combat Combos are rewards for completing certain Venom missions.
Picture if you will, last year’s Spider-Man 2 game, completely re-imagined and redesigned to create the most authentic interactive graphic novel of all time. Ultimate Spider-Man oozes with presentation value. The game slips between panel-style cutscenes and gameplay so seamlessly it’s uncanny, with characters actually leaving the game environments and passing through a virtual panel onto the comic page to start a cinematic. Conversely, you might be watching a movie only to have one of the panels zoom in to the actual game.
Even during normal gameplay the scene might be broken up by comic panel inserts or various sliding windows or split-screen tricks that give the game a graphic novel flair. It’s the best video treatment of a comic I have seen since the Hulk movie.
There is so much subtle detail to the animation and special effects. Even the rendering of the web is intricately detailed with the primary strand and all of the other tendrils that weave around it to form something much like a braided cable. And don’t even get me started on how Venom leaps off the page…err…screen. It’s downright scary.
Character design is outstanding with fluid animation and a unique cel-shaded look for both characters and the environment that takes the entire cel-shaded art form to a new plateau of excellence. This isn’t Zelda or Jet Grind Radio. This is a comic book come to life, and with technology trying so hard to mirror reality and create “realistic” imagery it’s a look that is refreshingly original and much appreciated. It’s hard to believe they could make a game this pretty while mimicking the four-color ink style of a comic.
There isn’t much level design in Ultimate Spider-Man. The entire game takes place in a big open city that is admittedly a bit smaller than the Manhattan of Spider-Man 2, even with the addition of Queens, but it packs just as much adventure. You’ll still spend a day or more tracking down those 75 comic book covers hidden around town.
Much of the game is now played closer to street level giving you a more confined area to swing and maneuver, but this also heights the sensation of speed as you are zipping and swinging alongside traffic not knowing if that next turn is going to take you into a brick wall or an alley shortcut.
The music is your typical hero fanfare mixed with some techno and villainous themes when appropriate. It’s not as epic as a feature film but it gets the job done and creates just enough emotional flavor.
The voice acting and presentation is topnotch. Don’t expect any big name voice-actors either, but that doesn't mean the acting is anything short of perfection. But with writing this good you could probably get the janitor to read the lines and it would be a class act. Spidey is actually voiced by a 15-year old kid who wowed casting directors during auditions and continually wowed me during the game.
Sound effects are realistic with a great web-shooting sound and plenty of thuds and whacks during combat and all sorts of dynamic city sounds like traffic and cries from pedestrians in trouble. Explosions are very powerful and rocked my sub-woofer, and the entire Dolby surround sound presentation was very immersive.
Ultimate Spider-Man is packed with content but the core story is regrettably a bit on the short side weighing in at 10-12 hours. Of course this doesn’t include the 60 races scattered about the city for both Spidey and Venom that range in length and difficulty, 36 combat tours of varying difficulty, 75 hidden comic book covers, 15 special landmarks, plus an endless quest of randomly seeded encounters that you can’t help but explore during normal story play.
Then you have the secrets like special costumes, concept art, and when you finish the game you unlock the Hero Switch option in the main menu that allows you to play Venom in free-roam mode just like Spidey. Switching between characters also triggers a 12-hour time difference so you can force the cycle between night and day.
Dedicated gamers will easily get 50+ hours of intense enjoyment from this title, but if you are in this only for the story then you might want to rent instead. Even so, I found it nearly impossibly to force myself not to explore the random events as they popped up on my map.
I’m sure there will be those who disagree, but I enjoyed this game much more than Spider-Man 2 for several reasons. It was based on fresh material and not a re-hash of a movie, and it was a smaller game that packed in just as much action. Plus, there is no denying the guiltiest pleasure of all, playing as Venom and feeding on the innocent citizens of New York.
But the single biggest reason I just fell in love with Ultimate Spider-man was the presentation. This is a comic lovers dream come true; the perfect marriage of comics and video games, and with so many comic-inspired games already out and more on the way, I can say without reservation that Ultimate Spider-Man will rule them all with ultimate gameplay and ultimate style.