Early last year, I stated
that Spider-Man 2 was one of my favorite PlayStation 2 games of all time. Think about that for a second -- all time
. Now, I'm not telling you that it's a better game than God of War, Shadow of the Colossus, or any of the other hundreds of great games Sony's console brought us; what I'm saying is that Spider-Man 2 was one of my favorite games to play. Even after I had bested Doc Ock, I could swing around New York and stop crimes, gather collectables, and take in the city that never sleeps. At the time, I thought the game had laid out the perfect blueprint of what a superhero game should be, and I believed that Activision got it and would expand the idea when the next generation of systems came around.
As Spider-Man 3 and Spider-Man: Friend or Foe proved, that didn't happen. Rather than tweak and expand a formula that was fun but flawed, Activision let the webhead slip into worse and worse titles. Now, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows is upon us, and while it's no where near the slap in the face that Spider-Man: Friend or Foe was, it's got nothing on Spider-Man 2 either.
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Web of Shadows is a nifty idea on paper. Rather than being based on a movie or specific comic book arc, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows creates a completely unique tale set in the comic book world. During a rather routine battle with Venom, the symbiote we all know and love fractures and part of it leaps to Spider-Man, once again endowing him with the black suit and all the strength and evilness that comes with it. The main portion of the goo sticks with Eddie Brock and the Venom alliance, but soon it turns out that the suit is creating symbiote-spitting pods that are infecting the civilians of New York. Soon, the city is filled with folks who are scaling buildings, kicking ass, and trying to eat Spidey's brains. S.H.I.E.L.D. shows up, quarantines the city, and basically freaks out as all hell breaks loose.
Your job is to take Spider-Man from before the infection, through the dark times, and to one of several endings. At times, this journey can be an enjoyable ride. First off, swinging through the city is as fun as ever. Holding the Right Trigger will throw out a web and attach to a building in whatever direction you're pointing at, while tapping the Right Trigger casts out a web-zip that allows Spidey to shoot through the air in a solitary direction. You can modify your swing to go faster, double jump in the air, run along building sides, and do just about everything else a spider can. All of these swing mechanics and wall-crawling capers meld together with Web of Shadows' new combat system.
By tapping the Left Trigger, you activate Spider-Man's spider-sense, a device that highlights enemies and locks onto them. Once locked on, you can -- theoretically -- leap into the air, swing from your webs, and so on without fear of losing your man. I found that sometimes lock-on would let go of my target for seemingly no reason, but when this mechanic works, it's actually super-helpful because Web of Shadows is big on linking together attacks in long combo chains. Up in the right corner, the game is actually tracking the number of hits you've pulled off in succession (don't be surprised to see it pushing 100 more than a few times), and these ginormous combos are thanks to this lock-on system. See, if there's a group of bad guys, I lock on to one of them, take him out, and leap into the air, the lock-on system should jump to the next baddie; but if it doesn't, I can flick the right analog stick to choose my next opponent.
It might not sound like much, but Spider-Man's attacks can be pretty cool and devastating in Web of Shadows. As you play the game and pull off mandatory story missions and optional side quests such as defeating a certain number of enemies, you're going to be awarded experience points. These points can then be exchanged for a number of special moves for each spider-suit -- 65 for the red and blues and 56 for the black duds -- that are spread out among ground, air, wall, web and other various attacks, and you can collect Spider-tokens throughout the game to upgrade your health bar and swing speed. Now, most of these combat upgrades are just building on moves that are already established such as adding in a final stomp to a punching combo, but some are pretty fickin' cool and brutal. One of the symbiote combos has Spider-Man wail on the bad guys with his extremities a few times before unleashing a flurry of extended symbiote whips that lash out and toss the opponents into the air before slamming them back down and crushing their bodies.
Still, if it sounds like I'm lauding the combat, I guess this is a good enough place as any to tell you why I'm not crazy about this Spider-Man title. See, as cool as these attacks can look, they're just button mashing. When I needed to steamroll the bad guys, I just tapped X-Y-X-Y-X-Y. Sometimes it was that tendril attack I just described, and sometimes it was just Spider-Man wigging out and cleaning clocks. It didn't matter to me, because it got the job done; and there are a lot of jobs to get done.
See, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows is redundant and repetitive. Infuriatingly redundant and repetitive. In the beginning, Luke Cage will teach you a move, have you do it a certain number of times to him, send you out to do it to a certain number of villains, and then have you do it all over again when you come back to learn a different move. The same "go do this" thing happens when you meet Wolverine, Black Cat, Moon Knight, and everyone else in the game. Seemingly every mandatory mission has you assisting X number of S.H.I.E.L.D. evacs, stopping X number of symbiotes, or attacking X number of whatever. It gets old. Fast. Only making this process worse is the fact that you'll be attacking these enemies in the same way over and over. You'll leap into the air, throw out a web, pull yourself to the bad guy, and unleash an attack. Occasionally, the bad guy will block the incoming attack, you'll jump to evade, and then begin the web-based attack again. Still, that rarely happens because every boss, enemy, and mission is a push over in this game with one default difficulty.Sure, the kick to the head and riding the bad guy like a skateboard moves look cool the first few times you see them but not after a few dozen viewings in the same battle. When the Kingpin's goon showed up to assassinate some gang leaders, I was required to do the hop-zip-kick attack more than 30 times as I went from one sniper to the next around the perimeter of a New York park. That's not fun.
Knowing when to quit is something Spider-Man: Web of Shadows struggles with from beginning to end. Every boss battle goes on for too long. Every "eliminate X number of things" goes on just long enough to make you bored with scanning the streets for whatever you're after. When you leap on Rhino's back, he's not easy or fun to control, but you still need to ride him through a ton of doors. In your final fight with Venom, you have to attack his extremities over and over again in a way that not only doesn't make sense but doesn't look good.
All of these issues could be easily forgiven if the story in Web of Shadows was compelling and made sense, but even that doesn't happen. Personally, I read comics for characterization and interesting tales, Spider-Man doesn't really have either -- although it does deploy an interesting path-choosing option. See, in this tale, the symbiotes are invading New York. Why this is happening is never explained. Mary Jane is here, but it's never explained during the game if she and Peter are dating, married, or whatever. In fact, me calling him Peter a second ago was probably a slipup: Peter Parker never really makes an appearance in this game. Black Cat doesn't even lift Spidey's mask when she kisses him.
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Web of Shadows is a cobbled together story that never really tries to feel cohesive. We get a bunch of B- to C-Listers from Spidey's rogues gallery (Electro looks goofier than ever; the Vulture has never been interesting; and the Tinkerer is the only guy who can create a device to repel the symbiotes? Isn't Peter a science whiz?) who are tossed into a plot that doesn't make much sense. Even cooler characters such as Moon Knight and Black Cat are reduced to NPCs who stand there and give you the aforementioned, number-based quests. True, these allies can be called into battle to help you once in a while via the D-pad, but they just come in and punch. There's not much to it.
The one silver lining to all of this "meh" is the ability to choose your path to the game's conclusion. In about a dozen instances, you'll be presented with the option of choosing the red and blue heroic path or the black selfish path. Usually, these choices come around after a boss battle and drastically affect your good/evil alignment in the game. If you choose to brush off Black Cat's lust-driven advances, you stay on the red and blue path and everyone's happy to see you when you run into folks like MJ and Cage. If you give in to your dark side and start looking out for No. 1, the allies you've made will start to doubt you and lose faith in you.
Although lots of the bad choices are way out of character for Spider-Man and hilarious -- SPOILER ALERT: if you choose to be bad after beating Wolverine, you tear the dude in half -- the different reactions and endings are interesting and made me want to replay those parts again. However, I only replayed the pieces I had a save right before. I'm not sure if I could go through the ho-hum Rhino and Electro battles again.
Sadly, this iteration of Spider-Man's adventures is yet another visual letdown. Peter's got some cool freefall animations, the combat moves look good, and the city can look cool in terms of scope; but there's also some screen tearing, framerate dips, slowdown in cutscenes, and a few times where you'll see the white dots that make up Spider-Man's render seams. New York never looks or feels like a real city.
My final issue with this game is a major one -- not only do I not feel like Spider-Man when I play this game thanks to a weak story and redundant controls, Spider-Man doesn't feel like Spider-Man. In the beginning, MJ is calling out to Spider-Man but saying "Peter" even though she's in broad daylight with people around and then gives Spider-Man a birthday present in front of two paramedics. When Spidey's looking for MJ later on, he's screaming her name to people. When Spider-Man first encounters humans who are acting funky thanks to the symbiote, he throws them off the roof of a skyscraper and makes no attempt to save them even though it's revealed later that Tinkerer's sonic device will destroy the symbiotes and leave the hosts alive. So, we've got a Spider-Man who doesn't care about his secret identity and is killing civilians even when he's not under the black suit's influence. On top of that, Spidey has the whiniest voice I've ever heard for a hero. Seriously, it's like they told him to pretend he was 13... and that could be the case because, again, you'll have no idea what the context around this story is when you're playing. Is he in high school? Is he working for the Bugle? Is Aunt May alive?
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