At the very least, last year's Spider-Man 2
for the Nintendo DS introduced the gaming public to what the handheld hardware could pull off in an original 3D game design. The Vicarious Visions-produced launch title did suffer from having a severely shortened development cycle due to the Nintendo DS system's rushed debut, but for a first effort on the system it certainly had its charm. Ultimate Spider-Man is the team's second crack at the Spider-Man franchise on the dual-screen handheld, and though the unofficial sequel seems to borrow from the 2004 release, the difference between Spider-Man 2 and this follow-up is night and day. Ultimate Spider-Man is a major improvement over last year's game design; awesome dual-screen presentation, creative touch-screen use, and much tighter level designs are the stars in this action title.
Ultimate Spider-Man is a completely independent take on the Spider-Man story, told from the perspective of Peter Parker as a high school student. In this original plotline, players flip-flop between Spider-Man and Venom in a story that weaves through Peter's past as well as his friendship with Eddie Brock, AKA Venom. The comic book style almost literally comes to life on the Nintendo DS because the development team pushed an unbelievable focus on its storytelling. Along with some clever dual-screen use to zip comic panels in from all directions, the story's driven by an incredible amount of voice-over to accommodate the original comic artwork. The visual presentation and storyline alone is a serious driving force in keeping players' interest. And the gameplay's no slouch either.
The Nintendo DS version of Spider-Man 2 was clearly the foundation for Ultimate Spider-Man's game design. Where the console versions offer a free-roaming, open-ended structure, the DS version of USM offers up more rigid side-scrolling action design. The freedom of an open-ended game design certainly allows for extended playtime, it's clear that the much more strict and straightforward design was done to work within the DS system's harsher hardware limitations.
So what we have here is a similar visual experience to last year's Spider-Man 2: a fully 3D environment that's "on rails," similar in technique to Capcom's wildly successful Viewtiful Joe series. Ultimate Spider-Man goes a few steps beyond last year's game by offering a more comic book-style in the rendering engine; a cool toon shading and more exaggerated characters and environments replace the more "realistic" direction the first DS Spider-Man game took. The improved engine features a more dynamic camera that follows the action much more freely; points in the action trigger the camera to pull back or to tip up to get a better scope of the area. The engine also enables the developers to throw a few more enemies and objects on-screen to liven up the action. Though the game maintains a silky 60 frames per second through a majority of the experience, it does have a tendency to drop when the screen's cluttered with more effects than the engine can handle. It never gets bad enough to hinder the fun, but it's definitely a noticeable effect throughout the adventure.
Last year's game featured a ton of exploration, and that was where it fell apart; much of the playtime was spent trying to figure out where to go and to find that lost item or hostage to fill the mission's required quota. This game design flaw has been addressed in Ultimate Spider-Man with much tighter level designs and more specific requirements. Though exploration definitely comes into play in later missions, the designers put much more focus on straightforward objectives and brawling action. And it's this tighter focus that makes Ultimate Spider-Man a far more enjoyable experience.The most notable change is obviously the introduction of playable Venom. Half the game's missions and storyline follows Eddie Brock/Venom, and players assume control of this likeable bad guy in an entirely creative direction. Where Spider-Man's interface is handled on the upperscreen through traditional D-pad control, Venom's action takes place on the touch screen using the D-pad and stylus combination. It's a configuration that works, and shows that brawler style games could take a new and unique direction on the Nintendo DS system. Through the use of the touch panel, players can whip Venom's tendils out and grab enemies, innocent bystanders, and objects and manipulate them directly. With a tendil latched onto a bad guy, for example, players can toss them around, thunk 'em out the ground, strategically carry and place them in different locations in the level, or simply feed on them for energy.
This stylus control is extremely clever and original, and really gives the Nintendo DS version of Ultimate Spider-Man its own feel. The implementation isn't quite as tight as it could have been, though, and you'll find certain instances where the controls need a bit more tweaking. Most of the time the controls are spot-on, but on occasion Venom's tendrils will go in a direction completely opposite to where players want them to go. And while much of the Venom missions can be completed using the touch screen, there are a couple of instances where players will have to flip-flop between pen and buttons to pull off specific tasks.
Touch screen elements also come into play during Spider-Man's missions as well, and unlike their use in Spider-Man 2, these are integrated much more seamlessly as supplemental controls instead of unnecessary mini-games. Closed doors, for example, need to be pried open by rubbing the screen quickly in a specific direction, or unlocked via a twitch-based touch-panel control. Gimmicky? Sure. Necessary? Not really. But they don't drag down the fun, and they've been implemented in a fashion that makes sense, and they don't disjoint the design in any way.
What the game lacks in comparison to last year's game is replayability. Even though Spider-Man 2's level design was a bit too overwhelming in size, the developers at least offered up incentive to play through missions multiple times by setting a specific quota or time limit in each mission. Ultimate Spider-Man's a good length for a linear game design, but once it's over there's really nothing once the storyline's finished. A two player wireless mode is available for players with multiple copies of Ultimate Spider-Man, but this battle mode isn't balanced very well so it's not a very good selling point. It's a nice addition, but the game's real gem is its single player design. It's just a shame that when it's over, it's done.
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