This month has seen a glut of superhero games flood the market. Some good (X-men Legends 2, The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction), others not so good (Marvel Nemesis). Never one to be left out of a crowd, everyone’s favorite web slinging super-nerd Peter Parker makes his return to the world of video gaming this month as well, with the release of Ultimate Spider-man for the X-box, PS2, and Gamecube.
Ultimate Spider-man takes place in the Ultimate universe, which means that this may be a different wall-crawler than you are used to. For starters, Peter Parker is still a high schooler, not to mention that Mary Jane already knows his secret. However, once the webs start flying it’s the same old Spidey. The story picks up after Peter and his friend Eddie Brock discover the last remaining sample of the Venom Suit, the symbiotic device designed by their fathers to help cure cancer. Eddie and the suit vanish in a flash, and a new danger to the city of New York is unleashed. It’s up to Spider-man to discover the secret of the Venom Suit, and stop Eddie Brock before he brings all of New York to it’s knees. As if that isn’t enough, Spidey will have to fend off other villains as well, including Rhino, Beetle, and Electro. At certain key junctures in the storyline, you take over control of Venom, and are given the opportunity to learn a little more about Spidey’s greatest villain. Penned by comic book writer Brian Bendis, the story is well paced and exciting, if a bit on the short side.
The first thing that you will notice when you turn on Ultimate Spider-man is the graphical style. Inked to look like a live action comic book, Treyarch uses the cel-shading techniques seen in many other games to perfection here. The graphics shine, and truly look like they came straight from the pages of the comic book. Flawless character design, spot on animations, and the little touches (for instance, words representing sound effects on screen) really serve to draw you into the experience and make for an unbelievable visual experience. It’s not all sunshine and roses, however. The environmental textures, while spot on up close, become bland and blocky as the distance between you and them increases. Some will say that this is intentionally done to say true to the comic style, however when you stand on a building and contrast the vibrancy of Spider-man’s design with the foggy, bland, and almost PS1 like distant background it can really pull the player out of the experience. Overall however, the coolness of the visual style cannot be denied.
Speaking of style, the presentation of cut-scenes in the game is magnificent. They play out like a comic book’s flipping pages, as panels pop up and disappear before your eyes. One particularly memorable scene involves Spider-man flipping backwards after being struck by a certain horned nemesis. As Web-head spins in the air, his momentum carries him through several comic book panes and pages before he finally slams into the waiting concrete wall. The game is full of cool scenes like this, and you can tell that the developers put a lot of time and effort into making this game as “Comic like” as possible.
Another thing that carries the storyline of this game is the voice acting. Since the game is based on the “Ultimate Spider-man” comic book series and not the recent string of blockbuster movies, the characters are not voiced by their big screen counterparts. This isn’t a negative, however, as the voice acting in the game is nearly pitch perfect. As with all animation, the voice actors can only be as good as the dialogue they are given to read. You can tell that the dialogue in US was written by a comic writer, as it is that perfect blend of cheeky and clever. Spidey’s lines are (with a few exceptions) clever, witty, and smartly funny, just as they should be. They are voiced with a believability and wit that keeps them from coming off as cheesy, like some of the lines in last years Spider-man 2. This game is proof positive that strong, well written, and well read dialogue can really add to the depth of a storyline.
Fans of last year’s Spider-man 2: The Game will be instantly familiar with the control scheme in Ultimate Spider-man. The same pick-up and play swing mechanic is back, with a few changes. Spider-man no longer has a jump meter, although holding down the jump button does cause him to gain more height on his jumps. X now speeds up Spidey mid swing, which seems more awkward and less intuitive than the L Trigger accomplishing that this year. Even with the changes, it is still supremely easy to maneuver on the go. I found myself just swinging around NYC for an hour or so when I first sat down with US, and I imagine you will as well. It’s just so damn much fun. Venom is equally as exciting to control. While lacking the web swinging power of Spider-man, he more than makes up for it with an ultra cool super jumping feature that is reminiscent of the Hulk in Ultimate Destruction. That’s not the only similarity between Venom and Hulk, as you go on tears through the city destroying everything you can get your hands on. Venom also has to feed, as the suit causes constant damage to him. This is accomplished by finding a person (enemy or pedestrian) and hold the L trigger to absorb them into the suit. The level of mayhem at your fingertips as Venom is nearly GTA-like, only Tommy Vercetti didn’t have super powers. Combat with both Spidey and Venom is simple, yet deep. String together combos using webs, tentacles, fists, feet and anything you can get your hands on. Spidey bounces off walls, and webs up crooks while Venom can pick up nearby vehicles and toss them at enemies. This keeps the sometimes repetitive combat from growing stale.
Control isn’t the only thing borrowed from last years game. The open ended, free-roaming gameplay objectives and story progression returns as well. Like last year, you play side missions to unlock further progression of the story. Races return, as do City Events (things like saving pedestrians from falling). New this year are Combat Tours, where you follow specific nav points, beating up thugs along the way. Completing enough of these (your progress can be tracked from the pause screen) opens up new parts of the story for you to play. Often these story sections lead to over the top boss encounters with some of Spidey’s greatest foes. The boss battles play out very well overall, with a few frustrating encounters (I.e. the Electro chase) balanced out by cool battles (I.e. catching Electro and fighting him in the middle of busy Times Square).
Even though the story line is short (around 3-6 hours), there is plenty of stuff to keep you busy in US. From finding all the comic covers, to unlocking all of the secret costumes (including the super cool Symbiote Spider-man costume), most players will have their hands full of replay value. Not to mention the fact that beating the game grants you access to switch back and forth between Venom and Spider-man as you please. Barring a few hitches here and there, this game is an extremely enjoyable experience for both comic book veterans, and new Spider-fans weaned on the movies. I highly recommend taking a spin around the big apple with your friendly neighborhood Spider-man.