Name: Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
Platform: Xbox 360, PS2, PS3, PSP, Wii, DS, PC (Reviewed on PS3)
Back in 2004, Activision and Treyarch brought us a game based on the blockbuster sequel to 2002’s Spider-Man movie, Spider-Man 2. For the first time in a video game, we were able to go from the tops of skyscrapers to the ground as Spidey, web-swinging, web-slinging and wall-crawling through a massive recreation of Manhattan. There wasn’t much to do outside of swinging around, rescuing falling construction workers, saving lost balloons and fighting some nondescript thugs, but the raw materials needed for a string of high-quality Spider-Man games were in place. Sadly, Activision failed to significantly improve the formula over their next two Spider-Man titles, Spider-Man 3 and Ultimate Spider-Man. Their newest effort, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, takes the series out of the movie continuity and the Ultimate Marvel universe with an all-new plot that takes place in the classic Marvel Universe, but doesn’t follow any specific comic storyline. With a new focus on high-flying combat and super hero cameos, can Activision rescue the Spider-Man series from its downward spiral?
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows starts you off in a version of Manhattan that has been overrun by alien symbiotes: the same gooey extraterrestrials responsible for Spidey’s black costume as well as his perennial villains, Venom and Carnage. This sequence is where you learn the basics of combat on the ground, in the air and on the sides of New York’s many skyscrapers. Similarly to Star Wars: the Force Unleashed, Web of Shadows starts you off with almost all of the powers and techniques you’ll eventually unlock, just to give you a taste of your future ass-kicking abilities. After a few cameos, some warnings about relying too much on your corrupting black costume from Mary Jane, and a skirmish with Venom, you’re returned to the present, where Manhattan is as it should be: alien-free and full of random crimes. From here, you’re free to swing anywhere in the city, fight off random crimes, or meet up with some of New York’s other famous crime fighters, like Luke Cage, the Black Cat, Wolverine and Moon Knight. While some of these names may be unfamiliar to the uninitiated, the inclusion of lesser-known heroes is a welcome addition to fans of the comics. These teammates will help you learn new abilities, provide you with missions, and even assist in combat, once you’ve completed their set of missions and unlocked them.
The most important aspect of any Spider-Man game is the swinging mechanic, and in this respect, Web of Shadows does not disappoint. While not quite as robust a swinging system as in Spider-Man 2, the swinging in WoS features a mechanic that welcomes newcomers while rewarding experienced swingers. It looks and feels as natural and instinctual as it ever has, and offers a great sense of speed and freedom. The only minor gripe with the system is that webs don’t attach directly to buildings. Instead, each structure in the city has a contact area that extends about 20 feet out from its actual surface. This allows you to swing more easily than in 2 or 3, but also reduces the realism slightly. It’s not the kind of thing that you’ll even notice unless you’re really looking for it, though it is more obvious (and even distracting) while swinging through the low trees of Central Park. The other main mechanic found in a Spidey game is the combat, and thankfully, this is where Web of Shadows shines. An entirely new fighting mechanic is employed, and it looks and plays better than ever before. Spidey has only one main attack button, but it can be used in conjunction with the jump button and other commands to create long combos that showcase Spidey’s superhuman strength and agility. There’s also a new move called the Web-Strike that attaches a web to an enemy, then pulls Spider-Man toward him to deliver any number of different flavors of beat downs, then bounces Spidey high in the air in order to Web-Strike the next unsuspecting thug. It’s an awesome mechanic that looks fantastic in practice and allows Spidey to deal with large groups of enemies without ever touching the ground.
Of course, if you decide to stay on your feet and use your strength instead of your agility, there are plenty of combos to appeal to your play style as well. In fact, Spidey actually has access to two different sets of moves, depending on which costume you select. The black costume trades traditional webs for slimy alien tentacles, as well as giving up speed for power. The red and black costumes are swappable on the fly with a single button press, and there are almost an unlimited number of ways to utilize both in a single fight. The game’s bosses each offer a unique challenge, and are all fun to play. Fighting the Vulture requires you to stay airborne for almost ten minutes, as you leap from one flying enemy to the next, avoiding the Vulture’s guided strikes, while heavy hitters like Wolverine and Venom force you to beat on other, lesser villains during the battle to keep your health up. Without exception, the boss fights are thrilling, challenging, and rewarding.
Web of Shadows is undoubtedly the best-looking Spider-Man game to date, despite some technical issues. Spider-Man himself looks excellent, with tons of smooth, lifelike animations during swinging, leaping and, especially, fighting. The character model is decent, but his costume looks a bit too shiny, giving Spidey an almost greasy look from up-close. While he’s in action, however, you’ll never notice it; partially because of his excellent animations, but also because of the unimpressive enemies you’ll be fighting. There are only about eight different enemy types in the game, and none of them are particularly impressive. You’ll spend a lot of time fighting the same robotic enemies and symbiote-infected civilians, and after a while, it becomes somewhat tedious. Not only are the standard enemies uninspired in appearance, they are also lacking any sort of AI to keep them from being anything more than punching bags for Spidey.
The environments you’ll experience look great, despite some pop-up issues, and the game presents the best representation of Manhattan we’ve seen in a super-hero title to date. For the first time in the series, WoS also offers some destructible environmental elements. Street signs, mailboxes, lamp posts, fire hydrants and cars are all fair game for destruction, and every store front in the game can be smashed and broken in a far more realistic manner than seen in the recent Hulk game, which is definitely a nice touch. Every “Thwipp” of Spidey’s webs and “Thwakk” of his fists sounds exactly as you’d expect, and passers by will actually acknowledge Spidey’s existence verbally, and even have different reactions depending on which suit you’re wearing. The biggest mark against the game’s audio presentation would have to be the voice acting. Spidey’s is one of the most annoying voices you’ll ever hear in gaming, vacillating between whiny 12-year-old and whiny 30-year-old. The other offerings aren’t much better, with broadly drawn and sometimes offensively stereotypical voices for many of the supporting characters. Tricia Helfer’s turn as the Black Cat is the lone exception to this, but even her lovely voice has trouble overcoming the hammy, cornball script.
It may not offer quite as big an initial thrill as Spider-Man 2 did, but Spider-Man: Web of Shadows is probably the best web-swinging adventure so far. With a swing mechanic that rivals the one found in SM2, a combat system that easily trumps any in the series, and solid presentation throughout, fans of the series and the character won’t be disappointed. The story is flimsy at best, the side missions rarely connect to the main plot (and at times, don’t make much sense), the voice acting is laughable, and the enemy types are limited, to say the least. Still, there’s enough content and fun combat to make it easily worth a rental, and for Spider-holics, a purchase.