The Spider-Man 2 video game broke a few curses: the curse of bad movie tie-in games (which Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay also broke), and the long-running curse of bad Spider-Man games. It finally gave gamers a true Spidey experience: swinging freely around New York City, pummeling criminals, and engaging in fisticuffs with super-powered villains in an open sandbox-style environment. After this huge step forward, developer Treyarch took a step back with Spider-Man 3 (ironically, just like the movie it was based on), taking the Spider-Man experience to new levels of mediocrity with a clunky camera, creepy character graphics that sat firmly in the uncanny valley, and a lame combo upgrade system.
Well, Treyarch’s run out of Spider-Man movies to tie games into, but there’s still life in the franchse yet, dammit! With the restraints of movie licensing cast off, they’ve teamed up with developer Shaba Games to bring out Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, a new take on the wall-crawler to breathe new life into the stagnating game license.
The primary focus on this revitalization process is in the combat system. Spider-Man games prior to Web of Shadows had the navigation and combat systems feel strangely discrete. Web-swinging never flowed smoothly in with the fighting, instead leaving the players with a jarring experience as the game lurched from Spidey’s acrobatic antics into his pugnacious pugilism. WoS instead smoothly integrates the two, never giving up its sense of speed or agility as your swings can lead into kicks, and a few well-timed button presses can erupt onscreen into absurd Devil May Cry style enemy juggling. It’s beautiful, it’s energetic, and most importantly it’s damn fun. The developers waste no time in showing off the combat’s new chops, either, dropping Spidey in the thick of a full-scale invasion of NYC by monstrous alien symbiotes. The gorgeous opening cinematic, with Spider-Man walking deliberately through the carnage around him to the strains of Moonlight Sonata before leaping off the edge of a building and into the action is breathtaking, and the action following it makes the player feel like a complete bad-ass.
Then they take it all away.
Following the inexplicable sequencing of the game’s story, which jumps around like it’s Spider-Memento with flashbacks and out-of-order timing, all of your abilities are cruelly stripped away as you flash back to a few days prior where you fight Venom, regain your black suit, and complete a series of drudging tutorial missions where Luke Cage teaches you about your abilities. So not only do I have all of my amazing, upgraded combat abilities taken away (it’s like going from the BFG9000 to the pistol in DOOM), I have to be re-taught how to use them by Luke frigging Cage??? Even worse, the first quarter of the game is completing these inane tutorials, grinding through dozens of gang members ad nauseum. However, the transgressions are forgiven as soon as you face off against Spider-Man’s many super powered bosses, where your abilities are truly put to the test against the likes of Venom, Black Cat, the Vulture, and even Wolverine. These encounters are a breath of fresh air, reminding you that Spider-Man is a superhero, with foes greater than common thugs with guns. These boss battles will often end with a moral decision, with Spidey deciding whether to take the good-guy path or give in to the dark desires of the symbiote. As entertaining as I found these decisions and their consequences (cheating on Mary Jane, ripping Wolverine in half), they really have very little weight in the overall picture.
Which can be said for virtually all of the game’s new features, from the addition of allies to the reintroduction of the black suit. Despite having amassed a small army of allies by game’s end, I very rarely found myself employing their aid in combat. The same can be said of the black suit, which proved to be a necessity only in select missions where the game instructed you to use it. Even the story, which truly seemed to have some effort put into it, feels inconsequential. As much as I like tales that explore Spider-Man’s dark side, WoS’ story is a mound of prosaic meringue: airy and fluffy with little substance to make it worthwhile. Kraven’s Last Hunt, this ain’t.
So out of all of the new features that promised to bring Spider-Man into the next level of gaming, the only one that delivers is the retooled combat system. OK, guys, you’ve got a nice seed started, let’s hope this one can grow into a better game next time.