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Review: Ultimate Spider-Man


apcmiller

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Spider-Man 2 was one of the best movie tie-ins to come along in quite some time when it was released in late Summer 2004. Free-swinging travel through the streets of New York and an entertaining retelling of the movie plot made for a fun, if mindless, title. On that framework Treyarch has spun another tale about the life of Peter Parker. Unlike Spider-Man 2, Ultimate Spider-Man comes directly from the pages of the Marvel comic of the same name, giving players the chance to control both your friendly neighborhood web-head and the fan favorite Venom. There's fun to be had here, and a high quality story to tell. Read on for my impression of Ultimate Spider-Man.

    * Title: Ultimate Spider-Man

    * Developer: Treyarch

    * Publisher: Activision

    * System: Xbox (PS2, GC)

    * Reviewer: Zonk

    * Score: 7/10

*

Spider-Man. Spider-Man. Doing whatever a spider can is a full-time job, and an interesting one at that. That's probably why there have been so many interpretations of the story of Peter Parker. The Amazing line is still the closest thing to canon, that plot line going back all the way to the first comic in Amazing Stories. The storyline for that series is currently under the wing of J. Michael Straczynski, whose name you may recognize from a little TV show about a space station. The problem, such as it is, with the Amazing line is that there are many years of backstory to read in order to be fully versed in the book as it exists today. The popular response to the Spider-Man movies prompted Marvel to set up a new storyline, retelling the tale from the beginning with a singularly modern flavour. In the Ultimate line, Spider-Man is a high school student dealing with the problems of a teenaged super-hero in the modern era. The protagonist's youth, the distinctive deformed art style, and the writing of Brian Michael Bendis all come together into a very unique interpretation of one of Marvel's most revered icons.

The translation of the comic to the game is extremely faithful. While it's not necessary, having read the comic will give the player a deeper understanding of the characters and their motivations. The developers received permission to effectively extend the canon of the Ultimate line, going further in exploring the repercussions of Peter Parker's encounter with Eddie Brock and the Venom suit. The majority of the story revolves around Brock and Parker, with both characters being the controlled protagonist at various points in the game. Besides Venom, fans of the comic will have the opportunity to interact with the likes of Green Goblin, R.H.I.N.O, Shocker, Silver Sable, Beetle, and Carnage. All this fan service comes courtesy of a Bendis-penned script. Despite some of the gameplay shortcomings the plot of the game is top-notch, and will be a treat to anyone who is a fan of the series.

If you've played Spider-Man 2, you will be intimately familiar with the control scheme for Ultimate Spider-Man. Most of the additions to the controls are subtle tweaks to the combat system. This Spider-Man is much more bouncy than the Spidey of the previous game, leaping off of walls to strike at opponents. Movement for Peter is the same as it ever was, and the web-swinging is easily one of the most entertaining travel modes in any video game I've played. Control over the thwipping has been simplified, with fewer options available but a more intuitive experience the result. Venom is a very different animal, much bulkier and far stronger. Instead of swinging, Venom makes tremendous leaps in a style similar to the Hulk in Ultimate Destruction. Venom's attacks are extremely powerful, tossing cars at opponents and lashing out with tentacles. He has some neat wrestling style moves, but mashing the tentacle attack button is usually the most effective way to finish an opponent. In an interesting nod to continuity, Venom slowly loses health as the suit consumes Brock's strength. To counteract this and to heal up damage from fights, Venom can consume bystanders by drawing them into his suit and draining them dry. In essentially all ways the man in black is more suited to combat that his red-suited counterpart. Parker is much more entertaining to control than Brock, though. The slim form of Spider-Man has a level of grace and finesse that shows how much care the development team put into crafting the experience. My only real complaint is the lack of a quick method of scaling a building. Having played Hulk, where the big green can surge up the side of the building in giant leaps, Spider-Man's slow crawl was somewhat frustrating. Speaking of the Hulk, Venom reminded me of Banner's alter-ego in less than pleasant way. Venom handles like a flying Buick. Leaping is a very inexact form of travel, and the combat system isn't tuned for his powerful attacks.

*

Movement and combat are tested often in the linear confines of the game's progress. Unlike the more GTA-like Spider-Man 2, Ultimate requires the player to progress in various city-wide activities in order to gain access to new story mode missions. The two most common requirements are race medals and completion of combat tours. Races are just what you've come to expect from a game like this, and are similar to races you'll find in other super-hero titles. Combat tours require you to follow waypoints around the city, defeating baddies at each location until you've whupped a goodly number of whatever gang you're concentrating on. A certain number of completed races and tours are required in order to reach the next story mission, along with found tokens (unlockables like comic covers or hidden coins) and spontaneous city events (wounded citizens needing a lift to the hospital, muggings, and carjackings). These activities are nothing more than time killers, spacing out the interesting and fanboi satisfying story missions. The story missions are all different, and many combine several activities into a comic-book's length action piece. In one, you pursue a retreating Rhino in a form of race. Along the way you rescue trapped and wounded citizens, delivering them to safety. Finally, you and Rhino have it out in grand melee. Each story mission is accompanied by beautiful comic-panel action and entertaining dialogue. The busy-work races and combat tours are very frustrating, though, and comparatively speaking there are just too few story missions compared to the amount of time you'll spend racing around the city.

One way in which Ultimate Spider-Man is clearly superior to Spider-Man 2 is in its graphical presentation. I really enjoyed the cell-shaded look, making the deformed art style come to life on the television screen. The game looks terrific, with every character a detailed, fleshed out, and articulated 3-D representation of the comic book images. Just as impressive as the animated look is the presentation style. Comic-inspired panels are used heavily during cut scenes, with the characters literally leaping off the page. The effect is quite striking, and makes for a game that flaunts its comic book roots in a very satisfying fashion. I wish I could say the same for the audio environment. Musically, the game is very frustrating. Pieces alternate between generic-sounding electronic music and quite annoying "action" selections that distracted from my enjoyment of the game. Sound effects are fairly standard, your thwaps and smacks and thwips getting across movement and action well enough. The voice acting is relatively well done, thankfully, with Parker and Co. straying to this side of the comic book corny line. Bendis does excellent dialogue, and the cast imparts his words with feeling and emphasis. While it only makes sense that the game's visuals were more the focus than the audio, it would have been nice to enjoy a more full sensory experience while playing the title.

*

Ultimate Spider-Man is lots of fun. Graphically it's an improvement over the previous incarnations, and the refined controls and combination gameplay switch up the established formula. Despite lackluster racing elements, the freewheeling movement and bouncy combat combined with the engaging story missions makes for a number of entertaining moments. The brevity of the overall story is probably the most frustrating aspect of the game, with the quality of the voice acting and writing leaving the player wanting more than the title can provide. The only real way to satisfy the itch this game will cause is to read the books, which is in many ways the highest compliment the game can receive. If you're a fan of Marvel's universe you'll have a hard time not enjoying the fun this game can offer. Ultimate Spider-Man is well worth a rental, with the only folks likely not to find something worthwhile in this title the ones who spent their time in forums referring to Wind Waker as "Cellda".

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