I first expected to sit down, blast through Spider-Man: Friend or Foe on a Saturday afternoon, and finish this review for dinner. Like my favorite Spider-villain Venom, I thought I would devour the troublesome web-head on a lark, but soon tangled myself in his latest escapade. Friend or Foe made me want to scream, “This is lame!”, and by the time I finished it, I sorted my conflicting amusements and disappointments into something less than what Spidey deserves.
It doesn’t take Spider Sense to predict that the inter-webs will blame Next Level Games (known for Mario Strikers) for putting Spider-Man through the bargain bin meat grinder. Though Friend or Foe is an earnest effort to recapture Spidey’s light and pleasant side, it drags in the absence of challenge, variety, and substance.
The throwaway storyline follows Spidey on one crazy globe-trotting day. You’ll catch a ride on a black-ops Helicarrier, rescue all your friends and foes, and save the world from a legion of half-alien, half-holographic monsters. Err… okay. Even Spidey and company can hardly believe it either, but they’re just happy to inflict one more mindless beating.
Toss in a few obscure superheroes that have never appeared in a video game before like Black Cat and Iron Fist, and you have a virtual Spider-Man parade of sidekicks to lead through twenty short levels on five continents.
Spidey fans may miss the enormous free-roaming Manhattan, arguably the best feature of prior Spider-Man games, but Friend or Foe is focused wholly on its simplistic combat. Two-button combos let you grab foes from across the room in ways you wish Kratos could. You really feel like you’re devastating legions of enemies while looking your best. It feels clean, easy, and fun, which is way more than I can say for other Spider-games.
Problem is, Friend or Foe’s only difficulty level is Way Easy. Basic enemies vary slightly and die quickly as you mash any button you like. Many players will never die, and the boss fights are laughably short. Who knew that all of Spidey’s worst enemies were so allergic to crates and rocks?
It’s a slightly different story for Spidey’s sidekicks, who start out weak as kittens. (Oh, really? ~Ed.) I actually like that the sidekick characters have a smaller move set - they’re more approachable for your newbie friends to play) - but Spidey’s killer throws constantly steal the spotlight. You can buy upgrades between levels so the sidekicks won’t die as easily, but you’re more likely to spend your reward money on new moves for Spider-Man.
You can clear out the five worlds in five hours or less, especially if you ignore the hidden collectibles, though the ceaseless room-to-room game flow will frazzle your brain if you try to take it all in one day. As the string of cage fights turned from furious to tedious, I considered building my own super-powered costume and killing Spider-Man myself. You can almost make it happen, too, in the simple player-vs.-player sparring bonus mode.
As Rhino says in the game, however, “it’s always fun to win stuff and smash stuff.” At least the 360 version rewards your time with a dozen very simple achievements, a quick thousand points which you can clean up in a weekend rental. The Wii version has nothing to offer, though, with its jagged PS1 graphics, a slightly slower frame rate and the worst tacked-on motion controls yet.
Friend or Foe’s visuals are a little weird to begin with. Most of Spidey’s swings and flips are spot-on, but some animations like run cycles look slow or otherwise strange. Likewise, the environments feature a nice variety of colors, but they look like Plasticine models.
Great music and voice acting add much more to the presentation. When Spidey’s quips turn lame or old, each sidekick usually has a unique, funny punch line to save the gag. If you set the controller down, the character idles are humorous, and even the supercomputer narrator describes some of the silliest mission briefings ever. I just wanted more hero-to-hero interaction. There are a few good hooks connecting the sidekicks, but none of them are ever really fulfilled.
From a glance, gamers can see why Activision bills Friend or Foe as a “kid’s title” - slightly deformed characters, generic locations, and a lackluster story filled with empty characterizations. It isn’t a faithful reproduction of the hand-drawn comic or the photo-realistic films either.
Friend or Foe is a Saturday morning cartoon of a game. It’s you in your pajamas, ten-years old, thrilled just to punch and throw baddies as beloved Spider-Man characters. Served with a generous portion of Spider-Man silliness, it plays like a love letter to days when we devoured arcade, beat-‘em-up games.
I would love to boost a little brawler like Friend or Foe, especially after overblown catastrophes like Spider-Man 3, but I won’t lie. It’s fun and humorous at first, but the lack of substance and challenge is a Spider-killer.