A tangled web.
Ultimate Spider-Man is the same kind of free-swinging action romp as Spider-Man 2, but instead of using a film plot for its storyline, it enmeshes itself in the spun lore of Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man comics. The new style is breathtaking, although the heavily tweaked gameplay will leave most Spider-fans hanging and the horrible pace will make them want to cut the thread.
Intended to introduce a new generation to everybody’s favorite neighborhood Spider-guy, the Ultimate books adapted the web-slinger’s saga to modern times. Goodbye horned-rim glasses, hello Interweb! Aside from making matters modern, the Ultimate books also take considerable liberties with Marvel lore. Eddie Brock, for example, is no longer an exposed hack of a journalist; now he’s a bitter college student. His grouchiness stems from the fact that his father went down in the same plane crash that killed Parker’s father, and evidently the two were working on “The Venom Project” that, in spite of its lethal name, was intended as a cure for cancer.
But like all things Marvel, it was appropriated by greedy war-profiteerers, developed into a weapon, and stored for a decade in a random locker at Eddie Brock’s university. He and Peter find it, at which point it jumps all over Peter and then Eddie, turning him into a vicicous, creepy, black nightmare. This is where Ultimate Spider-Man‘s plot begins – with Venom assaulting Peter Parker on the college campus.
The story is relayed via ultra-stylish cut-scenes that resemble moving comic book panels. Characters leap in and out of each panel, creating a dramatic, unique effect. But for all the polish applied to their appearance, they’re sometimes confusing and are most always preceded by a jarring loading screen. There’s some sort of crazy plot involving Trask, the guy who bought the Venom project and turned it into something evil, Forge, Silver Sable, The Beetle, The Green Goblin and Carnage, but it never makes much sense. Instead, it makes for a ton of sweet boss fights.
As Spider-Man and Venom, you get in fights with classic comic legends like Wolverine and Electro, and these are a lot of fun. The Electro boss battle is the best; he flies around shooting lightning while you dodge and hurl cars at him as Venom. Every boss attacks in a really simple, predictable pattern, so the action itself isn’t interesting, but just seeing yourself kick Wolverine’s ass as Venom is very satisfying. I always knew that dude was all bark.
Unfortunately, so is Ultimate Spider-Man. The action is never very good. Spider-Man can punch, kick, throw and web-up enemies, but his attacks are rigid and lack impact while his webbing moves look awful. Spider-Sense lines appear around his head when he’s about to be attacked, but there’s no dodge or counter-commands – you just have to jump. This system is actually worse than the one in the last game, and I remember thinking that was bad at the time.
Venom is a lot more entertaining to kick ass with since his tendrils look neat when he whips them around and they do massive damage to anything in their path. Venom can also throw cars and other large objects, which works remarkably well with the game’s lock-on camera to make Venom a car throwin’ machine. Venom can also “eat” any humanoid civilians or enemies he comes across for more health, making him easy to keep alive.
Still, for a game starring Spider-Man and Venom, kicking ass isn’t nearly as fun as it should be. Venom is over-the-top violence incarnate – just look at the guy – but even eating people is boring and underwhelming in Ultimate Spider-Man thanks to overly simple execution and boring animations.
Running around the big city is definitely the best part of the game as either character, although it’s less fun than it was in Spider-Man 2. Web-slinging has been reduced to a process of pressing and releasing one button, but you can modify this with the face buttons. Pressing them in mid-swing will make Spidey swing faster or climb his line for altitude. Spider-Man can still fire a web zip-line to quickly pull himself in whatever direction he’s facing.
The biggest change to Spider-Man’s control is the removal of the charge jump in favor of a big-air double-jump. The interesting part is that this second jump is also available after web-zipping or swinging and can really help you get your bearing before another swing or zip-line.
And chances are, you’ll need to, because the controls get really touchy. Sometimes a web-zip will pull you exactly where you want it to; other times it will catapult you skyward. This is always unexpected and disorienting, giving your locomotion a spastic feel.
Venom, on the other hand, can’t web-sling at all. I repeat, no webbing for Venom. Instead, the developers copied a page from the Hulk‘s book and gave Venom a super jump that launches him several hundred feet into the air. Venom can also execute the equivalent of a web zip-line with his tendrils, and these can be linked together with his normal jump, theoretically. In reality, his normal jump is too wimpy to give you the hang time needed to lash out with another tendril. Hopping around as Venom looks interesting and feels smooth, but gets boring quickly without any web-slinging to keep him moving.
The game’s pace is just as spiky as Venom’s leaps. Story missions are represented by green dots on your mini-map. These usually entail a boss fight or a chase, but occasionally equal nothing more than a quick cut-scene. In order to progress from one story mission to the next, you have to complete a certain number of side missions. The four secondary objectives are Icons, Trick Races, Combat Tours and City Events. Icons are scattered throughout the city and, when found, grant you a piece of comic cover art or concept art; Trick Races require you to jump through a series of hoops within a time limit, Combat Tours make you take out out small clusters of thugs in succession, and City Events are just crimes that happen as you swing around the city.
So let’s say you whip Rhino in a Story mission and would like to see what’s next on the agenda. You check your objective screen and see that you need to find one icon and complete two races, two combat tours and two city events before the next Story mission will become available. You’re disgusted, apalled, and incensed, but compelled to waste time with these asinine objectives if you want to get anywhere.
These side-quests triple the length of the game, bringing it up to a whopping six hours. If you didn’t have to beat up waves of mindless thugs and repeatedly jump through hoops, you’d beat the game in two hours. That’s less time than it takes to watch the movie. Once you finish the story, all that’s left to do is run the races and find the tokens you missed, and you probably didn’t care about these in the first place.
It may be short, but Ultimate Spider-Man looks sweet. The animations are smooth and the environments are vivid and detailed thanks to some awesome cel-shading. It just bleeds comic book cool. The PS2 version has some framerate issues and the Gamecube version looks kind of fuzzy, but overall this game looks super…unless it’s loading, and it does that a lot. Even though you can seamlessly run through a giant city, the game is full of clunky, awkward loading scenes every time you begin a new mission, be it a Combat Tour or a Story Mission.
The music is just as incongruous, featuring an overproduced collection of noise for your crime-fighting displeasure. The voice-acting, though, is mostly good, helping you buy into the characters.
That doesn’t mean you should buy into the game, though. It’s worth playing for the sweet graphics and cool boss fights, but you shouldn’t pay full price for it. In two months, EB’s and Gamestops will be literally bursting with used copies of this game and you’ll be able to web a copy for what it’s worth – very little.