Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Tangled Web We Weave

When you think of comic book characters, you’d think that, of all the forms of media available to video game developers, the transition from print to the console would be a simple transfer. Most super-heroes don’t do anything beyond beating up a variety of colorfully costumed bad guys and save the occasional damsel in distress. On paper, it looks good; however, in practice, super-hero games rank as some of the most disappointing games on the market.

There have been some exceptions over the years, most notably from everyone’s favorite web-head, Spider-Man. Spider-Man 2, originally released on the X-Box and PS2 brought a much needed sense of freedom to the Spider-Man games. Gone were the extremely linear levels, replaced by a large-scale replica of New York, where armchair super-heroes could swing to their hearts content. Since the original Spider-Man games way back on the NES and the Genesis, Spider-Fans have longed for the perfect Spider-Man game, one that featured all their favorite villains, the ability to swing around New York, and that sense of humor that Spider-Man is known for, something that the movies sorely lacked.

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows tried really, really hard to fit the bill. Cameo appearances are made by a plethora of Spider-Man regulars, and some characters are brought in from outside the regular Spider-Man setting for a good dose of fan service. Wolverine makes an appearance, as does Moon Knight, Luke Cage and the corpulent master of crime, the Kingpin, just to name a few. With fan favorite Venom filling the role of main villain, and the ability to wear Spider-Man’s infamous black suit, Web of Shadows seemed on track to be the definitive Spider-Man game.

Unfortunately, it’s weighed down by poor mission designs, a host of potentially game-crippling bugs, and a very unfeasible plot, even by comic book standards.

The game starts off in a brilliant fashion, however, with Spider-Man slowly walking towards the edge of a roof while chaos reigns around him; S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and Kingpin troopers fight off a large number of symbiote creatures, and landing craft fall out of the sky, harried by winged terrors. The city is in bedlam, and you’re thrust straight into the middle of it. After you’re re-united with Mary Jane in the prologue, the game jumps back four days to when Venom makes his first appearance. During the scuffle, Spider-Man gains the black suit, and he immediately sets to work dispatching a variety of clichéd gang members.

Here’s where Web of Shadows stilted mission design cripples the game. You’re given an objective, i.e. beat up 20 thugs. Once you’re done that, the game has you defeat 50 thugs, restarting your tally at zero. In the later stages of the game, the missions have you defeating upwards of 500 enemies per objective, something that can wear even the most patient player down.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the missions were a little varied, but you’re either taking out enemies, rescuing civilians or destroying enemy bases. Repeat ad-nauseum, and the limited palette of objectives looks suspiciously like game-lengthening.

The one thing the developers got right in the game is the fighting, and Spider-Man’s movement animations. Once you’ve leveled up your abilities a bit, fighting becomes sheer joy; leaping from one enemy to the next and delivering a flurry of punches feels very Spider-Man, and it looks fantastic.

Spider-Man strikes all the classic poses from the comic books, and it’s a nice touch being able to play him in arguably his two most famous costumes, the classic red and blue suit, or the black and white living costume.

Switching appearances isn’t just a cosmetic touch, it also affects Spider-Man’s repertoire of moves. In the red suit, Spidey moves quickly and favours a barrage of light hits over stronger single attacks. In the black suit, you’re at your best when you go toe-to-toe with your foes; black suit Spider-Man’s hits are both powerful and sweeping, with long tendrils extending from the suit to strike at adversaries and knock them away.

With the dual-sided nature of the game play comes the requisite “light or dark” choices, where our hero has to decide between his normal good nature, or whether he lets the alien costume alter his thoughts. The black suit options are sometimes wildly out of character for Spider-Man, but it still feels good to play the bad guy sometimes. (Besides, if you’ve followed the various types of media where the black suit has been depicted, you know that old Peter Parker can turn into a bit of grouch when he’s wearing the symbiote.)

As great of a feeling you get from swinging around New York and dispatching bad guys, you can’t help but notice that the Big Apple is kind of...bland. New York is a city well known for its eclectic inhabitants and taxi-choked streets, but Web of Shadow’s New York is like a tame, distant cousin to the kind of crazy open world cities we’ve seen in games like Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row.
New York citizens walk around in a kind of stupor, oblivious to Spider-Man’s exploits unless he’s saving their lives or detonating a car on top of their heads. Occasionally, the walk animations for the civilians will become extremely choppy, and look like something that would have been an eye-sore on the Nintendo 64.

Besides being extremely bland, New York is also home to a lot of crippling bugs. Bad guys, cars and citizens will disappear randomly, and if you’re in the middle of pulling off a mid-air combat move on an enemy and they disappear, you’re out of luck. The game will freeze, and you’ll have to restart. The game engine really chugs along at times, seemingly for arbitrary reasons. When you’re just swinging around, the frame rate will drop to almost nothing, and you’ll be watching Spider-Man leap around Matrix-style for a bit.

The path finding for your AI teammates is particularly atrocious, most notably when you’re helping Wolverine track down symbiote. If he gets stuck behind some garbage cans, prepare to wait for him while he attempts to claw his way out of his trap instead of stepping two feet to the left.

Web of Shadows is a perplexing game, to say the least. It does so many things right, but fails miserably on so many other accounts that it can be hard to recommend this game to anyone other than the hard-core Spider-Man fan. If you’re up for a few hours of web-swinging fun, and don’t want to resort to the abysmal Spider-Man 3 game, Web of Shadows just might do the trick.

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