Review by PapaGamer

"This game is gorgeous, but the gameplay is flawed"

First things first: Ultimate Spider-Man for the PC is a direct port of the console versions, not a different game aimed at the kid market like last year's Spider-Man 2. 'Nuff said.

There's an old joke that ambivalence is watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff...in your brand new Porsche. That's the way I feel about Ultimate Spider-Man (USM). The cutscenes are gorgeous. The boss battles are titanic clashes. But all the in-between gameplay is drudgery.

USM is bound to draw more than a few comparisons to Treyarch's previous effort, Spider-Man 2 (SM2). The basic game mechanics and gameplay are the same. But, Treyarch has given the game a huge facelift and rewrite that is suitably ultimate. Unfortunately, they got rid of those things SM2 got right, and created yet another game that's either hot or cold. USM ends up with more of the cold than the hot.

If you're not hip to the USM comics, it's a series that was launched about five years ago that returns to Spidey's origins--with a 21st Century update. Parker is now a geeky high school student, Rhino is a pot-bellied intellectual driving a tank and Venom is a suit made by Peter's dad. The game picks up from the end of a recent story arc in the comics, and, supposedly, the comics will reference events in the game.

It's a comic geek's dream, but the gameplay just doesn't hold up under the pressure.

GRAPHICS

USM's cutscenes are simply gorgeous. No major media project has gotten this close to moving comic book panels since Ang Lee's Hulk. The character models look exactly like comic book characters come to life, with heavy, inked outlines and vibrant colors.

Then, there's the city. The cartoonish look is carried over to the buildings of Manhattan and Queens; but, where the look suits the characters, it turns the cityscape into a drab, flat world of little texture and variety. The buildings barely even manage to look 3D. Add in the fact Treyarch seriously reduced building height and you spend most of your time looking at the first two floors of all this brown stone and red brick. It's almost depressing.

SOUND

The music is forgettable, but the voice acting is top notch. While the game doesn't boast a lot of recognizable names outside of the VG world, they all get their parts right and are given plenty of juicy dialogue to chew.

GAMEPLAY

Here's where USM really starts to fall apart. When you're watching the cutscenes, you are totally lost in the story. The dialogue is great. The acting is great. The rendering is perfect.

The boss battles are also paragons of old school pattern matching. Prepare to fail a few times each clash as you figure out the boss' particular weakness. The game gives you some hand-holding, but just enough to keep you from being frustrated, not enough to make these fights easy.

Beyond that...Well, where to start?

If you found SM2's lack of variety in "hero missions" to be off-putting, you will be deeply annoyed by USM's "city events". There's about three different events and they are all boring to start with. On top of that, they aren't optional. You have to complete a certain number of events in order to continue the main story. At least, in SM2, you could earn hero points in other ways. In USM, there are no hero points, just specific City Goals you have to complete to get the next Story Mission to appear.

In fact, all the things that were optional in SM2 are required in USM. You have to complete a certain number of races. You have to find a certain number of tokens. There are also Combat Tours--sequences of fights against gang members that all seem alike--that are required along with the City Events.

If anything good can be said about this, it is that the requirements are not onerous. You can meet all the requirements to keep the story flowing with a few hours of dedicated play. It will be boring, tedious play, but at least it doesn't last that long.

One of the most tedious parts of completing these City Goals is getting around. Treyarch not only reduced the height of the buildings, they also reduced the overall size of New York. The city is claustrophobic, and you spend so much time near street level you begin to wonder if there really are any skyscrapers to be seen. And spending so much time down low means lots of broken strands from trees, streetlamps, billboards, awnings, etc.

Gone is the vertiginous thrill of soaring through the air, leaping--almost flying--from one Web strand to another. In fact, most of the time, it is quicker to jump and web zip around town than it is to swing. That's how bad it is.

The swinging mechanic doesn't help. Treyarch basically took SM2's Easy Swing mode and made that the only mode of swinging in USM. It's simplistic, lacks control, is easily broken and, frankly, just isn't very fast. Treyarch also removed sprinting and controlled jumps. You can boost your swings a bit and you can double-jump (which actually produces range like a fully charged jump in SM2), but that's it.

You get more combat buttons this time around and the combat really looks sweet. But beating up on N^x thugs isn't that rewarding, no matter how good it looks. And there aren't any real combo moves, it's a button-masher game. The only time you really get the feel of precision control is, again, during the boss battles.

Finally, every once in a while, you suddenly switch and control Venom. Some will find this not only acceptable, but downright cool. I have three objections to this game element:

1) Some players may not want to play as a monster that feeds on children (one of the first things the game "teaches" you when you take control of Venom).

2) The Venom stages are nothing more than frenzied combat anyway.

3) Venom controls so differently from Spidey that it disrupts the flow of the game.

CONCLUSION

If I could just watch the cutscenes and play the boss fights, I'd love this game. It would be short, and have almost no replayability, but at least it would be non-stop fun. As it is, it's still short, has almost no replayability (who would really want to just swing around this New York?) but is only fun in spurts. This game would be a fine rental on a console or a good purchase from the future bargain bin, but it's not worth the hype.


Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 09/26/05


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