Belated Completion

Turning a pile of shame into a pile of victory!

Ultimate Spider-Man

2005, Treyarch
PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, PC (modified versions also for mobile phones, Nintendo DS, and Game Boy Advance)

Getting it working
OH NOES PORT. If you don't have a d-pad you're not going to enjoy what this game has to offer.

In Short
Swanky look, takes a while to get a handle on but is worth the effort.

ultimatespiderman.jpg

The general format of the game is a mixture of open-world and linear missions. The open-city exploration can be seen as a 'hub', open for exploration and scattered with bonus items and missions. A given number of sub-missions such as races, combat tours, and city events must be completed before the next story mission becomes available, these are called 'City Goals'.

Both races and combat tours must be triggered, require a loading screen, and are marked on the map by purple circles. Races involve running through a sequence of large glowy Spider-Man-themed spheres within a time limit. By 'running' I mean jumping, zipping, swinging or any combination of the aforementioned. Within the longer time-limit, there are three possible 'medals' that can be won – gold for fastest, then silver, then bronze. Any of the medals is sufficient to count toward the city goals. There are several race difficulties, and unless you're going for 100% completion, I'd recommend sticking to the easier ones, for reasons of mental health. As well as the generic races, you can also race Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four – indeed, you have to at an early point of the game. These races are just longer versions of the general city ones, with the bonus of the heroes' good-natured taunts.

Combat tours are simply a chain of locations with various thugs that have to be taken down. They make great practise for later, harder fights, and are generally very easy. Stand still for a moment after each location has been cleared of thugs, as a large health boost will float down from the sky to heal any damage you may have incurred.

City events occur apparently randomly, popping up with a cute little 'poik!' noise and appearing as red circles on the map. They generally come in five flavours:
- Rescue the person dangling from a height (just pick 'em up and put 'em down on the ground)
- Foil the robbery (beat up the thugs)
- Rescue the person from the thugs (beat up the thugs)
- Take an injured person to hospital (once you've picked up the rescuee, it is similar to a race as you must get to a hospital in a limited time)
And my personal favourite,
- Rescue the person from the thugs, then take them to hospital

I am ambivalent as to whether this hub and enforced sub-mission completion model was a good or bad choice. On the one hand, the quieter city-roaming sub-missions were a good chance to relax between more hectic fights, and gave a nice feel for how Spidey generally spends his day. They make good use of the open-ish world, adding good replay value, and must appeal to those who like to really master every last challenge a game has to offer. On the other hand, some sub-missions (especially the races) loose their novelty quickly, and can simply become a necessity rather than fun. It can be a little frustrating if you need a combat tour, and the only ones left are all the way on the other side of the city. The plot looses its urgency, as it is constantly interrupted. This can be avoided by completing many sub-missions of all three types before embarking on the story – I would strongly recommend doing this to preserve the flow of the plot, and also practise your skills before the tougher story mission battles. The main missions suffered from repetitive chases, but boss fights were all interesting and different.

Overall, the script is excellent in reflecting its source material. While Spidey does get a little whiny during boss-fights, quips bemoaning “Glorious super wedgies” lightened the tone and stop things from feeling too dire. MJ and Peter's playful relationship grounds his heroic actions nicely, and Brock is sufficiently personable that Venom never comes across as a complete monster. In-game comments (usually from Spidey) do repeat themselves a little too much for comfort. The music is never obtrusive, and every now and then dropped out altogether to allow the ambient sounds of the city to come into focus, allowing pleasant moments of web-swinging zen.

Spidey's move set is what is to be expected: wall-crawling, double jumps, web-swinging and zipping to get around, and the ability to web and beat up enemies. The combat is made up of two attacks (kick and punch), with additional combo complexity added by jumping, and holding down the web key whilst pressing attack buttons for some baddie-flinging action. The system encourages a fluid strike and retreat style when fighting groups of thugs, with damage bonuses awarded if attacks and targets are rapidly switched. This strategy is requisite in most of the boss fights, which involve either a transiently attackable weak spot (i.e. Rhino) or disincentives for staying up close and pummelling (i.e. the first Venom fight). The camera does a good job of keeping up with Spidey's flighty fighting, and only left me blind once in the whole game. The mouse-driven “camera look” function, however, is completely over reactive even on the lowest sensitivity, so it is advisable just to let the camera automatically do its thing.

This time, Treyarch got it right. The swinging mechanic was a good balance between realism and fun – you can either swing from objects higher than you, or 'zip' on objects below you. Gone are the immersion-breaking, confusing concepts of spider anchors and inexplicable unseen support points somewhere in the sky. The quickest way to get around town if you're exploring is to zip and double-jump across rooftops, but often chases and rescue missions need a closer-to-the-ground approach. The swinging feels fluid and, once you have the hang of it (pun thoroughly intended), really puts you in Spidey's shoes.

The Venom missions are fewer and shorter than the Spidey missions. Venom is much heftier and clunkier than Spidey, and though his heavier feel does well to mix up gameplay, it lacks the fluidity and polish of Spidey's moveset. The long whipping tentacle attack feels almost like cheating against thugs, which are absurdly easy to take out from a distance. I only ever used the close-up melee attack by accidentally bumping the wrong button, as it is superceded by the deliciously satisfying ability to suck up enemies and gain health (I call it the “Om Nom Nom” attack). This health sucking ability is vital, as Venom's health constantly drains over time. This added a much-needed sense of vulnerability. Venom plays and feels like a tank, and without the pressure to feed, there would be little challenge in combat.

Venom's real weak spot is in locomotion. Clunky and slow on the ground, his pseudo-web zip (tentacle zip?) is finicky. The super fast/high/long jump leaves you longing for the web-swinging it replaces. You might think this is because previous missions have you so accustomed to the swinging style of locomotion, but having spent an obscenely long time trying (and failing) to chase down the Shocker, the real problem becomes clear: even with the generally good camera, you can very rarely see where you are intending to jump. This makes judging direction and distance very hard, and leads to a far more ad-hoc style of movement. Though inconsequential in general city roaming, this really bites in chase sequences... And, of course, there is a very long and sparsely checkpointed chase sequence that poor Venom has to ineptly flail through.

Venom's missions didn't feel well integrated into gameplay. The story could easily have been told with movies describing the Venom arc rather than times playing through it. The battle with Wolverine felt particularly out-of-place, and smacked of Marvel shoehorning in a popular character to draw more people into buying the game. This isn't to say the Venom missions were by any means bad, but they fall short when compared to the polished Spidey missions. Perhaps the biggest issue is that they both take place in the same city environment, which lends itself to Spidey's moveset. Greater scope of settings and challenges that capitalise specifically on Venom's characteristics could have vastly improved the overall cohesiveness of the game.

Last but not least, the graphics! This game uses striking visuals that mimic the look and feel of a comic. They shine in the cut-scenes, which use panels and onomatopoeia to great effect. The in-game graphics aren't a perfect analogue for comic style, but get pretty close. Everything is crisp and recognisable, and had a great Spidey feel. One downside is that the game does not do well on larger monitors – played with detail settings maxed out on a 1920x1080 monitor, the edges in cut-scenes were jagged, and environment textures did look a little muddy. At times, the sound lagged behind the video. This is a huge shame, as the look of the game is very nearly excellent.

Indeed, that is a good way to sum up – the game was very nearly excellent. With more development of the Venom missions, more variety in the City Goals, and optimisation for better graphical detail, this could have been almost perfect.

 

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