In June this year, a list of 14 potential Spider-Man videogames turned up on the web. The desperate litany of buzzword-heavy proposals and plucked-out-of-the-air concepts read like the minutes of an intense, borderline demented brainstorming session at Activision. Close your eyes and you can picture the bland corporate meeting room, a flipchart in the corner bearing the panicked scrawl “SPIDER-MAN LICENSE: WHICH WAY NOW?”
Whether the list was actually genuine, compiled for market research or just a canny piece of corporate misinformation is irrelevant – it confirmed the sinking feeling that, like the creatively-scuttled movie franchise, Spidey games had nowhere left to go. After the satisfyingly deep swinging mechanic of 2004’s open-world Spider-Man 2 – basically Grand Thwipt Auto – the next two games diluted the demanding web-slinging system, hobbling the exhilarating sense of freedom you felt hurtling around, up, over and in between New York’s distinctive architecture. (It didn’t help that the most recent installment – co-op brawler Spider-Man: Friend Or Foe – was so childish it made Lego Star Wars look like Civilization IV.) So any tingling sensation I had about Spider-Man: Web Of Shadows was more likely to herald the onset of a cold sore than be a Spider-sense shiver of anticipatory excitement.
The confused opening certainly suggested it was going to be yet another spectacular misfire, with a gloomy webhead swinging in tepid slow-motion through the unfriendly neighborhoods of an alien-infested New York. As ever, he was moping about Mary Jane. There was also some business with Venom, the leering half-man, half-symbiote villain from That ’70s Show.
The game proper eventually starts in flashback, with intermittent voiceover narration of the “At first, it seemed like any other day …” variety. But once you’re eventually left alone in the pristine city, exposition is replaced by gleeful exploration. You’re still restricted to just one webline – looks like the dual webshooters of Spider-Man 2 ain’t never coming back – but the controls feel tighter than they have for years. Movement is a freestyle combination of long, Tarzan-vine arcs, snap-forward web zips and nimble air spins. It takes a little while to re-master the transition from air to walls, but with practice you can wall-run or stop dead at will.
In a nod to Crackdown, there are hundreds of Spidey symbols scattered over the rooftops. Accumulating them increases your swinging speed and power, so following the breadcrumb trail doesn’t simply feel like game-lengthening filler. (You can power Spidey up considerably before even tackling the first story mission.)
While web-slinging is the poetic soul of the game, there is also the more prosaic aspect of combat. You can switch from Spider-Man’s trademark red-and-blue tights to his black symbiote-enhanced costume with a simple click, and each has its own scrapping style. Classic Spidey is acrobatic and funny (he offers a nice little mock-salute after punting opponents into the air) while black Spidey is a more aggressive, gooey bruiser. To ensure progress, you have to purchase and memorize combos, and while it takes a bit of effort to decode the nuances of the elaborate systems of air combat, wall combat and firing little spitballs of webbing at baddies, the action remains spry and entertaining.
There’s also a buddy system which allows you to summon some spandex back-up in the form of other superheroes and villains, although their cooperation is perplexingly conditional and – judging by the few times I remembered to try and whistle for them – not particularly effective. Still, it’s an excuse to put fanboy fave Wolverine in the game.
Halfway through the game, Web Of Shadows still doesn’t manage to do anything demonstrably better than Spider-Man 2, but it’s also managed to not totally suck. Then comes the masterstroke – the alien symbiote starts to take over the city, slowly darkening the skies, altering the architecture and mutating the citizens. The transformation is handled relatively subtly, and as incidents flare on various intersections, you begin to realize that despite all your powers, you can’t actually stop the wave of panic. The baddies eventually evolve into Venom-ish zombie/vampire/alien creatures, but creepier still are the normally-dressed pedestrians who suddenly flip out and start scuttling up walls to attack you. It may not be anything like the cumulative, granular detail of Liberty City, but swinging down eerily deserted New York streets dotted with smashed storefronts and burnt-out cars is still remarkably atmospheric, with echoes of I Am Legend, Cloverfield and the deathless Escape From New York.
The marketing tagline for Web Of Shadows is “seize control,” although there isn’t all that much seizing; it boils down to selecting a “good” or “evil” path after key missions. (The most anguished moral decision comes early on when Black Cat – voiced by the yummy Tricia Helfer -makes a pass at Spidey.) Does it make much difference? Let’s just say Fable 2 has nothing to worry about.
While such extraneous stuff can be mildly annoying, it doesn’t interfere too much with the actual game, which is solidly constructed, well-paced and sneakily addictive. With great power comes great playability, it seems.
Perhaps it’s because I’ve been a fan since I was a Peter Parker-esque teenager – did you know Spidey kicked the ass of all the X-Men single-handedly in
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