Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man Video Game (Xbox 360)

Movie tie-in video games are notoriously awful, but the persistent positive buzz around the new The Amazing Spider-Man game prompted me to give it a shot myself. Why? Because I love Spider-Man games! The last one I played was the surprisingly fun Shattered Dimensions and if this one can bring me any of that same joy I am sold!

In fact, Spider-Man may even be my favourite videogame character to play. Many characters can just run, jump and shoot, but Spider-Man has such a vast array of abilities at his disposal thanks to his increased strength, sticky limbs, and super-versatile spider-spooge. He can shoot webs, swing, climb walls, grab things from a distance, hang people from the ceiling, and jump crazy high. Plus he constantly wisecracks. So the real question is, will being attached to Marc Webb’s overwrought spider-flick hinder Spider-Man’s potential? I did like the portrayal of Spidey in that film for the most part, but could we be facing a situation here where you “press X to cry”?

Oh! And did I mention that the word on the street is that this game plays a lot like Arkham City/Asylum? Find out what I thought... after the crazy high spider-jump!

I imagine that there’s a lot of factors that pre-emptively scuttle tie-in games, and I’m sure many of those revolve around: immovable deadlines, tight budgets, and ever-changing scripts. With all this in mind, developer Beenox does an extraordinary and commendable job at making the best of these limitations and producing a really enjoyable game.

Rather than retread the origin for the 325th time, or deal with the constant spider-sobbing, Beenox has created a sequel of sorts that picks up soon after the events of the film. As such, it is also filled with spoilers, although I can’t imagine why you would play this without having seen the movie first. This approach is a smart move because it allows us to play with familiar characters and locations, but presents them in a brand new story with a much larger scope, and it's not burdened by events that we already know. It’s a perfect example of the freedom that is created by attacking these limitations from new angles.

But those limitations do keep popping up. You won’t get the exhaustive rogue’s gallery that we saw in a game like Shattered Dimensions because there is no way that we’re going to see film versions of big name villains debut in a game. So instead only a few villains are present and they’re C-listers at best. Dr. Curt Connors is present, of course, but our main adversary is Spider-Slayer creator Alistair Smythe who provides a lot of robotic fodder for us to fight our way through. There are some other familiar animal/human hybrid characters thrown into the mix as Connor’s research is continued to be misused, but these are blown pretty early in the game. There’s one other character who I won’t spoil.

The in-game Spider-Man looks sharp - we only ever see him in his costume, so no Andrew Garfield likeness here, and the other film likenesses are sketchy at best. Gwen doesn’t resemble Emma Stone at all beyond superficial similarities like her haircut, with Connors perhaps looking closest to his on-screen appearance. The actors haven’t provided their voices either and I found it jarring to hear the lines delivered by voice-actors who were very much doing their own thing. That said, some of the dialogue is genuinely amusing. It has that lighter, wise-cracking touch that the movie was mostly lacking.

You know, like webbing up a guy who was taking a piss.
Structurally it’s very similar to my recently reviewed Lego Batman 2, in the sense that there are a series of large story missions that are accessed through an open world hub, in this case the city of Manhattan. There’s plenty to explore in between missions and a lot of stuff to keep you occupied such as: rescuing civilians, completing challenges, and collecting comic book pages.

I want to dwell on that last one - there are 500 glowing comic book pages scattered around the city and I became obsessed with collecting them. And the good news is that if you do go to all that effort you will actually unlock ten complete digital Spider-Man comics to read, all of them being classic issues that showcase the first appearances of the characters that appear in the game. I think this is a brilliant touch and an incredibly smart move by Marvel. One only has to look at the numbers to realise that Marvel has a far tougher time getting people to read comics than they do getting people to watch movies or play video games. To include ten comics is a great value-add and will hopefully pique player’s interest. I think Marvel has little to lose by being generous with their massive back catalogue and I hope that this trend continues in the future.

But how is the gameplay? And what about that Arkham City connection? Indeed the combat feels extremely similar to the Batman games with an attack and dodge dynamic and the ability to flit back and forth between a large number of assailants who are surrounding you. You’ll find it particularly familiar when the bigger guys with riot shields come out and you have to jump over them. And once the guns start blazing you’ll have to quickly grapple to the roof and speed around in the darkness until you get a chance to perform a stealth takedown. It’s a blatant copy of Arkham’s gameplay but the good news is that it’s just as fun.

You know what else is fun?

The Amazing Spider-Man does have its own innovations. There’s a new "web-rush" mode which puts you into first-person perspective and slows everything down to Spidey’s own version of bullet time. This allows you to look around and select the vantage point, or enemy, you want to web-line to directly. When you first try it you’re in a confined area and its advantages don’t seem immediately obvious, but it’s indispensible later. It allows for some exhilarating boss takedowns in the city because you can traverse around a giant enemy with far greater accuracy. It’s also handy when chasing a flying enemy. You can swing wildly in its direction, pause into web-rush mode, pick your target and then attack. It feels great.

In fact, I’ll say that the game controls really well across the board. The swinging is fluid and the animation is slick. It never feels clunky, unwieldy or rushed - an accomplishment with this kind of game. (Okay, there was one platforming bit with a de-powered Spider-Man where I wanted to throw the controller through the screen. But only for a minute there).

It’s by no means perfect and it certainly doesn’t have the polish of a game like Arkham City. Manhattan is kind of generic and there’s not a lot of variation in the types of environments the story takes place in. You’ll spend a lot of time in labs, a lot of time in sewers, and the rest of the time just outdoors in the city. But it takes a decent amount of time to complete and it never really dragged for me. I had fun from start to finish. It's fun, and that's the main thing.

If you can get this at a good price (and it was cheaper than a normal new release game, at least here in expensive Australia) and you’re a Spider-Fan then I’d definitely give this a look. This is a rare triumph for the movie tie-in. (And I might have even liked it more than the movie!).

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