SPIDER-MAN: SHATTERED DIMENSIONS Review


Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions

Developed by Beenox | Published by Activision

Available for Playstation 3, Xbox360, Wii, Nintendo DS, and PC

 

And now, for something a little different – a video game review!

(For the record, this review corresponds to the Playstation 3 version of the game.  The Xbox360 version is feature-identical to this one.)

The Plot

In a battle with Mysterio, Spider-Man breaks the mysterious Tablet of Order and Chaos into pieces that spread into several parallel realities.  With the help of Madame Web, the Spider-Men of four universes – Amazing, Noir, 2099, and Ultimate – team up to collect the pieces and battle Mysterio for the fate of the multiverse.

The Good

This game delivers four Spider-Men to play with, and for the most part, each of these four Spideys brings something unique to the table.  The “regular” Spider-Man – called The Amazing Spider-Man in this game – uses long-range web attacks and agility to dispatch his foes.  Spider-Man Noir sneaks around in the shadows with gameplay more akin to a stealth game than an action game.  Spider-Man 2099 deals with a larger number of airborne foes in a more vertical environment, using short-range combat.  Ultimate Spider-Man overpowers foes with strong, mid-range attacks in levels more catered to brawling than the others.  This variety prevents the game from becoming monotonous and boring, which was a complaint that many (myself NOT included) had about the previous Spider-Man game, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows.

Speaking of the differences between the universes, the most immediately apparent difference lies in the graphics: each world has its own art style and visual design.  The Amazing universe has a slightly grainy, almost hand-drawn look to it.  If you’ve played Borderlands or the Afro Samurai video game, it’s very similar.  The World of Tomorrow (2099, for the uninitiated) has a bright, gothic look, like Blade Runner with the color saturation cranked up.  From the little neon touches to the shinier surfaces, it looks authentically like Nueva York’s Uptown.  The Ultimate universe has an inky, cel-shaded style with bright pastels and bold outlines.

The Noir universe gets special mention here.  The world has a desaturated, black-and-white palette with some splashes of color, primarily browns, reds, and golds.  This world is also heavy on light and shadow contrast.  Unlike the others, this actually factors into the gameplay.  Staying in the shadows keeps the world dark and without color.  Stepping into the light makes the world fade from black and white to black and gold, indicating that you can be seen.  When you’re located by an enemy, a red spotlight envelops your character and attracts gun-toting enemies to your location.  It’s a brilliant design that provides tons of visual feedback in a subtle, interesting way.

All four Spider-Men share certain gameplay attributes, while others are unique to each.  They all have the same standard attacks, which are upgraded along the way (more on this in a moment).  Light punches, heavy punches, simple web attacks, web swinging and zipping, spider-sense, and others are executed identically between the four universes.  In other words, you don’t have to relearn new combos and attacks for each universe, which keeps the game playable.  Combos are fun and surprisingly deep, and the enemies force you to mix up your tactics.  The differences come about in the approach that each universe takes.  As the Amazing Spider-Man, you play a relatively standard Spider-Man style – you fight your way across levels, swinging and zipping through locations and dealing justice with your webs.  This Spidey is well-equipped to deal with swarms of enemies thanks to his longer-range web attacks.  Ultimate Spider-Man plays most similarly to this, with two major exceptions.  First, Ultimate Spidey’s levels are more geared towards brawling, with larger numbers of enemies and more powerful attacks.  This Spider-Man has been gifted with his black costume again by Madame Web, so he possesses the strength and tendril attacks of the synthetic symbiote.  This leads to the second difference: Ultimate Spidey has a rage meter that builds up as you pound enemies.  Activating it allows you to attack with more speed and power.  Spider-Man 2099 has the shortest attack range of all the characters, but makes up for it with a similar Accelerated Vision mechanic that slows down the world around him, letting him attack and dodge enemies at a very quick clip.  Each 2099 level also features a freefall section that pits him against a boss or forces him to dodge debris and objects.  Spider-Man Noir plays the most differently from the others.  His levels are based primarily around stealth and judicious takedowns of enemies.  Positioning and pace are the keys to succeeding in the Noir levels, because he is the weakest fighter of the group.  In fact, the game outright prevents you from being able to fight the gun-toting enemies you come across, so if you are spotted by patrols you must run for cover and hide.  There are combat sections, of course, but these are less emphasized than the stealth ones.  The stealth sections have drawn many comparisons to the good-but-wildly-overrated Batman: Arkham Asylum, and for the most part they’re justified.  However, I found the Noir stealth sections much more entertaining than the ones in Batman: Arkham Asylum, because Noir’s encounters can be approached with much more variety in tactics.

The bosses are varied and fun, with one major exception that will be discussed later.  I won’t spoil too much, but for the most part they all have their own twists.  They all follow classical patterns, but the game gives you the latitude to use other approaches at times.

As I briefly touched on before, the Spider-Men are upgraded along the way.  This sort of mini-RPG element has made its way into most modern action games, but Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions handles it a bit differently than the rest.  Spider-Man gains experience points – called “spider essence” here – from beating bad guys and completing levels, but you can really boost you ability to power up by completing a network of sub-challenges called the Web of Destiny.  Each level has fifteen secondary objectives, ranging from things that you will do ordinarily, like defeating the level’s boss, to other tasks like collecting tokens (which for some reason use the exact same sound effects from Spider-Man: Web of Shadows) and defeating enemies in certain ways.  Your enjoyment of these objectives will depend on what type of gamer you are.  If you are of the sort that likes to put your head down and blow through to the end, then you won’t get much out of this system.  If you’re somebody like me that enjoys meta-challenges, then you’ll love the reward that comes with the Web of Destiny.

The level designs are as interesting and varied as the gameplay.  Some levels follow clear paths from beginning to end, while others feature open arenas and situations.  One of the Ultimate levels takes place on a couple of oil rigs that are completely nonlinear in layout.

The game’s story – written by friend of the CrawlSpace (chuckle) Dan Slott – provides both an ongoing narrative and contained subplots for the other Spider-Men.  Spider-Man Noir’s pursuit of the tablet fragments in his dimension dovetails with his own quest for revenge, the 2099 world follows that Spidey’s investigation of renegade technology, and Ultimate Spider-Man gradually experiences subtle changes with prolonged exposure to the black suit.  Scriptwise, the game does a good job (for the most part … more on this later) giving the Spideys interesting and fun dialogue along the way, from insults aimed at the villains to banter between Madame Web and the Spideys.

Last, but certainly not least, is the excellent voice work.  A lot of attention was paid to the casting of former Spider-Man voice actors as the Spider-Men of each universe – The Amazing Spider-Man is voiced by Neil Patrick Harris (Spider-Man: The New Animated Series), Spider-Man Noir is voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes (Spider-Man: The Animated Series), Spider-Man 2099 is voices by Dan Gilvezan (Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends), and Ultimate Spider-Man is voiced by Josh Keaton (The Spectacular Spider-Man) – and all four turn in fun, entertaining performances.  As somebody that grew up with the 90s animated series, Barnes in particular was a joy to hear voicing Spidey again.  However, the secondary cast is not to be ignored.  Several other cast members of The Spectacular Spider-Man show up to play roles, including Steve Blum (playing the all-new Hobgoblin 2099 in a callback to his role of the Green Goblin on the cartoon) and John DiMaggio (playing the Noir Hammerhead in the style of his Hammerhead from the cartoon).  I even heard James Arnold Taylor’s unique voice coming out of the mouths of many background characters.  Other voices familiar to Spider-Man fans include Jennifer Hale (who played Felicia Hardy in Spider-Man: The Animated Series and once again plays Silver Sable, as she did in Ultimate Spider-Man: The Game) and, of course, Stan “The Man” Lee as the Narrator.

The Bad

 

As you can see, I like a lot of things about this game.  However, not everything is hunky-dory.

One of the immediate problems with the game involves its camera.  Creating a camera that can allow Spider-Man to do everything a spider can is a difficult task, because Spidey has such a wealth of abilities.  Previous games have been able to, for example, provide a great web-slinging camera that falls apart in combat.  Similarly, this game’s camera is built around providing good views of both webslinging and combat, but it crumbles to dust once you try to crawl on walls.  This becomes an enormous problem in the Noir levels, because wall-crawling is actually emphasized by the level design.  The shoddy camera work often led to being spotted by enemies, forcing a hasty retreat.  It’s less of a problem in combat, but the lack of a true lock-on mechanic and the camera’s tendency to push in on the action often leads to taking damage from enemies that begin their attacks from off-screen.  It’s not one of those SD screen problems, either – I’m playing on a 32” 1080p HDTV.

Fitting four universes into one game and doing them all justice is a difficult task, and leading up to actually playing the game, I was apprehensive that all of the worlds would get fair treatment.  Unfortunately for 2099 fans, Spider-Man 2099 is the one that got shafted in that regard.  While the levels are interesting and well-designed, this game really fails at capturing many of the trappings of the character and his world.  The villains are the first immediate issue.  Rather than using his established stable of enemies, Slott and the game designers cooked up two new villains and used another from the horrid Timestorm miniseries by Brian Reed.  Where is Venom 2099?  Where’s Flipside?  Hell, even a Doom 2099 sighting would have been better than what we get here.  Additionally, the entirety of the 2099 action occurs in the Uptown section of Nueva York, leaving out the seedier and more dangerous Downtown.  I would have loved to see the game designers tackle that.  My mind immediately begins to fill with new challenges and enemy types just thinking about it!  Spider-Man 2099 also lacks his flight/gliding capabilities in favor of being able to swing from webs.  Come to think of it, the game genericizes certain aspects of the characters to make them fit within the design mold – Noir Spidey can also swing on webs now, and Spider-Man 2099 can use spider-sense.

I mentioned before that I generally liked the writing in this game.  However, there are some glaring issues with the game’s story and settings that need to be addressed.  The supplemental material and in-game dialogue seem to indicate that these adventures take place within the established continuities of these universes, albeit in the recent past.  Ordinarily, it’s never an issue to think about where the video games “fit in” because they’re not supposed to, but this game actually calls attention to the fact that these are the “real” continuities.  That’s one of the reasons why I found the game scenario strange and confusing – it seems to grasp certain parts of the characters’ histories and continuity while blatantly ignoring others.  For example, the Ultimate universe depicted in-game is extremely faithful to the one in the comics (pre-Ultimatum), to the point that one of the villains has a short dialogue sequence that calls out events from past issues.  On the other hand, the classic Kraven the Hunter is alive in the Amazing universe and absolutely nothing is made of it (remember, this game was written and designed long before Grim Hunt!), and a couple of other villains are explicitly said to have returned from the dead with no explanation whatsoever.

Slott’s greatest strength as a writer is his ability to write quips.  The work by Slott and the writers at Beenox show in the game, because the Spider-Men are actually clever and funny.  The characters also sound genuine to their established histories: Spider-Man Noir speaks in stilted 1930s slang, Spider-Man 2099 frequently uses established 2099 cuss words like “shock,” and Ultimate Spider-Man uses bad puns to insult one of his foes.  Sounds great, right?  Well, the characters are also motormouths – and the problem is, they don’t have nearly enough lines!  As a result, they repeat themselves a hell of a lot.  There was one point in the last Ultimate Spider-Man level in which Spidey repeated the same line SIX TIMES IN A ROW.

Like many modern video games, the final boss is lackluster.  Each of the four Spider-Men faces the boss in his own unique way, but the general setup will look familiar to those that played the aforementioned Batman: Arkham Asylum – it’s virtually a straight rip off of the Scarecrow encounters from that game.  If you’re going to steal from another game, don’t steal the crappiest parts!  The difficulty spike in one section in particular is jarring.

The Ugly

 

BUGS!

Plain and simple, this game shipped with a lot of bugs, and I’m not talking about spiders.  A lot of them affect the ability to complete challenges.  My first time through the levels, I missed completing several Web of Destiny challenges because the game failed to recognize their completion (mostly the time-based ones) or actively prevented me from fulfilling them.  For example, the first Amazing level has a challenge to web-zip enemies off of posts.  The problem is, the first enemy had a collision bug that prevented me from actually knocking him off with the web-zip, leading me to be unable to complete the challenge.  A similar thing occurred on the final Ultimate level, in which I had to knock a character into open thrusters five times.  I was also trapped in doorways several times, requiring restarts, and the characters had a tendency to get stuck in place after certain combinations of moves.  The game froze not once, but twice during the Ultimate section of the final boss.  My personal favorite bug occurred on the last 2099 level – I swung into a wall, except instead of hitting the wall and stopping, I swung straight through it and began to plummet infinitely into an empty void.  I even got pictures of that one (please excuse the guerrilla-style photography):

See that blue thing up there?  That’s the level I was supposed to be inside.  Instead, I found myself plummeting towards some plane that was an infinite distance away …

Then, the game suddenly respawned me at the last checkpoint, minus the stuff I had collected (notice that I was missing 2 collected spider emblems  and 300 experience points), as if nothing had ever happened.

The Bottom Line

Despite my issues with some of the writing and the game’s myriad assemblage of bugs, this is a very good game.  It’s about average to above-average length for a modern action game at around 10-12 hours, and with the extra layer of unlockable costumes, side objectives, and collectibles, it has some good replayability.  It’s not the best Spider-Man game ever made (that honor is reserved for Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin on the Sega Genesis), but it’s damn close.  4.5 out of 5 webheads.