You would think that a universe as rich and deep as Spider-Man's would translate well to the world of interactive video games. Yet for some strange reason Activision has had nothing but problems lately bringing this comic book character to the game consoles. Spider-Man 3 was littered with technical problems that marred any fun you might have, and last year's Spider-Man: Friend or Foe turned the franchise into a kid-friendly Final Fight-style brawler. Without a movie license to weigh it down, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows looked like the game that could resurrect this webby hero. The good news is that this is the best Spider-Man game in years. Unfortunately, like so many other recent attempts, it falls just short of being the must-own Spider-Man game you've been waiting for.
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows has an interesting gimmick; it allows you to play through the game choosing whether you want to be good (red suit) or bad (black suit). The story starts out strong; it features our hero (along with the SHIELD forces) fighting a losing battle against some sort of symbiote invasion. From the get-go you can tell that this all out war on New York City is taking its toll on the webcrawler, especially when it comes to his relationship with Mary Jane. At first you don't know what's wrong, but it won't take more than a few hours playing Web of Shadows before this tale starts to make sense.
The problem is that Peter Parker is conflicted. Even though he's defeated Venom and the symbiote invasion, he's having a hard time reconciling the complex emotions he has as a superhero. He wants to do the right thing, but there's a certain feeling he gets from letting his "bad" side come out. This is the crux of Web of Shadows, it allows you to take Spidey on this adventure and choose whether he is going to be the superhero everybody wants him to be ... or if he's going to misbehave and turn his back on all of his old friends. Either way it makes for an exciting story that not only feels like it's taken directly from the comic book, but also light years ahead of anything they could have done with a restrictive movie license.
After the exciting set-up, Spider-Man is forced to start taking missions from all sorts of good (and bad) guys around the city. You start out by running missions for Luke Cage, who essentially teaches Spider-Man everything he already knows (for your benefit). From there he's off to complete missions for Black Cat, Moon Knight and even Wolverine. In a lot of ways these missions are doled out similar to what you would see in a Grand Theft Auto game, each of these larger-than-life characters have problems they need solving, and usually that means that you will need to take part in some epic boss fight.
Like Spider-Man 2 and 3, Web of Shadows takes place in a fictionalized New York City, complete with huge skyscrapers, tons of crime and, of course, Central Park. Thanks to the game's easy controls it's incredibly fun to swing through the city, even if you're just goofing off. Taking a page from last year's sleeper hit, Crackdown, Web of Shadows gives you incentives for just exploring the city. Scattered throughout the rooftops are little upgrade icons, which allow you to add new moves and abilities to your arsenal. There's something addictive about just swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper looking for these little icons; it doesn't hurt that this is one of the first times where I've truly felt like I was playing as Spider-Man.
While it's easy to compare this game to other Spider-Man games, I found myself constantly coming back and likening it to that of Crackdown. When I reviewed Microsoft's "superhero" game last year I was impressed by how much it made me feel like a real comic book character. Unfortunately, I was also disappointed that I never seemed to get into the big comic book fights that you see in the movies and in the comic strips.
Thankfully Web of Shadows took notes, because this Spider-Man game is at its best when you're going up against all of Spider-Man's arch villains. It doesn't hurt that most of these battles take place hundreds of feet above street level, so there's always that danger of missing a swing and falling to your death. To make things even more complicated, most of the bosses require you to actually use your head when in the middle of a fight. In some situations you will need to save civilians while battling the boss, or take out a bunch of secondary characters all while working your way back to their leader. In one inspired boss fight you actually have to answer Spider-Man trivia, which can be a real pain in the butt if all you know are the Spider-Man movies. With the exception of one or two battles, each and every one of these bosses are memorable. It's almost a shame Activision didn't include a mode where all you did was battle these bosses, I would love to play a few of these epic fights again without spending another ten hours playing through the standard missions.While the boss battles are among the best I've seen all year, the standard missions leave a bit to be desired. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to suggest that most of the missions have you doing exactly the same thing, which is swinging around the city and beating a certain amount of regular bad guys. The game does throw newer and harder bad guys as you progress through the game, but at the end of the day it's hard not to notice that you're basically just doing the same task over and over. Still, it gives you a chance to try out all of the new moves you purchase with your experience points.
From the get-go it's obvious that the emphasis of Web of Shadows is the combo system, which feels extremely fleshed out this time around. In past Spider-Man games the fighting felt secondary to the rest of the action, which is disappointing when you're doing so much of it. However, in this game you are able to string together all sorts of cool attacks, all while bouncing off of people's heads and using your webbing in cool and original ways. There are a few attacks that are just more effective than everything else so you'll probably come back to those a little too often, but it's nice to see Spider-Man able to perform fluid combos that not only look cool, but are incredibly fun to pull off. Best of all, you can perform these combos on land, in the air and even on the sides of buildings. There are a lot of great ideas in the combat; I hope to see this fleshed out even more with future Spider-Man titles.
As I said at the beginning of the review, the gimmick behind Web of Shadows is that you can choose to be good or bad, customizing the game how you see fit. This works in a couple of different ways. For starters, at any time you can switch suits simply by pushing down the left analog stick. What's nice is that both of these suits have different moves and upgrades, so it always feels like there's a good sense of variety for you to choose from. Beyond using the different suits to beat up bad guys, from time to time you'll have to make a moral choice, picking either the red suit or the black suit. What's nice about these choices is that they actually alter the story in some substantial ways. The real benefit here is that since you are effectively changing the outcome of the game, there's a real reason for you to play through the game a second time. Although some of the good/bad stuff felt a bit tacked on, I like where Activision is going with this and hope to see more of it in the future.
Unfortunately there are a few nagging problems that keep this game from being the must-buy Spider-Man game you've been waiting for. For one thing the game suffers from a lot of technical problems. To be fair, the problems are nowhere near as bad as Spider-Man 3, but they are noticeable enough to diminish a lot of the fun. For example, about half way through the game the city changes in some unexpected (and awesome) ways; however you'll notice almost immediately that the game's engine has a hard time keeping up with the action. Action sequences that felt smooth in the first part of the game are marred by choppy animation and some weird pop-in graphical issues. In other situations you'll find that the audio and dialog will just drop off with no explanation. Throw in some freezing problems and some boss glitches and you have a game that doesn't feel very polished. That's not to say it's not fun, but it's hard not to be disappointed by the game's performance in the second half the story.
It's not just the things that shouldn't be there that are annoying. One of the first things you'll notice is that Spider-Man is voiced by the whiniest actor to ever spend time reading lines for a video game. I thought that Tobey Maguire was bad in the movie-based Spider-Man games, but this guy will make you run for the mute button every time a cinema starts up. The rest of the voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag, there's some good stuff in there, but it seems to get overshadowed by all of the terrible acting that permeates throughout the story. Thankfully the game's storyline is interesting enough to keep you from being too upset about the game's audio, but it's hard not to be a little disappointed by the voice acting coming out of your speaking. One of these days Activision is going to get the right people involved with their Spider-Man games, I certainly look forward to not having to cringe when I get to a cinema scene.
One thing you can't complain about are the visuals, even with the frame drops and technical issues, Web of Shadows is a great looking game. All of the boss characters have their own style and you won't believe how cool the world looks after the invasion has taken hold. There is an impressive amount of detail given to the city, which may be why it's so much fun to swing around in it this time. This is without a doubt the best looking Spider-Man game I've ever seen, which certainly gives me hope for the future of this franchise. Unfortunately the game's camera is a real mess, often preventing you from seeing what you're supposed to be doing. Thankfully you can work around that, though this can certainly be a big deal when you're trying to defeat one of the many large bosses.
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows is far from perfect; it's a bit repetitive and suffers from some terrible technical issues. However, this is without a doubt the best Spider-Man game I've ever played. This is the type of game that shows that Activision really knows what they're doing when it comes to making superhero games; I only wish they would take some of the game's potential and push it even further. If this is the future for Spidey then I can't wait to see what comes next, I had a great time with the storyline and loved actually having a choice in what happens to our hero. Small complaints aside, Web of Shadows is a game well worth checking out if you're a fan of action-packed superhero games.