After the experimental launch title Spider Man 2, and the refreshing Ultimate Spider Man, Activision is trying a third time to bring the web-slinger to the DS. Their latest effort, Spider Man Battle for New York, is a portable exclusive only available on the GBA and DS. It retains the same continuity as the Ultimate Spider Man universe, as well as the art style and general attitude. It’s a mildly fun romp through the Ultimate version of New York, but in the end it feels cheap, churned out, in comparison to the older Spidey games.
The gameplay is virtually the same. The action is all side-scrolling, in the same 2.5D environment we’ve seen in the other DS Spider Man titles. Combat has also seen no updating, in boss battles or standard fights with thugs. Boss fights have one or two strategies, but on the whole there is little variation. The best parts of these battles are the touch-screen minigames, which have Spidey webbing doors closed to keep more enemies from spawning. This is accomplished by tracing a web pattern on the bottom screen.
And that’s about where the fun ends. Battle for New York takes most everything cool and innovative about Ultimate Spider Man, and goes three steps backwards. The dual nature of the gameplay, provided by Venom in the last game, is now centered around the Green Goblin. The Goblin has none of the touch screen innovation of Venom, but rather must run through his convoluted levels destroying a set number of arbitrary items. He can throw different types of fireballs, but he has nothing as cool as Venom’s tentacles.
Spidey’s missions are similar to what he did in the previous game, but the most tedious of tasks, such as saving hostages, are the majority of what he does. A few tasks are a little more involved this time, such as moving a car to save a hostage, but are not more enjoyable but rather annoying. There are some touch screen special attacks but the game is unclear on just when to use them, and they don’t add a whole lot to the gameplay anyway. Some of the touch screen actions, like webbing broken pillars return from Ultimate, but again, it’s a case of been there, done that.
Story-wise, Battle for New York is also several pegs below Ultimate, from sheer presentation alone. The plot it actually a prequel to the Venom saga covered in the last game, and while Norman Osborne’s transformation into crazed super villain could be a great launch point for a game, it doesn’t work out in this case. Comic-style cutscenes return, but the style this time around is far campier than the edgy attitude of the Venom story. Ultimate was, in my opinion, the only game to do comic cutscenes well, without coming off as flat and rushed. Battle for New York has some of that residual class, but the writing and voice acting ruin it.
Spidey’s jokes are now long-winded and painfully unfunny, in contrast to the cutting one-liners he’s famous for. He’ll spend several seconds in a single comic panel delivering a groan-inducing pun, without any of the snappy animated text or frame cuts that were so good in Ultimate. Osborne’s descent into the insanity of the Goblin is cliché comic book all the way, without any hint of subtlety that made the first Spider Man movie watchable. To be fair, maybe it was just Willem Dafoe’s superb acting, but the writer for the game could have at least tried to carry over some of the dialogue. As a final insult, the Kingpin sounds and acts like an idiotic thug, not the calculating criminal mastermind we know him to be.
Graphically New York is essentially the same as Ultimate was a year or so ago. The visuals are probably its strongest aspect, as they’re colorful, well saturated and textured, with good character animations and some suitably impressive effects. The Green Goblin’s hulking, stereotypical “monster walk” is more than a little embarrassing, though.
Spider Man Battle for New York isn’t a terrible game, but just an extensively mediocre one. As a sequel it adds no improvements and actually backtracks in a few areas, notably story and gameplay. I think Activison has pretty much sapped this well dry—I’m tired of playing side-scrolling Spider Man beat-em-ups, and it’s time for something new. One of the best Spider Man games, the original on the PS1 and N64, was a third-person action game with some thrilling boss fights and memorable levels. If Neversoft could make a game of that caliber eight years ago on a 32-bit platform, I’m sure Activison could manage something similar on the more powerful (and more creative) DS. Here’s hoping they learn from their past and make another good Spider Man game, perhaps in time for the new movie this summer.