Ultimate Spider-Man is the kind of game that falls just short of being an instant classic. There are so many positives, like the graphics, the respect of the material for which the game was based on, the voice acting, the overall sense that you really are Spider-Man with all of the acrobatic web swinging, and the opportunity to play as Venom, quite possibly the coolest villain in comic book history. You can definitely tell developer Treyarch, in conjunction with the Ultimate Spider-Man comic writers (Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley), put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this game. This was a labor of love if ever there was one, as far as video games go. Even though it is obvious that the developers cared about the game, Ultimate Spider-Man still suffers from some problems that keep it from being the video game that all future comic book games would be judged against. USM raises the bar, but still doesn?t reach its full potential.
The first thing you?ll notice in Ultimate Spider-Man is the gorgeous graphics and the amazing art style. USM is slightly reminiscent of a great old Sega Genesis game called Comic Zone, which had a similar art style. Seeing this game in motion is a sight to behold. The city is beautiful, large, and filled with buildings, houses, bridges, cars, ships, and people. It truly feels like you are watching a comic book in video form. The colors and graphics are vibrant and alive. The story moves in panels and possesses all the little nuances of a comic. For the game, Treyarch wisely decided to go with the cell shaded look which they call ?3D comic inking technology?. USM has some of the best cell shading ever seen anywhere, and that?s a very high complement when you take into account games like Sega?s Jet Grind Radio and Jet Set Radio Future. It is stunning to realize just how much work and desire was put into molding this game to be as close to a comic book as possible on this current generation?s hardware. The only cell shaded game I can think of that looks better than this is Rockstar?s Crackdown, which is a Xbox 360 title.
In Ultimate Spider-Man you start out with a little history of the two main characters, Spider-Man and Venom, since parts of Venom?s origin is a re-imagining of the original. Peter Parker is in high school, and Mary Jane knows Peter?s alter ego. In the Ultimate storyline, the Venom suit did not come from outer space and it has nothing to do with J. Jonah Jameson?s son. The gist of the story is that Peter Parker?s and Eddie Brock?s fathers were both scientists and colleagues working on a cure for cancer. The fathers developed a suit (the Venom suit) that they thought would cure people of cancer, but the suit instead takes over its host and saps their energy. Like in the original comic, Peter had the suit first, and then Eddie got it and became Venom. A match made in hell. It?s an interesting take on the black suit, but call me old fashioned if you want, I like the original tale better.
When you start the game, you are almost immediately thrown into the action. It?s a fight you would expect though. You control Spider-Man in a battle against Venom on a dark rainy night. During the fight and the first few missions you are being shown the controls, and you are able to hear Peter?s thoughts which tell you where to go or what to do next. The bout is fairly easy and really just serves as a sort of tutorial to get you familiar with the controls. Treyarch does a good job of letting you know everything you can do up front. They hold your hand early so after about a half-an-hour you are a web slinging fool. The city is open enough so you can get a lot of practice with the swinging, climbing, and fighting. The web swinging can be a little tricky at first, but it?s very cool how your webs have to actually attach to something (i.e. a building, bridge, or pole). You have to plan on what you want to swing onto instead of just going anywhere because your webs connect to thin air. Little things like this add a lot of believability to being Spider-Man.
The fights are fast and fun most of the time. And there are a nice amount of appearances from major characters in the Marvel universe, such as Johnny Storm (from the Fantastic Four), Rhino, Beatle, Electro, Nick Fury, Silver Sable, and Marvel?s most popular mutant badass, Wolverine. While there is certainly a nice cast of co-stars, the problem is that Venom, the one person everyone wants to play as, doesn?t get nearly enough face time during the story. Spider-Man publisher Activision made such a fuss about being able to play as Spidey and Venom, but this is still largely a Spider-Man game, which is a shame because there is a lot of potential in being able to play as a sometimes lovable villain like Venom. Even when the game does switch to Venom, it?s only for a short amount of time. You do have something to look forward to, though, because once you beat the game, Venom is completely unlocked. You will be able to roam freely around the city with him, killing, maiming, and sucking the life from whomever you want. With another nod to the GTA series, the more people that Venom kills, the higher his Wanted rating will go. The higher your rating, the more police, SWAT, and Shield operatives the city will send after you.
Since both characters only have a small set of moves, many of the beginning missions end up being tedious and redundant. For example, in one of the first Venom parts of the game there are so many enemies surrounding you, and since your suit constantly drains your energy, you?re forced to mostly feed off of everyone instead of fight them. So the whole level is just you feeding on people while waiting for something interesting to happen. Not all of the Venom sections suck, however. There are above average fights with Electro, and the intro to playing as Venom makes you suck the life from a small child in order to feed. It?s quite jarring to be playing as goody-two-shoes Spider-Man, and then switch to Venom and basically kill a little child.
The mini map is helpful in showing where the enemies and events are located. The events range from races (timed web swinging), to battle tours (fighting gangs and weaker super villains), to story. The problem with the events is that there are not enough story missions and there really isn?t anything fun to do in the city. Most of your time in the game will consist of going through the races and battle tours in order to unlock another part of the story. This was a big mistake on the part of Treyarch. They made a huge open city, but you can only do two types of events. This makes them become very boring, very fast. Since you have to do them to continue the story, you are forced to participate in these mundane tasks over and over again. The races and battles should have been total side quests that you can do when you just want to fool around and explore the city.
Another problem in the game is the Easter egg hunt for tokens. Throughout the game you?ll find hidden tokens which unlock characters, comic book covers, and landmarks. This addition to the gameplay just seems like filler. Something about the presentation of having to find the tokens makes it seem like work instead of fun. For example, in the Grand Theft Auto games finding the hidden packages gave your character weapons and health upgrades, whereas in Ultimate Spider-Man you only get to look at covers and unlock a couple new costumes. As a comic book reader, looking at covers in a video game is a poor substitute for actually owning the comic. The tokens should have been used as a way to unlock moves, seeing as you can not swim and that there are so few fighting maneuvers in the game.
There are multiple long load times in Ultimate Spider-Man as well. The game has to load for the opening picture to pop up. It has to load for the main menu, and then load the profile. And if you want to save, it has to load the profile again, and then you have to wait for the save to complete. For all this loading, the game won?t even let you save anywhere. Well, that is only partly true, as you can save anywhere, but all your progress will not be saved unless you just beat a certain part in the game. For instance if your just playing around in the game not continuing the story and you find a token and then save, you will have to find that token again the next time you play. All these kinds of problems kill the reply value.
One of the biggest problems is that the camera is extremely problematic. Especially in boss fights when you are moving fast in confined places. At times the camera can?t keep up with the quick movements and it seems dazed and confused. On other occasions the camera swings too fast amidst all the action like it has ADD. As a result of both of these issues, it is far too easy to get lost and suffer hits from your opponent. One upside to the camera is that you can lock it onto an enemy, which helps rid you of a lot of the problems listed above and is very helpful in a boss fight.
The sound is above average in USM. Great voice acting for all the characters is something to be praised. Each individual speaks with real emotion. The sound effects are good. There isn?t a whole lot of distinction between punches and kicks, but the web effects are well done. The city noises are busy enough, and gunshot sounds are passable too. My only real complaint in the audio department is the cheesy one-liners. Hearing Spider-Man spout off uninspired lines like, ?Spectacular leaping dude!? and ?Now that?s a spicy meatball!? made me roll my eyes a few times, but its still nothing so awful that you?ll want to hit the mute button.
Ultimate Spider-Man is the best comic book game I?ve ever played, aside from The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. On one level, that?s not saying much when you consider the less than stellar history of comic book video games, but on another level, this game holds its own with any of the other video games in the action adventure genre. It is a beautiful game with some technical flaws that are definitely worth overlooking. The excellent mixture of the alternate storyline and the sensational art style are second to none. It would have been nice to have more side missions, but what is here is adequate enough. USM is a game with flair and spirit that any fan of Spider-Man, comics or movies, should check out.