The game opens as a melancholy Spider-Man makes his way across a rooftop, the voices of his friends and enemies reminding him of the power of the Symbiote suit. S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives are attempting to stop the onslaught of Symbiote clones that dot the landscape, but they are losing badly. As enemies pour forth from a nearby pod we run into Mary Jane and Cage. A nearby unidentified foe closed on our position and we succumb to the black tentacles of our Venom side. As Mary Jane seemingly dies next to us, we have to wonder: how did all of this come to pass?
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows once again puts us in the spandex suit of Peter Parker as he deals with the everyday stresses of balancing the life of a superhero with that of an ordinary person. Before he can worry about his rapidly deteriorating relationship with Mary Jane, he finds himself wrapped up in an alien symbiote invasion that threatens to turn the entire city into mindless zombies. Since Spider-Man can’t possibly defeat the source of the symbiotes on his own, he’ll have to team up the people in his past to stop the impending destruction of the world around him.
One of the things that is very consistent in the Spider-Man games since they transitioned to the newer console platforms is excellent animation. Spider-Man twists and contorts in the air, moving far faster and more smoothly than any human being could possibly accomplish without radioactive spider bites. Similarly, Venom hulks about, slightly hunched by his massive brooding mass. Treyarch clearly have this aspect locked down.
On the other hand, there is one thing that gets progressively less locked down – the framerate. In the beginning levels of the game the framerate is rock solid with very little deviation. In the second half of the game, as more gangs take the field and begin to overrun the city, the framerate dips visibly a little more often. The last third of the game, however, is a visual horror.
As the symbiote army descends on the city, they begin to tack up thick black webbing that you can see in any of the trailers for the game. Debris litters the landscape, and both civilians and gangs alike have to fight off the marauding enemies. The slick glossy shine of the game wears off quickly though as the framerate drops below 15 frames per second. The situation is the same on the ground as it is in the air, but it isn’t the only issue. There is also significant pop-in, likely used to try to combat the framerate issues, that gets more pronounced as you move towards the game’s conclusion. With the last game having such solid visuals and framerate, this is somewhat surprising.
Since there is no Spider-Man movie to tie this game to, Treyarch chose to stick with the Ultimate Spider-Man Universe plan which features a young Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. This means that we don’t get Toby, but instead we get Tricia Helfer as Black Cat, Robert Wisdom as Luke Cage, and Mike Vaughn as Peter Parker . Those of you who have read my previous reviews for the series know that I championed the new voice actors for their work. This time around, the results are more mixed. Peter’s light side voice work ranges from young savior to professional whiner. The dark side voice work fares a little better, but it isn’t as strong as it was last year. On the other hand, Robert and Tricia hand in solid performances, with Luke’s being the standout.
On the music side of things, the orchestral soundtrack present in every Spider-Man title makes a return for this one, and it is solid. Like previous titles, the music swells during dramatic moments, and kicks it up a notch when you engage in combat. It makes use of the Dolby Digital capabilities of the console nicely. Smashing cars, explosions, cheering (or screams) of passers-by, and more ambient sounds ring out in full surround sound, which can help in locating injured civilians that need saving.
There is one area that chafes fairly quickly in Spider-Man: Web of Shadows – repetition. During certain missions Peter will constantly remind you of your objectives, even as you are accomplishing them. Similarly, S.H.I.E.L.D. pilots will constantly order you around to take out incoming enemies, even as you are pummeling them into symbiote-chowder. I understand that some people need reinforcement of objectives to keep the game moving forward, but this just felt excessive.
In Spider-Man 3 we ran into problems with the camera while in the indoor environments. In Spider-Man: Web of Shadows we run into issues on a more constant basis. The game has been refocused heavily into mid-air and wall combat; there are no indoor environments this time around. Unfortunately, the camera has run completely wild and you’ll spend far more time fighting it than fighting your enemies.
Spider-Man can do a far better job zipping from enemy to enemy in mid air, and we’ll talk a bit more about that later, but suffice it to say that it is quite possibly the best mid-air combat we’ve seen in a Spider-Man game to date. Similarly, the tilted-camera combat that takes place on the sides of walls works exactly as intended. It is the getting there portion that suffers. When you want to climb a wall you simply press Spider-Man against the edge and he’ll automatically begin to climb. The overzealous camera will attempt to swing behind you to give you a vertical view of where you are headed, but often times, I simply get to see the bottom of Spidey’s feet, a great view of the sky, and the moon (if you get what I’m saying). Similarly, and almost without fail, when you crest the edge of a rooftop, the camera will point straight up or straight down – with no in-between. This is particularly painful when the roof is full of enemies intent on punching you in your Spider-face. You can reset the camera by hitting R3, but it usually resets on its own as you are hurtled half a block away by your enemies’ harmful intent.
The camera really swings into ADD overdrive during a latter boss battle. Several pods have to be destroyed to keep this enemy from recharging, but enemies posted on nearby lightposts can and will disrupt you constantly. Several times I had to break away from the action to stand around and recover my health; it’s just frustrating when it isn’t due to combat.
Other than the camera, the combat controls work perfectly. As you earn experience for completing missions which you can use to buy new combinations and attacks. Many of them rely on the X button, so this can make them feel a little bit like a button masher, but if you really want to get good at combat you need to mix it up and break out the combos.
We’ve had a Spider-Man title every year for the last 6 years. Similar to the Tony Hawk series, there is eventually a point where the gameplay begins to repeat a bit. We’ve seen the city of New York in almost every title, as that is pretty much Spidey’s home town. This game shakes things up by letting the city be overrun by an alien life form in addition to the usual gaggle of miscreants that plague the city. Like previous titles, you’ll engage some of Spidey’s more popular foes including Kingpin, Electro, and even a little stint against Wolverine and Moon Knight.
I’ve said that the aerial combat is some of the best we’ve seen in any Spider-Man title to date, and I sincerely mean that. Treyarch did a fantastic job revamping the mid-air combat, giving Spidey several options to utilize his zipline to bounce from enemy to enemy. You can also utilize the Black Suit at will, so you’ll be able to put away the web in favor of tentacles and ferocity. The hitch is that the Black Suit does increase your dark side points, which changes your alignment. Alignment determines which allies will join you, so using the suit judiciously is in your best interest if you have a particular sidekick you like using.
There is a strange thing going on in Spider-Man: Web of Shadows – there is a repetition that you don’t normally see in an action title. You’ll be asked to take out several pods and the enemies that spawn from it, but you’ll be asked to repeat this action two more times before the game ends. In a way you’d normally see restricted to World of Warcraft or something similar, you are essentially asked to kill 10 monster generators and 30 foozles. The only thing missing is looting the corpse to bring back pelts or intestines. For the first time in an action title, I felt like I was grinding out a mission.
I’d love to tell you how all of this ends, but I simply can’t. The game locked up on me four times. Since I just replaced my Xbox 360 with a brand new Arcade unit, I can’t blame the console. Since the new console is properly ventilated, I can’t blame it on heat. I wish I could blame it on anything but the game, but I simply can’t. After the last lockup, I simply couldn’t deal with repeating one of the end missions for the third time due to the camera or any further lockups.
Based on my Achievements, I’m estimating that the storyline is roughly 10 to 15 hours of gameplay, with another half dozen thrown in if you complete the optional side missions for extra experience. There are several moments in the game where you’ll be asked to make a decision between the red suit or the black suit, which changes the story pretty dramatically. Sometimes you’ll end up doing the same thing (e.g. the Wolverine fight) no matter which side you chose, but there are certainly two semi-divergent stories to experience here. During the aforementioned Wolverine fight, there is a bit of a meta-comic moment – you’ll be asked several comic book history questions involving Peter’s life and adventures. Getting these incorrect can increase your dark side as well as extend the length of the fight. It was a fun diversion.
The real value of this game comes from the storyline and how it can change based on your decisions. You’ll have to determine if the things that I’ve said deter you from picking this title up at full price.