Greetings once again true believers!  Another year has gone by and we are once again in Superhero territory.  Before you groan and roll your eyes, hold that thought.  This isn’t your daddy’s Spider-Man. 


Moving forward to a more modern slant on the original webslinger story, Ultimate Spider-Man takes us back to Peter Parker’s young adult life.  Peter Parker is just 15 years old in the Ultimate Spider-Man universe.  He goes to Midtown High School in Queens New York and still lives with Aunt May.  Peter’s Uncle Ben’s fate is sealed in the same fashion as the original story, but here is where the story diverges from the original.


A young Peter Parker focuses heavily on science as he works as a web designer for The Daily Bugle.   Succeeding in following in his late father’s footsteps, Peter creates a powerful adhesive that allows him to fire a web much like a spider – with a costume that his long-time girlfriend Mary-Jane Watson keeps patched up, Spider-Man is born.


Peter and his friend Eddie Brock Jr. begin working on their late father’s final project – a cure for Cancer.  Peter steals the formula late at night and tries it out only to discover that the powerful black Venom suit that covered his body felt great for a short while but began to consume him from the inside.  Eddie, after finding out Peter’s secret identity, and what Peter had done, takes the formula and runs into the streets.  The suit covers Eddie and he becomes Venom.  The police take shots at Venom and back him into a downed power line.  In a flash, Eddie and the suit disappear.  Peter is devastated by the loss of his friend, but works hard to balance his high-school life, his work, and his constant hero work.  This is where our story begins.

You’ll notice that the storyline isn’t the only big change for Ultimate Spider-Man.  The graphics in this title are an evolution in the art of cel-shading.  By adjusting the lighting system, the game takes on a look that almost exactly mimics the comic books from which the story is drawn.  The new look meshes perfectly with the upgraded character style.  Rhino for instance is no longer a fat guy in a suit and has been replaced with a large mechanized robot.  Rhino isn’t the only character to receive an upgrade.  You’ll cross paths with Electro, Wolverine, Johnny Storm, Beetle, Nick Fury, Green Goblin, and more as you move through the storyline. 


The other major upgrade to this game is the use of a comic-style cutscene system.  The story is told via panels that slide into the frame of the screen.  The characters interact within these panels, often jumping between them just like you’d see in a pen and ink comic book.  This can happen in the middle of a mission or in between them.  The graphics and panels capture the look and feel of a comic perfectly. 


The Xbox version is typically the stronger end of the spectrum graphics-wise often having having shorter load times, sharp textures, and such.  The load times are very short (roughly 5 seconds to load a long cutscene, and then 2 to 3 seconds to get to the next area) and the streaming technology used in the first title makes a stronger comeback.  The game area has been expanded from the first game and now includes Peter’s apartment in Queens.  The graphics in this game simply can’t be matched for the subject matter – my hat is off to Mark Bagley for the art direction and Treyarch for pulling it off.

Michael Bendis has penned a great storyline that chronicles Ultimate Spider-Man comic number 39 where Venom appears.  While the game doesn’t have the star power of the movie-based games, the voice acting is still great.  Michael’s writing is often quirky and the dialog matches his writing.  To do some research for this review I checked out a few comics myself.  The writing was spot-on and Michael’s influence into the production of the game is obvious.  Venom is menacing and the banter between Mary-Jane and Peter is a lot of fun.  The voice actors pull off the dialog perfectly.  I still miss Bruce Campbell doing the voice-overs.


I would like to mention that this title takes great advantage of my surround sound system.  With a simple menu change I was hearing cars honk behind me and the sounds of civilians in trouble to the left and right. 

Spider-Man is all about webswinging.  The controls of Ultimate Spider-Man are improved over last year’s Spider-Man 2 title, also from Activision.   To jump in this title simply hit A.  Since Spidey is not your average superhero, he can double jump, wall crawl with the B key, punch and kick with the X and Y button respectively, web swing with the left trigger, and web attack with the right trigger.  Swinging has been improved in that it is easier to control and feels more fluid.  You have to shoot your web (which stays even after use) and then hit the left trigger to throw out another one when the buildings are high enough to stick to.  You can’t simply swing attached to thin air, so you have to be a little more aware of the size of the buildings that surround you.   By using web zips (left and right trigger together) and swinging you can move through the city very quickly with just a little practice.


Venom, the second playable character, controls slightly differently.  He does not have the chemical that Peter uses to create web lines, so he has to rely on his incredible strength.  Venom can jump literally up to the top of incredibly tall buildings with little effort.  This means that he can cover distance faster than Spider-Man as long as he is on top of the skyscrapers.  Venom can also stick to buildings and climb them, just like Spidey.  You can attack with Venom’s tentacles with the Y button and use his razor sharp claws with the X button.  As the suit threatens to consume you from the inside, you have to feed.  Tapping the left trigger allows you to feed on innocent bystanders. 


Both characters are quick and will often face multiple opponents.  You can use the thumbstick and an attack key to strike in any direction.  This method allows you to take out several opponents at once very rapidly.  Spidey is not the seasoned fighter that he is in the previous game, so his moves are more acrobatic and less martial arts.    You can bounce off vehicles and walls and use spring attacks as well as his webbing to subdue his enemies.  The combat is fun and doesn’t degenerate into button mashing. 


As with all 3D games, the camera will be the point of contention.  Ultimate Spider-Man is no exception.  The camera behaves perfectly while you are above the skyscrapers, but can become slightly shaky when you are in the alleys between buildings.  Thankfully you can rope the camera to a degree by tapping the right analog stick to lock it behind your character.  In the menus you can also invert the camera horizontally and vertically, as well as adjust the music and game sound independently. 

Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can, indeed! Ultimate Spider-Man is one of the best titles I’ve played this year.  It takes some of the best points of Spider-Man 2 and improves them, then couples it with the fantastic new graphic engine.  Slam that together with the new Bendis-penned storyline and you have a great game with a great storyline that is fun to play.


Many of the aspects of the previous game have made a return here.  You can do race missions, your first one taking place against Fantastic Four’s Johnny Storm.  You can also drop in and take out bad guys doing various bad things.  They show up on your radar as a little red dot.  Your missions show up as green dots and will have a large light above them to show you where you need to go.  Personally, I let the cops handle the bad guys…I have web swinging to do.


Web swinging makes a big comeback for this game.  You can zip around the city to your heart’s content, just as in the previous title.  When you grow tired of that you can start paying attention to tokens and missions.  You can help those aforementioned cops catch the bad guys, you can visit landmarks, and you can unlock special content.  All of these items are viewable on your city map.  By satisfying certain objectives you can collect extra health icons, comic book covers, race points, combat tours, or races against your nemesis, Venom. 


Overall, the missions as both Spider-Man and as Venom are fairly easy in the beginning.  Bad guys don’t offer a great deal of resistance in the beginning and snatching little kids or adults and eating them isn’t too hard for Venom.  (Yes, you can eat that little kid and his damned red balloon)  The difficulty will come when you hit the boss battles.  One of the very first bosses you’ll face as Venom is Wolverine.  How do you damage a guy who is indestructible and has claws as tough as yours?  Guess you’ll find out or die trying.  Other boss characters include Electro (sporting electricity, Venom’s weakness), Rhino, and Green Goblin.  Each boss battle requires a certain level of strategy and it is fun trying to figure out how best to approach those battles. 


There is one gameplay aspect that I’ve always dreaded to see in any game – timed missions.  There are occasional missions in Ultimate Spider-Man that will require you to pull off a particular objective in a certain time limit. These often revolve around the Threat Assessment Meter – a small circle that winds down until it is ‘too late’.  You might have to jump up and save a civilian dangling from a building, or lift a burning car to get them to safety.  This will introduce another bar called the Strength Test Meter.  The Strength Test Meter is a quarter-circle bar with an arrow.  You have to alternate the left and right triggers to make the arrow stay in the green portion (which can move) to accomplish your goal. This means that if you haven’t mastered the controls (I suggest races to perfect your technique), or your left and right trigger timing is off, you might be stuck in some trial and error gameplay.  Overall, it’s a minor nuisance.

Ultimate Spider-Man seems to be a linear title in that you have a storyline that you have to complete to finish the game.  It has to be completed in a certain order, and you can’t skip anything.  Does that make this game linear? Not when you can ignore the missions and simply web swing and fight bad guys all day.  The fun of this game is that you can pick it up at any time and swing around for a while and then shelf the title for the day.  It is a rare game that you can do that sort of thing.  Even the full missions are short enough where you can plow through one or two on a lunch break. 


The replay value of the game comes in the forms of unlockables and limited edition videos.  You can unlock an exclusive Stan Lee interview, the G4 making-of video, four character bios, and some developer tips and tricks. 

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