Last year we saw Spider-Man 2 for the Nintendo DS.  It launched with the system and was a good effort towards utilizing the touch screen of the new unit.  The game loosely followed the 2nd Spider-Man movie of the same name. 


Fast-forward almost another year and we are treated to another Spider-Man title, but this one is different.  Once again you will take on the role of the masked superhero, but in this title you also get to play as Venom, Spider-Man’s ultimate nemesis.  This game is penned by Brian Michael Bendis and is an original story.  Do you swing from webs and save innocents or crush them under your tentacles and consume them to fuel your rage? Perhaps a bit of both?  Let’s take a look at how this newest entry into the work of Spider-Man fares.

Vicarious Visions is at the helm for this title and they have clearly learned to fully utilize the Nintendo DS hardware.  This is readily apparent in the vastly improved graphics engine as well as the utilization of the touchscreen.  The new engine captures the new look of the Ultimate Spider-Man universe with something called 3D art inking.   The result is that the characters have a look that closely resembles that of a real pen-and-ink comic book.  Through creative use of light and shadow, the game looks better than almost any DS title to date.


Also new to this series is the use of a comic book like system that completely seals the deal.  To allow the story to unfold, comic-book-style panels slid onto the screen, just like a pen and ink comic book.  Even the “Roaaaaar!!” style text that slides half-way in and out of a panel is represented here.  It really feels like you are playing a comic episode! 


The only area of the game that isn’t as visually stunning are the buildings.  Really, it’s a minor thing and you’ll be hard pressed to notice with everything else that looks so perfect.  Its impressive how night and day different this title and Spider-Man 2 DS really are.  My hat is off to Vicarious Visions for doing such a fantastic job.

Voice work in a handheld is a fairly new concept.  Until recently, the sounds in a handheld have been fairly disappointing.  As more developers learn to use the current crop of handhelds we will be treated to more voice work in our portable games.  Ultimate Spider-Man DS is no exception.  The voices in this title are expertly done, and it helps immerse you in the storyline – a lot more than it would if you simply read it.


The enemy sounds in the game are slightly weak with the grenades sounding feeble for what they should be, but overall the sounds of the game are well done.  Since this is a second swing at the platform and there is this much improvement, the next Spider-Man title for the DS should be awesome.

To look at the controls, we will separate the control section into two.  Spider-Man’s controls are all on the face of the unit itself.  You use the D-Pad to move, crouch, aim, and swing.  The B button jumps and web-swings.  A is kick and X is punch.  The Y button allows you to web zip, shoot a web shot, or interact with an object in the game.  The R button is a special attack and the L button allows you to dodge.  The Touch screen allows you to select from your special moves list.  As Spider-Man you will also be disarming explosives using the touch screen.  You’ll get a tick-tack-toe type grid where little Xs pop up in rapid succession.  Eventually you’ll get a 0 that you must quickly tap to start to disarm the bomb.  After you hit several of these in a row you’ll disarm the explosive.  The time to save your next victim or disarm your next bomb is still ticking, so you have to be quick.


Venom’s controls are intuitive and completely fresh.  You can control Venom in a similar method as Spider-Man, but you’d be missing all the fun.  You can control Venom almost exclusively from the touch screen.  You use the D-Pad to move Venom and you can tap the touch screen to throw attacks at your enemies.  You can use Venom’s tendril to zip to a surface by drawing a quick line towards that object.  You can similarly grab an enemy or object with your tendril.  People make a tasty snack and help fuel your energy, so just drag them to your gaping maw. 


If you are so inclined, you can use the options to have Venom on the top screen instead of the bottom.  You would then use the bottom screen to pull off the tendril attacks but with the benefit that you aren’t in your own way with the stylus. 


The controls are intuitive and add heavily to the immersion.  Its good to see the touchpad put to such good use.

Ultimate Spider-Man DS is a re-invention of the Spider-Man universe.  Brian Michael Bendis has penned a retelling of the story of Peter Parker and his change into the Amazing Spider-Man.  Peter Parker is back in high school and is dating Mary Jane.  Richard Parker, Peter’s Father, and Eddie Brock, Eddie Jr.’s father, were working on an experimental Cancer-curing experiment.  Unfortunately, this cure covered the patient with a black film and slowly destroyed them.  Horrified at this prospect, all but a small amount was immediately destroyed.  Peter, thinking he could finish his now-deceased father’s work stole this small portion of the remaining formula.  When Eddie Jr. found out what was happening with Peter he confronted Peter.  An argument ensued and Eddie Jr. decided to try the suit for himself.  It was at this point that Spider-Man’s arch-enemy Venom was born. 


Both Spider-Man and Venom are playable in this game over the course of 18 missions.  The missions are laid out in a good vs. evil fashion and the gameplay shifts heavily based on which side you choose.  Spider-Man’s missions are usually of the ‘save the civilian’ variety, whereas Venom’s missions are usually all about mayhem and consuming everyone in sight to offset the destructive properties of the suit which is slowly consuming him. 


The game is essentially a 2D side-scrolling game.  The objectives can be simply defeating all of the enemies in an area, destroying all of the vehicles, or just making your way through an area.  Unlike the previous title, the areas are a bit more ‘tight’ and are well balanced.  In the original game, you could spend a great deal of time simply being lost in the look-alike areas. In this title, the areas are varied and give you a fair bit of direction, either via an on screen prompt to your next objective, or a clue from a civilian you may have saved. 


Venom is not the only baddie in the game.  You’ll also face off against Shocker, Rhino, and a few more familiar faces that I won’t spoil in this review.  The nice thing is that all of the bosses are ‘upgraded’ to the modern look of the Ultimate universe.  For instance, Rhino is not a fat guy in a grey suit – he is, in fact, a large mechanized robot capable of running you over like a Mack Truck. 


The only complaint I had with the gameplay portion of the game is one of repetition and trial-and-error gameplay.  You’ll note in the very first Spider-Man mission that you will probably end up running out of time saving a civilian several times before you figure out what you need to do.  This is persistent throughout the game and can drag the game a little bit as the game is linear and timed.   The time pressure adds a little bit of frustration to the game that, in the end, seems unnecessary.

Ultimate Spider-Man DS is a good game.  Unfortunately, it is also short.  I blew through the single-player elements in roughly 8 hours of play over a long weekend.  There is also a two-player multiplayer element to the game.  I was not able to play the multiplayer aspects of the game as it had not been released at the time of review. 


The game is varied enough and contains enough special moves to give you a few runs though without feeling like complete repetition.  Overall, I’d say it’d be worth a purchase, just for the fun of playing as Spider-Man and Venom on the go. 

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