It's been over half a year since details first dropped about Activision's upcoming foray into the up and down video game franchise that is Spider-Man. And for those of us who remember the downs much more vividly than the ups, the initial announcement of Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions was not met with excitement, but the placing of bets on how bad the game would turn out to be.
And now, after weeks upon weeks of small details being doled out, from voice casting to villain vignettes, the game has hit store shelves, and is ready to be judged. So we know that Activision thinks that they have a winner in Shattered Dimensions, developed by Beenox, but do we here at Game Rant feel the same way?
I can't explain why, but over the yearsSpider-Man has been a constant source of content for video game developers who all wish to explore a piece of Peter Parker’s adventures. But why is it that so many return to that same well for inspiration? In my mind, for whatever reason, Spider-Man has become a cultural touchstone for more than a single generation, and from the first flipped pages of the Marvel logo you get the feeling that even though the game is a new experience, the neighborhood is familiar.
It wouldn’t do me much good to spend my time discussing the introduction of the game, since that’s already old news. Long story short: the realities of four different universes have been fractured, and it is up to you, playing as each of those worlds' Spider-Men to rejoin the pieces of a mystical tablet and save the day. This is certainly the most comic-bookish plot of the Spider-Man games I’ve played to date, and definitely took some getting used to. It’s become the trend to take comic book properties and strip them of their fantasy, so it’s nice to see them embracing a bit of the fun side with something original such as Shattered Dimensions.
Unfortunately, the story is never really developed beyond that simple premise, and although there are occasional twists and turns, the stakes are never really elevated. Don’t get me wrong, the game worlds that they have built for each of the Spider-Men are incredibly unique and entertaining, but you can only be so immersed when the narrative that is driving the entire game is little more than a premise for the game concept. If you play a Spider-Man title exclusively for the swinging and webslinging, that’s fine, but the lack of a truly compelling story (like many found in the comic’s long run) has always kept a Spidey title from reaching greatness, at least to me.
But the dimensions they have constructed for this game are, simply put, awesome. For reasons that we’ll get to later, let’s look at them one at a time:
The Amazing Spider-Man Universe is the one that will feel the most familiar to fans of the series, as this is clearly the reality-based world of the previous two Spider-Man games, and most resembling the feature films. The art style has been given a hand-drawn effect, the new hotness in titles like Borderlands and Prince of Persia, used here to reflect the game's comic book roots.
If you had to say exactly what the game consists of, this universe is a blend of frenzied, leaping combat interspersed with swinging and web-zipping through the environment. The first level was very straightforward, and after about 10 minutes I’d already started to grow bored of swinging from one platform to another and destroying enemies. Although Shattered Dimensions does step up the action quite a bit with their combat engine, it’s always been hard to really feel powerful as Spidey. His fighting has always been based around weightlessly jumping from one enemy to the next, or pinning them to the ground with webbing. That’s here too, but I was pleased to discover that the secondary attack consists of Spidey shooting webbing onto the ground behind him, ripping the stone free from the earth, and slamming it into an enemy, crushing him into the dirt. Three times in a row.
Thank You Marvel.
That's only the beginning of the vast upgrading and leveling system of the game, granting you the ability to add new bonuses and combos by redeeming tokens hidden in the environment. It’s a small addition to any fighting game, but it really goes a long way in making Spidey seem dangerous.
Even with the well-needed upgrade to Spidey's combat efficiency, the game gave off a very distinct feeling of “been-there-done-that.” And then things took a turn. As I walked into the Thunderdome-esque battle cage (you heard that right) I realized that I needed to give this game a bit more time before passing judgment. What ensued was a boss battle very reminiscent of Batman: Arkham Asylum, or reading an enemy's movement then attacking during recovery, keeping in mind the need to jump to a perch before spikes were launched through the floor. After working away at the brawling boss, Kraven, he got the better of me, and caught me in the favorite move of all mustachioed villains: the bearhug. Then Marvel hit me with their next jab: literally.
You see, when the fight gets “up close and personal,” you have the ability to take on your enemies in a good old-fashioned fistfight. Fans of the comics rejoice; this game has made Spidey a real fighter. Using the analog sticks, you can dodge attacks when prompted, then return jabs, hooks, or overhand punches; a completely surprising addition to the the type of combat I expect from a Spider-Man title.
It was clear that even though the advertising barrage from Marvel had reached critical mass, there were still a few major secrets that this game had in store for me.
I know I may take heat for it, but my favorite Spider-Man game was, without question, Ultimate Spider-Man. I’ve loved the character since I was in diapers and that was the first game that made me feel like I really was Spider-Man. I guess it’s a great compliment I can give to this game in saying that all of the realities gave me that feeling to some extent, so I’m glad that Beenox managed to capture that lighting in a bottle.
For the unfamiliar, The Ultimate Spider-Man universe is an alternate reality in which Peter is generally a bit younger, and the world is a lot more “cartoony". The comedy is heightened, as is the action. You notice anything about Spidey’s suit in that picture above? Marvel must have heard me talking in my sleep, because the second thing I loved about Ultimate Spider-Man was the ability to play as the symbiotic-suited Venom. Luckily, the black suit still possesses the violent tendril attacks and whips that we’ve grown familiar with, and even grants Spidey a “Rage Mode” letting the symbiote’s anger loose on enemies for a brief period.
The differences between the universes are not in the functions or abilities of our Spider-Men, but instead simply in the types of environments they find themselves in. Ultimate Spidey has to enter into a Reality-TV survival show to recover a piece of the tablet. An appearance by an old Marvel favorite is right at home in this universe, but again the gameplay here gets extremely repetitive if you’re looking for more than hordes of goons to grapple.
Just as I was getting ready to again conclude that the grind wasn’t worth it and put down the controller, I reached the climax of the show: instead of fighting enemies, I now had to flee the off-shore arena by traversing an obstacle course before an impending disaster sent me to a watery death. I couldn’t tell you the last game I played that forced me into that kind of a panic, and this was pulled off seamlessly. Follow it up with a unique and satisfying boss battle, and again this game has surprised me with its inventiveness.
Imagine if you will the film Road to Perdition: 1930’s New York gangsters mulling around an abandoned warehouse. Now imagine a masked, goggled man drops into their car’s headlights, revealing a massive spider stitched into the back of his leather jacket. Imagine he then proceeds to lay into the terrified thugs like a bare-knuckle boxer, and you have an idea of how spectacular an idea it was to make Noir Spider-Man into a video game. In this depression-era dimension, a man known only as “The Spider” takes on the Osborn crime family’s army of gunmen, so naturally stealth and shadow are his methods of combat.
Simply put, this is Batman: Arkham Asylum. Beenox has seemingly replaced Batman with Spider-Man in this universe and called it a day. As you can tell from the image above, this is the coolest dimension of the 4, but also the source of its biggest flaws. The look and feel of a 1930s-era Spider-Man is brilliant, and executed with a style that is as rich as Arkham Asylum, but it is the best thing this dimension has to offer.
Nearly every other mission consists of clearing a room or courtyard of enemies, using the shadows to avoid detection. It’s when the enemies aren’t armed, and you have the ability to drop in and start with the names-taking that you feel powerful, and gangster slang is always welcome. Since your abilities to fight with webbing are greatly reduced, you have to rely mostly on hand-to-hand combat. I appreciate the balance that they were going for, but I wish they’d taken time to address the fact that traversing a fire escape-filled alleyway while staying in shadow isn’t fun. If you love stealth games, that’s great, but I don’t.
At one point, they do use Spidey’s wall-crawling ability to turn a lit wall into a side-scrolling puzzler, but I wish the innovations over Arkham Asylum didn’t end there. Style over substance here, but yes, the enemies really are that creepy.
This final universe is insane. 2099? It may as well be 3099. Miles-high skyscrapers, hover police cruisers and security personnel who look like they just walked off the set of Tron. Here the levels feel like they could have been lifted entirely out of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and your use of the environment to play with your enemies will have many a player salivating for The Force Unleashed 2.
But Spidey is still the hero here, and the ability to websling over bottomless urban caverns while quipping is a blast. The idea of height is used as the main level design here, with most levels consisting of a large open space within a building, and 5 or 6 different platforms or walkways to fight between. I’m serious, it looks like Tron if it were an actual city.
But when chasing down a futuristic version of The Hobgoblin, we’re treated to a new kind of challenge: dive off the side of this building, catch up to Hobbie, and knock him out in freefall, Gandalf-style. Oh, and you have to avoid obstacles while doing it: genius idea, and a blast to play through.
Spider-Man 2099 is also granted his own unique ability, known as "Accelerated-Vision". This gives you the ability to speed up your perception, and move faster than objects in the surrounding environment. Often this is the only way to safely avoid obstacles while falling, or move out of the path of incoming missiles.
When you look at this game and play your way through it, it’s clear that there is some great game design and creativity going on here. In truth, each one of these universes could have been its own game and I would have had a blast playing each one of them for a pretty long while. But in combining these worlds into a single game, we get a chance to experience all of them, and for just long enough to love them without growing tired of them. In addition to the main storyline, the game also has a feature called the 'Web of Destiny'. Each part of a level has its section of web, with challenges to unlock within that section, meaning there's hours of extra content should you completionists wish for it.
The idea of different gaming styles in one title is really one that I haven’t seen tried before, and Shattered Dimensions’ handling of them is pretty genius as well. The game is separated into acts, featuring one level in each world that must be beaten in order to progress. Don’t like stealth games? Then play the other 3 first, and rack up some upgrades before taking on Noir.
This game is not without its faults, and with so much time focusing on weaving these universes together, minor headaches have been overlooked. Crawling along a wall, unable to jump off until my face hits the ground really breaks my immersion, and having to inexplicably deliver 20 hits to an enemy to drop him instead of the usual five isn’t my idea of a challenge. The game also features way too many cutscenes to advance the story or introduce a new level design, when they could have just as easily been done without breaking into gameplay.
The fact is I had my doubts about this game, and I didn't believe it could even come close to my enjoyment of Ultimate Spider-Man. The story being split into 4 parts means that none of them approach as whole an experience as Ultimate, but there is no question that I had just as much fun. And that’s what this game is trying to be: an awesome Spider-Man game. It hopes to give fans a great experience as Spider-Man; in the comics, the future, and the past.
This game is far better than I ever expected it to be (or early art led us to believe), and if you’ve enjoyed a previous Spider-Man title at all, this is definitely worth trying out. Not the epic story that Marvel was trying to make it seem, but a far richer experience than any Spider-Man game before it.
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is out now for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, and DS.