Let's start at the beginning, shall we? No, not Peter Parker's initial encounter with a radioactive arachnid, but those priceless first minutes after Spider-Man 2's opening cinematic, where you meet Treyarch's impressive (not to mention ambitious) new rendition of Manhattan head-on. As you may already know by now, this latest Spider-Man game has 'gone GTA', offering an expansive, free-roaming environment. Standing on top of one of the game's hundred or so skyscrapers, you await the end of the short but sweet tutorial. When it's over, the disembodied voice of your teacher asks you just to jump. Just leap off the side of the building and send yourself plummeting to the street below. Naturally, you do as you're told. You leap into the unknown, hurtling at great speed towards the traffic below - with the screen blurring as your descent accelerates. You hit the R trigger (as your tutor advises) and Spidey fires off a web and swings in a stomach-tightening arc 30 floors into the sky. It's here that 'it' hits you. This is something really special. You've not experienced anything quite like this before. You feel... you feel... liberated. Free. Super-human almost... like... like... er... Spider-Man? Yes! Like Spider-Man. Sweet Mario's moustache! After years of being promised a genuine super-hero thrill by countless developers, Treyarch have finally cracked it. Exhilarated, you start swinging by tapping the R trigger again and again to send yourself headlong through this unfamiliar concrete jungle. And after the third or fourth 'graceful' arc, you're left dangling like an embarrassing spandexed pi-ata.
FROM ZERO TO HERO
You see, this isn't like the first Spider-Man: The Movie game. You can't just latch strings of Web-Goo(tm) into the sky and swing indefinitely. Spidey now has inertia to contend with. There are physics at play here. You can only swing if you have something you can attach yourself to. If you find yourself swinging into a wide open space without any nearby structures, expect a bone-crunching appointment with Dr Pavement. You can't just turn on a sixpence either, you have to look at your surroundings, aim yourself accordingly, time your next swing properly, take into account your speed and trajectory and... then just go with the flow.
It's not easy to get to grips with moving around on your webs at first. Just like Peter Parker making initial tentative attempts to get accustomed to his new superpowers in the first film, you have to practice to be able to swing like a pro. But you will get used to it. So used to it, in fact, that you'll revel in the joy of travelling through the city and completely forget all those nasty, glaring, ugly graphical 'faults' you first noticed in that opening intro sequence.
Yes, they're there all right. Flat-textured tower-blocks slowly become more 'textured' as you get closer to them. The rather bland details slowly 'fade in' to become objects as you approach them and, once you're padding about at street level, the identikit pedestrians you meet become worryingly familiar after your first hour of play. (In one particular scene we saw three identical people standing on the same street corner. And no, they weren't supposed to be in uniform.) So there are times where Spider-Man 2 doesn't look too hot. The pedestrians' character models generally boast a poor poly count and are pretty low on detail. The streets are substantially less vibrant than in games like GTA or Shenmue, and buildings that you can actually enter are few and far between.
However, the graphical oddities really don't matter. The payoff, in terms of the sheer scale, fluidity, grace and freedom you'll experience is worth it. (Think about it: how often have you wished a game was as playable as it was good looking? This title doesn't look perfect but plays like a dream.) Treyarch's balancing act has been judged to perfection. Stand on top of the game's highest point, for example, and just look around you. If you can see it, you can swing to it, climb up it - even run up it. The city, just as it is for Spider-Man himself, is your playground - and it's this that is Spider-Man 2's defining characteristic.
ON THE LEVEL
No prizes for guessing that the series has undergone a substantial overhaul since the first game, then. Play is divided up into a series of chapters, sub-divided into smaller goals for you to accomplish. These are relatively simplistic, asking you to do such things as reach a destination, rescue a predefined number of civilians, smack all the threatening goons in the vicinity and collect the required number of 'Hero Points'. What are Hero Points? Thanks for asking...
Dotted around the city are civilians. Despite the rather sparse (and cloned) population, it's not hard to find individuals who need your help. Head down to street level and you find NPCs with striking green question marks over their heads. These people need your help. Talk to them with a simple tap of the B button and they'll give you a mini-quest. Tasks pedestrians set you range from beating up a group of thugs or bashing the baloney out of a getaway vehicle before smacking the thugs driving it, to rescuing a workman dangling off a nearby building or taking an injured pedestrian to a hospital.
Once the mini-quest has been activated, it's just a case of following the handy Crazy-Taxi-style marker to your destination and fulfilling the objective. Completing these tasks awards you points - the aforementioned Hero Points - that you can use to buy new skills in the shops dotted around the city and, subsequently, meet your quota of points to progress to the next chapter.
Structurally the game is pretty simple, then - and in some ways this will be a bit of a disappointment for anyone who enjoyed the previous game, which had a much stronger storyline. There are no 'levels' to speak of as such. Unlike last time, the emphasis isn't on navigating a warehouse and flipping switches, or avoiding guards and surveillance by sticking to the shadows. Instead the game focuses on Spidey's role within the city and, ultimately, this all too often boils down to navigating your way from marker to marker before engaging in sporadic bouts of repetitive perp bashing or point-to-point racing.