In the last “real” Spider-Man game, Spider-Man 3 (we’re ignoring Friend or Foe), developer Treyarch somehow managed to turn swinging freely through New York and beating up thugs into a dull chore. Spidey has a lot to prove this time around, but Web of Shadows successfully brings the wall-crawler back to his glory days… mostly.
The story focuses on Spider-Man and his amazing friends (and enemies) as they fight to free Manhattan from an invasion of alien symbiotes, which are all somehow connected to Peter Parker’s nemesis, Venom. At the same time, Spidey deals with some moral crises stemming from his use of his old black costume, which you can switch with his classic red-and-blue suit at any moment. It makes for an interesting story, but one that’s no deeper than an eight-issue comics storyline.
Ever since Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, store shelves have been lousy with games that focus on choices between evil or good, a mechanic Web of Shadows uses throughout. The choices come small, like saving a civilian or beating a thug excessively, and big, like choosing to make out with the Black Cat or be true to Spidey’s wife. This makes some moments more dramatic than they'd be without the choice, but those moments generally come off as gimmicky additions that don’t really change the narrative.
Still, the choice between Red or Black Spidey is a little more immediate when it comes to the combat system. Each costume has its own combat style, complete with unlockable combos and attacks. These are bought with experience points gained from completing missions and beating up fools, and each attack you purchase will open up access to more attacks in a nice branching system. Assuming you’ve undertaken a fair share of the game’s optional missions, you’ll probably have them all unlocked by the time you near the end.
Massive combos are a big part of what Shadows adds to the world of Spider-Man games. The big focus is on stringing attacks together into huge triple digit hits. You can mix it up between aerial and ground strikes, as well as attacks the wall-crawler can use while climbing the faces of skyscrapers; all three attack types move smoothly from one type to the next. And the improved mid-air attacks are a very welcome addition when taking on the game’s many sky-based enemies; when you pull off an air strike, for example, Spidey will fly in the direction of his opponent, easily moving from one to the next. Not too realistic, but very much appreciated.
As far as the non-combat gameplay goes, Web of Shadows is fairly similar to all the previous Spider-games. Manhattan is freely explorable, and you’ll spend most of your time swinging from building to building on your way to the next mission, perhaps stopping on the way to beat up thug 63 of 100 for a side mission. It can get a little tiring, going from the assignment-giver to the goal and back, but most of your tasks are over quickly enough to keep from becoming grating.
The dark setting of Shadows and its more realistic graphical style are also a welcome change to the web-head’s normal electronic adventures. Though the prologue gives a glimpse of the overrun New York, it’s a fairly real-looking city once gameplay starts, and the characters also appear only slightly stylized. But once the invasion begins, the promise of how uniquely strange the Big Apple looks covered in the black tendrils of the invaders, with the their zombie-like hordes stumbling through the streets, pays off nicely. It’s nothing too flashy, but the graphics are very solid throughout.
Spider-Man’s gone through a lot of ups and downs, and even on his best day he's never had what most critics would call a "masterpiece". Yet when done right, like Shadows mostly does, nothing beats swinging freely through a huge New York skyline, bashing one foe after another. If the developer could have just tightened up a few minor technical issues and injected a little more soul into the proceedings, this might have been Spidey's best game yet. Instead, it’s just a satisfyingly entertaining experience and a big step back in the right direction.
Oct 22, 2008