Version tested: PlayStation 3
Despite its multiverse-spanning conceit, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions lacks the one thing you might be expecting from it: genuine variety. While Beenox has trawled the back-room long boxes of its local comics shop to gather four different takes on Marvel's chirpy webslinger, the entwined campaigns, with one notable exception, tend to play very similarly.
What balances the package out is that they all play pretty well. This isn't the Arkham Asylum of Spider-Man capers, then – it isn't that special game that, out of nowhere, suddenly creates the perfect interactive expression of a classic superhero – but it's a thoughtful and inventive use of the license all the same. Spidey's videogame outings have been on a downswing since the days of Spider-Man 2, and while it's hard to shake the feeling that the character works better in an open world than in a linear, story-based affair, this is still the best of his adventures for some time.
The plot has a pleasant silver-age thinness to it. Spidey has accidentally shattered an ancient tablet that binds various dimensions together. Now, with the help of three other-world versions of himself, he must gather the fragments back together before, you know, something terrible happens.
This simple idea allows Beenox to cherry-pick the best Spider-Man offshoots from the last decade or so and use them to add a bit of dynamism to a lengthy campaign filled with ceaseless web-flinging and pummelling. Arguably more importantly, it also lets the designers string together a range of brilliant supervillain cameos along the way.
Each of the Spider-Men gets a trio of levels spread across a three-act campaign before they're off to the surprisingly meaty end-game. These levels, rather than being merely capped by a boss battle, are actually threaded around prolonged encounters with some of Marvel's most iconic baddies. With supervillain skirmishes popping up three or four times across the course of each chunk of adventure, the developers have found a way to bring a cinematic shape to the endless battering of minions.
It helps that Beenox has a keen eye for set-pieces, and highlights here include: a dizzying pursuit of the Goblin through a creaking, Depression-era Coney Island rip-off complete with a brain-churning house of illusions; a Deadpool reality TV show set on board a deep sea oil rig, interrupted by a cameo appearance from a capsizing ocean liner; and a breathless wild west sojourn as the Sandman takes you on a literal whirlwind tour of a clapped-out mining town, complete with unwelcome cave-ins.
The webslinger himself struggles to match this kind of invention. Of his four incarnations, only one really stands out as a pace-changer, with Spider-Man Noir sending Peter Parker back to the 1930s as a leather-clad vigilante who takes out over-powered enemies with a gymnastic spin on sneaking, rather than ordinary fist-fights. While the sepia visuals and no-fuss stealth make for a distinct presentation, the meat of the Noir campaign is a pared-back spin on a handful of Arkham Asylum's best ideas, however – namely, bone-jarring one-button takedowns and a focus on managing your extreme vulnerability as you swing from one patch of darkness to the next, toying with foes before picking them off.
The remaining variations are more basic straight-up brawlers, each one seeing Spider-Man's abilities enhanced in a particular manner. Ultimate has a nice Rage mode, doubling your attack ferocity for as long as you can keep the meter filling up by smacking baddies around, while 2099 has a rather dull slow-mo mechanic, which is offset by some dazzling, sci-fi art deco landscapes and surprisingly forceful combat. The Amazing Spider-Man is the campaign that holds the whole thing together, and is also the one that offers most ordinary hero of the bunch: the vanilla Spider-Man, with the fewest gimmicks. That said, he comes with some of the most inventive levels to navigate, so it's hard to complain too much.
Combat is deeper than it initially seems. You can mash your way through it, but it's far more satisfying if you make use of the juggles and grabs, and pull off the occasional show-stopping web-spring attack that launches you half-way across a room on a collision course with somebody's face.
Traversal, however, is slightly more problematic. This is an intensely linear game and most of the time, in cramped environments, the engine does a pretty good job of allowing you to blast from one automatic perch-point to the next with the press of a trigger. On the rare occasions that things open out, though, the controller can struggle to distinguish between a single tap meaning, "Hello, I would to zip stylishly to that highlighted ledge, please," and a longer squeeze, indicating, "Howdy, may I web-swing into a non-stick wall in a manner that suggests I have scoliosis and then fall inelegantly to my death?"
Inevitably, levels tend to outstay their welcome. In between the set-pieces, Beenox juggles only three different ideas, for the most part: beat everyone up before the door opens, rescue some civilians, and get over a largish gap. It's all enlivened by a wonderful punning script, however, and the presence of a smart series of optional challenges tucked into each environment. These regular asides – kill ten of these, break eight of those – help keep the adventure moving when the invention runs out, and they also serve to fill the shelves of a well-stocked unlock shop where you can buy moves, perks and extra costumes.
Its best ideas may be borrowed, and it tends to repeat itself fairly regularly, but Beenox's latest is still a generous and witty button-basher. Shattered Dimensions isn't going to be cropping up on any Game of the Year lists, I'm guessing, but it's nice to see Spidey's caretakers finally showing a bit of ambition. Any true believers left out there can file this one under "pleasant surprise".
7 / 10
Spider-man: Shattered Dimensions is out from 10th September for DS, PC, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360.