Every now and then a game comes along that shatters the long-held notion that movie-based titles are generally a bit of a cash-in waste of time. Sadly, Spider-Man 3 is not that game.
But calling Treyarch's latest stab at at Spidey movie game "a cash-in" or a "waste of time" is a pretty harsh way to kick off a review. It's neither, actually, but nor is it a game that fulfils the oceanic potential of the brand. Just like 2004's Spider-Man 2, it's an admirable game for a decent chunk of it, but one that's beset by the kind of horrible camera issues and rage-inducing difficulty spikes that leave the average gamer utterly exasperated.
One thing the game does boast this time around is an awful lot more content than the last effort. Spanning 42 missions, the more expansive campaign encompasses 10 storylines (including the movie's plot, which we don't know about, not having seen it yet of course), and gone are the stupidly irrelevant pizza-delivery missions and balloon-collecting. As a superhero game, it very much plays things by the book, but by and large it follows the same fast-paced New York web-slinging premise that it did last time.
That's to say that missions appear on the 3D city map, you choose one, web-sling your Lycra-clad behind over to it, find the little spinning icon and get set for some button-mashing, perp-bashing action. Having just played God of War 2 extensively, it shares more than a little common ground with Sony's epic hackandslash. Most obviously, Treyarch has laced key moments of the game with the now obligatory interactive cut-scenes (also know as 'quicktime events', seen in everything from Shenmue to Resident Evil 4) where you must quickly match the HUGE BUTTON PROMPTS as they appear on the screen. Sometimes they're in there to spice up a few spectacular cut-scenes, while on other occasions it's a means of providing a fittingly stunning climax to a boss encounter. You know the drill by now.
You could also argue that the flailing, button-mashing combat is pitched at a similar audience too, where repeatedly hammering either X or Y yields instant reward and sends our friendly neighbourhood crime-fighting dude into a pirouetting frenzy of balletic violence. In other words, it looks amazing, but you never have to work too hard to pull off the spectacular. For a bit of extra combat depth you can mix in some web attacks with B, or jump first with A and hammer out some cartoon violence as you see fit - but at no stage does Treyarch give the impression it's going for anyone but the mass market. Which is kind of the point of a game like this, after all.
Elsewhere, you can usefully slow down time for a brief period by holding down LB, or throw in a super-powerful enemy-clearing attack (once your meter's charged up) by pressing RB and X, Y or B. But the real fun isn't so much in how the combat feels (it's pretty basic, to be frank) but how it translates the action onto the screen. Even more so than before, Treyarch has created a seemingly unending procession of jaw-dropping comedy combos that give Spidey the ability to humiliate his foes as much as possible. Such examples include pinballing Spider-Man between foes in the blink of an eye, stopping only to whack them in the chops, or kicking an opponent repeatedly in the face in mid-air as if running up an imaginary flight of stairs. Later you even get to play as Spidey's dark alter-ego, but apart from his powerful rage mode (activated with RB) he feels identical to play.
Don't give up the fight
The way the controls have been set up leave no doubt that Treyarch wants even modestly skilled players to pull off outrageous moves as often as possible. For example, pummelling X and Y as quickly as possible (i.e. Track & Field fast) sends a similar blizzard of punches to anyone in range, while others send you windmilling around with little more effort required than pressing X very quickly five times in a row. There's little room for subtlety, put it that way, but that's part of its charm.
That's not to say the game's easy. Admittedly, about half the missions won't trouble even modestly skilled players so long as your RSI-ravaged wrists can handle a bit of button-pummelling for extended periods, but there are some absolutely brutal challenges to overcome before you'll clear the game. There's nothing quite as maddeningly ridiculous as some of the missions that cropped up in Spider-Man 2, but nevertheless, you'd better prepare a smattering of cushions to punch when things (repeatedly) go wrong. Something that takes a bit of getting used to is the counter system. For instance, a yellow icon appears at the top of an enemy's head when they're about to strike, giving you the opportunity to hit LB to 'auto dodge', with an X prompt allowing you to whack them where it hurts in response.
For a fair way into the game, you don't really have to worry too much about countering at all, and then you'll hit a horrible, inexplicable brick wall where you'll go from being the all-powerful superhero to the crumpled chump on the floor with a trickle of bloody drool dribbling out of his beaten chops. And then some of the combat 'depth' starts to play a part, where you'll realise that you can't just wade into certain enemies, and that taking extra care and forming a proper strategy is important. Even so, for the most part, it's still the absolute king of button-mashing games. Just watch someone play the game, and focus on their right hand. It's bizarre.
Which way to happy?
Similar to the previous Spidey movie game, most of the game's main missions take place indoors, underground, in and around some secret nefarious lab, and, as such, this ensures that most of the action is focused purely around the combat - and for good reason. With Spidey able to cling to every surface, there's always the chance that you'll utterly confuse the camera if you try to be over-ambitious - and as a result, most missions appear to be deliberately designed so that you're fighting in largely open areas where this can't become too much of a problem. Even so, there are many times when you'll find yourself cursing the camera's erratic behaviour, and inability to give the player a sensible view of what's going on. Call it a necessary quirk of the way the game allows you to stick to every surface, or just call it badly implemented - either way, there's never a convincing sense of it being the most graceful approach.
Somehow, Treyarch even manages to cock up the use of quick-time events by putting ludicrous time constraints on players towards the climax of the game, and making them a mandatory part of the climax of boss encounters. And what's worse is that failure during a button-matching sequence often results in the game needlessly replenishing a portion of the boss' health (presumably as some sort of punishment). Not only is this massively unfair (and not something other games do), it wastes a vast amount of time as you tirelessly chip away at the last dregs of their health bar to get to the quick-time event point again. Having already proven to the game that you can punish your foe relentlessly, why does it imagine that it's acceptable to make you do even a small portion of it again? It's neither fun, nor particularly challenging, and ends up being a grind-fest memory game.
Needless to say, when the game does decide to cut the player loose and give you web-swinging missions, it can all go horribly wrong. Unfortunately the NDA we've signed doesn't give us much room to talk about specifics (to save us giving away any plot details, obviously), but there's one mission unrelated to the movie plot where you're sent out to take pictures for The Daily Bugle of a Spider-Man imposter. The idea is to follow a chopper through the New York skyline, find a decent spot to take pictures and snap away at the chubby imposter busily performing acrobatics underneath it. Except, accurate swinging is pretty tough to pull off, and landing upright requires more luck than skill - leaving you stuck to the side of a building, utterly disorientated and tasked with taking a snap within a ten-second window.
What's the news Mary-Jane?
Another frankly ludicrous set of web-swinging missions has you trying to give Mary Jane a 'thrill ride', which loosely entails flying fast, high or low at her command ("This is so fun." Not for me, Missy). This wouldn't be too much of a problem if the game's web-swinging controls were as straightforward as the combat controls, but the truth is that it's one of those where you'll have to play over and over again. Not because the tasks are enormously difficult to pull off with a bit of practice, but because the time limits can be especially taxing when you have to pull off high-altitude swinging. Put simply, there's too big a margin for error, and any number of things can go wrong when you don't quite have a handle on what it is you're swinging from. Pressing the right trigger sends out a webline to grab hold of the nearest building, but you have to rely on the game doing that for you as you can almost never actually see which skyscraper is the best one. It's too random a process to feel like you're in control, and as such any mission requiring sky-bound precision quickly descends into frustration. When you're just merrily zipping around New York under no particular pressure, though, it's a great deal of fun, just as it was last time around in fact.
As we touched on earlier, Spider-Man 3's certainly a bigger game in terms of missions - but is that a good thing? And are they really proper missions or just filler fodder to convince people they're getting more value for money? The claim of there being ten storylines to play might be true, but they include the tiresome gang missions. Whether you're fighting the Apocalypse Punks (late '70s era mohican sporting Punks at that), the giant hammer wielding Arsenic Candy posse or the kung-fu Dragon Tail gang, there's absolutely no substance to any of these missions at all. It's simply a case of the game spamming regenerating waves of enemies at you until they eventually sod off. Pretty much every encounter is the same, requiring diligent use of the slo-mo ability, hammering everyone senseless while they're all wading through treacle, and repeating the whole shebang for a few minutes. And in total these identikit missions represent probably a quarter of the content padding the game.
Outside of the main missions, there's also a whole ton of crime-fighting, racing, bomb defusal and other miscellaneous missions to dip into whenever you fancy. Trouble is, all of them feel a bit lightweight and unnecessary and can be completely ignored without feeling like you're missing anything at all. In truth, all these missions represent is more of the same - stuff you've already done in the main missions cut and paste onto the map, without any real context and precious little incentive either. It's typical openworld fodder that adds a theoretical amount of extra gameplay, but is for absolute obsessives only.
Stand your ground
Having had such a blast in Crackdown recently, it really hammers home the point of how old Spider-Man 3 feels at its core. It's stuck with last-gen game design, and hasn't really moved with the times. If you were hoping for some next generation superhero action, then Real-Time Worlds' efforts are where it's at. This just feels like a mostly clumsy, lightweight attempt to build on what Treyarch did three years back without thinking too hard about what next generation hardware can offer. Sure, it has all the voice-over contributions that any fan will demand, and better likenesses than previously, but it's never quite the full package.
And if the button-mashing, combat-heavy missions aren't underwhelming enough, or the under-use of web swinging doesn't deliver enough disappointment, then the often-iffy technical side of the game rounds off a less-than-stellar package. As discussed, the fact that the game's beset with often-horrendous camera problems from start to finish isn't good, but you'll also quickly acknowledge how unimpressive some of the character models are, and how the dreadful lighting gives all the human likenesses that same ghoulish look that we saw in several games when the Xbox 360 first launched. Even flying around the generally impressive confines of New York has a few winceworthy moments where textures suddenly pop in (for tea, we'd like to think) - things that we thought would be eliminated from major, big-budget games by now. On the plus side, Spidey himself looks fantastic, and many of the familiar foes have been lavished with a pleasing degree of care and attention, giving some of the more memorable boss encounters a sense of genuine cinematic excitement.
But these contrasting feelings of thrilling excitement are nearly always compounded by rank disappointment elsewhere. If only Treyarch had polished the game properly, we could have been reflecting on one of the best superhero games ever - and if you were to cut together a movie of the best bits you'd almost certainly want to buy it on the strength of that. As it stands, the total lack of consistency in what the game offers in terms of entertainment gives it the whiff of a game produced under pressure, and one developed around an unrealistic deadline so it could come out day and date with the movie. Whatever the truth of the situation of Spider-Man 3, here we are, yet again, complaining ruefully about 'missed opportunities', 'a lack of consistency' and 'unfulfilled potential'. For something as thrilling yet as disappointing as this, perhaps a rental's the smartest plan.
6 / 10