Version tested: Xbox 360
There's a mission, fairly early on in Activision's latest attempt to keep Spidey swinging without the aid of a blockbuster movie, which neatly encapsulates all that is both good and bad about the web-slinger's new interactive effort.
Luke Cage, Harlem's hero for hire, has enlisted our friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler in his crusade to broker a peace deal between warring street gangs. It's a minor problem compared to what lies ahead but Cage insists that Spidey watch over a historic meeting between gang leaders. Sure enough, snipers appear to muck everything up. Twenty-two snipers, in fact. Clearly, someone wants the job done right. A timer appears, and you've got four seconds to get the first rooftop gunman. Get him, and the timer extends so you can reach the next. And so on.
It's not as tricky as it sounds, since Luke Cage has already taught you the Web Strike move, which allows you to catapult yourself from enemy to enemy with ease. Quite why Spidey needs web-slinging tips from the artist formerly known as Power Man is a question for another time, but suffice to say Marvel continuity nerds are going to have a banging headache by the end of this game.
So, you deal with twenty-two snipers, one after another. You may wonder why the twenty-second sniper didn't take his shot when he saw Spider-Man flying feet-first through his colleagues but, again, this isn't a game that benefits from logical thought. There's a quick cut-scene between Cage and the gang leaders with some risible Harlem street dude dialogue and then... "DEFEAT SECOND WAVE OF SNIPERS (0/21)".
It's that sort of game. No task is too tedious or pointless that it can't be repeated ten, twenty, thirty, even two-hundred times in the case of some later (thankfully optional) requests. You'll perform one drawn-out escort mission, or a tiresome chase sequence, only to be told you need to do two more before the game will let you advance. The tasks are never particularly interesting or innovative - it's all "go here, fight everyone, come back".
It's a real shame, since the controls are actually pretty good - a decent mix between simple and immediately satisfying web-swinging and a fluid combat system - but the game does absolutely nothing of interest with these workable elements. You just swing from one mission to the next, in a lifeless virtual New York devoid of any diversions, and the only distraction you'll get from beating up dozens of identical foes to move the story forward is beating up dozens of identical foes in optional missions to earn experience points with which to unlock more moves with which to beat up more identical foes... and so on.
Well, you could search the city for over two-thousand spider tokens in order to level Spidey up and allegedly make him stronger and faster. No?
As intuitive as the controls are, there's really nothing here that hasn't been seen in the many free-roaming Spidey games Activision has pumped out over the last seven years or so. It even, rather hilariously, revives the magical swinging from thin air that graced Neversoft's very first Spidey game back in 2000. In fact, the final levels find Spidey swinging through the sky, miles above the tops of the highest buildings, with absolutely nothing for his webs to stick to. Still, plunging into Manhattan's concrete chasms and swooping up to the tops of skyscrapers remains a fun pastime, but with nothing of substance to justify your impromptu excursions around the map it's the sort of shallow fun that quickly loses its appeal, especially after so many previous titles offered much the same thing.
It's the camera which really lets things down, since it's consistently incapable of keeping pace with whatever acrobatic manoeuvres you're attempting. Running up the side of a building pretty much guarantees that your viewpoint will freak out to some degree, and there's a frequent bug in which the Y-axis of the camera gets stuck when you reach the top of your climb. The slightest nudge sends your view straight up or straight down, and you have to run around or jump off the edge to get it back to normal. A clumsy lock-on feature compounds the frustration, and getting your bearings during an aerial encounter is enough to make you throw up. Characters often glitch through scenery, or get stuck in weird animation loops. I had to restart one particularly long-winded escort mission because the vehicle I was protecting refused to drive around a corner, preferring instead to repeatedly ram itself into the wall.
And while your combat options are plentiful, thanks to the ability to swap between the classic red and blue costume and the black symbiote suit, each with their own combos and powers, the flat design means that the only reason to fully explore all the possibilities is to stave off boredom. It's quite possible to beat most of the game using two basic attacks and, thanks to Spidey's recharging health, blocking appears to be entirely optional. Bizarrely, while Spidey can heal himself in a few seconds, Wolverine - the superhero with a powerful healing ability, and one of several support characters - cannot. Once more: Marvel continuity nerds, beware.
Depth supposedly comes in the form of Peter Parker's moral tug-of-war between the Uncle Ben decency represented in his classic costume and the lure of violent power contained in the black, but this is more apparent in cut-scenes than in gameplay. In practice, this struggle manifests in obvious binary choices after each boss fight, where you decide to be brutal or merciful in victory. Small nudges can be made to the moral compass by saving civilians - or not, as the case may be - but it's not exactly a world of choice. There are four different endings, depending on the choices you make, but it's certainly not worth playing the whole game four times to see what they are.
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows is one of those games that seem content to just drone along, coasting on the ever-decreasing appeal of one gameplay element and gobbling up your free time with repetitive tasks and mindless exploration of a mostly empty space. It's not awful, but nor is it sufficiently different to any of the other Spider-Man games. It's a game you'll probably play through to the end, out of habit rather than excitement, and promptly forget you ever played, and with so many superior games fighting for your attention right now, this is barely worth a weekend rental.
5 / 10