Spider-Man. Doing whatever a spider can!
Well, most of it. And a few things a spider can't, like upside-down mouth action with Kirsten Dunst and spewing from his wrists. W00t. But is 'whatever a spider can' all that we want from a Spider-Man game?
The last Spidey outing was a mixed bag. The console version was fun, but buggy [and with some patently ludicrous difficulty spikes inserted at random - Ed]. The PC users were rogered royally on the other hand, by a game that was a patronising kiddies' outing, and was no fun whatsoever, and yet the box art made no hint to the poor unsuspecting PC gamers of the awfulness within. Many were cross, and understandably so. Grrr.
And this time? Hurrah, the PC version is a port of the console version. PC users may now rest happily, having punished the developers for their infraction last time when they lost a big wodge of cash. Their fault.
As the game opens, you are immediately confronted and struck by a control system that has taken a massive step back since the previous game. Now you can only shoot one web at a time (why?) and you have to double-jump and zip your way around the city in what feels like an alarmingly limited and retrograde way. Whatever a spider can? Only if it's a curiously lazy and stupid spider. You will get used to it, but you will never fully come to terms with the fact that it used to be so much better.
On the plus side, you do get to play as Venom, and his control system rocksaws proper gaming hide. He flits and flounces around the city, full of the joys of spring, and generally feels like a modern-day Bomb Jack [as if to continue our retro obsession of late]. This has to be a good thing. However, while Venom is a Big Whoop of fun to control, he's far too easy to play with. As you suck in bystanders and foes, your health is continually recharged, and if you do this all the time, you never have to fight anyone. As a result you will race through Venom's levels and never feel challenged, which is a great shame. His dynamic and flexible controls demand greater challenge, not less.
Unlike Spider-Man 2, the game doesn't attempt to follow any cinematic storyline, and is instead based on the Ultimate Spider-Man comic books. The story starts with a nerdy and deformed angst-ridden teen Peter Parker suffering an identity crisis and struggling to come to terms with who and what he is. Mary Jane, looking somewhat Kirsten, is fully aware of Peter Parker's arachnoid proclivities. Tragically, she works not as a photojournalist, but as a web developer. Hmm. These days, these kind of things are known as 're-imaginings'. You may like it, but this take on the Spider-Man mythos and story does nothing for me.
Ultimate Spider-Man has oodles of style though, and it seeps out of its greasy teenage pores most during the cut-scenes. With an unusual semi-animated comic-book style, they are most reminiscent of the opening credits to Grange Hill, the original series of all things, in the way the story spills over into adjacent panels in an amusing Brechtian estrangement.
Voice acting, still something of a bane of this generation of action games, is passable but not spectacular. There's an underlying feel of mild embarrassment from the actors that they're doing a game, and I felt sure they'd rather be doing an insurance commercial.
For better or for worse, the game has an unusual structure. Naturally, you expect to spend a significant wodge of game time whooshing and performing heroics around the city, cute and handy little map in tow. In a now de-facto Grand Theft Auto sandbox-style, little icons around the edge of the map indicate places for you to go to advance the story and undertake various marginally enjoyable side missions, such a races against the clock or against Jonny Storm, and also the occasional city event, when you will be called upon to dish out some webby justice or save some peasants.
Sadly, after a short while these side quests become tedious, and you'll want to focus on the main game. But you can't, because they aren't side quests. They separate out the chapters, and thus become the main arc of the game, which is immensely frustrating, because you could and should be doing so much more.
Graphically, it's a bit of a stunner. It eschews the unnecessary attempts of the previous games to go after realism, and embraces the comic heritage of the source material head-on. There is a wonderful quasi cel shading effect, and it seeks to convey overall that you are playing your way through an actual Spider-Man comic, and it works wonderfully, especially with the cut-scenes.
After countless more-or-less failed attempts to create a great Spider-Man game (what's taking you so long, guys?), Ultimate Spider-Man ranks ultimately as the next great 'nearly'. There is a solid visual dynamic and story here, but the control and missions were better in Spider-Man 2, and the story worked best in Spider-Man. Taking the best bits of all three and rolling them into an Ultimate Spider-Man game would be brilliant. Alas, Ultimate spider-Man is not that Ultimate Spider-Man.
It's a missed opportunity. The open city dynamic offers scope for a wide array of challenges and playing styles that could have produced an awesome game. By limiting it to repetitive and limiting challenges, the game is condemned to that of pretty distraction.