Web slinging free-form genius or a frustrating cursed mess? Both, actually.
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Spider-Man 2 is one of the most unique and breathtaking games we've played all year, and yet at times it can inspire the kind of terrifying frustration that has sofas wincing in pain and loved ones running for cover and muttering Driv3r under their breath. Hell, it got so maddening that physical pain had to be inflicted upon our person with an Xbox joypad to somehow cancel out the fury that was threatening to boil over into madness at one stage. Yet here we are, having gone through some of the most painful hoops ever in order to complete the game, still sat here largely in admiration over the whole thing. It's a funny old game.
When Spider-Man 2 works, it's just fantastic. The web-slinging control mechanic (once you've upgraded it) is so completely, utterly, insanely brilliant it's a heady rush just caning it around New York at insane speeds, launching yourself high above the sky scrapers, between buildings, into the ether, before swan-diving from high over the metropolis and grabbing onto the side of tower block just before you splat into the concrete. When the game tests you by forcing you to get from A to B, it feels like pure joy to finally get it right. After a time, it's one of the most enjoyable, flexible and well realised control systems ever, offering the peculiar sensation that you really are performing those acrobatics. In terms of making you feel like a super hero, it's the ultimate approximation of the brand - and no movie or comic could ever come close to pulling off what Treyarch has achieved this time around.
The huge city environments are a visual treat too, with a gorgeously rendered playground of buildings to swing around that never slows down, never fogs and is never blighted by pop-up. Initially it's all a tad confusing and samey and navigating your way around is a bitch, but the more you whip your way around, the more it all starts to slot into place. It's hardly the most varied in terms of architecture, admittedly, but it hardly matters and provides a vast area to explore in a way that most games would never even attempt - and the number of secrets the game holds as a result is staggering.
The game itself draws heavy inspiration from the freeform city-based mission structure pioneered in GTA, although by virtue of following the events of the movie, maintains a resolutely linear structure until you've conquered the movie's prime villain, Dr Octavius. Most of the main game's 15 chapters follow roughly the same formula, in that it's up to you to solve a bunch of street-based missions of your choosing in order to rack up a pre-determined number of hero points, followed by some sort of plot-related mission. The former consist of straightforward crime-busting antics such as putting a stop to a shoot-out, chasing after a getaway car, or perhaps an ambush, while the odd heroic mission sees Spidey attempting to prevent someone falling to their death, or retrieving a stolen purse.
The plot-based missions follow the movie events of Peter Parker's on-off love affair with Mary Jane, his hapless employment at the Daily Bugle, and the developments with Dr Octavius quite closely, but are padded out with the addition of characters and missions totally unrelated to the movie, where you strike up an alliance with the alluring Black Cat, as well as battle against other notorious villains from the Spidey universe such as Mysterio, Shocker and Rhino.
The cut-scenes are dealt with reasonably well in that Treyarch has managed to source the voice talents of Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, Bruce Campbell (who does the wise-cracking hints throughout the game) and Alfred Molina, which adds greatly to what could have otherwise been the typically cheesy videogame approximation. It's a shame, then, that the standard of the character models within the game is largely very poor, with shoddy likenesses throughout that are modelled using evidently ancient tech that not only bears little resemblance to reality but is badly lip-synched, and really don't stand up to anything vaguely approaching close scrutiny. Even so, they do their scene-setting job reasonably well, but often give way to some appalling sins within the core missions themselves.
For the first eight or so missions, you'll breeze through everything Spider-Man 2 can throw at you on the first or second go - and then Treyarch decide to hit the player with one of the most evil quadruple whammies this reviewer has ever had the misfortune to encounter. It's at this stage that you will probably sink or swim with Spider-Man 2, because there's little to prepare you for this sudden hike in the challenge offered.
If you do happen to stick with it (and it's worth taking time out to cool down whenever things get too intense, as returning fresh always seems to make things easier), then it'll stand you in good stead for the rest of the game, as much of your problems come as a result of the game throwing up fairly exacting challenges before you're probably ready for them. A lot of what makes Spider-Man 2 tough comes down to the controls - and until you really take time to practise and learn them, you'll struggle like hell to get any further.
Trial by fire
The mission in question - the ninth - comes a bit out of the blue. You're forced to do a time trial, which is manageable enough after a few attempts, but then thrust into a rescue battle inside a flaming theatre, a straightforward looking mission becomes a major headache until you can properly judge your swinging skills. Ditto the next section, which has you web swinging all the way to the Statue Of Liberty - or simply ending up in the drink. The climax of this frankly ludicrous mission is one of the most bizarre and out of place events in the entire game, forcing you to hitch a lift high into the air to destroying eight difficult to reach orbs circling the Statue, and a brain mounted on top complete with a spinning blade and time switch that turns all eight orbs back on if you don't reach it quickly. Honestly, the whole mission felt like pure pain throughout, and added precisely nothing to what was until that point well pitched.
After that, the challenge is maintained at a more realistic and less frustrating level, and although many of the boss challenges will keep you tied in knots for longer than you perhaps bargained for, they're the sort that you'll crack after a bit of familiarity and the usual ninja skills that latter bosses always demand. Even taking into account that this reviewer is pretty rubbish at games (allegedly - self deprecation at this point is always a good fallback to nullify the smug elite gamers that seem to breeze through everything first go, or are just lying tossers), there are a number of things that hardly help your cause.
Chief among the game's ills is its often berserk camera that has an absolute fit trying to maintain a sane viewpoint when you're crawling on walls and suddenly change orientation. Many a time you'll come a cropper simply because you have absolutely no idea where you are anymore, and the game normally takes full advantage by walloping you repeatedly until you've got so little health left that any actual combat engagement takes supreme luck to see you through.
Plays by sense of smell
The first section of the final battle in the main game is a classic example of the inadequate camera system that rarely gives the player a prayer of getting through the task at hand. Buffeted to oblivion by plasma surges and Octavius' over zealous and repeatedly frenzied attacks you feel like a human pinball, and on the regular occasions that you're thrown into the water by chance, it's instant death. Oh joy. The fact that we kept our cool during this particularly demented phase in the game was more down to the fact that we'd come to expect this sort of cruelty. We were conditioned to be hammered into the mud until a mixture of the luck, judgement and the patience of a Grandmaster eventually saw us through. Is that fun? Is that entertainment? In a word, no.
What hardly helps matters is the designer's rather bloody minded decision to remove health packs from the main missions, only dishing them out after the relatively trivial street challenges (cheers for that - fat lot of use they are there!). Likewise, any number of other temporary powers would have been useful in dealing with numerous villains at once. Having said all that, it does force you to pay rather more attention to the dozens of combos that you acquire as you go through the game, not to mention skilful use of the bullet time-inspired Spider Sense. It's a tough one to argue. Some will prefer the fact that the game generally requires more skill and practice than most games require these days, and others will also prefer the suspension of disbelief that results from not having health magically appearing. Still, the net result is the raw frustration from endless repetition as you end up having to play the perfect mission in order to scrape through. Many players who buy Spider-Man 2 will simply give up well before they reach the end - and is that really worth Treyarch's effort to become yet another game most players only see a fraction of?
The general reward structure within the game, though, is nothing short of magnificent, and does much to drag you through your darkest moments of pain if only see what it's actually like to have that next Web Swing upgrade, or various other acrobatic entities that eventually make the game a far more pleasurable and controllable experience. It's ironic that a lot of our initial complaints about the control and navigability in general over Spider-Man 2 eventually became the very things we grew to absolutely love about it. Simply put, the more you play it, and the more hero points you earn and upgrades you buy, the slicker the game feels, the faster and more acrobatic you become, and the more enjoyable swinging your way around the streets feels.
It's not over 'til it's over... and you've played hundreds of mini-challenges
It's just a shame that the missions within this excellent template that Treyarch created never truly live up to the awesome potential on offer. Again, the structure itself is brilliant, but within it is nothing more than the padding of a relentless succession of ultimately quite simple challenges that you soon tire of. Once you finish the main meat of the game you're tasked with accumulating an insane quantity of hero points (50,000), which equates to well over 150 more mini-challenges. Quite who has the reserves of patience to go through all those, we're not entirely sure, but they're probably the same people that spent months finding all the hidden packages in GTA. Trust us. However many there are in GTA, there are way more tasks to perform in Spider-Man 2. In many senses it's just great that you're able to carry on playing the game after it's done (and there's a special end boss to discover if you do, which is a great touch), and there's much to unlock if you fancy it. It's just a shame that the periphery tasks are, in the main, not actually that interesting, otherwise we'd be singing the game's praises from atop a skyscraper. Chances are, if you've reached the end of Chapter 15, that'll be enough for you. 10, 12 hours of tough exertion and onto the next.
In terms of movie licence fodder, Spider-Man 2 is so much more than that. A lot of thought and effort has gone into the game to provide an almost endless amount of things to do - it's just that often, some of those things aren't nearly as entertaining as they ought to be. Given that so much of Spider-Man 2 is brilliantly realised, you're left with the impression that they're onto something here, but it's not quite the definitive Spidey experience we were all hoping for.
Whether you should buy it or not is a matter of how much you want a superhero game that leaves you feeling unbeatable and unique when you're swinging with effortless grace around the city, but then tarnishes that brilliance by serving it alongside some badly judged missions, less than brilliant visuals and our old chum the dodgy camera. Ironic, considering the trouble Peter Parker has getting his snaps bought by the Daily Bugle. Just don't let anyone fool you into believing this is a classic. There's no doubt it's a great game at times, and probably one of the best released in what has been a barren summer, but with more polish we would have been talking about an essential title rather than a hit and miss experience, and that's what's on offer here.