Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: Spider-Man Shattered Dimensions

Platform: PS3 (also available on Xbox 360/Wii/DS)

Developer: Beenox

Publisher: Activision

# of Players: 1

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Official Site

Score: B

Once you get used to its quirks, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is one of the more fun superhero games you'll play this year. After a couple of years of mission-based open world Spider-Man games (with Web of Shadows being the best to date), Activision and developer Beenox have smartly decided to shake things up by letting everyone's web-slinger have at it in a new game featuring a more tightly focused selection of stages, four very different art styles and an overall sense of flair that permeates nearly every part of the game. Some camera issues (that can hopefully be patched) make wall-crawling a bit frustrating in spots but overall, the game can be a ton of fun to play and no cakewalk at all thanks to some great boss battles.

Stan Lee sets the pace by providing the opening and other cut scene narration and it really sounds as if he had a grand time delivering his lines. Things get off to a rapid (and amusing) start after Spidey interrupts Mysterio's attempt to swipe a priceless ancient stone tablet from a museum. When our hero accidentally smashes the artifact into a dozen pieces, he soon finds out (thanks to an appearance by Madame Web) that the tablet pieces have vanished into three other dimensions and guess who needs to set off on his merry way to make thing right? While the story isn't deep by any means, it's often funny and the best parts are in how many familiar Spidey villains are portrayed throughout the different eras the game presents.

By the way: In case you're wondering why the heck Mysterio is resorting to robbing a museum, well, where's your sense of fun? Plenty of Silver Age Marvel Comics had now familiar villains pulling off bank heists, stealing gems or other "common" criminal behavior. Hey, it costs money to keep those costumes dry-cleaned and you just don't get a normal day job if you're planning to finance some sort of big Kirby-sized hero-smashing machinery. Even Peter Parker needed some quick cash, which forced him to don a home-made costume and jump into a wrestling ring. For a more modern reference, you need look no further than Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 film, which had Doc Ock robbing a bank to fund his city-killing science experiment.

Actually, the big twist in Shattered Dimensions is having a playable Spider-Man that represents the long-running comic series from four separate eras. The Amazing Spider-Man levels are set in levels that look like they're from the pages of a post-Silver Age comic book, Ultimate Spider-Man stages get a huge color burst and a more glossy 90's comic look. Spider-Man Noir missions are mostly stealthy stages with a rich mix of black and white art with limited color elements and finally, Spider-Man 2099 gets a super futuristic "modern" gaming look that's the most realistic version of Spidey in the game. Any of these visuals styles would make a great full-length game, especially with some of the more unique visual takes on the classic Spider-Man rogue's gallery.

The game starts out with a quick tutorial mission that has brief dips into each dimension, showing off basic moves and combat skills. As you play through each mission, you'll unlock different dimensions and have the chance to play through them as you wish. Controls work well enough, but you'd better get used to learning the difference between tapping and holding down that web-swinging button. When you see a yellow arrow above certain objects in the environment, tapping R2 sends your Spidey leaping over to that point. Conversely, holding down R2 will start him web-swinging. Another control note comes in the Noir levels when trying to take out enemies silently. While a red ring around an enemy means he's in your range, you need to wait for the Takedown message to appear onscreen before pressing the Circle button. Pressing it before the prompt can end up with Spidey getting spotted and shot up until he flees the scene.

While these parts of the control aren't that tricky to figure out, you'll still need to pay attention during combat and especially during boss fights. Just mashing the attack buttons over and over will get you knocked flat in no time flat, as some enemies have unblockable attacks you need to dodge and counter. Just pay attention to that tingling Spider Sense and you'll do fine. As for web-swinging, it's fun and you can even save yourself from falling deaths thanks to a cool slo-mo first person viewpoint where you need to hit R2 when prompted. Yes, there are a few areas where Spidey will want to swing instead of leap to a point and the double jump move looks a little goofy. However, I never hit an area where I had a falling death and that silly double jump move is another lifesaver if you find yourself swinging too low towards a wall or other obstacle.

Boss battles are fun, tricky and rewarding, particularly when you're stumped for a few seconds and finally figure out what to do. You may need to web an object and throw it at a boss, use the boss' own attacks against him (or her) or even play a bit of dodge and wait. One other fun touch are the addition of first-person sequences where Spidey grapples with a boss and dodges or blocks attacks before getting a chance to land a few punches. These portions are generally pretty quick and reminded me a little of Namco's excellent game Breakdown. I don't think you can actually lose a boss fight during these sections unless you don't block or hit back, but I never bothered trying to lose the game intentionally at any point. All of the boss fights are well-done, although I've heard talk of some users experiencing a few glitches here and there.

The major problematic issue comes with wall-crawling when the camera or Spider-Man decides to not go in the direction you're trying for. When you're going up or down, it's fine, but in stages where you need to go in any other direction, it's a huge hassle. In the Noir dimension where stealthy Takedowns are not only key, but part of one of the many level Challenge missions, you'll literally be floored at how finicky the camerawork gets. When you're trying to get the drop on a goon but the camera can't decide where to go or Spidey spins around to face the ceiling or another direction when you want him to go straight, the fun gets sucked right out of the game. Of course, you can avoid the wall-crawling altogether and stick to other Takedown methods, but what's a good Spider-Man game without the ability to crawl on any surface? I'd say Beenox needs to patch this problem as quickly as possible as it drags the otherwise solid Noir sections down like a pair of cement shoes.

Meanwhile, back to the more fun stuff. Within each dimension are primary goal and a host of side mission Challenges that can gain you loads of bonus points to spend on character upgrades, bonus costumes and new combat abilities. You can stick to the main goals and complete the game, but with so many Challenges (and bonus points) floating temptingly in your face, you'll more likely than not find yourself seeking out as many as possible. Replaying stages to complete goals is not only recommended, you can also improve your level ranking by blazing through previously completed stages as quickly as possible.

Some Challenges are timed (beat up X amount of baddies in Y minutes), some are collection or dispatch based (pick up so many spider icons, take out certain enemies with certain skills) and as you complete tasks, more open up and can be accessed though a menu anytime during play. Some character or ability upgrades can't be accessed until you complete certain challenges, so you'll find yourself going back to look for well-hidden Gold Spiders or more enemy types to take down. The more agile and powerful your Spideys are, the better you'll be when the game throws some tougher enemies your way later on.

While each Spidey has the same basic web-swinging, radar-like spider sense and fighting moves, there are certain things each one can do that the other can't. The Noir portions are heavy on the stealth (and yes, resemble Batman, Arkham Asylum's sneaky bits), Ultimate's Black Suit has it's own creepy powers, Amazing's stages feature lots of classic Spidey web combat moves and 2099 has some amazing free-fall set pieces that have you dodging air cars as you chase down a particularly annoying Hobgoblin. Any of these art styles would make for a pretty spectacular Spider-Man game, but seeing them all in one game makes for a pretty fantastic treat. This use of multiple art styles isn't completely "new" to video games, but it's definitely a great touch that shows off Beenox' art team and their talents to great extent.

I can sit here for a few paragraphs and and break the game up into favorite segments, but the best way to experience it is as a complete Spider-Man adventure. Sure, I could go on and on about the different parts of the game's 14 stages that stand out and how well certain characters were integrated into certain eras, but I'd be here forever and a day thanks to me reading way too many Spider-Man comics and reprints back from the late 60's up to around the mid 90's. I'm old as the hills and I remember far too much about the good old days (and if you're unlucky enough to be within earshot, I'll spin you a yarn or three 'til you keel over).

Alright, since you asked: one example (I'll try and keep it brief so you don't pass out): Hammerhead's introduction and stage in the game is brilliant. When the character was introduced in 1972 (at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #113), he was basically a cross between something out of a Dick Tracy Sunday page and a bad gangster movie. Corny to me as an 8-year old, that I can recall distinctly not liking the character at all. In Shattered Dimensions' Noir world, he fits like a well-worn leather glove with his Prohibition era patter and a tendency to be a bit cranky with his hired goons. Other characters get even better treatment in the different dimensions, so expect to see interesting takes on Doctor Octopus, Sandman, Vulture, Scorpion, Green Goblin/Hobgoblin, Electro and a number of others. You'll also see Juggernaut and Deadpool in the game and both characters make excellent bosses thanks to the levels they're in and some pretty funny dialog.

If you try and look for a ton of character depth, you won't find much here. The game's plot might be seen as a bit sparse, it's actually in the assorted cut scenes and some nicely written (and funny) dialog where you'll find the best bits. Granted, the overuse of repeated catchphrases and insults grates a wee bit too much, but all the voice actors are great, particularly the different Spider-Men played by Neil Patrick Harris, Josh Keaton, Christopher Daniel Barnes and Dan Gilvezan. If you're a real stickler one could gripe that the game's 2099's Miguel O'Hara comes off as a bit too jokey than the character does from the comics, but I chalk that up to artistic license and the game's writer wanting to add a similar dose of familar Spidey humor to each of the dimensions. The game bounces between dimensions and allows you to play them in any order they're unlocked, so it's possible to play through a few times and not get bored.

As noted, the visuals are great overall as are the music, sounds and overall production values. Each dimension's look extends to the way cut scenes are presented (an ice touch), so you'll see a grainier, almost silent-film look to the Noir cinemas, while the 2099 segments look almost real enough to touch. Amazing and Ultimate eras feature comic-style art from their respective periods and of course, all the Spideys and villains are excellently rendered. Yes, you'll see generic thugs to take out all over each dimension, but it's not much of a big deal since these baddies are only pre-boss battle fodder. Still, it's nice to see a few overpowered bulky guys (complete with certain unblockable attacks) mixed in with the regular goons.

As noted earlier, some players have complained about but I only encountered one and that was during an extended play session when my PS3 was running for a few hours straight. I won't knock the game unfairly for it,as it's hard to find a game that runs 100 percent flawlessly 100 percent of the time these days. We're in the age of console games that require patches and updates, so I'm hoping Activision and Beenox are on the case with at least some way of tweaking the wall-crawling problem. Speaking of updates, while the game is solely a single player experience (as it should be), I'm wondering if we'll see any DLC expansions to keep players coming back for more. There are some cool bonus costumes to unlock via Challenge points or codes, but imagine having a few new boss battles, redesigned stages or the ability to replay the game as a completely different character - all cool ideas, if you ask me.

Overall, Spider-Man Shattered Dimensions is a very solid game that's worth adding to any collection, particularly if you're a huge Spidey fan. Sure, it's got a bump or two in the road that keep it from being as perfect as it should be, but the game definitely makes do with some memorable moments in its boss battles and unique spin on some familiar faces and places. Activision and Beenox are definitely onto something and hopefully this won't be the last type of foray into mixing things up in the Marvel Universe.

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