Spider-Man - Web of Shadows starts off with a serious bang. The establishing shot finds Spidey walking across a New York City rooftop in slow-motion, head hung down and ignoring the chaos taking place all around him -- soldiers battling symbiote aliens, explosions in the distance, debris flying inches past his head -- while "Moonlight Sonata" plays, gorgeously juxtaposed with the madness of the scene. The entire opening sequence is perfection -- an elegant tutorial told amid a series of beautifully choreographed cut-scenes and combat scenarios that demonstrate Spider-Man's new moves and animations. Most of the game takes place over the course of the four days leading up to those events, but by the time I caught back up to them, I was more than a little disappointed.
When SpiderMan went to a fully open-world formula with 2004's Spider-Man 2, simply swinging around the city was exhilarating -- even if the combat and missions were an afterthought. The situation didn't improve much in either subsequent entry (Ultimate Spider-Man or last year's Spider-Man 3).
Here, we have codeveloper Shaba Games to thank for fixing the combat: For the first time in two generations of Spider-Man titles, it's fun to fight...for a while, at least. More importantly, webslinging, wallcrawling, and engaging pockets of foes are no longer mechanically disparate elements. Thanks to a few handy new moves and some smooth transitional animations, you can go straight from climbing a building to twisting through the air to kicking a thug in the chest. Or kicking multiple thugs in the chest, once you master the Web-Strike, a couple taps of a button that allows you to pull yourself to a target, hit them, then pop back up into the air to repeat. Silky combat animation, clever camera placement, and a dash of motion blur make combat a treat to watch, too (something the game relies upon more and more as it progresses). Spider Sense is smartly mapped to the left trigger, which serves as both an enemy finder and a camera lock.
Regrettably, that's where the important changes end, as the combat just can't carry the entire game. While side missions don't have you chasing stray balloons or rescuing dangling construction workers anymore, they aren't much better in Shadows, giving you numerical goal after numerical goal of things to kill and people to save. Defeat 10 thugs, then defeat 50, then defeat 150...and then do the same with every other enemy type as they come along. I went out of my way to accomplish these things for the first third of the game -- fueled purely by wanting to complete everything, and because combat was still novel -- and then I simply stopped caring. The rewards for doing anything off the beaten path are minimal; completing objectives grants you XP, which is used to unlock additional moves in a skill tree. You're unlikely to even use these techniques (the vast majority are simply extensions of other moves), as the Web Strike is always the most efficient means of attack. Combat is what you make of it to some extent, but with so many bad guys to quash -- and the same static, unpolished New York City to fight in -- it's tough to imagine using anything but the most effective option.
The story itself is C-grade comic book runoff -- an underdeveloped, drawn-out story of the symbiote alien taking over NYC and its inhabitants as a random selection of Spider-Man's pals and foes come out of the woodwork to play their part. Sure, the narrative lends a reason to swap out gang members for soldiers, then soldiers for infected citizens, and then infected citizens for symbiote creatures...but when they basically behave the same way in combat, it doesn't really matter. You can change between the normal red suit and black symbiote suit by clicking the left analog stick (a neat visual trick), but the barely different move sets don't warrant splitting time between the two. You also encounter several situations throughout the game where you're forced to choose the red (good) or black (evil) path of action; this leads to different cut-scenes and determines who teams up with you along the way. But the game doesn't offer much motivation for choosing the villainous route.A few excellent boss fights punctuate the first half of the game -- a spectacular airborne battle against the Vulture and his cronies high above the city, a trivia-injected alleyway bout with Wolverine -- but these foes aren't anywhere near as entertaining when you have to fight every one of them again in their symbiote forms. By the end of the game, the entire plot just feels like an excuse to make you fight everyone twice. I would bring up the cringe-inducing writing and voice acting -- particularly for Spider-Man himself -- but that's belaboring the point.
Shadows is halfway there. I experienced plenty of cool "Spider-Man" moments throughout thanks to the basic locomotion and combat and the occasional well-done cut-scene...but Shadows never really hits any sort of stride. Rather, it settles into a rhythm of repetition and drags out as its third act self-destructs. And without the unlockable costumes or artwork (despite seeing it behind the closing credits) of most superhero games, you've no reason to power past the bad bits. Shadows might be the best Spider-Man game yet, but that's just a testament to the series' now-mediocre standards.
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
Developer: Shaba Games
Minimum System Requirements
OS: Windows XP/Vista
Processor: Intel Core 2 DUO @ 2.13 GHz/Athlon 64 X2 4600+
Memory: 1 GB on Windows XP/2 GB on Windows Vista
Hard Drive: 8.5 GB Free
Video Memory: 512 MB (nVidia GeForce 7900 GTX/ATI Radeon 1900XT)
Sound Card: DirectX Compatible
Keyboard & Mouse
DVD Rom Drive