Published by: Jeff McCloy on 2004-07-19
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Although both Rockstar Games and Treyarch will probably cringe at the sound of the phrase, Spider-Man 2, the fourth game in Activision's comic-book based series, is, without a doubt, Grand Theft Spider-Man -- a clear fusion of the ideas in Grand Theft Auto and the Spider-Man series. That's a good thing; a very good thing. Critics and gamers alike have been calling for something like this since the day GTA III stole Christmas in 2001, and now Activision and Treyarch have done something wonderful.
The reason this is such a big deal isn't because someone else made an "open-style" game or that you can wander or rather web sling around town doing anything you want at any time. And it's not that the game is based on the second Spider-Man movie, with all the stars, villains, and story developments that follow. That's all fine and dandy. It's how incredible the web-slinging feels, and what you can do with it that adds a gameplay dynamic that's so different than any other game it's hard to put into words. What Treyarch has done, in actuality, is to blend in that nearly unattainable addiction so inherent in Neversoft's Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series and meld it with Spider-Man's web slinging in a Grand Theft Auto-style open city. It's one hell of an achievement, and it works. Outdoors anyways.
Sure, there is the dull repetition of the Hero missions, the missions drag down, and the boss fights range from stupid to incredibly annoying -- especially the Doctor Octopus...and well, even the Mysterio fights -- and the voice acting is downright shameful. But the game's integral factors ascend above the fray, giving players a huge, multifaceted game that's rich in skill-based gameplay and replay value. It's fat with a massive array of challenges, and it delivery a distinct Spider-Man style of fun previously unmatched in the action genre.
Coming off a relatively successful first effort with Spider-Man for Xbox, PS2, and GameCube in April 2002, Treyarch's first attempt (Neversoft originated the series on PlayStation and Vicarious Visions handled the forgettable second PS game) left some gamers with a headache. The indoor levels and the fidgety camera bugged enough critics so much they stopped talking about anything else. That version, however, introduced interesting aerial combat including the likes of Vulture and the Green Goblin, which felt like it was on the cusp of something, but wasn't quite there. This Spider-Man is the best kind of sequel. Treyarch didn't just put a band-aid on the problems; it drastically changed the game's structure and environments, thus providing the athletic, skyscraper-friendly Spider-Man with an entirely different set of dynamics. No band-aid was needed, Treyarch changed the template.
Spider-Man 2 is drastically expanded. Drastically is subtle for what's happened. The whole island of Manhattan is available for players to explore. Not just in square mileage, mind you, but in volume too. You can swing across the Brooklyn Bridge, walk through the Garment district, swing through Mid-Town, Central Park, and climb from the pavement to the highest building in the city with no load times, few barriers, no problems. You can climb up to the top of the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. In a classy move, Treyarch put in two beams of light at Ground Zero.
The city details remain vivid for the most part and players can swing as fast as they can through it without a single hiccup in the technology -- i.e. no glitches, no stuttering, no massive pop-ups (there is a little here and there). The Xbox version fares better than the PS2 version here, but both deliver a seamless technical experience. You can leap from the tallest building and fall to your death 100 stories down, or at the last second with a single press of a button a strand of Spidey's web will propel you into the air again.
The technology is impressive. Treyarch's landscape is not without its flaws, many of the same kind Rockstar encountered with Grand Theft Auto , but it's not only quite marvelous to watch, it's integrated ingeniously. Diving from a 140-foot skyscraper as Spider-Man is awesome. Using a new web-slinging method which requires a skilful use of the jump button, players find that web-slinging is skill based and wildly addicting. It engenders an amazing sense of freedom and exhilaration. Treyarch nailed the peculiar sense of elasticity and athleticism that was so brilliantly captured in the Spider-Man movie, while capturing a dazzling sense of aerial freedom like no other game has before it. If you ever played Radical Games' The Hulk, you might remember how it cheated on Hulk's awesome jumping ability. You never got to jump like Hulk did. Treyarch not only doesn't cheat in Spider-Man 2, it specializes in creating a sense of fluid body-flinging goodness that unquestionably outperforms all previous Spider-Man games like an Olympic Gold Metal sprinter outrunning a high school running star. Spider-Man 2 unquestioably succeeds in creating a better, more seamless GTA-like experience than True Crime: Streets of LA.
After a good couple of hours goofing around with Spider-Man 2, however, the elation of slinging around the neighborhood wears a bit thin. Part of what brings you down is the game's repetition. Spider-Man 2 is open in design, that is, it's open to travel through, but to progress you have to engage in all those little crime-stopping missions that seem to matter so pointless. Unlike the Grand Theft Auto series, wherein players have the freedom to choose taxi, fireman, telephone booth, or police missions, players must play the civilian mission here. It's forced.
See, the game is broken up into chapters. To progress through the story you have to get to distinct mission locales and to earn Hero Points. The game's currency, Hero Points, is the crux of how this game differs from Rockstar's in structure and in its goal. You have to earn those points to progress. This wouldn't be so bad, even if it is forced, but the mission types are very limited, and only after a few hours you'll be scratching your head in wonder, saying, "Is that it?"
There are essentially six kinds of missions that you'll play endlessly. They are: Rescue the cops from a shootout, chase the bad guys in a stolen car, stop a robbery, save a civilian from falling from a tall structure, deliver an injured person to a hospital, and save people from a sinking boat. There are minor derivations, such as getting ambushed, stopping road rage, retrieving a stolen purse or a briefcase, and saving kids' balloons. But they're really just simple derivations on a theme. To elucidate even further, these missions derivate so little from one another, it's a little embarrassing. The cutscenes are nearly identical, the models exactly the same, and the voice acting dips way below the campy feel the team was going for. This is sub-par camp dialog and delivery at its least compelling. In short, you'll quickly grow bored of these missions.
The game comprises two kinds of missions, story-based missions and the others. Players obtain story-based missions from just a few locales -- Mary-Jane's apartment, by following Black Cat, and with J. Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle. (Minor spoilers here.) You can also always do pizza runs if you feel like earning smaller wads of Hero Points. Anyway, since the story, which is based on the movie, revolves around Peter Parker's realization that he can be a superhero and a regular person simultaneously in addition to confronting Doctor Octopus, Treyarch added a hefty amount of wildly ranging filler material.
That means your old friends the Rhino and Shocker re-appear, and you have to do the whole super-hero bit by saving old ladies, returning purses, and hanging out with the fabulously frontally-endowed Black Cat, who's voice-acted to perfection by Holly Fields. Although I'm always glad to fight powerful bad guys, either Spider-Man's enemies are all pretty stupid (and now that I think about it, they mostly are), or these two guys seem to have been in nearly every Spider-Man game made. Can't we fight someone else? Or at least someone else who's smarter? The answer is yes, or at least, sort of. Mysterio returns (he was in Spider-Man 1), and of course, you do fight Doc Oc three times. The Mysterio fights range from annoying to silly, and the Doc Oc fights are initially annoying as any boss fights ever, until you realize you're forced to use Spider Sense to defeat him. So, in short, they're playable, but they're not great.
That leads to the highly improved ratio of outdoor to indoor missions. The previous Spider-Man seemed predominantly to take place indoors. I think we all realized that Spider-Man plays, and is shown, best outdoors. A majority of boss fights take place indoors, while a few are outside. And with the exception of the last fight against Doc Oc, they're big and roomy enough to work. But indoor combat is still very problematic, still very camera-wacky. Spider-Man 2 does his best work outside, that's a fact. And so does the camera.
But despite the redundant missions and the forced Hero Point gathering, and even the weird boss fights, the results of your tedious toiling do benefit. You upgrade and enhance Spider-Man throughout the game's course, and the results make for a better-playing title. Treyarch all but ditched the previous combat moves and using a new "Spidey Store" system, where players buy new moves or enhance old ones, they "level" up old Web-head like in an RPG. What's so smart about this upgrade system is you upgrade Spider-Man's combat and movement aspects. You'll incrementally increase Spider-Man's jump height, his web speed, and athletic moves. Adding moves to Spidey's repertoire makes those stupid old petty crime missions new again. So as you tie enemies to lamp posts, web-yank them and in mid air, and juggle them into kingdom come, you'll be able to do so creatively, linking tons of combos together.
There's also a healthy counter system. By paying attention to the white Spider-Sense above his head, players can avoid enemy attacks, and once they've upgraded, they can counter with several attacks. So, what happens is, while the levels remain familiar, the way in which you beat the crap out of your enemies grows more creative. The move list is fat, too. There is a ton of moves to buy, upgrades to work for, and ways to improve your Spider-Man.
Then there is the industry's love affair with Bullet Time, and Spider-Man 2's developer do their fair share of falling in love with it. By filling their Spidey-Sense gauge (the blue meter on the HUD), players slow down time, so you move faster than your opponents. I avoided this function as often as possible in the game because it causes some discerning visual issues (such as not knowing what's going on), but also because I always feel it's a little cheap to use it. It does indeed work well, and it's crucial to beat some of the bosses, specifically Doc Oc. You'll also pull off several fabulous exclusive moves that you couldn't in regular time with Spidey Sense. Once I got over my lingering distaste for the gimicky idea, I could see it worked well, and that it benefitted my experience.
Last but not least, while Spider-Man 2 is not online, nor is it a multiplayer game, it's filled with an incredible amount of replay value. This game is deep with enhancement, but it's even deeper with replay value. Once you beat the core story, you're only 50% complete. Fifty-percent! Like Rockstar before it, Treyarch measures everything in the game, be it the amount of civilians saved, the amount of web fluid you've used, how many square miles you've covered, the amount of races you've won, or the amount of special tokens you've earned. There are tons of icons littering the city for additional play. There are race icons (for races), special buoy, hidden, and rooftop tokens to collect (like GTA's hidden packages), and oodles of little missions to complete along the way. In this way, even though you should beat the story mode is about eight to 10 hours, Spider-Man 2 is an amazing purchase for $50. It's probably a 20- to 30-hour game in total.
There are distinct elements to Spider-Man 2 that ascend above the others. The animations to certain characters -- Spider-Man, Black Cat, and Doctor Octopus -- are excellent. Spider-Man moves with a breezy, nimble, elastic motion that's easy on the eyes, and his movement could hardly be better. Doctor Octopus' snaking metallic arms are incredible to watch in motion. Black Cat also does her best at looking slinky and acrobatic. After that, however, the rest of the civilian population pales in comparison. The small range of low polygon civilian characters is not helped when they speak to Spider-Man without moving their mouths, and sometimes a few of the characters look like their heads on actually on backwards.
Technologically, it's an impressive game because Treyarch fits a huge amount of stuff, the entirety of Manhattan, in the game with no pressing visual issues. The Xbox version benefits better than the PS2 version. You can speed through the game with no visual problems. It's not perfect, but on the Xbox, the game sports reflective windows up the wazoo, while on the PS2, it's a slightly different story. There are no serious issues with LODS or pop-in (though they exist), but there is a noticeable amount of minor aliasing, shimmering and a lack of sharpness. And there appears to be a kind of haze around Spidey's body on the PS2 version that's weird.
Artistically, the game falls into an average category. It's cool that there are different times of day and night, and you can even see the moon in different phases. But the facial models are so unattractive that the sexy, attractive Mary-Jane, in both the comic and the movie, looks just short of ruined here. Why is her face smashed in? Did she get a nose job? Peter Parker and Doc Oc fare better. But most character heads are also blocky and ugly. But the civilian facial textures are also repetitive and dull. Another thing that caught my eye is that while Manhattan has been re-created very well, it's awfully clean. I've been to New York, and it has a respectable amount of grit and grime that makes it special. This NY is too clean for my tastes.
Bruce Campbell is back in full force. While in the previous game Mr. Campbell was only available as a tutorial voice in the game's beginning, he is with you all the way in this one, giving you his sarcastic quips and making you feel stupid in only the way he can. It's fantastic. You can actually see the text he's reading on the screen, and if you listen closely he improvises across the board.
The voice acting goes downhill fast from there. Tobey Maguire is reasonably good, but he often sounds like he's about to fall asleep while saying his lines. Yes, that's how he sounds in the movie, and probably in real life, but he sounds additionally uninspired here. Mary-Jane Watson, J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson and even Harry Osborn are entirely unimpressive. MJ and JJJ are the worst, though, because they don't even sound close to their movie counterparts. They're like cheap imitations of themselves. How is that possible? I'm not sure, but they managed it.
But it's the civilians that do the best job at sounding bad. Treyarch clearly went for a campy kind of voice acting here, and it got that. You can hear the indoor microphone sound as the characters talk out in the streets. Some of the voices and lines, however, are good. Everybody has a thick NY accent too, which his endearing. But very few of the lines deliver any humor, and these civilian lines aren't even close to the hilarious and totally un-PC stuff you heard in GTA.
The music is somewhat like the score from the movie, and you've heard the Danny Elfman theme before, so yeah, this music is good, albeit a little familiar. It's there, that dramatic, over-the-top inspiration hero-stuff, with its Hollywood high drama force. Likeable, but not loveable.
There would normally be enough negative stuff in Spider-Man 2 to earn this game a lower score, but Treyarch has done a bang-up job of aiming high, solving problems from the previous title, and not only placing some seriously cool technology in there, but by seizing on the good parts of the game and exploiting them for all they're worth. Yeah, the missions get redundant, the boss fights are so-so, and the voice acting is terrible. It's also very difficult to get to precisely where you want to go.
But the game's huge landscape is filled with stuff to collect, missions to beat, tokens and icons to find, and the combat system, the web-slinging system, the counter system are counteract the negative stuff. Spider-Man 2 does the best job of delivering a super-hero game ever, topping Neversoft's first valiant effort, and Treyarch's technology coupled with its craft makes you feel like Spider-Man like no other game has ever done.
The final analysis is based on this: When I finished this game, I kept playing for two more hours. Just for fun. I was into it; addicted. I wanted to beat old times in races, pull off cool style moves, and put to use my counter moves and web slinging attacks that I overlooked before. This is no longer just a simple arcade game. It's more than that now; it's a skill-based game where you actually need structures around to stick your web (instead of just air like before), where counters and Spidey Sense are useful, and where you're constantly upgrading your abilities. Where you feel that Tony Hawk addicting setting in. Spider-Man 2 may have its faults, but its collective strengths are greater than its combined faults. It's the best Super-hero game I've played. Totally addicting!
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