By John Walker on October 1st, 2012 at 5:00 pm.
Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can, apart from have sex with another spider. I’ve been playing The Amazing Spider-Man for a few days now. I think I’m about two-thirds of the way through. That is plenty of time wearing the mask, and I am now ready to tell you Wot I Think.
I think I should declare my interests here: I want to be Spider-Man. I’ve wanted to be Spider-Man since I was about four years old, watching Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends on Saturday mornings in 1982. I invented the game “Spider-Man”, played on my primary school playground, where I would run ‘up’ the gravel-strewn tarmac on all fours, with two friends enlisted to be Firestar and Iceman. I climbed door jambs, swung from anything swingable, and began a soul-deep cry of desperation at not being able to walk up walls and sit on ceilings that continues to this day.
I’m not sure if The Amazing Spider-Man is helping with this or not. It’s a game that at once manages to get being Spider-Man exactly right, while never quite managing to do enough with it. It is, without question, a really good game, but it’s hard not to wonder if it could have been something spectacular.
I must admit to not having played the previous two Beenox Spider-Man games, but this is a slightly different approach to depicting the webbed one. For starters, this time it’s created to be a continuation after the events of the recent film, rather than based on the comics. Also, it’s in an open city, and it’s enormous.
If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that Dr Curt Connors becomes the Lizard, and sorry – spoilers – Spider-Man beats him. (None of the original cast is on board here, but the stand-ins are all excellent voice actors, and other than an odd Rhys Ifans impression you’ll not mind the difference.) In the wake of the events, with Connors in an institution, nefarious others are apparently continuing his work at research facility Oscorp. And that serum that allowed Connors to change into a lizard beast – it’s now become a virus. A virus that’s spreading after a bunch of beasties break free from the lab, now terrorising Manhattan. At the start Spider-Man’s ladyfriend, Gwen Stacy, is trapped in Oscorp and bitten, and you’ve got to get an antidote made, control the outbreak, and generally be a do-gooding superhero about town.
And what a town it is. While I’ve not carefully checked how faithfully Manhattan’s been recreated, it’s gorgeous and elaborate, explored at fantastic speed as you web-sling your way around. The PC port neatly and instantly switches back and forth between 360 and mouse/keyboard controls and instructions, so you pick your favourite (360 for me) and let loose. Swinging is a real joy, letting you go incredibly fast, and incredibly high, and of course with no risk of harm. Drop and Spidey will chuck out a web to break his fall. Hit a building and you’ll of course just climb it. Because you’re Spider-Man! It’s all extremely elegantly put together, meaning the button for swinging is the same as that for wall running, letting you swoosh across the city in spectacular style, while still feeling in control. Every other movement is necessarily smart too, meaning if you walk toward a wall, after a beat you’ll be climbing up it with your hands a feet, and then reaching a roof allows a fancy move as you land back on your feet. Basically, the game understands how you want to move around, doesn’t make you fuss around with a dozen buttons to do it, and lets you feel just so damned smooth as you do it.
Indoors you take all that with you, other than your jump being slightly less spectacular, and web swinging being somewhat more pointless. Most missions take place in labs and sewers, deliberately confined, although thankfully often with high ceilings. And here it becomes far less about grandiose circusing, and more about stealth.
The other major movement tool in your arsenal is a focus mode, that brings time to a very slow crawl and lets you pick out targets. Two main uses for this – picking a spot you want to leap to, highlighted via golden ghosts, and targeting a particular enemy. Depending on where you are and what situation you’re in, that targeting can also be used as a stealth attack, letting Parker drop out of the shadows, grab a baddie, and have him webbed to the ceiling in a couple of seconds. This is the best thing. Used judiciously this can let you clear out an entire chamber of bads without ever getting spotted, and if improved with various earned upgrades, can let you silently take out two or more enemies at a time.
So, upgrades. It’s fairly rudimentary – XP is gained, and then new levels let you pick a new, or upgrade a current, skill. This might be a new attack, stronger webs, etc. Then there are also tech upgrades that allow more specific improvements to abilities, gained by nabbing collectibles and destroying tech-based material. However, it certainly stops short of being an RPG in any meaningful sense, since you’re really only choosing the order in which you unlock this stuff, such is the generosity of XP.
Time is split slightly unevenly between slinging your way around the city and thinking what fun you could be having were there more to do, and being in the caverns of a mission, enjoying the stealth but wishing you were swinging around the city. It’s an odd mix. The city does have a bunch of extras dotted about, there’s fending off petty crime (beating up some baddies and rescuing a citizen), taking photographs of incidents for a reporter friend, and rescuing infected locals and taking them to medical tents. You can also get involved in car chases, or help police in a stand off with a larger group of baddies, or just get involved with Oscorp sharpshooters and finding collectibles. The issue is, none is at all inspired, making extremely rudimentary distractions that don’t offer anything unique that you don’t end up doing in the missions anyway. Better are proper side-quest missions, mini-levels that usually end in beating up one of the escaped beasts, but again they don’t really elaborate on anything the core game offers.
Missions range in fun, quite dramatically. One extended chase through sewers to catch a rat beast starts to feel like it’s taking the piss out of you after a while, going on and on and on and on, feeling like it’s finally over, and then seemingly starting itself over again. In a game that’s already absolutely huge, there’s some really needless padding. Others give you tons to do, lots of sneaky fun to have, and a bunch of exploration puzzles to solve. While it’s definitely very bad at pointing the way forward, these are the second best moments behind those joyous glides through the cityscape.
It’s that nagging sense that it’s falling short of its ambition that seems to taint the peaks of the experience. At points, as you’re taking out robots and heavily armed guards using your silent attacks, you could almost be playing Deus Ex: HR. But then as you use the single trick you have for the fourteenth time that mission, it’s too apparent that you’re not. Combat encourages combos, but really you’re not doing much more than pounding X for far too long in the early stages of the game. By the time you can swing people around your head on a spidey-string to knock over their chums, and then blast a web across the whole room, it gets a lot more entertaining, but you still went through those dull previous hours. And most of all, oh so most of all, when you’re sweeping past skyscrapers like the bloody superhero you are, you just wish – wish so damned hard – that this was the core of the game, this was where the real action took place. When you do get to fight outdoors, employing all the tricks you’ve picked up for perfect movement, it comes so much more to life… until you realise you’re fighting the same flying boss for the fourth time, and you’re having to do the exact same manoeuvre four times in a row yet again. That’s the story here – a really well-made game, that doesn’t quite know how to get the best out of itself.
A couple of other things that I should mention. Firstly, I frequently had the game drop to desktop. Now clearly I don’t know if that’s an issue with my machine, or the game, but thankfully it auto-saves an awful lot, and little progress is lost by this. The larger frustration comes with and without crashes, which are the rather long load times.
Also, there’s one particular moment I have to draw attention toward. At a certain point you meet a guy who rants about the evils of corporations, about how they abuse staff and exploit people. And he’s wearing a baseball cap sporting the Activision logo. It’s worth noting this game, like Beenox’s previous productions, is published by one Activision.
I’ve certainly enjoyed playing it. The blister on my thumb attests to that – something even Spelunky on my Xbox hasn’t achieved. And that aching desire in me, that never-to-be-fulfilled hungering want to be imbued with the abilities of a Spider-Man, gets tugged on. I shall never know that moment of reaching the wall and just carrying on. My fingers shall never perfectly attach to the side of a lamppost. Never will I sit cross-legged on the ceiling, grinning, as I drop Dolly Mixture into my wife’s tea. That isn’t fair. But it is a tribute to The Amazing Spider-Man that my soul-craving is at least dulled by the experience.
(I also wanted to be Mighty Mouse.)