I would say that I'm a fan of Spider-Man, but I am usually not a fan of Spider-Man games. I have fond memories of web-slinging on the Genesis and Neversoft's entry on the PS1 is still the best adventure to be had with Peter Parker's alter ego, if you ask me. Besides those two outings, old Spidey has been stuck starring in a long string of unsatisfying, unhappy titles. Ultimate Spider-Man marks Treyarch's fourth attempt at one of the most valuable comic book franchises out there, and they're still not getting it right.
Making a break from the feature films, Ultimate Spider-Man takes its content from the revisionist-history comic book of the same name. Reinforcing this change, the visuals are now heavily stylized and quite attractive. They're cel-shaded, and the most interesting thing about this game are its cutscenes.
Looking like nothing so much as moving comic book pages, the use of panels and characters moving from scene to scene is highly unique, and a very successful interpretation bridging the gap between printed page and electronic screen. In this respect, the presentation is greatly appealing. Besides the cutscenes, however, the game doesn't have anything to offer.
Things start off on the right foot with an introduction establishing the game's split between Spider-Man and his controllable costar, Venom. Spidey does the usual Web-slinging, goon-punching routine, but Venom is all about brute strength and tentacles. It's a good structure conceptually, but once things get rolling, the experience is revealed to be very simplistic despite the alternating characters that play differently from each other.
For example, I was struck with the impression that the large city available for players to travel through felt dead and empty. The act of swinging from building to building isn't very exciting, and I grew tired of going back and forth between story mission locations in a very short time. Treyarch has once again stuffed the landscape full of insignificant tokens to collect, but hunting for tokens is hardly what I'd call absorbing gameplay. Besides the feeling that there's nothing important to do in New York, part of my problem with the game is that everything feels so lightweight and artificial.Smacking around bad guys is airy and meaningless, delivering no satisfaction with basic punch-kick combat. The camera doesn't help either, being very jerky and spastic.
Playing as Venom is little better. Spidey's popular nemesis leaps instead of swings, and attacks with tentacles instead of webs, but tossing cars and taking out waves of generic agents while chasing something or another is just as flimsy and devoid of substance as it is when doing the same type of thing with Spider-Man.
I could have put up with the low-rent values of the fisticuffs (and just ignored the tokens) if the rest of my time with the disc was solid, but its other aspects are just as bad, if not worse.
Besides the boring, generic feel of the city and combat, the biggest offense that Ultimate Spider-Man commits is forcing players to do stupidly inane side quests before letting things continue on in the story. I would usually just say that the side quests were worthless, skip them, and go about my business but the fact that these missions are now required turns something that was blandly passable into something offensively tedious.
For example, I fail to see the point of having "race" missions. What sense does it make to have Spider-Man swinging through checkpoints floating in the air to earn medals? I don't remember him randomly doing magic time trials in any comic book I've ever read. Similarly, there are "combat" missions that consist of going from alley to alley and putting a limp smack down on generic thugs standing around like idiots and waiting for him to show up. Not exciting, not engaging, not fun—and I had to do them a lot.
This repetitive, weak (and inescapable) structure made Ultimate Spider-Man feel like busy work and only served as evidence that Treyarch has simply failed to come up with enough quality content. Instead, they got confused into thinking that quantity equals quality. Regardless of how many races I have to run, or tokens I have to collect, I will not be fooled into thinking that this sort of brainless nonsense is a good use of my videogame time.
Some of the boss battles are mildly entertaining after looking past the shaky camera work, but with the sole exception of Shadow of the Colossus, I find it impossible to recommend any game based solely on boss encounters. Ultimate Spider-Man is nothing more than a bargain-bin effort that would be over and forgotten in an hour or two except for the pointless required side missions artificially extending playtime. Treyarch just clearly doesn't get it when it comes to Spider-Man, evident by their repeated failure to capture the excitement and energy that has kept the comic going for decades. After all, he's supposed to be Amazing or Spectacular… the words "tedious", "banal", "lifeless", and "wearisome" have never, ever appeared on the cover of his books.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Playstation 2 version of the game.