Like any red-blooded, American boy, I was drawn to the superheroes that filled the pages of Marvel Comics and DC Comics. While I was a follower of the likes of Batman, Superman and even Wonder Woman, I would say that Spider-Man was my hands-down favorite. I made it a point of getting up at 5 a.m. every morning to catch the latest adventures of Spider-Man on TV. I was pretty much obsessed with anything Spider-Man related. I had a Spider-Man lunchbox, notebook, pencils, action-figures and coloring book. I even followed his adventures in the newspaper comics. As I grew up, I slowly put away my Spider-Man obsession only to engage in it again—albeit fleetingly—years later with the launch of the, then new, Todd McFarlane Spider-Man series. Looking back, I always though it strange that I never played any of the Spider-Man videogames with much interest. After playing Activision's Spider-Man, I can only surmise it was because those games were nothing but one-dimensional fluff; because this game is the one Spider-Man game I've played that got it right.
Neversoft's most recent PlayStation release, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater showcased the developer's talent for taking a subject universally deemed ill-suited for the videogame medium, and they produced an incredible videogame experience in spite of it. When I heard that the same developer would make Spider-Man, I was excited. But after I saw the first images of the game running in the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater engine, I knew it would be something special. The end product is probably the truest portrayal of an interactive Spider-Man adventure that has ever been made. Where as previous Spider-Man licensed games were nothing more than glorified Final Fight clones, this interpretation has removed the usual 2-D limitations and created a large 3D world for Spider-Man to explore and make real use of his special abilities. Just like in his comics and TV shows, Spider-Man can scale walls and crawl along ceilings, shoot his web at enemies and lift and toss heavy objects at enemies.
It's hard to not notice how well these spider-like abilities are incorporated into the game and not just used as window dressing. Some stages require actual stealth tactics. Through sensible use of wall crawling abilities, I could sneak into and out of buildings, disarm the bad guys and rescue the hostages without drawing attention to myself. When the game calls for less cerebral resolutions, I simply relied on the offensive moves in addition to the ubiquitous webbing at my disposal. Spider-Man has standard punches and kicks that can be string together to produce decent combos. But for some variety—and in many cases necessity—Spider-Man can use his webbing as a weapon. With some simple combining of the D-pad and triangle button I could do a surprising amount of things. I could turn the webbing into projectiles, snag an enemy and either pull him towards me for some close combat, I could add spiked webbing to my fists to makeshift brasskuckles or even create a temporary protective cocoon that eventually explodes outward inflicting damage on foes. It's a testament to the developer's abilities that these actions are pulled off as seamlessly as they are.
Spider-Man's most famous web trick, swinging from building to building, is one of the game's shining successes, and it really puts the game's engine to the test. It does take some getting used to because it requires the use of the shoulder buttons. But with a little practice I was web slinging like a pro and the game's wide open areas really afford a lot of that. There is nothing more to it than taking a flying leap off a rooftop, firing off a line of webbing and swinging to the next building. With the numerous buildings, steel girders and other city structures, I was having a blast doing a little web slinging and wall crawling along my way to each individual mission objective. This isn't to say that the missions themselves aren't enjoyable because they most certainly are. For instance, one level had me chasing Venom from rooftop to rooftop in a great quasi-game of tag while another had me hauling butt while dodging missile salvos, gunfire and falling debris.
When the action moves indoors, the web swinging takes a backseat thanks to the more limited space, but that doesn't mean the action devolves into that of your local Tomb Raider clone. Nor does the camera system falter much when in the more confined spaces. Spidey can take to practically any surface and with the ability to "zip line"—which means shooting a web to draw myself to a ceiling or nearby wall. Once on a ceiling, the camera simply shifts dynamically to provide the best view possible with little in the way of slowdown. It is a lot of fun and even more so because it is so can be easily executed.
The illusion is further supported since the developer faithfully copies the cast of characters and other idiosyncrasies that make Spider-Man what it is. The story is typical comic book fare with the evil Doctor "Doc Octopus" Octavius hatching a diabolical plot to frame Spider-Man and take over the world. From there the story unfolds into several side adventures as more and more innocent people need rescuing—complete with guest appearances from some of Spidey's super friends. Thanks in no small part to the trademark narrative of his creator, Stan Lee, a collection of excellent real-time cut-scenes, decent CGI movies and Spider-Man's (always annoying) banter, the entire game unfolds like a campy Spider-Man cartoon. This is all pulled off with such authenticity and style that it is could been enough for even the passing hardcore Spider-Man fan, but Neversoft took things further. Like it did with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Neversoft crammed Spider-Man with chock full of secrets to be unlocked depending on how adventurous I was during the game. These bonuses range from a gallery of comic book covers, to alternate costumes and access to all the movie sequences scattered through out the game. There is a level select option as well so I could go back to a previously played level and search for more secrets.
As impressive an effort as the game is, it does have its shortcomings. The most obvious being the camera system. While it does an admirable job of presenting the action, I find myself spending too much time fighting with it for a better view of the action. In certain areas of the game, it would follow Spidey too closely—leaving me confused as to where the enemies were, or for that matter where I was in a particular area. In others, it would stop at an unsatisfactory angle—like when I crawled up a wall to the ceiling and the camera wouldn't re-orient itself to the direction I was facing. What would happen is that my direction controls would be temporarily reversed, and I'd wind up crawling backwards when I wanted to walk forwards and visa versa. More problems would pop up while confronting an enemy. If my foe was as quick and mobile as I was, it wasn't always easy to keep him on the screen. And since Spidey's turns can be so wide and sloping, I found myself being pummeled regularly by "hidden" foes. With the simple addition of a couple of camera buttons (the L2 button is not even used in the game) or at least a zoom button, this would never have been an issue.
While Neversoft exploited Spidey's wall crawling and web swinging abilities, some parts of the game revert back to the mundane stuff found in action titles like Fighting Force and 3D platform games. In one stage in particular, I have to crawl up the side of a building while avoiding a sniper's bullets and rockets from the helicopter. This sounds cool, but solving it required no more strategy than crawling or walking around the areas that were clearly marked for destruction by the helicopter's targeting sights and staying out of the path of the sniper's crosshairs. Other levels were nothing more than platform jumping with a little web slinging tossed in for flavor. It was also here that Spider-Man's imprecise controls showed their face. It was so bad that I dreaded the walks along narrow platforms, ledges or pipes since the supposedly nimble Spider-man lacked the ability to walk in a straight line. The game's final flaw is not a back breaker, but it is a disappointment. I refer to the game's length or lack there of. The entire game can be completed in one day. It's a great ride getting there, but it's far too short-lived.
As a past and current fan of the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, Activision's Spider-Man is quite simply a dream come true. It is the first such game that plays how I have always pictured a Spider-Man game would. In addition to the great gameplay, it offers wonderful bonuses and "spiderific" intricacies to satisfy any aficionado. Sure, it is hampered by some control and camera problems, but pound for pound this game is one of the few that deserves to have the Spider-Man license attached to it.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation version of the game.