“Hey, you got your superhero into our open-ended game!”
“No, you got your numerous sidequests into our comic book/movie tie-in game!”
While I can only imagine that this is a dialogue that Rockstar and Treyarch might have in the back hallways of E3, it underscores one fact: If the Marvel Universe and the Grand Theft Auto series had a lovechild, it would easily grow up to be Spider-Man 2. While Spidey may not be packing heat or killing punks like Tommy Vercetti, the GTA influenced gameplay makes webslinging so much more exciting than previous games. So jump into some spandex and check your Spidey senses, because it’s time to crawl into Spider-Man 2 from Activision.
Although Spider-Man 2 was released around the time the movie hit theaters, the game itself is only loosely connected to the movie via a few plot points. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, I’ll oversimplify it and say that it’s a coming of age/choosing your future tale for Mary Jane and Peter Parker, set against a backdrop of bloodlust and revenge from their friend Harry Osborne and a threat in the form of Doctor Octopus. While the game focuses on the more important plot points scattered throughout the movie via chapters, the designers spent a ton of time fleshing out the life and duties of a superhero. To that end, Spidey will wind up stopping crimes, helping people in need and fighting off super-powered menaces.
The city, much like what’s found in the GTA series, is actually an unofficial character within Spider-Man 2. Unlike previous titles, practically every inch of Manhattan is available for players to swing off, climb up or jump off. This isn’t just a rooftop view of every skyscraper or high-rise building in the city; instead, players can actually leap off, say, the Empire State Building, plunge towards the ground and before hitting the ground, swing away to safety on a strand of webbing. What’s more, the size of the city is packed with diversions that can test your skills on and off the ground. For instance, you may opt to race around a specific circuit laid out over Broadway. There are also a number of challenges scattered across the rooftops, such as taking pictures of the town for the Bugle or delivering pizzas to customers around town. For the most part, however, Spidey will respond to citizens in distress.
As you swing high above the city, you may hear a cry for help from one of the denizens below. If you respond to their call, you may be told about a bank robbery, a worker in distress or something as trivial as a child’s balloon flying away. Successfully completing each task not only furthers the hero worship of Spidey, it provides him with hero points that can be used to upgrade his skills and purchase new ones. These abilities will allow the webslinger to spring off walls acrobatically, leap farther off weblines and perform a number of punishing combos on any criminal dumb enough to go against him. These aren’t the only ways Peter can score hero points, however. There are more than 400 separate tokens for various errands around town, such as skyscraper tokens or hideout coins. Gathering each one provides a few points while completely finding every coin gives you a supplemental score.
Easily, this is the best-looking super-hero game to date. Special attention was paid to capturing the athletic tumbling abilities that Spider-Man exhibited in both the comic books and the movies, and it shows. The incredibly agile moves that a player can pull off with Spidey are astounding, especially when you string together web swinging, flips and jumps. For instance, webbing actually has to attach itself to buildings this time, instead of connecting to random points in the sky automatically. So you’d better hope there’s something to latch onto before you make a large jump or you could pay for it. What’s also nice is that the additional buying of skills visually expands the number of animations you can trigger, and it reinforces the level of skill you’ve achieved. Like I said earlier, the city looks phenomenal too. Treyarch really elevated the level of detail from the first Spider-Man title to this one, eliminating that amorphous black “ground” (A.K.A. bottomless pit) that would automatically kill you if you accidentally fell into it. Now, you have a sense of scale and height for every building, and leaping off of one quickly shows the ground rush up to meet you with an appropriate sense of speed. Just watching this can take your breath away. After jumping and bouncing around this kind of free-form environment, you will expect every other superhero game to hold to this benchmark, because it properly captures the heightened degree of reality these characters live in.
The city itself looks and feels like a hustling, bustling city, with plenty of traffic whizzing through the streets and pedestrians walking down the street. However, these citizens don’t look good at all. Most of them are very blocky and basic in comparison to those of Peter, Spider-Man or Doctor Octopus. Faces are non-expressive and very repetitive, so you can expect to see the same businesswoman or city worker every block or so. Some of them don’t even appear to have faces, as I discovered during one session when I could see through three people’s heads. This even extends to some of the marquee stars, as Mary Jane looks particularly bland with flattened features. Camera angles, while decent in outdoors levels, are horrible in indoor stages, and these levels could use a little more detail all around.
Vocally, however, Spider-Man 2 is an incredibly shoddy title. Considering that they actually had Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Alfred Molina to provide their voices for their characters, these actors really didn’t use their acting talents to bring their game personas to life. Tobey’s delivery of lines is somewhat decent, but relatively the same all the way through. The true disappointment is Kirsten’s acting, which seems completely bored with the entire project. Simple townsfolk are just as bad, and there will be a few moments where you’ll want to reach for the mute button rather than hear their dialogue. Thankfully, Bruce Campbell’s sarcastic wit and delivery has some character, and is easily the best sound effect in the game. Music, on the other hand, when it does wind up kicking in, is your standard bombastic fare for a Hollywood movie or superhero game, and is, for the most part, forgettable. Otherwise, most of your adventure is pretty silent.
While the free-form design of the cityscape allows for plenty of exploration (even after you’ve completed the main story), which is great for continual replay value, it also throws a spotlight on some of the major problems of the game. First of all, the major plot points are so extremely shallow, the full experience would only last for 5-10 hours at the most, which isn’t engaging in the slightest. In fact, I managed to fly through 5 chapters in about an hour and a half before I started fully exploring the city. Since there are only about 15 chapters in the game, this is way too quick to make this an enjoyable title. Secondly, while you are given flexibility to “abandon” the plot in favor of exploration, the limited number of sidequests (not counting tokens or coins) becomes extremely repetitious and annoying. There are only so many people falling from buildings or cars being stolen before the concept becomes old. What’s more, since some chapters require a certain amount of hero points for you to progress to the next chapter, you may be forced to rely on being a cop in spandex to simply continue the game instead of expanding your set of maneuvers.
Unfortunately, you’ll wind up taking out your umpteenth thug and the seemingly two stock villains found in every Spider-Man game, Rhino and The Shocker. While I expect to take out meaningless flunkies here and there in a superhero game, is it at all possible to get newer rogues to fight? I know that Spidey took on more than just those two in the comics. What about Venom or Carnage? Hydro-man? Absorbing Man? Silvermane? I’d even go for the resurrection of Arcade or The Scorpion if it meant never seeing Rhino or The Shocker in a Spider-Man game again. Speaking of things that aren’t necessary, Spider Senses, which are practically the same as the game industry’s pre-occupation with Bullet Time, isn’t really needed to play the game successfully. I understand that the webcrawler has heightened senses that are better than the average human, as well as the fact that you can execute some cool moves in this mode, but you don’t need to throw it into the game to make it work.
Easily the best superhero title made, the GTA-influenced Spider-Man 2 truly captures the speed and acrobatic maneuverability of Spidey. The expansive city is truly an accomplishment, and the animation for Peter is quite incredible. However, the limited depth within the plot, repetitive side quests and technical issues hold this game back from being spectacular.