Spider-Man: Web of Shadows Review
After three less than heroic console follow-ups—Ultimate Spider-Man, Spider-Man 3, Spider-Man: Friend or Foe—the solid Spider-Man 2 finally gets a worthy successor. In fact, Activision’s (with development duties shared by Shaba and Treyarch) latest web-swinging effort is far and away the best Spider-Man title to ever grace the gaming universe. Web of Shadows takes the open-world formula that set a new precedent for superhero-based games in Spider-Man 2, and improves on it in every way; no other game has ever delivered the sheer exhilaration of swinging through New York City as Marvel’s wall-crawler to this degree. The freedom of exploration, complemented by silky smooth acrobatics, captures the closest thing you’ll ever feel to being inside the red-and-blue spandex.
Of course, this will be old hat to players who have previously traipsed through Peter Parker’s NYC in Activsion’s other Spidey titles. The swing mechanics have been pretty solid since Spider-Man 2, so despite some definite fine-tuning, only rookie day-savers will truly enjoy the sense of awe that stings you the first time you swing through the streets and eventually to the tippity-top of the Empire State Building (where, by the way, the view is breathtakingly realistic.) Speaking of scaling tall buildings in the city that never sleeps, Web of Shadows also delivers a much more realized metropolis than previous entries. The streets teem with civilians, yellow taxicabs, and smaller details like Central Park’s lush foliage and Time Square’s neon-lit splendor. We’re certainly not talking a level of detail on par with Niko Bellic’s Liberty City, but still one that significantly ups the immersion since Spidey’s last console outing.
Spitting webs through a richly realized NYC is just half the fun, though, as Web of Shadows’ real hook is its revamped combat system. Spider-Man kicks henchman ass with an intuitive and upgradeable fighting mechanic that removes all restraints from his adrenaline-fueled fighting. Do-gooding gamers can battle on the sides of skyscrapers and in the air or, even sweeter, incorporate ground, air, and side-of-building moves into one breathless battle. Beginning a brawl on the ground and then moving it up the side of a building feels phenomenal (and sometimes nausea-inducing), offering a sense of freedom few comic book-based games have ever delivered. The ability to direct the action how and where you want adds fun and depth to the fisticuffs, not to mention some slick visual moments; Web of Shadows is the best looking Spider-Man game yet, and this is no more apparent than when Spidey is doling out vigilante justice.
Grounded or not, the web-head has access to a variety of pretty moves—kicks, punches, web projectiles—that can be strung together for lengthy combos. His best move, though, is the web-strike; with a tap of the Y button, you can attach yourself to an enemy and reel Spidey in for an up-close encounter. From here you can beat on the dude a bit, then press Y again to move onto another unfortunate goon. Assuming the street’s filled with bad guys, you can continue pin-balling this move to crazy effect. You also have access to special moves that can be unleashed once a meter is full, allowing Spidey to go even more ballistic on the bad guys. Additionally, you can earn new moves, or upgrade existing ones by spending experience points you earn by completing side missions.
All this amped action, and I haven’t even touched on Spidey’s ability to switch between his red-and-blue duds and black symbiote suit on the fly; this ability carries even more combat options, as “bad” Spidey’s strength allows for more violent solutions (I especially enjoyed tossing cars like they were tin cans.) Before you begin switching between suits willy-nilly though, know that it carries consequences; allies, villains, and civilians will treat you differently depending on your actions. Act reckless as symbiote Spidey, and expect to gain the respect of Marvel menaces like Black Cat and Vulture, but stick to the right side of the law, and the likes of Luke Cage and Wolverine will watch your back. This literally translates into gameplay, too, as overwhelmed gamers can call in AI-controlled reinforcements for a limited time. So, if you’re being trampled by a horde of, say, symbiote-infected civilians (kind of like zombies that walk on all fours), a click of the D-pad could bring in Wolverine to assist you.
How and why all these characters come together marks the point I stop gushing about this game. The story is barely cobbled together, and the voice acting is inexcusably bad. Without being tied to a current film, the development team had a golden opportunity to flesh-out comic book fans’ dream narrative, but sadly it’s those folks that’ll cry foulest at Web of Shadows’ silly story—Wolverine and Spider-Man talking about Facebook? Seriously? As a Spidey fan I’m totally hip to the young hero’s affection for cheesy one-liners, but man, some of this stuff far too often crosses into cringe-worthy territory. Because I enjoyed the action just as much as I couldn’t stomach the dialogue, I found myself quickly clicking through most of the hammy and convoluted story-driving moments so I could get back to the fight.
Web of Shadows’ other significant stumble is its lightweight challenge. The difficulty in Spidey’s latest has been scaled back, I’m guessing to make it accessible to any Joe that’s enjoyed the movies. But anyone who feels even remotely comfortable around a gamepad won’t find themselves getting kicked back to the “continue” screen too often, let alone need to call in their AI reinforcements. Spider-Man’s powerful combat skills—under both suits—and the inclusion of a regenerating health bar also steal some thunder from the upgrading and suit-switching mechanics; both of these areas were designed to add strategy, but because Spidey kicks ass with ease, players could largely resort to button-mashing, if so desired.
Despite its setbacks, I had an absolute blast battling through this game. The dialed down difficulty and weak story will be a deal-breaker for some, but honestly, the amazing marriage of combo-heavy combat and acrobatic web swinging, complemented by a living, breathing NYC, culminate in the most engaging Spider-Man game I’ve ever played. Quite simply, no previous entry has so successfully captured the feel of being Spider-Man. Flaws be damned, I’m ready to suit-up for a second play-through, this time focusing on my symbiote-craving dark side—saving civilians is so overrated.