Final Look at Spider-Man 3

A superhero is only as exciting as the super villains that he or she contends with. By that logic, it makes sense that Spider-Man has one of the best rogues gallery of all time. Granted, there are a few stinkers – more than a few actually – but the embarrassments are more than made up for by cream of the crop, those five or six nemeses that push Spider-Man to his limit and bring the fight past the mask, straight into Peter Parker’s head. Few characters have done either as consistently well as Venom, so it’s no surprise that he has remained one of Spidey’s most popular adversaries to this day. Marvel’s decision to include and indeed focus on the legacy of the black costume in the upcoming Spider-Man 3 movie is a direct result of the fans’ vocal desire to see Spider-Man do battle with his psychotic counter-part, and Activision is doing one better by giving players the chance to experience the highs and lows of the black costume first-hand.

Fans of the comic know that the Spider-Man’s black costume did a hell of a lot more than give the web-slinger a snazzy new look. An alien symbiote, the costume could alter its appearance at the wallcrawler’s whim, offered a nearly unlimited supply of webbing and boosted Spidey’s strength, speed and agility. Suffice to say, Spider-Man was quite pleased with his new duds…that is until his heightened aggression and lowered inhibitions tipped him off to the fact that the suit was moving past symbiosis and trying to take over completely. Players will spend the majority of Spider-Man 3 bearing the classic red-and-blue spandex, but they’ll also spend a fair chunk of the game with that iconic white spider design emblazened across their virtual chests. Activision has put a great deal of effort into ensuring that the game experience feels tangibly different from under the mask of each costume. The only “problem” is players may not want to get rid of the suit as readily as Peter Parker did.

The black suit works like the ultimate power-up, granting players significantly improved strength, speed and jumping ability. Swinging through the city as the standard webslinger was already exhilarating, but doing so donning the black duds only increases the adrenaline rush as you soar faster, jump farther, and generally look cooler doing it. Spidey’s enhanced aggression while wearing the suit comes through loud and clear in combat thanks the arsenal of decidedly brutal attacks that the symbiote brings with it. Punches send enemies flying down streets, web attacks take care of five thugs at once, and his airborne attacks drive foes into the pavement with excessive force. Fighting with Spider-Man in his standard suit features less aggression and more finesse, as players will find the most success by bouncing between enemies, keeping them all off balance – or preferably suspended in the air – with quick bursts of offense.

Pulling on the black-and-white duds will also replace the standard super meter with a rage meter that gradually fills up as the player strings together combos or takes damage. Once it’s full, Spider-Man will exhibit a red, fiery glow and be able to perform several particularly nasty-looking maneuvers. Similarly, reflex mode has been tweaked for the black costume in order to maximize its offensive potential. Now entering into the mode will slow-time but allow Spider-Man to move normally, allowing players to pile on attacks while enemies are effectively immobile. In addition to the new black suit mechanics, the combat in Spider-Man 3 is significantly better than previous titles thanks to the addition of dynamic aerial attacks, more impressive combos and a larger assortment of web-based attacks, all of which add depth and variety to the combat. As in previous Spider-Man titles, these moves are unlocked via an experience system, so the more players fight, the more effective they’ll become at it. Despite the improvements made to the move repertoire, the combat still doesn’t feel particularly satisfying and the biggest culprit is the enemy AI. The mindless thugs, lizard minions and other varieties of standard enemies act brain-dead and only ever present a challenge in large numbers, if then. Admittedly it’s a tough webline for the developers to walk, since average thugs aren’t supposed to be a challenge for Spider-Man.

Remember the boss battles from Spider-Man 2? That’s okay, we repressed them too. The bulk of boss-battles in Spider-Man 3 are, at this stage, still fairly forgettable save the interactive story-sequences that are sprinkled throughout them. Dubbed “cineractives” these sequences work in the same way as the finishing maneuvers in God of War, wherein players must press the buttons flashed on-screen. Some of the boss battles, such as the one between a plain-clothed Peter Parker and the New Goblin, make extensive use of this mechanic. They aren’t particularly difficult, but the cinematic camera angles and meticulously choreographed action add a touch of flair to each of the wallcrawler’s battles with the major villains, making them slightly more memorable as a result. Between these “cineractives,” however, familiar problems plague these boss battles; most of the satisfying web-based attacks aren’t effective, juggling is ineffective, and boss attacks frequently interrupt long combos. As a result, most of the benefits of the improved combat are lost and the battles devolve into hammering the attack button, building up Super or Rage attacks, repeated ad nauseum.

On the plus side, there’s a huge assortment of boss battles and all of the bosses are faithful renditions of their comic persona’s – each with a few reality-inspired tweaks to their powers and appearance of course. Furthermore, each of the bosses has their own fully-fleshed story-arcs, completely separate from the movie-based plotline at the core of the game, and players can tackle any of the missions in these arcs in any order they choose. With so many storyline missions to occupy themselves with, players won’t need to complete as many of the repetitive side quests littered throughout the game world. There’s certainly a larger variety of optional side-missions than there was in Spider-Man 2, and thankfully that idiotic kid and his balloon has been given the axe, but players will still be foiling a lot of bank robberies, car chases, assaults, gang fights and other petty crimes, all of which feel pretty much identical every time. There are also a smattering of photo missions and races around the city to add some additional variety, the latter of which will help build web-slinging skills. A handy map system highlights each of the missions with an icon and allows players to set waypoints in order to navigate through the largest rendition of Manhattan to date.

The web-slinging in Spider-Man 2 was spectacular, and thankfully it’s returning in true form, not the dumbed-down version seen in Ultimate Spiderman. Weblines need to be anchored to in-game geometry, and as such the height and distance between buildings is now a very large factor in deciding when and where to shoot out a new webline. Just as Spider-Man would, gamers now have to assess the environment and make decisions regarding their next swing. These decisions aren’t huge or time consuming, but inject just enough conscious thought into the process to make swinging through the city. The web-slinging works amazingly well within the context of the game’s decidedly super-human physics engine, and provides a near-perfect sense of weight and momentum. Using just the two triggers in conjunction with the jump and wall-crawling button, players will be swinging through the city like its second nature after only a few minutes.

The Wii controls on the other-hand, take a bit more time to master. Players shoot weblines by holding down the one of triggers and flicking their wrist in the direction they want to start swinging with the nunchuk (left hand) or remote (right hand). Releasing a webline is a simple matter of releasing the appropriate trigger, so webslinging is accomplished by constant, repetitive wrist-flicking motions. Players control the Spidey’s direction as he’s flying through the air with the analog stick, so maneuvering through city is somewhat analogous to the act of rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Once you get it down it’s actually quite immersive, but more importantly, it’s also more precise. The game measures the intensity and direction of the player’s wrist movements, and once players get a feel for what kind of motion translates into the on-screen action they’re looking for, they’ll be able to maneuver through the city with far greater skill than anyone confined to using the dual analog sticks and triggers of the 360 or PS3. Combat has a simpler control scheme as flicks of the remote translate into different actions toward whatever enemy the player is locked onto. Quick gestures left or right result in quick punches, gestures combined with the A button result in strong attacks, and gestures combined with the B button initiate web-attacks. Unlike the webslinging, this control scheme doesn’t do much to enhance either the playability or immersion of the combat, but the controls work well enough that they aren’t a hindrance either.

All three next-generation versions of Spider-Man 3 have their own strengths. The Wii certainly offers the most engaging webslinging, but the PS3 special edition comes with second playable character that makes use of the Sixaxis, and the Xbox 360 version has the benefit of achievement points and the greatest potential for downloadable content. At this stage, fans of Spider-Man 2 are likely to enjoy the game, regardless of what console they own, but it remains to be seen if Activision has made enough improvements to silence the critics of Spider-Man 2. AMN will have a full review of all three versions of Spider-Man 3 in the near future.