Review: Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Treyarch/Shaba Games
Publisher: Activision Blizzard
Release Date: 10/21/08


I’m a huge fan of Spider-Man. I don’t read the comics anymore, and actively refuse to do so until this “Same Old Editorial Mandate Masquerading As A “ËœBrand New Day’ Crap” goes the way of the dinosaur. Still, I’m a a fan of the character, and I probably always will be. To me, the character, in simple terms, represents the Charlie Brown of the superhero set; his life isn’t always perfect, and he has to deal with the same stupid stuff everyone has to deal with in addition to his superhero problems, but in the end, he’s something of a normal guy, and the reader can identify with that. You job stinks, you don’t feel like you’re doing good in the world, your life feels like an endless cycle of repetition and tedium intermixed with failure from one day to the next, but at the end of the day, you can see the smile on someone’s face who you’ve done right by and know you’ve done alright for yourself in some form or fashion.

That’s Spider-Man: a good guy with an occasionally crappy life who gets to run around in his pajamas beating up bad guys. Batman’s a good dramatic character, Superman’s a world-saving juggernaut, and Wolverine’s an ass-kicking badass, but it’s hard to empathize with a crazy rich dude, an alien who wears a human costume, or an ancient angry guy who pretty much can’t die. Joe Everybody in crazy tights? THAT I can deal with.

The sad thing, unfortunately, is that most videogames based on the web-swinger aren’t particularly good. For every Spider-Man Versus The Kingpin or Maximum Carnage (I liked it, shut up) there is an Arcade’s Revenge or Spider-Man (the game based on the animated series) ready to make you miserable. Now, in fairness, more than a few of the terrible games based on the character were thanks to Acclaim, but even after Activision picked up the license, a few stinkers hit the ground running. I loved Spider-Man 2, for example, because it combined everything great about Spider-Man with everything great about Grand Theft Auto into a mostly enjoyable game (and it featured the Black Cat, which is always awesome), but while Spider-Man 3 had missions involving Captain Jean DeWolff (which gives me hope that Spider-Man 4 will feature The Prowler, if nothing else), that doesn’t change the fact that it was a fairly god-awful game, and Ultimate Spider-Man wasn’t all that much better. The feeling one got from these two games was simple: the concept had become stale and needed an overhaul, one that stripped away the tedious and frustrating elements of the games and replaced them with simple, easy to use combat mechanics and a lot more Spider-Man personality. Thankfully, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows does this, mostly; while it’s not a perfect game, it’s easily one of the best games based on the wall-crawler ever made, and is a fabulous example of a GOOD licensed game.

The story of Web of Shadows actually starts off by showing the chaotic mess New York City becomes towards the end of the game before flashing back four days earlier, to show all of the events leading up to that very moment, and for the most part, it’s an effective way to start the game off. Being provided a taste of the chaos that envelops the city, then being shown all of the events leading up to that chaos, is a pretty good way of telling a story when done properly, and Web of Shadows generally does a good job of showing this thing. In the beginning, we see that the Venom symbiote is splintering, releasing smaller versions of itself into the world, one of which attaches itself to Spider-Man during a battle between the two. Spidey is given no time to really think over what this might mean, however; while accompanying Mary Jane (who he’s apparently married to in this game, which is good to see) to the hospital so she can have her broken arm set, he ends up running afoul of a small gang war and catching the eye of Luke Cage. This ends up involving Spidey in a non-stop series of events that stretch across New York City and force the involvement of many of his allies and enemies, including Moon Knight, Wolverine, Black Cat, Vulture, Rhino, the Kingpin, and the Tinkerer, among others. Thanks to the symbiote suit potentially influencing his actions, however, Spidey will be put into the position of having to make several different choices across the course of his campaign, all of which will ultimately influence the fate of New York, and while Spidey himself might not be willing to make the difficult choices, his symbiote will often have no such qualms.

Generally speaking, the story is quite solid and enjoyable, and tells an interesting Spider-Man tale from start to finish. It might be difficult to believe that Spider-Man could behave like a dick when the situation calls for it, but as we’ve seen across a billion different “What If” stories and ret-cons, it’s entirely possible for Spidey to behave like a terrible human being when given the opportunity to do so (Being low man on the totem pole for years makes taking the easy way out an easy choice in some cases), so the story is largely acceptable from start to finish. That said, it DOES do two things wrong that might put off players:

1.) The story does stupid things. The scene in the beginning, where MJ basically lays into Spidey and tells him what a jerk he is, seems incredibly powerful AT THE TIME, but upon playing through the game up to that point and actually seeing the events leading up to this, there isn’t any actual REASON for this outburst if you play the good guy, leaving the scene feeling tacked on for dramatic purposes. The story goes to great lengths to explain how the symbiote-repulsion technology will stop symbiotes to protect the people, yet Spider-Man can safely pass through it, despite having a symbiote attached to him. Despite the fact that Mary Jane Parker is about a hundred pounds and has a broken arm, she can fight off symbiotes and fire a shotgun one-handed. The only way to actually see an ending involving Spider-Man and the Black Cat becoming involved at the end is to get the evil ending, which (aside from being absurd considering she’s a good guy, and while we’re on the subject, why in the hell will she only help the Black Suit Spider-Man considering SHE’S A GOOD GUY?!?) is particularly annoying for someone who actually likes the character. These are small complaints, but they bear noting.

2.) The game will make continuity fans scream and break things. If you actually follow Spider-Man continuity, here’s a simple example. The game begins with Spider-Man and Venom fighting, and we learn fairly early on that this is the Eddie Brock Venom. Okay, says the continuity thought process, so this game is before Marvel Knights: Spider-Man. This is further reinforced when Luke Cage shows up and Spider-Man advises him he was checking on “a friend” in the hospital; fine, this is before New Avengers. But then you have Wolverine asking questions like “Who didn’t join the New Avengers?” and you’re left going “Wait, what?” The game takes place in a continuity where Mac Gargan isn’t Venom, Eddie Brock isn’t a cancer victim/Anti-Venom (but his costume looks like the Mac Gargan version, oddly enough), Luke Cage either wasn’t an Avenger or doesn’t know Spider-Man is Peter Parker (but is perfectly okay with letting his wife run around killing symbiotes while she has a broken arm)… well, you get the point. Casual fans won’t care, of course, but those who DO pay attention will be left dumbfounded.

In other words, if you ignore the dumb things the story does at times, can accept the fact that the symbiote makes Spider-Man behave like a dick (at your behest), and can accept the fact that the game spits on continuity, the story’s pretty compelling and enjoyable.

Visually, Web of Shadows is fantastic. Spider-Man in particular is exceptionally animated, and has a metric ton of animations at his disposal, and between this and his fantastic character model, he’s easily the highlight of the game. The various other characters, both allies and enemies alike, are also well rendered and animated, leaving most boss battles looking fluid and fantastic, and regular battles fast-paced and brutal. The city is also quite lively and features a very solid draw-out distance, making the city look as one would expect it to and giving the game a generally impressive visual presentation as a result. The visuals aren’t perfect, mind you; the more generic citizens and enemies tend to be, well, generic, and later in the game, when the city is full of hostile symbiotes, the game tends to slow down on occasion as the screen fills with foes, but these are occasional problems that don’t ruin the experience significantly. Aurally, the game is also quite solid; the sound effects are rock solid, the Danny Elfman score is top-notch and fits the theme well, and the voice acting is mostly fantastic. The only voice that’s particularly annoying is, unfortunately, the voice of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, who’s trying to sound like Tobey Maguire but instead sounds whiny, though he does grow on you eventually.

The gameplay of Web of Shadows is, in many respects, reminiscent of older games in the franchise, though many of the elements are much, much different, and this is mostly for the better. The amount of buttons and their mapping seem confusing at first; the face buttons are set to attack, throw webs/tendrils, jump and grab, the triggers engage Spider-Sense (to target and lock on to foes) and web swing, the bumpers block/evade attacks and allow you to run on walls, the sticks move and look and allow suit changing and camera centering when pressed in, the D-pad summons allies… there’s a lot to learn, frankly, and it seems very confusing at first. Thankfully, the game essentially sets up the first hour or two of gameplay as a sort of tutorial that actually allows you to learn the basics reasonably well, and before you know it, you’ll be diving around beating up bad guys like a pro. Fans of the older games will find that a lot of the things they liked about those games remain intact, as web-swinging is as easy (and fun) as ever, and the game world is full of random crimes and assaults for you to bust up as needed, allowing you to simply putz around, doing whatever you want instead of focusing on the main plot, which is pretty enjoyable on its own.

One thing that has received a major overhaul for the better is the combat system. Now, as one would expect, simply pressing the attack button will unleash all sorts of painful attacks unto your enemies, and it’s easy enough to take out most enemies by simply relying upon this, but that completely ignores the awesome additions the developers have added to the combat system. The Y button is pretty much dedicated to an attack called “Web Strike”, which allows you to pull yourself towards enemies and smack the crap out of them in a number of exciting ways, which is doubly amusing when you chain these attacks from one enemy to the next, constantly keeping yourself aloft by way of grapple-smacking your way from enemy to enemy, which the developers wisely factored into the combat system in some interesting ways (including some fantastic fights against airborne enemies that are quite entertaining). Web of Shadows has also dispensed with the “Spider-Sense” mechanic from Spider-Man 3 which forced you into battles of constant dodge-fighting that were boring and drawn out, and instead focuses on allowing you to block and dodge if you want to (with satisfying results), but not outright punishing you for NOT doing so if you’re not interested. The game also, as has been hyped up numerous times by now, allows you to switch between the two suits as desired, and both suits offers dramatically different options; the classic red and blue costume, for instance, offers up interesting web-shooting options and grappling fighting techniques, while the black suit offers tendril attacks and the ability to surf on enemies. The costumes can be switched at any time by simply clicking in the left stick, which not only means you have instant access to the suit you want/need, but ALSO means you can switch up suits in mid-combo, allowing you to, say, launch an enemy with the red and blues, then follow them in with the black suit for some interesting combination attacks. In short: the combat is great times.

The game also features an interesting Allies feature, where Spider-Man can summon friends into battle to assist him in combat against the enemy forces he faces. As you fight enemies and help or harm citizens, your Special bar will fill up, and when it fills, by pressing down on the D-Pad, you can summon an ally into battle along-side you to help you fight battles. The twist, though, is that you can only summon allies who are aligned with your personality at that point. As you play the game, your moral actions dictate whether you’re red and blue (good) or black (evil) suit aligned, based on whether you save or harm civilians and what choices you make during cutscenes. Depending on your moral alignment, that dictates who you can summon into battle, so a red and blue alignment allows you to summon Wolverine, Moon Knight, and Luke Cage, while a black alignment allows you to call upon Black Cat, Vulture, Rhino, and Electro to assist you. You can also use your Special meter to perform (what else) Special attacks, which are dictated, again, by your suit, and will often wipe out large groups of enemies in one shot (or lock onto one foe for huge damage, depending on the situation), which is also useful in the occasional scenarios where you can’t call on your allies for assistance (boss battles, for instance).

There are a few other novel things to the gameplay beyond the combat, mind you. For one thing, Spider-Man earns experience points as you complete missions, which can be devoted to upgrading his various ground/aerial/special/whatever attacks as you deem appropriate, across both costumes. There are also something like a billion spider icons strewn across the city; picking these up upgrades Spidey’s health, Special meter and swing speed as he levels up, which is also particularly useful as you get further into the game (though it tends to trigger my collectible-focused OCD rather badly, THANKS GUYS). The story takes about eight hours to plow through if you do nothing but the primary missions, though there are nearly a hundred extra missions to complete that also net you bonus experience (and Achievements in some cases), which should keep you occupied for a good, long while, and as there are four different endings to see, there’s enough content to the game to play through it at LEAST twice. The game DOES lack the ability to swing around the city after the endgame, which was a pretty cool thing to include in the earlier titles, but it makes up for it with a New Game Plus option that allows you to play over again with all experience and bonuses intact.

Despite all of the awesome content and gameplay additions/changes to the product, Web of Shadows does still retain some notable flaws, however, some of which make an appearance from earlier games, while others are their own new problems. For those who are fans (or not) of the last few Spider-Man games (Excluding Friend or Foe), you’ll be less than pleased to note that excessively long boss battles and Active Time Events, while not as bad as they were in prior games, make their return in Web of Shadows. The ATE’s, while less onerous than their Spider-Man 3 counterparts (Only one notable ATE pops up that isn’t scripted; the rest take place in cutscenes), are still annoying, and while it’s nice that the developers offered retries immediately following failure and popped them up on-screen a few seconds before they needed to be pressed to give you fair warning… well, look, in Shenmue, these sorts of things simply changed the direction in which the story flowed; in Web of Shadows and about a billion other games of this type, you do the presses or die, period. Now, in fairness, it’s really funny watching Spider-Man and the Black Cat go splat after a failed ATE attempt, but that doesn’t make the events themselves welcome, and they need to either be done properly or extracted, period. Insofar as the excessively long boss battles are concerned, there are significantly less of these than there were in, again, Spider-Man 3, but the fact that one of the very FIRST boss battles against the Black Cat is one of these is more than enough to sour the experience of the game instantly, and while the rest of the game is MOSTLY a good bit better, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more sour bits here and there (Electro, in both incarnations, for example).

On the new flaws side of things, Web of Shadows features a wonderful feature where the game auto-saves about every two or three minutes, which appears to be meant to rectify a crash bug that pops up later in the game when a ton of enemies are on-screen that hard locks the console (and, for the record, I tested the game on two consoles and it happened on both, so it’s a game problem, not a console problem). Now, in fairness, since the game DOES save every couple of minutes, this is less game-breaking than it is annoying, and it only happened two or three times, but THIS IS A CONSOLE GAME and should not be happening, the end. When the game ISN’T crashing, it slows down infrequently when fighting lots of enemies, which is, uh, all the time in later chapters. The game balance also fluctuates somewhat unreasonably in difficulty towards the end of the game; most of the later missions fluctuate between incredibly easy and unrelentingly painful, and while completing the game isn’t impossible, it just seems stupid that the final section of the game is actually harder than the boss that follows it, for example.

If you can ignore the flaws in the design and the technical issues, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows is EASILY one of the top five Spider-Man games ever made, and while it’s not really as impressive, relatively, as Spider-Man 2, as amusing as Friend or Foe, or as historically awesome as Spider-Man Versus The Kingpin, it’s still absolutely fabulous, all in all. The story is solid and mostly well written (If occasionally stupid and COMPLETELY out of continuity), the presentation is top notch across the board, and the game is simply fun and amazing to play. The gameplay issues of older titles rear their ugly heads in Web of Shadows in lesser volume, which will put off those who hate them at all, and there are legitimately bothersome technical flaws that make the game less than it potentially should have been, but these issues ultimately don’t make the game a failure. In a mediocre game, such flaws would cripple the product; in Web of Shadows, they simply make a great game somewhat harder to recommend. If you’re a fan of Spider-Man (or, at least, Spider-Man games), Web of Shadows is well worth your investment, if for no other reason than to play as Evil Spidey.

Who thought we’d ever see that?

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: GREAT
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE
Final Score:GOOD GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows is a fun, fast paced, enjoyable game that is unfortunately hurt by some odd technical issues, which keep it from achieving true greatness. The story, while odd, is entertaining, the visual and audio presentation are great across the board, and the gameplay is both incredibly simple to learn (despite its daunting initial introduction) and incredibly fun to work with, allowing the player to pull off all sorts of awesome tricks and combat maneuvers with the greatest of ease. Combined with a multiple ending storyline, an upgradable character, and the ability to carry over experience from one playthrough to the next, Web of Shadows has strong aspirations of greatness that it ALMOST manages to fulfill. That said, some annoying gameplay issues make their (subdued) return to this game from others in the franchise, and the game features some glitching and crashing issues that would cripple a lesser game. As it is, Web of Shadows is still a solid, enjoyable game that’s mostly worth playing, and comes highly recommended to fans of the franchise and the character; the flaws might put off the more casually interested player, but for everyone else, the flaws simply render the game LESS great than it deserves to be.

4 Comments
  1. Mark B.

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