Review: Spider-Man: Friend or Foe (PS2)

Spider-Man: Friend or Foe
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Next Level Games
Genre: Action/Beat ‘Em Up
Release Date: 10/3/2007

Activision has had a pretty good run with Marvel titles. All their Spider-Man titles, including the movie tie-ins have received praise from gamers and journalists alike. It’s rare that a licensed series has that level of consistency in quality. Marvel Ultimate Alliance and the X-Men Legends games were equally as popular, following the Diablo style of hack N’ slash action RPG’ing.

When Spider-Man: Friend or Foe was announced, it was expected that the game would be following either the Spider-Man movie franchise or going withthe MUA gameplay style. In fact, it surprised us all by doing neither. Friend or Foe is more akin to a 3-D Double Dragon, Streets of Rage or Fatal Fury, where the controls are simple, the button mashing is frantic, and the game is devoid of most role-playing elements.

Some people may be worried that neither the original Spider-Man or MUA teams at Activision handled this game. Instead, duties were handed off to a developer called Next Level Games. Although they are pretty new, NLG developed both Super Mario Strikers games for the Wii and Gamecube. They also put together NHL Hitz Pro, which I haven’t played as Hockey…sn’t my thing, but that game too was received warmly by the target audience.

With genres like 2-D Fighting, SHMUP’s, and other genres that were popular 20 years ago falling more and more to the wayside, is there room in late 2007 for a Beat ‘Em Up? More importantly can there even BE a quality 3-D button masher?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Spider-Man: Friend or Foe takes place in its own little continuity that is a mish-mash of the comics and the movie universes. All the villains that have appeared in the films look like they did on screen rather than how they appear in the three color process. They also have the same character backgrounds. Venom’s symbiote for example, came to earth via a meteor instead of from the whole Secret Wars thingie. Harry Osborn is the “New Goblin” complete with sucktastical costume and is a good guy, rather than being you know, dead.

However, there’re some new additions to the cast. Familiar Marvel characters that haven’t appeared in the films show up in this game. Oddly, Spider-Man knows and seems to have encountered all the villains before, but any of the heroes he meets in the game (Black Cat, Iron Fist, Blade, and the Lizard) are all completely new to him. And yes, Curt Connors is a straight up good guy with his mind intact instead of being an animalistic living abattoir. Go figure.

The plot of the game starts off with Spidey remarking to himself how quiet the night is, when all the villains from the movie launch an en masse assault on the web-slinger. New Goblin joins in to make the odds a little more fair when suddenly, both sides of the melee find themselves surrounded by strange monsters that resemble Carnage. The heroes and villains agree to a temporary truce, but every time a character touches one of the monsters, they are teleported away. Eventually only the web-slinger is left, and he is saved by a literal Deus ex Machina in the SHIELD Helicarrier.

Nick Fury and Spider-Man meet for the first time and the plot is laid out pretty simply. Venom wasn’t the only symbiotic meteor to land on earth. There were six others. The first was claimed by an unknown megalomaniac who is using it to produce living holographic symbiotes like the ones that attacks Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends earlier. Nick needs Spider-Man’s help to retrieve the other five before the mysterious bad guy gets them. Spider-Man, being a good guy all around agrees to help out. Nick gives Spider-Man an ally named The Prowler (Don’t worry, I only know who he is because I read comics by the truckload as a small child) and off they go.

Along the way, Spider-Man will encounter several of his enemies, including those that disappeared in the intro cut-scene battle. It appeared they are being mind controlled by strange devices. Once Spider-Man defeats them, he can remove their mind control devices and these one time bad guys agree to help out, mainly due to revenge and not wanting to go to jail. Spidey also meets other super heroes who agree to join in the fight.

The script is well done. Spidey is constantly quipping and the game can be quite amusing at times, ranging from in-game fruit pie testimonials (If you’re under 20, you probably need this explained to you) to a sarcastic SHIELD computer that made me laugh out loud more than once. Most of the characters are pretty much in line with how they’ve appeared previously in the Marvel Universe, except I find Blade or Iron Fist cracking the occasional joke to be kind of unusual.

There’s not a lot of story besides the “Go to 20 different stages, smash stuff, fight bosses, gain new allies,” but NLG really put a lot of meat into the game with characterization and little hidden homages. Fans of a certain downed Oceanic Airline flight just might catch a tribute or two to an island filled with polar bears and smoke monsters for example. I was pleasantly surprised that Spider-Man: Friend or Foe kept true to the Beat ‘Em Up genre roots, while still providing enough of a plot to make the game’s progression enjoyable and not repetitive. I think you’ll be surprised with how well they succeeded here.

Story Rating: 7/10

2. Graphics

I am reviewing the PS2 version, but I’m sure the 360, PS3, and Wii versions all look better than this. That being said, the final score here will be based on the PS2’s capabilities and nothing else.

The cut scenes on FoF are well done, and they remind me of the animation style in the upcoming Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon. I have a feeling this is more than a little intentional as the game does include the promo trailer for the cartoon. This is a very different graphical style from the previous Marvel games Activision has published. I personally enjoy it helps to reinforce FoF is in its own continuity.

In-game graphics are mediocre however. The character designs look quite nice when you unlock pictures of them, but when you’re actually playing, there’s not a lot of detail. As you’re playing in more of a rail beat ’em up that a full free moving 3-D action game, you’re often watching the game from an above perspective where the characters are quite small and you can’t really get an eye for detail. Most of the villains blur together and the actual characters you’ll be using just are visually appealing.

Background graphics are nice at first. Textures are rich and the game does a good job of balancing both a 2-D and 3-D feel. The problem is that Spidey and ally can go plummeting off a cliff to their death at any time, mainly because the game isn’t that good at making clear where you can or can’t go at times. There was one time where I though part of the level was a wall,and it turned out to be a bridge that I needed to cross. Another time the game looked like I could get to this island by web slinging across. Nope. Couldn’t. Yet another time I tried to jump to an area, thought I was going to die halfway through,and it turned out I could go there and that there was a hidden item. Thankfully you can’t actually die in this game (more on that later) so it’s okay to experiment.

In the end, the game is a mediocre visual experience. The cut scenes were nice, but I’d have preferred to see some of that graphical excellence transfer over to the button mashing side of the game.

Graphics Rating: 5/10

3. Sound

High marks all around here. NLG assembled an excellent voice acting cast for the game. Oddly enough the person who will be playing Spider-Man in the upcoming cartoon is in the game, but he plays Harry Osborn instead of Spidey. Weird. Even weirder is the guy who played Spider-Man in MUA is ALSO in the game, but he too isn’t playing Spider-Man. He’s voicing Venom. Note for some of you. You may recognize him as the voice of Johnny Quest.

Spider-Man is voiced by James Arnold Taylor aka ICEMAN from the MUA/X-Men Legends games, which is nice as Iceman is one of my favorites in that game. Final Fantasy fans will also know him as Tidus. Rhino is played by John Di Maggio who also plays Dr. Drakken in Kim Possible and Bender from Futurama. The rest of the cast is equally as well known or prolific and there’s a great deal of chemistry amongst them. Many of the actors playing the villains from the movie manage to sound pretty close to the actors who portrayed them on the big screen. I’m glad they made an effort to voice match here, especially as the game is billed as “Official Movie Merchandise.”

The game is also scored quite well. I really enjoyed the music, and the background exploration music switches to frantic button mashing butt kicking at the drop of a hat. The music added to the game, where I find a lot of Beat ‘Em Up’s tend to have music that is poor at best, or distracting at worst. There’s a nice balance here and I thought it was one of the better video game soundtracks for a licensed game that I’ve heard in a while.

In all, there was a great job done here and I’d love to see the same cast (and dev team) do another a game together.

Sound Rating: 8/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Maybe I’m showing my age. Maybe I’ve been playing the WII a bit too much as of late. Maybe there just hasn’t been a quality game in the genre for a while. Regardless of the why, I love the return to the button masher. I miss the days of simple controls mixed with solid gameplay. Younger/newer gamers might be a bit disappointed that there is only one button for hitting things, but as you get into the game, you’ll learn combos and other moves that flesh out the game quite nicely.

Basic control breakdown: Square = attack, Circle = pick something up for hucking/using webs, X = jump. That’s it. This pretty much ensures you’re going to have excellent controls. For those of you wanting more, move on to the next paragraph.

As the game progresses, Spider-Man can learn new web abilities, ranging from Scarlet Spider’s impact webbing to a mass spray of webs that tangles up everyone in range of the attack. You’ll have to buy these upgrades with tech tokens that you collect from fallen enemies or inside various crates and barrels. Tech Tokens can also be used to enhance your stats of Health, Attack, and Toughness. Note that your Tech Tokens will be needed to upgrade your allies as well. With over a dozen sidekicks to choose from, and a limited amount of tech tokens, not everyone will get a full upgrade. I ended up testing everyone, seeing who I worked best with and just allocated the tech tokens to those allies because YOU WILL NOT be able to max everyone out. At the end of the game, I had Spider-Man, Green Goblin, Iron Fist and Blade fully maxed out, with little to no stat increases given to the other playable characters. Just a heads up.

Gameplay is quite enjoyable compared to a lot of 3-D action games I’ve had to sit through over the past five years. First off, the game is constantly in two-player co-operative mode. Player 1 is Spider-Man and Player 2 is whatever sidekick is chosen. At any time in the game, a friend can sit down join in, and play as the currently selected sidekick. Each character has their own style of play, and so it’s a matter of seeing who your friend is best with. As well, if you’re just playing by yourself, you can switch between controlling Spidey and your ally at any time just by pressing the triangle button. You won’t do this often, as Spider-Man has all the really cool options, but there may be an occasion where Spidey just doesn’t work for you. In the boss battle against Rhino, I find Spidey’s auto wall sticking to be quite harmful to me as the touching the walls cause damage, but Green Goblin served me quite well, especially with his regeneration ability.

With the 2 player co-op, the not quite 2-D/not quite 3-D gameplay, some leveling up elements and an enjoyable story, this game felt like a better successor to Guardian Heroes than the travesty that was Advance Guardian Heroes. If you’ve been reading me for a long time, you know that referring to any game as reminding me of GH is one of the highest compliments I can give. Simply put, Friend or Foe is amazingly fun and enjoyable to play. It’s one of the best games I’ve played all year in terms of mindless brutality.

Control and Gameplay: 9/10

5. Replayability

Much like the 3-D platformers of the mid 1990’s, there are items to collect throughout Friend or Foe. If you miss some, you can replay the level to try and collect the Helix or Keystone that you missed. This is the first game of this nature in almost a decade that I’ve gone back to 100% the game.

With over a dozen allies to choose from, you can replay the game and get a slightly new experience each time. There’s also the ability to play as a sidekick rather than Spider-Man himself which gives you a very different perspective on the game play as each character has their own style, speed, and special powers.

Co-Op adds a lot to this game. As it’s only about ten hours (at most) long, you and a friend can easily play through the game together over multiple sittings. I can definitely see this being akin to the Streets of Rage 2 beatdowns we’ve have in middle school.

With all these options there are two big drawbacks to the replay value of the game. The first is that the game is exceptionally linear. Sure you can replay levels once you’ve beaten them, but you have to do each of the twenty stages in order to advance. The other problem is that the game is very VERY easy and that you can’t die in the game (trust me I tried. How often do you hear that?) and that without playing with a friend (or against them in versus mode), you’ll probably have no need to go through single player mode a second time. Unless you WANT to max out each sidekick for versus play.

Replayability Rating: 6/10

6. Balance

You’ve seen me mention that you can’t die in this game. You really can’t. I’ve jumped off into chasms and I’ve let myself get pummeled. All that happens is I’m reborn at full health with less tech tokens. Yes, I’ve even tried killing myself with no tokens under my possession to see if it was a Sonic the Hedgehog type deal. It isn’t. You come back to life with no penalty. I’m sure you can die in a boss fight, but I have to admit, I never tried to die there because I didn’t not want to replay a level from scratch.

In point and click adventure games, not dying or even having the threat of death isn’t a big deal. You’re playing for a story and brain teasers. In an action game, you need the threat of your character dying and your game being over. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Even worse, the game is exceptionally easy. There is no difficulty setting, and so there is no way to make the game harder. Spider-Man is definitely overpowered compared to the cannon fodder bad guys in the game, and at times this grated on me because I like to be challenged.

The only saving grace here is that the boss battles are really well done and remind me of the original Legend of Zelda to where you have to figure out the trick to beating them and how they can’t be hurt by certain attacks. I had a lot of fun with those and they provided what I was looking for.

Sadly, the balance is the weakest part of Spider-Man: Friend or Foe. It makes the game really accessible to younger gamers or people who don’t play a lot of video games, but for those of us used to bullet eaters or Ninja Gaiden, the lack of difficulty may be quite disappointing to you.

Balance Rating: 4/10

7. Originality

I’m torn here. Is it low here because there were a ton of games like this in 2-D in the days of yore, or is it innovative to bring back a style of gaming that is nearly extinct, especially when it is brought back quite nicely for the most part?

There’s a lot of nice extras and I am really happy about any game that offers a multi-player co-op mode rather than “Xbox Live it,” especially as the PS2/3 games don’t have the best online support.

In the end I’ll have to give it a thumbs in the middle here. There’s nothing really new or innovating and the game is basically a tricked up and prettier version of Double Dragon 3 with the making your enemies into playable allies. It’s nice to see the genre get a makeover and hopefully good reviews of the game will lead to good sales figures and we can see more Beat ‘Em Ups of this quality. Original though? Not especially.

Originality Rating: 5/10

8. Addictiveness

I beat the game in two sittings. One long spurt of gaming each night. It’s not a long game, but it managed to suck me in with an enjoyable story and some fun button mashing. Take note awful games like Shining Force Neo: This is how you make hack ‘n slash fun.

Time flew by while playing this, and co-op mode will make it even better because you’ll be able to trade jokes and high fives with your friends. If you’re playing versus mode, it’ll probably be middle fingers and trash talking though.

With so many options and playable characters, it’s hard not to get drawn into the game. Even after realizing I couldn’t die no matter what I did, I still found myself glued to the screen and trying out new attacks or going back to a level for the one item I somehow missed. This is one of the more addictive games I’ve played all year, and if you’re a fan of old school gameplay, you’ll end up enjoying it just as much.

Addictiveness Rating: 8/10

9. Appeal Factor

Friend or Foe is exactly what Alien Syndrome should have been. A fun game with lots of mindless violence and button mashing that requires little thought but offers an enjoyable experience and a fun story to boot. Unless you’re a graphics whore or can’t handle the button mashing, you’re almost guaranteed to have one with this game on your first go through. Friend or Foe is also an excellent gamer for children or new gamers. It lets them get the basics of gameplay down, the controls are super easy to pick up, ands there’s no threat of dying and having to restart form a save point which is usually frustrating to newbies. Plus you can always play alongside them as the Lizard or Doctor Octopus to make it all the more memorable an experience.

This game will make a wonderful rental no matter who you are. As for a purchase? Well, that’s debatable. As a one off though, its guaranteed to entertain.

Appeal Factor Rating: 8/10

10. Miscellaneous

This is a really fun game. Especially after playing through crap like Hoshigami and Growlanser V. I’ve had two positive gaming reviews in a row now (See DDR: Hottest Party), and I think that’s the first time all year that this has happened.

Yes, Spider-Man: Friend or Foe has some issues with balance and the button mashing may not be to every gamer’s like, but this is a wonderful revival of a genre nearly thought of as dead. It does nearly everything right and I’m sure a sequel would address the few concerns I had. With luck, the virtual console on the Wii has reintroduced gamers to how enjoyable a button masher can be (as well as shooters. OH MY GOD is the VC a SHMUP’ers paradise) and so they’ll be more inclined to try this title. Having a high profile license like Spider-Man is just gravy to the game.

I have to say this is the best Marvel licensed Spider-Man/Marvel game I’ve played so far. It doesn’t have camera angle issues. It isn’t ungodly long. The computer controlled allies don’t have crappy AI. It’s simply a well made game that doesn’t take 40 hours of my life to get through. Next Level, even though I’m not a Football (sorry, SOCCER for the Americans) fan, your performance here just might have me pick up Mario Strikers Charged for the Wii. You impressed me that much.

Miscellaneous Rating: 8/10

The Scores
Story: 7
Graphics: 6
Sound: 8
Control and Gameplay: 9
Replayability: 6
Balance: 4
Originality: 5
Addictiveness: 8
Appeal Factor: 8
Miscellaneous: 8
Total Score: 68/100

Short Attention Span Summary
Don’t let this pass you by. The PS2 version is only $29.99 compared to the 40-50 dollar versions on the next gen console. Spider-Man: Friend or Foe has all the potential to be a sleeper hit. I didn’t even know about the game myself until a week before it came out and I’m glad I didn’t miss out. Although its not GOTY material, it is one of the better games I’ve played this year and I’m sure will get a few nominations when the awards come up in a few months. It’s out for every system possible, including the PC, so there’s no excuse not to try it!



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