So you remember when you were a kid, and you’d head out to the video store on Friday night on your way home from school to pick up a game? And even if the game you ended up with was kind of mediocre–possibly because Nintendo Power had slightly exaggerated the quality of Shatterhand or Power Blade–you played it anyway for the entire weekend, because what else were you going to do, homework? No, you played it, because you’d made your choice for the weekend and you were going to see it through to Sunday night, even if you ended up with that piece of shit Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Remember that?
Well, that’s pretty much exactly how I felt when a friend of mine loaned me Spider-Man: Web of Shadows.
My friend described himself as the world’s only Web of Shadows fan, and after playing through it this weekend, I can understand why he might be so lonely. I mean, it’s not so much that it’s bad as it’s a fun game with deep, deep flaws that all sort of average out to something that makes sure to hobble itself every time it starts to rise above mediocrity.
To start with, you’ve got the story, which is essentially 2008’s version of Maximum Carnage for the Super NES, because it is apparently against federal law to make a Spider-Man game that doesn’t involve Venom and the black costume. In this case, Venom hugs Spider-Man a little too hard in the opening cutscene and gets symbiote all over him, which means that you can switch back and forth between costumes, each with slightly different combat styles.
It also means that Mary Jane takes every opportunity to be a hateful bitch of almost Lucy Lane proportions about the whole thing, to the point where the very first piece of dialogue in the game is her yelling at you about your choice in underpants.
Now, it seems like I’m one of the few people who actually likes MJ. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll freely admit that there are a ton of stories out there where she’s just awful–if anyone remembers the “Mary Jane: SMOKER!” subplot from the mid-90s, you know what I’m getting at here–but between that one issue ofUntold Tales, her break from the shallow, party-girl persona in the aftermath of Gwen Stacy’s death, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane and the fact that she was the Spider-Man love interest I grew up with, I’ve got some genuine affection for her. And yet, when she starts harranguing you for saving her life in a way she does not approve of, even I wanted to respond by chucking her off a bridge with a hearty “When I give a dog a bone, I don’t want to know if it tastes good or not” rather than the henpecked, whiny “But Emmm-Jayyyyyyy…” that the game provides.
Which brings us to another staggering point against the game: The voice acting. It is ROUGH, with occasional jaunts into terrible to keep things interesting, and the worst of it is Spider-Man himself. Oddly enough, he’s not bad at all when he’s not talking to anyone, but the second he starts interacting with another character–especially when he manages to be both groveling and dismissive with Mary Jane–it’s all over. I mean, seriously, was the guy who did Spider-Man’s voice in Ultimate Alliance so busy that they had to get this guy? Yeesh.
And then there’s the generally inconsequential morality system. It’s been noted elsewhere that it’s tempting to take the bad guy route for the sole reason that Spider-Man’s “evil voice” is less likely to rise to the shrill whining of the heroic model, but considering that the five or so actual choices that you make are vague to the point of being “Do Something Good” or “Do Something Bad,” there’s not a lot of incentive to stick to the straight and narrow anyway.
Heck, there’s even one choice that is basically “Shack up with the Black Cat” or “Lecture her on responsibility.” And considering what an adamant harridan the alternative is..
…there’s not really much of a choice there either.
There are also (allegedly) things you can do in the game itself that nudge your morality to either side, mostly involving the NPC pedestrians. If one gets injured, you can haul them to the hospital to get on the good side, but if you fail to save them–like, say, if you aren’t able to pull them out of the air because the target lock system sucks, or because the B button shoots impact webbing and rescues civilians and the game has no idea which you want to do even when you’re locked onto a civilian, or because they’re bleeding out on the pavement while you’re in an unskippable cutscene, which is frustrating even if you don’t particularly care about getting “Black Points”–you get edged over to the bad side. And none of this, of course, really matters all that much.
As for gameplay, well, that’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the phrase “repetitive combat” springs to mind around eighty thousand times, as do “pointless hour-long tutorial chapter,” “mini-game mechanics played off as combat,” and “pointless quicktime events that just restart if you fail them, so there’s no reason to not watch Spider-Man do a Jazz-Hands freakout when he boots Black Cat off a building over and over again.”
On the other hand, the actual web-swinging is really fun when you’re not stopping every five seconds to pick up glowing spider-tokens that make you stronger, one of the many indicators that this game is actually from 1992. There’s a nice enough ersatz Manhattan to sling around that’s full of nifty Marvel Universe landmarks like the Baxter Building (with a group of the aforementioned tokens shaped like a 4 on the landing pad), Avengers Tower complete with the Sentry’s Watchtower on top, the Rand corporation HQ, and even the Kronas building from Ed Brubaker’s Captain America run. There’s a really nice sense of freedom to swinging around ignoring the storyline, and it’s just flat-out fun to climb to the top of the Empire State Building, jump off, and shoot out a web at the last second to go swinging around.
And to its credit, the game does get fun once you advance the story far enough and it turns in Dawn of the Dead starring Spider-Man, with an evacuated city full of
zombies symbiotes to goof off in. This is, not coincidentally, around the time that the last of the combat options finally open up, which give you the ability to do stuff like webbing up an opponent and then riding him through the air like a skateboard, doing actual kickflips with his body to inflict extra damage. That’s actually pretty awesome, but since you don’t even get access to that sort of thing until well into the game, you’re still stuck having to slog through the first two incredibly boring chapters until the game decides you’ve earned the right to have some damn fun with it.
Also, it’s one of those games where you fight all the bosses in the first half, and then fight them again in the second half, only this time they’ve got slightly different abilities and are marginally tougher.
Yeah. I know.
Previous to Web of Shadows, I hadn’t played a Spider-Man game since the one that was on Dreamcast, which–if memory serves–was the one that started the franchise that eventually led to Web of Shadows. That one was a phenomenal game for its time, but in the eight years since, I was hoping that things would’ve come along a little further than they have.
Even for all its flaws, Web of Shadows isn’t a bad game, but I’d be hard-pressed to call it more than decent. As a weekend diversion, it ranks right in there with Kickmaster or Bad Dudes, but it’s no Rockin’ Kats, that’s for damn sure.
Man. Rockin’ Kats was awesome.