Last year's Spider-Man was a definite hit on the PlayStation. Developed by the team responsible for the technological marvel Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, Spider-Man was arguably the first video game ever to faithfully translate the comic book experience. Neversoft's Spider-Man really could do anything his newsprint counterpart could: swing from rooftop to rooftop, wallcrawl on any surface, and even perform a host of elaborate web tricks. While the game was technically a bit temperamental--an overly functional camera often undermined the onscreen action--the inconvenience was never serious enough to warrant putting down the controller.
The game's upcoming sequel, developed by Vicarious Visions, uses the same solid technological base to deliver an experience with an altogether different flavor. Titled Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro, the game seems to put a bit more of an emphasis on combat, resulting in a game with a greater feeling of impending violence than its predecessor. Also somewhat new to the sequel are a series of free-roaming stages, which force you to do a bit of exploration as you tackle nonsequential level objectives. These stages, at first, seem a bit disorienting to players of the original, though they do explore an aspect of the wallcrawler not touched upon in the first game: that of the street-peeping, silent sentinel.
The game's foundation, however, has changed little. Certainly, it's difficult for Vicarious Visions to go wrong--aside from the solid technological base at its disposal, the developer is working with one of the most intricately workable control schemes designed in recent times. Somehow the developers of the original managed to map most of Spider-Man's powers to the PlayStation controller, and--even more surprisingly--they made it all work coherently. As you'd imagine, a whole bunch of web functions had to be coded in to successfully achieve a believable Spider-Man. And impressively enough, most of the web tricks you'd associate with the superhero--if not all of them--are available: You can use your webs to swing from platform to platform, entangle enemies, create projectiles, and even erect exploding web shields. Most of the offensive functions are mapped to the triangle button, requiring you to input different directional commands for each effect. The movement-associated web functions, conversely, are mapped to the shoulder buttons, with R2 enacting the webswing and R1 triggering the impressive zip line. The latter effect is especially useful and functional--it causes Spidey to automatically "zip" to the surface opposite him, be it from ground to ceiling or wall-to-wall.
Some subtle contributions have been made to Spider-Man 2: ice and shock webbing. Though you could use fire webbing to defeat the symbionts in the original game, its effects didn't really do much other than up the amount of damage you did. These two new types, however, have some pretty defined effects. As you'd imagine, the ice webbing freezes enemies, while the shock webbing momentarily paralyzes them. While they don't quite add a new dimension to the gameplay, it is fun--as such things tend to be--to mess around with their effects.
In any event, we managed to spend quite a bit of time exploring Spider-Man's latest virtual playground. Read on for impressions of some of the new areas.
If you liked the combat in the original Spider-Man, then Vicarious Visions definitely has you covered. If there is any one theme that seems to consistently run throughout the game, it's that of direct confrontation. Most of the stages we've played, in fact, revolve around some variation of the seek-and-destroy mission--even those that are free-roaming seem to involve simply locating groups of enemies spread out throughout the large maps and subsequently dispatching them. This is by no means a bad thing, though; quite the contrary. It's a very simple formula, and the encounters feel well-paced enough to warrant the downtime between them. After all, countless panels in the long-running comic series were dedicated to Spidey's wall-mounted spying and pondering.
This is definitely a far cry from the sense of immediacy present in Neversoft's original level designs. Whereas each of the original game's stages felt like smaller parts of a more expansive whole, most of what we've played of the sequel feels very self-contained. In short, the transitions don't seem as conducive to the weaving of a mood that transcends the individual levels. Areas like the warehouse, which you play through early on in the game, are pretty characteristic of this. In the warehouse area, you're presented with a very large room full of thugs, whom you must hunt down--sometimes in groups, sometimes individually--to proceed. Granted, it does allow for much in the way of beat-'em-up gameplay, which seems to be Vicarious' goal here. And as such, it definitely succeeds. The downside of this, though, seems to be the relative faceless quality of the thugs. At this point, the developer has literally modeled a single type of thug for each stage and littered the environment with them. While it has absolutely no bearing on the gameplay, in truth, it makes the whole thing a tad aesthetically absurd--much more so than the game's comic book influence would warrant.
Luckily, it seems as though the rest of the aesthetic package has been given a good deal more attention than before. While the engine doesn't seem to have been seriously tweaked, there seem to be enough superficial improvements to make up for this. More attention has definitely been paid to the visual feel of the game's environments. Subtle effects--such as fluctuating, wispy lighting under lampposts--abound, and the street-level environments are peppered with colorful geometry, something that was noticeably missing in the first game. Spidey himself also looks a bit better. He now sports the slick armpit webbing that was noticeably missing from his original model, and his combat animations have been spruced up quite a bit--which is pretty nice, as you're going to be doing a whole lot more fighting.
The game's soundtrack also seems to be more legitimate than the original's. No longer do ambient noises serve as the whole of the audio presentation. This time, genuine tunes (of the classic action-cartoon variety) pad the onscreen action, and they dynamically segue into one another as the game activity dictates. At this point, some of the transitions seem a little harsh, but if there's anything that can be ironed out before release, this is definitely it.
Fans of the original will definitely want to keep an eye on this one--Neversoft's Spider-Man was without a doubt one of the more compelling games of last year, and more of it definitely seems like a good thing. It appears to have a different focus, but given the solid base at the team's disposal, it seems little can go wrong. Spider-Man 2: Enter Electro is due out next month.