Though Neversoft originally developed the engine that would come to define modern Spider-Man games, Treyarch has been holding the series down as of late. The Southern California-based studio is now in the process of putting the finishing touches on Spider-Man: The Movie, the game that will precede the much-anticipated movie's release when it hits this month. We've been able to spend more than a bit of time with a playable Xbox version of the game, and from what we've seen, fans of the superhero's recent video game excursions will be pretty pleased with this one.
It wouldn't be cool to talk too much about the game's story, since it would spoil quite a bit of the movie on which it's based, but suffice it to say that--at least in its early sequences--it follows the superhero's origin myths pretty faithfully. After a radioactive spider bites Peter Parker, a certain catastrophe disrupts his otherwise calm existence, which forces him to exercise his newfound powers. If you're familiar at all with the recent Spider-Man games, you'll know that these powers are indeed many and that they translate marvelously to a video game experience. As Spider-Man, you'll be able to move like no other video game character. You can crawl on walls, jump like mad, and use your webs to propel yourself in a variety of ways. You'll also have access to a whole bunch of neat combat abilities--more so than in any other Spider-Man has offered to date.
Treyarch has beefed up Spider-Man's ability set considerably in this iteration. You'll see this in basically every aspect of the character--his web-based attacks, his punch/kick combos, and even in his movements. The control scheme has also been reworked quite a bit to make executing all these things more effective. The older control scheme is still in there--in fact, it's been made the default for some reason--but the enhanced scheme is selectable from the get-go, and it works much more smoothly. The biggest change made to it is the addition of a "web modifier" button. Essentially, what it does is map different web effects to each face button while it's depressed. So, whereas before you would have to perform an "up/web" command to shoot out projectile webbing, now, you simply hold down the web modifier (which is mapped to the left trigger by default) and hit the A button to shoot it out. Same for web gauntlets--you simply hold down the left trigger, hit X, and out they come. The actual web functionality has been tweaked a good bit as well, and the effects are pretty neat. Remember the zip line, which would instantly transport you, by means of a taut web line, to an opposite surface? Well, now, you can execute it from any angle, meaning that you can shoot it to a remote wall and zip right to it. The web lines you use to swing around on offer the same versatility--they still connect to thin air, but you're given much more control of your movement while you're on them. Basically, you can gain and lose altitude pretty easily by holding up or down on the D pad. It's also a bit easier to change directions outright by jumping out of a swing, shooting a web line in another direction, and swinging off at a new trajectory. Overall, Spider-Man has been made even more fun to move around with, which is saying quite a bit when you consider the previous games.
Beating people up is quite a bit of fun as well. The number of combos you can execute has been drastically increased, and the animations accompanying these are pretty spectacular. You'll still have access to reworked versions of the old combos, but, if you tool around with the attack buttons, you'll find quite a bit hidden within. You'll also find golden spider tokens strewn throughout the gameworld--these unlock new combos in your repertoire when collected. The effects of some of these combos are pretty neat--one, for instance, which is executed by a punch/jump/punch command, causes Spidey to belt the opposing enemy, jump up in the air, and dive down on him fist-first. Another one, executed in a similar manner, but with kicks in place of punches, causes Spidey to kick the opponent, dive backward, and spring forward with a lethal drop kick. We've only really scratched the surface as far as the combo system goes, but we've seen the fully stocked combo screen before, and it gets pretty huge, offering elaborate individual combos.
Needless to say, Spider Man: The Movie looks a whole lot more impressive than any superhero game before it. Some functionality has also been added to the game's camera, which makes lots of things about it--especially airborne combat--much more of a possibility than it was before. Specifically, you can fix the camera at any one angle once you lock onto an enemy. This guarantees that you'll be able to see the object of your assaults at any given time, regardless of how far you travel from it. It works great, and, most importantly, it makes air combat possible, in earnest, for the first time. You can execute some pretty deadly punches off a web swing, as well as that swing kick that Spider-Man seems to like to do. And since you can jump out of swings pretty quickly and safely, you'll be able to change your attack patterns quite frequently.
The visual additions are not solely functional, though. Everything moves at a fluid rate, with jitters occurring only when there's a flurry of effects onscreen or a huge gang of enemies. It's never really crippling to gameplay, though, nor is it ever too long-lived. Spider-Man's model looks wonderful, right down to the reflective "eyes" on his costume. His animation is also exquisitely detailed, and you'll see it in the way he flips out of web lines, jumps into his uppercuts, and scurries up walls. Particle effects are in no short supply either; exploding web shields, foaming water, and unstable oil canisters all do their part to make light particles dance, and it's all very lively. The only real complaint we have, at this point, aside from the occasional stutters, are the enemy models; they are far less detailed and contrast quite drastically with the superdetailed player and supervillain models.
Overall, though, there seems to be quite a bit to like about Spider-Man: The Movie. All the elements of a great Spider-Man game are in place, along with some very key refinements. The game is due out pretty soon, so keep your eyes on this space for a full review in the coming weeks. Before then, though, we'll have reports on the PS2 and GameCube versions for you, so don't go too far.