Activision's upcoming Treyarch-developed action game based on Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man series has been looking good since we got our first peek at it earlier this year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. The promising action game hit all the right notes for fans of the Ultimate Spider-Man comic, an updated spin on the classic webslinging Marvel Comics hero that we've all come to know and love. We've been curious to see how it handles, especially when we got word that classic Spidey foe Venom was on hand as a playable character. We finally got our chance when Activision let us spend some exclusive quality time with the game recently. We were able to try out a sampling of Spidey and Venom levels on a work-in-progress Xbox version of the game that let us get a feel for what to expect.
The game's story, for those who follow the comic, picks up roughly three months after the conclusion of the Venom story arc in the comic, which saw Spidey's foe defeated. You'll discover that, surprise, Venom is in fact alive and kicking and overflowing with thoughts of vengeance, among other things. Now if you're not big on the comic book, don't be intimidated, because at the outset, the game offers a nice capsule version of the major points from the story. The sequence is a good primer for the action and a fine showcase for the motion graphics panels that will be central to the visuals.
We started out with four Spidey levels taken from the early part of the game. The first level is a flashback to the final battle between Spider-Man and Venom on the high school football field. The dramatic battle, which unfolds in the rain, doubles as a tutorial for Spidey's moves. Following that battle you'll face off against some street thugs, which will continue your education. If you've played any of Activision's previous Spider-Man games, especially those based on the film, you should be right at home with the game's combat system. You'll be able to punch and kick your foes (alternating the attacks will yield various combos) to knock them into submission. In addition, you can perform impressive aerial combos that knock your foes up in the air and let you knock them around. However, the best part of beating up baddies is using your webs on them. You'll have a variety of options when dealing with evildoers, and they're all quite satisfying. You can temporarily slow them down by webbing them, which sets them up for some nice beatings, or, once you've knocked them around enough to bring up an icon, you can permanently tie them to the ground. Our favorite web attack has to be the ability to web up a foe and string him up from any place that's handy, such as a street lamp (which is right out of the comic book).
The next level we tried was taken from the game's proper story and opens, as we mentioned earlier, three months after the Venom fight. The sequence continues the tutorial of Spidey's abilities and lets you get in some webslinging as you race over to Mary Jane's to collect your recently repaired outfit. The web controls, much like the combat, are similar to the previous Spidey games and are easy to pick up. You'll be able to double-jump, shoot, and swing from web lines, quickly move forward using zip lines, and boost your swing and climb your web lines to gain altitude. The system is a variation on the mechanics seen in the Spider-Man 2 movie game and are easy to pick up. The game offers a nifty sensation of speed and freedom when you're webbing around that's extremely cool to experience. Once we were up to speed and fully costumed, we had a brief fight against the Shocker--guess who won.
However, once we got through these early segments, the real work began as we played through levels that pit us against the Rhino, a much tougher foe. The series of levels are all centered on trailing and stopping the behemoth. The early part, which is kicked off by a cool motion graphics story sequence, had us following the brute as he tore through the city. Being the responsible citizens that we are, we made sure to help the various civilians who were endangered by his passing. This introduced another game element: minigame-style sequences. The first requires you to alternate the shoulder buttons in order to fill a meter. Once the meter is full you'll perform an action, such as lifting a car. The second sequence required us to grab civilians and carry them to safety.
Who's The Boss?
We finally got ourselves into a two-part boss battle with the Rhino. The first segment had us making use of wet cement and a crane to try to stop him. The sequence showed off another element in the game--context-sensitive actions that let you interact with objects. Unfortunately, our work only succeeded in slowing him down and making him more annoyed, which segued into a boss battle in a parking lot. Defeating the Rhino required us to make use of just about every technique we had learned, as we had to scope out his pattern and then take advantage of a window of vulnerability. The battle had a nice old-school feel to it, because for the most part you'll just have to get his pattern down and get your hits in. Of course knowing what to do and doing it are two different things, which made the fight a good challenge.
Once horn-head was taken out, we switched to a sampling of Venom's levels. The first level we tried was basically the beginning of Venom's tutorial level. As we've mentioned in our previous looks at the game, Venom offers a very different experience from Spider-Man's. His raw power and general bad attitude make for, in many ways, a slightly more satisfying experience (let's face it; it's always more fun to be evil). His level finds him going through the city dealing with mercenaries and feeding on people to replenish his strength. The big bullet points for Venom are his raw strength, powerful leaping (which he does in lieu of using webs to get around), his tendrils, and his ability to feed off of innocent bystanders. We offer kudos to Treyarch for making one of the test feedings be the balloon kid from Spider-Man 2. Once you get the hang of how Venom handles, you'll take on a group of mercenaries, which lets you get a feel for combat.
Fighting with Venom offers a different perspective than the fast, flighty, and improvisational style you'll use as Spider-Man. Venom is a tank, plain and simple. He doles out lethal punishment with his tendrils and can hit several enemies at a time. You can also use his strength to fling cars and other objects like toys. His controls are a variant of Spidey's and are a breeze to pick up. We really can't stress how satisfying it is to slurp up bystanders for some energy. Once we had our fill of mercenaries, we had the chance to play through some of the battle royale we've seen that finds Venom, Spidey, and Electro facing off in Times Square. Much like Spidey's fight with the Rhino, you'll have to figure out Electro's attack pattern and when to strike when he's vulnerable.
The control in the game for both characters was good and responsive. Both characters had similar controls but managed to have their own unique feel.
The visuals are shaping up nicely and appear to be ably fulfilling the promise of our initial look at the game. The motion graphics panels and unique coloring system Treyarch is using to simulate the comic book's inking is an impressive step forward in the evolution of video games based on comics. The only rough spot to the visuals we experienced were the expected awkward camera angles that cropped up in a few spots. Given the game's work-in-progress state, we expect these to be improved to some degree.
The audio in the game is keeping pace with the quality of the visuals and offers a strong accompaniment to the action. One of the key elements, the voice acting, is sounding great, thanks to some smart casting and Bendis' script. Better still is one of the minor aspects of the experience that some are likely to overlook, and that's Spidey's puns. With dialogue by Brian Michael Bendis it's pretty much a given that the puns will sound good, but their delivery, variety, and most importantly, their frequency, were elements that could have gone very wrong and thrown off the whole experience. Fortunately, what we've seen so far is compelling proof that USM is sidestepping that pitfall by a wide margin. The other elements of the audio--the soundtrack and sound effects--are sounding quite good. The music in the game sets a good tone for the action, and it's not too dramatic and not too breezy. The sound effects, whether the cries of civilians, ambient noise of the city, or the roar of explosions, are well done. The effects used to punctuate Venom's attacks and, most notably, landings after his powerful leaps, are especially noteworthy.
Based on what we played, Ultimate Spider-Man is well on its way to being one of the games you'll want to pick up this fall. The story is engrossing, the gameplay offers a good amount of variety, and the visuals are some of the best-looking and inventive ever seen in a comic game. The package is looking strong enough already to make us overlook the occasionally problematic camera (which we'd still like to see tightened up), which is a good testament to the game's winning charm. Look for more on Ultimate Spider-Man as its fall ship date nears. The game is slated to ship on PC, Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube.