Generally speaking, the Marvel Comics legend Spider-Man has always done reasonably well for himself in the world of video games. That trend continues with the latest team-up from Activision and Treyarch in Spider-Man 2. Though the movie-themed game bites off a little more than it can chew with its attempt at an open-ended design, it gets a few key mechanics right and gives you just enough things to do to offset what would have otherwise been a pretty short, simple game. It's still worth checking out as a companion piece to the movie, even though its terrific first impression doesn't hold up throughout the entire length of the experience.
The main mechanic that makes Spider-Man 2 worth playing is the way you swing around the city. The game offers an optional simplified control scheme for easier swinging, but it's worth getting used to the more complex standard swing mode, because it's really the best part about the entire game. Spider-Man 2 gives you a large rendition of Manhattan to freely roam around in, and swinging from building to building--which looks convincingly similar to Spidey's thrilling webswinging sequences from the movie--is a good deal of fun all by itself. Your movement options make exploring the city entertaining for a while--even if the things you do outside of simply exploring don't really end up being all that exciting.
The game loosely follows the plot of the new film, which pits Spider-Man against the menacing Doctor Octopus. But since only one supervillain doesn't seem like enough for a game, Spider-Man 2 tosses in a few others, like the Rhino and Mysterio. The game is relatively short on story, however. Even the game's dull boss encounters seem to come out of nowhere. It has a handful of cutscenes to accompany the more important sequences, though most of these noninteractive sequences are simply used to briefly set up an action sequence. Most of these in-engine sequences look pretty bad because the character models really don't look so hot up close.
Unfortunately, much of your time playing the game will be spent uncovering relatively little content spread across an admittedly large environment. The game is broken up into chapters, and it feeds you objectives as you proceed. Each chapter also has an obligatory goal that earns you a set number of "hero points." These points are earned whenever you complete a basic task, like beating up some thugs, and they can be spent on upgrades that grant Spider-Man some new moves and combos. And while there are a number of different ways to earn the extra hero points you'll need, none of them are particularly interesting. The one with the most potential is the ability to seek out and solve random crimes in the city--but there are only a handful of different types of crime scenarios to be found.
In practice, you'll always find yourself running up to citizens in distress only to hear that there's an armored car holdup, a car being stolen, a shoot-out, a man about to fall off the side of a building, or a man in need of a lift to the hospital. Or, sometimes it's an ambush, and you'll just have to fight your way out of it. The short list of possible tasks means that you'll be doing the same things over and over again and that the element of surprise quickly disappears. And even though the circumstances occasionally change, these tasks do get old fast. Aside from this, you can also spend your free time in the city delivering pizzas or going on timed-race challenges that ask you to jump through glowing hoops (and things of this nature) to test your speed and dexterity. If you're the type of person that enjoys time attack modes, these types of missions will be right up your alley, but they aren't really all that relevant and also get old quickly, since you'll be doing plenty of webswinging during the rest of the game.
Actually, since you'll have to take on a handful of these types of extra tasks in almost every chapter in Spider-Man 2, they seem like they were designed to merely pad out the game's length. And, in fact, by forcing you to do these things, the game gets up to around the ten-hour mark before it reaches its conclusion. Without having to stop to deal with these extras, though, the game would have moved very quickly through its few plot points, and we would have been done in a few hours. Thankfully, these core story missions are more interesting. You'll have to take on master criminals, you'll explore a fun house, you'll have to navigate a hovering obstacle course to prove that you aren't a hoax, and so on. By and large, most of these challenges aren't especially difficult, so you'll likely get through each one on your first or second attempt.
Incidentally, Spidey can do a few things aside from just swinging around. Most of the combat consists of simple button mashing, though as mentioned, you can purchase new combo attacks and other moves that can make the combat at least look a little more interesting. The problem is that most of the enemies are real pushovers. Some will block your attacks, but many of them can easily get webbed up so that you can whale away on them. The game has a counter system, which lets you hit a button to dodge an attack. Your spider sense informs you of incoming attacks by showing a quick flash around Spider-Man's head, which alerts you to impending danger and gives you a short time frame for attempting to avoid it. The game isn't completely easy, and it can be particularly tough when enemies are in groups--especially when they're all armed and are firing at you at a rapid pace. But with enough hopping around and constant pounding on the attack button, even the most dire-looking odds aren't insurmountable. And if things get too hot to handle, you can drop into "spider reflex mode," which is really just a fancy way of saying "bullet time." You can hit harder when everything's moving in slow motion, and you can see attacks coming in a lot earlier as well. But you probably won't even need to use this mode.
Graphically, Spider-Man looks good. The city is the real star of the game's visuals, though. The city itself looks great, and the game maintains a solid frame rate as you move through it, even when you're swinging around at high speeds. There's a bit of a trade-off in that while the Spider-Man character model looks nice and animates really fluidly, many of the game's characters--especially pedestrians--look pretty bad. You'll see these character models up close pretty often, too, since the game zooms in on them whenever you take on a randomly generated task. You'll see then that these blocky characters' faces don't animate in any way when they talk to you. But the game does do a good job with the characters that are based on actors from the film. When you're out of costume, you look like Tobey Maguire. Doc Ock looks like Alfred Molina, and so on and so forth. And above all, the swinging looks good. The webs actually attach to objects this time around, so you aren't just swinging around by shooting webs into the sky as you did in the previous Spider-Man game.
As for the sound side of Spider-Man 2, it's missing something: music. When you aren't engaged in a mission, you'll swing around the city in near silence. This isn't all bad, because it gives you a good opportunity to hear the wind whooshing by as you swing, and you'll also be able to hear citizens crying out for help. However, it still makes these sequences feel somewhat anticlimactic. The game has a lot of voice work in it, most of which has been performed by the cast from the film. Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man is on par with his effective, understated performance in the film, though his lines aren't as witty. Kirsten Dunst doesn't show up all that often during the game, though her lines as Mary Jane Watson come off as a little wooden. Part of the problem is that the script for the game isn't as well written as the script for the movie. It stands fine on its own, but if you've seen the movie, you'll be wondering why a few sequences were needlessly rewritten. And much of the writing done specifically for the game isn't very good at all. In a real "welcome to four years ago" moment, the game actually makes an extremely tired "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" reference. Also, actor Bruce Campbell returns as the voice of the game's tutorial. He'll be constantly chatting you up as you find hint icons spread throughout the city. If you're a fan of Bruce Campbell's unique brand of being Bruce Campbell, you'll likely enjoy the hint speech. But Bruce mostly just seems out of place and, over time, actually gets pretty annoying.
This version of Spider-Man 2 is available for the Xbox, GameCube, and PlayStation 2. The game makes fairly intensive use of a lot of different buttons, which makes the PlayStation 2 version the best in terms of control, if only by a very slight margin. But, graphically, the Xbox version comes out on top with its cleaner look, though the GameCube version is a very close second. Regardless of these typical differences, the game holds up well enough on all three platforms, so you aren't really missing out on anything by getting one version over another. The game has rather brief loading times on all platforms, only stopping to load when you're entering a mission or coming out of a cutscene; you can seamlessly travel around the city itself.
Spider-Man 2 has tons of little challenges and hidden items to find all over the large city in which it takes place. But the game design doesn't take full advantage of the huge city, so instead you'll usually end up repeating the same half-dozen or so tasks over and over again, with some unique challenges thankfully sprinkled in to keep things moving. Even with all this repetition, Spider-Man 2 is still a good game, since it does succeed at capturing the sheer thrill of webswinging through a metropolitan area. However, it also feels like a missed opportunity. With some more variance in its mission design, Spider-Man 2 actually could have been something truly amazing.