Although the Spider-Man movies have been credited with helping comic-book movies mature and take a more sophisticated turn, the problem with all of these complex, serious heroes and villains is, well, that they're all so complex and serious. They lose sight of the fact that Spider-Man is far more entertaining when he's wheelin' free and crackin' wise rather than stressing out about the whole "with great power" thing and generally being riddled with angst. The webslinger is in loose, smart-aleck form in Spider-Man: Friend or Foe, a beat-'em-up that doesn't get bogged down in character development. Instead, the game puts the focus on the kind of combat that's simple but showy, with an art style that reminds you that comic books shouldn't necessarily be so somber.
The big concept twist that Friend or Foe offers up revolves around Spider-Man teaming up with some of his most memorable foes. In a reference to Venom's origin story from Spider-Man 3, some unknown mastermind is using shards from the meteor that spawned the symbiotic suit to brainwash villains such as Doc Ock and the Green Goblin to do his bidding, as well as to power an army of holographic monsters called phantoms. With the help of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, you trot the globe, recover the shards, and free the brainwashed villains, which turns enemies into allies. As thin as the premise is, the game's jokey, playful tone makes it seem less far-fetched, and it ultimately serves its purpose of letting you fight alongside some of Spidey's greatest villains, a concept that manages to stay novel throughout. You'll also team up with other heroes along the way, including Spidey regulars such as Prowler, Black Cat, and Silver Sable, as well as b-team favorites such as Iron Fist and Blade. A big part of what carries the humor in Friend or Foe is the quality of the voice work, which is consistently great.
The basic structure of Friend or Foe isn't terribly interesting by itself. You'll travel to some exotic location, such as Tokyo, Transylvania, or Nepal, where you'll beat the holographic snot out of the phantoms before facing off with a brainwashed villain. The phantoms come in just a few different varieties, and though they get stronger over time and change appearance between locations, the same tactics seem to work pretty well from start to finish. Although the boss fights are presented differently, they all rely on the same basic strategy of throwing objects at the villains from afar. They can occasionally be a little time-consuming, but they're never particularly challenging.
There's really not much else to the game beyond the fighting, either. There's a little bit of exploration, in that there are DNA samples and secret arenas scattered throughout the game, but more often than not you'll just stumble over them in the course of playing the game. Spidey can double-jump and use his webbing to swing over small gaps, but platforming is minimal. When you do die, be it at the hands of an enemy or from falling off a platform, the only penalty is that you'll lose a couple of tech tokens, a type of in-game currency that falls out of defeated enemies and smashed objects. You use the tech tokens to upgrade the abilities of Spider-Man and friends.
It's pretty much all fighting, all the time, against the same handful of enemies, with no consequences for dying. The whole thing can be wrapped up with a bow in less than six hours. So what makes the action in Friend or Foe interesting? A lot of it rests on the combat, which manages to be both accessible and somewhat dynamic. There's a single attack button that you can use to tap out some simple combos, but it's Spider-Man's web-based abilities that bring a lot of panache to the game. The webslinging abilities let him grab enemies from afar and launch them into one another, into the ground, or right off the edge of a platform.
You'll earn additional web talents over time, including the ability to shoot projectiles and wrap enemies up, but your starting abilities seem to be the most useful. They're also the most visually interesting, though admittedly some of the actions look more exciting than they might otherwise due to exaggerated physics that cause everyone to linger in the air before gravity pulls them back down. It's very easy to string these moves together, and even though it's not much of a challenge, fending off a dozen enemies at once with a constant flurry of attacks can be pretty satisfying.
It can be a real kick in the pants to fight alongside some of Spider-Man's greatest villains as well, and you can switch back and forth on the fly between controlling Spidey and his sidekick. When controlled by the artificial intelligence, your sidekick can take care of itself pretty well. As awesome as it might sound to finally get to play as these villains, the sidekicks simply don't have as many abilities as Spidey, which makes them inherently less interesting. This ends up limiting the appeal of the game's two-player support, although it's consequently less disappointing that there's no online play.
The experience of playing Spider-Man: Friend or Foe on the Xbox 360, PC, and Wii was pretty consistent across platforms, though there were some predictable discrepancies. The PC version demands a good gamepad, and we found that the game provided seamless support for the Xbox 360 controller. The game plays it pretty safe on the Wii, in that it relies on motion controls only for secondary stuff such as switching characters and performing grab modifiers. All three versions feature the same clean art style, which isn't technically demanding, but it looks sharp. The environments favor clean textures over complex geometry, and each location features a distinct look while keeping with the overall cartoony feel. The character models are nicely embellished, and some of the animations--Spider-Man's in particular--look terrific. The PC and Xbox 360 versions look pretty comparable, though on the Wii there's some pretty jagged edges, some minor frame-rate issues, and a little fuzziness that diminishes the look of the game, if only somewhat. It seems worth noting that the achievements in the Xbox 360 version are pretty fabulously easy, and they require only a little extra effort beyond finishing the game to earn the full 1000 points.
The low level of challenge, the cartoon-inspired look, and a tone that favors humor over pathos certainly make it seem as if Spider-Man: Friend or Foe was designed with a younger, less sophisticated audience in mind, but for what it is, this is a well-crafted game.