Todd McFarlane's Spawn has become one of the most recognizable and popular comic book characters ever to hit the mainstream. The comic series has spun off into a number of different merchandising directions, including a highly popular series of action figures, a dark and gritty cartoon series on HBO, and a feature film starring Michael Jai White and Martin Sheen. There have also been a couple of games based on the Spawn franchise--one for the PlayStation and one for the Dreamcast. Sadly, both games failed miserably to make good use of their license in practically any way. The latest game to bear the Spawn namesake is Namco and Point of View's Spawn: Armageddon, an action adventure game that heavily borrows from the concepts found in Capcom's Devil May Cry series. Unfortunately, regardless of the game's inspiration, Armageddon is a mediocre action game that is carried only by its license.
The Spawn comics tell the continuing tale of one Al Simmons, a former soldier who was killed as part of a government conspiracy and was then reborn as a hellspawn--a soldier of hell. Upon his rebirth, Simmons had a change of heart and turned against the kingdom of hell in favor of a vigilante lifestyle, and he swore to fight all things evil. Spawn: Armageddon's storyline has our brooding hero facing a multitiered threat. A group of renegade angels have launched a massive weapon straight into the depths of hell in an attempt to destroy it. Unfortunately, the side effect of this weapon strike is that hell's minions now have an easy exit topside to the earth's surface. Add to that an escaped experimental supersoldier, developed by Spawn's primary earthly adversary, Jason Wynn, and our hero has quite a hectic agenda on his hands. There are around 20 missions in the game, but none of them really drive the story, which actually only comes into play in some brief in-engine cutscenes that appear from time to time. Missions are set up by a title screen that appears at the beginning of each mission, quickly dictating what you're supposed to do and why. Beyond these few simple elements, there isn't much plot to be found.
Spawn has a few ways to attack his foes. He can use his trusty axe, his hellpower attacks, his ever-popular chains, or just good old-fashioned heavy artillery. The axe is most useful for any close-quarters combat. Axe attacks can be strung together into quick, though repetitive, three-hit combos and the moves include an uppercut slash, a forward flip attack, and a jumping axe slam attack. Hellpower is basically the game's answer to magic attacks, and a meter near Spawn's life bar shows how much he has available to him at any given time. There are a few different types of hellpower attacks--most of them are varying types of projectile attacks, and one is a Max Payne-inspired bullet-time effect. Spawn's chain and gun attacks are rolled into one button. When Spawn is unarmed, he can use his chains indefinitely to stab at or pull apart enemies from a distance. Throughout the game, Spawn can pick up a number of different weapons, including a basic shotgun, a hefty rocket launcher, and even a pair of dual-fisted miniguns. You can also target a specific enemy by pressing the right trigger button.
Despite the range of attack methods, however, combat in Armageddon gets old pretty quickly. Axe combat is pretty much the same three hits over and over again, and the other axe moves are really only necessary against specialized enemies, which don't pop up that often. The hellpower projectile attacks are effective, but they are often difficult to aim properly. That leaves your long-range attacks, which you'll generally use the most. In fact, pretty much all you need to do when faced with a non-boss enemy is find yourself a good spot in the middle of the action, hit the target button, and start hammering on the gun/chain attack button, ad nauseam. It usually doesn't matter what kind of weapon you're using in this situation, and really, your chains are nearly as effective as any of the guns, which have limited ammo.
Part of this is because none of the enemies are really all that difficult. On all difficulty levels but the hardest, plowing through levels is quite a briskly paced task, and nearly every bad guy has a surprisingly low life meter. The other reason is that the enemy AI is virtually nonexistent. Aside from some of the bosslike characters, pretty much every enemy in the game is about as nonaggressive as you'll find when it comes to demonic hellspawn. You might think that a lifetime of pain and suffering would make them a little more aggressive in their tactics, but interestingly enough, it seems that all these tortured souls know how to do is execute some obscenely basic attack patterns that rarely ever come close to doing any real damage to you, and you can often avoid them by simply mashing on the projectile attack button. Certain enemies, such as the fire demons and the claw demons, require a little more strategy than simple button mashing, but these brief respites from the mind-numbingly easy task of working your way past Armageddon's antagonists don't do much to help matters.
Further adding to Spawn: Armageddon's gameplay problems are the poorly designed levels and associated platforming mechanics. A good number of the game's missions require you to hop around various portions of a level to get to various checkpoints and break various switches or electric generators to turn something off or open a door or what have you. The trouble with this is that it's all very badly done. Spawn's jumping mechanics consist of a single jump, a double jump, and an ability to float to the ground using his infamous cape. Unfortunately, the jumping controls aren't very responsive, so timing your jumps is much more frustrating than it should be. While some levels have only a few jump puzzles here and there, some levels are reliant on them to the point of obnoxiousness, and ultimately this emphasis on weak jump puzzles really kills a lot of whatever fun could have been had in the game.
As monotonous as the game is, it doesn't last that long--at least, not the first time through. On easy and normal difficulty, Spawn probably takes around four to five hours to complete, and on the hardest setting, it takes closer to six hours. However, the game uses an unlockables system that basically requires you to play the game through on all three difficulties. There really isn't a ton of unique stuff to unlock, but what you can get includes some encyclopedia items that educate you a bit on the history of the series, some concept art, and some comic book cover art, all of which you can find scattered throughout the game. Spawn also features an upgrades system, which lets you build up Spawn's life, hellpower, and weapon attributes through currency gained by collecting items, breaking certain objects, and killing as many bad guys as possible. All of these things certainly add a bit of depth to Armageddon, but the fact that the game isn't all that fun to play to begin with negates that somewhat.
Spawn: Armageddon's graphics aren't bad by any means, but they aren't really much to look at, either. The obvious standout here would be the character design, which is full of the horror-inspired style of the comic book, with all sorts of crazy, horrific-looking demons and monsters. The basic look of the game is appropriately dark, with a lot of understated lighting effects and bleak scenery to instill the proper feeling of despair. Unfortunately, from a technical standpoint, bleak and understated are also apt words to describe the game. The game's environments are chock-full of cheap-looking textures and repetitive and uninteresting set pieces, and the game lacks any sort of interesting or in any way varied animation, giving the whole game something of an archaic, outdated feel. There are a few interesting little touches here and there, such as the heavy blood splatter you'll see when cutting your way through an enemy (the blood even drips off of your axe), but there aren't enough touches like this to really add much to the overall presentation. Armageddon runs at a reasonably solid frame rate, and it doesn't have any irritating hiccups or problems in that regard. The same can't be said for the game's camera. It frequently has problems with framing a good combat angle by itself, and it's often stupidly difficult to move it to a better aiming angle. The Xbox version of the game is far and away better looking than both the GameCube and PlayStation 2 versions of the game (which, incidentally, look identical to one another). Everything about the Xbox version looks much cleaner and smoother compared to its counterparts, and it also seems to run at around 60 frames per second, whereas the other two versions evidently can only push 30.
Where Spawn: Armageddon does manage to excel is in its sound design, which is head and shoulders above basically everything else in the game. Voices for the characters are provided by the voice actors from the HBO animated series (including noted character actor and former Xbox spokesperson Keith David), and they do a great job with the admittedly less-than-stellar script they're provided here--unfortunately, you won't hear them as much as you might hope. Armageddon also features a nice range of sound effects. Guns sound exactly like they should, the slicing and dicing of various enemies is appropriately gory sounding, and you can't help but love the sound of those chains pulling an annoying little imp literally in half. The game's soundtrack isn't especially varied--it consists of only a few generic metal tracks (including a Marilyn Manson song) and a bit of synth-sounding orchestrated music. Still, despite the lack of variety, it does the job for what it's trying to get across.
In the end, Spawn: Armageddon is a game that tries to ape bigger and better games in its chosen genre, and it manages to pull off little more than a weak imitation, at best. Granted, if you're a diehard fan of the comic book, Armageddon still might hold some appeal for you, simply because of the license. But beyond that license, there's nothing here that hasn't been done better by countless other games. If you aren't a rabid fan of the Spawn franchise, then you would do best to just ignore Spawn: Armageddon.