Many Nintendo DS games employ the system's touch screen control features in some fashion, but Spider-Man 3 is one of the few that does so comfortably and in ways that actually enhance the experience of playing the game. While you have to use the directional pad to move Spidey around and to swing through the air, all of his various attacks and web abilities are handled by tapping the touch screen or swiping the stylus across it in different directions. You'll really feel like you're controlling Spider-Man as you unleash a couple of jabs to a thug's face, uppercut the punk into the air, and then reel him back toward you with a web line simply by making a few quick swipes across the touch screen. Of course, it also doesn't hurt that the game itself is a slick beat-'em-up that does a good job of telling the story of the movie it's based on while enriching that story with subplots and villains taken from the pages of Spider-Man comic books.
There are more than 20 story missions as well as an additional 40 challenge and race missions to tackle. Story missions are assigned in a linear fashion, but you can complete the rest in whatever order you like. While the Sandman and Venom plotlines from the movie are the main threads that keep the story going, the game also expands on the movie's story by incorporating other characters, such as the Lizard from the comic books and detective DeWolfe. Mission goals vary, but they usually involve beating up a certain number of thugs or rescuing a set number of hostages before the timer runs out. You'll also spend a fair amount of time climbing up the sides of buildings and swinging through the air. Spider-Man has a wide variety of actions and is fluidly animated, as are his enemies. Everything happens on a 2D plane, but the graphics are 3D and the levels frequently twist and turn while you're swinging back and forth. The environments really are quite impressive once you take a moment to observe all of the cars and people milling around in the background. It's also nice that all of the different areas of New York--midtown, the theatre district, the docks, and so on--are interconnected so that you have to travel through one area to get to the mission waiting for you in another area.
When you start the game, Spider-Man's bag of tricks already includes a dozen different attacks and web abilities. Beating up thugs and completing missions will earn you money that you can use to buy additional attacks and abilities, nearly doubling Spidey's repertoire. The new black costume that was featured in the movie also comes into play. Attacking thugs builds Spidey's rage meter. When it's full, the black costume takes over, making you stronger and faster until your health runs low or you chill out for a while. That's pretty much all the costume does, apart from allowing you to see the bonus meteor shard pieces that are hidden in some levels.
Unlike previous Spider-Man games on the DS, which made you constantly jockey between the buttons and the touch screen, this game uses the directional pad for movement and the touch screen for everything else. This setup allows you to comfortably hold the system and manipulate the directional pad with one hand, while you grasp the stylus and tap the touch screen with your other hand. It also makes you feel like you're in total control of Spider-Man. Apart from the fact that Spidey can now have more moves than the system has buttons to map them all to, it just feels more intuitive to unleash a flurry of attacks and webs by quickly making slashing and circular motions on the touch screen than it would by pressing buttons. That's especially true when reeling in enemies with webbing, which requires you to slide the stylus across the touch screen as if you were actually yanking a snared thug back toward you. The game isn't always perfect at translating your swipes into the intended actions, but the end result tends to be splattered thugs anyway.
Despite the many similarities that Spider-Man 3 shares with the previous Spider-Man games that Activision published for the DS, this latest game incorporates a few minor improvements that make it seem downright friendly compared to its begrudgingly tolerable predecessors. The threat meter that serves as the timer in each level takes longer to fill, so you have more time to explore and accomplish things. Finding your way around within each area is also easier, because now there are waypoint symbols that show you the general locations of enemies and hostages. The ability to see on a map what missions you have left to do and to be able to travel between areas as you please also beats the stuffing out of the linear story progression of previous games.
Another welcome upgrade is the amount of voice-over that's used. Tobey Maguire, the actor that plays Spider-Man in the movies, lent his voice to the DS version of Spider-Man 3 as well. He reads most of the dialogue shown during the newspaper-style cinematic scenes and voices the many comments that Spidey makes as you pummel the bad guys or end up on the wrong side of a henchman's baseball bat. Occasionally, you'll be swinging through the air and Spider-Man will make a silly quip out of the blue similar to the one-liners that Maguire rattles off in the movies. Those comments and one-liners contribute some much-needed personality to the game, and they help you ignore the techno rock music that serves as the soundtrack for most missions.
Most people will finish the story mode in five or six hours. Completing every challenge and race to unlock all of the extras and cheats will take a little longer. In addition to the story mode, the game lets two people compete in four different multiplayer challenges. Both players need to have their own copy of the game to participate. There's no big incentive to do so, but competing to see who can knock out the most enemies or perform the most elaborate combo is good for a few minutes of amusement, at least.
As action games go, Spider-Man 3 for the Nintendo DS doesn't really bring anything new to the table. However, its innovative touch-screen controls go a long way toward breathing fresh life into the old beat-'em-up formula. The slick 3D visuals and charming voice-overs are pretty sweet, too.