|Scenes from "Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions"|
From the good ("Web of Shadows") to the bad ("Maximum Carnage”), Spider-Man has a long and storied history in video games. However, that's nothing when compared to his comic book counterpart. From changing costumes to continuity reboots and alternate realities, the various permutations of Marvel’s Spider-Man are the inspiration for "Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions," which is anything but your friendly neighborhood video game.
The new game centers around the shattering of a mystic artifact known as the Tablet of Order and Chaos. As a result of this event, you're able to travel to four different dimensions and control the Spider-Man of each world. Those realms include “Amazing Spider-Man,” “Ultimate Spider-Man,” “2099” and “Noir.” While they all work on the same game engine, the goal of each is to provide a wholly unique visual and gameplay experience.
Although game publisher Activision has held the Spider-Man license for more than a decade, they tapped a relatively unknown studio to develop “Shattered Dimensions,” Beenox. Primarily a porting house, the studio’s largest development project prior to "Shattered Dimensions" was "Guitar Hero: Smash Hits." Last week Activision and Beenox invited CBR News to a press preview event to test drive a nearly final build of the game to see how it stacked up against other Spider-Man video games.
My test run started off with Ultimate Spider-Man chasing after Carnage. I was surprised to see Ultimate Spidey in the symbiote suit, and even more surprised to find that he stays in it the entire game. "Web of Shadows," the previous Spider-Man title, let you switch between standard red-and-blue and symbiote with the click of a button, and I'm guessing the reason you're stuck with one option here is to further differentiate it from the other three worlds. The world of Ultimate Spider-Man takes advantage of a cel-shading technique to carve out its look, though it isn't as pronounced as it was in the "Ultimate Spider-Man" game from a few years back.
Ultimate Spider-Man's dimension is your most basic gameplay type, relying on fast and furious button-mashing and melee-style attacks. Click the left bumper and you enter "Rage Mode," which casts a red tinge over everything and ramps up the power of your attacks. Chaining moves together prolongs your Rage Meter.
The level I played had Ultimate Spider-Man facing off against various tech-soldiers who were somewhat possessed, and later some Carnage-like minions before coming fist-to-face with the man himself. The Carnage fight was immediately different than other Spidey boss fights because it began POV-style, with the analog sticks each controlling one of Spider-Man's fists. I'm told many of the boss fights involve this, with some also adding in more complicated mechanics as well. The rest of the fight involved jumping around a large area, dodging attacks and wailing on Carnage when he was between assaults. It was a good primer to check out the "Spider Sense" feature, which looks and functions exactly as it does in the comics. You get the familiar lines around the character's head warning you of danger - though you can't pinpoint from where - and a well-timed jump or dodge helps keep you out of trouble. I would have liked to see some vibration feedback, but as later levels would prove, the reason the warning is visual is to not interfere with the force-feedback of the combat itself.
Next I was jumped into the world of Spider-Man Noir, perhaps the most intriguing of all the levels. It's gorgeous; as dark and moody as you would expect something titled “noir” to be, but there's never an issue of the action getting too dark or muddy. The level I played involved freeing hostages trapped in various cars throughout a train yard while searchlights and thugs armed with tommy guns patrol. Noir relies heavily on stealth combat and will feel familiar to fans of the "Metal Gear Solid" series. Not all levels involve stealth mechanics, but the ones that do greatly handicap your ability to win by brute force alone. Hand-to-hand combat is not Spider-Man Noir's strong suit, and when you're spotted by an enemy, a mini-cinematic depicts them alerting their friends. When this happens, you must hightail it to the shadows or risk a torrent of bullets rocking you.
A red dot indicates your last known position. Pressing up on the D-pad activates another Spider Sense mode, which places a filter over the gameplay that points out prisoners to save as well as enemy combatants. It's a bit like a HUD, but optimized for the Spider-Man experience. The mode is available in all dimensions, but there are definitely times it's more necessary than others.
Noir's special feature is the ability to perform Takedowns. These are stealth eliminations of your enemies, and they can be performed on the ground, from above, or while stuck to walls. Distance and location play a key factor in determining what type of takedown your character does, and you can earn points for style. My only gripe with the takedown system is that the targeting feels a bit arbitrary. I often felt like I was in position but wasn't given the option to perform a takedown, or would be much further away and out of position when the targeting reticule would show. When your character isn't ready, pressing B doesn't perform a botched move or give away your position; it does nothing. Perhaps this will be fixed in the final build of the game.
Next up, Spider-Man 2099. This world could not be more different from Noir. It's bright, shiny and filled with electricity. So is every building, character and attack. I'd go so far as to call the design garish because so much of it is purple and neon. I wouldn't mind so much, but the characters and environment can blend together, and this is further exacerbated by the lighting trail effects of the combat. Perhaps it's better in other levels, but I was not impressed with the one I played, though the constantly moving electricity on your costume is pretty awesome, as are the reflection effects in the environment.
The gameplay is very fast, possibly faster than Ultimate. You start off by BASE jumping off a roof in pursuit of Hobgoblin 2099. 2099's abilities allow for more BASE jumping and flight-based sequences. His special ability is Accelerated Vision, which slows down the world around you, allowing for more attacks in less time or the ability to navigate obstacles while in freefall. It's a pretty good effect, and a nice contrast to the world's normal speed. After the initial chase, you land on a lighted platform where goons attack as Hobgoblin lobs pumpkins at you. Here is an instance where the lighted platform really hinders the ability to tell exactly what's going on with the fight, and I wish there was more contrast in the visuals.
While I wasn't crazy about the look, I'm actually most curious about the story of this world. It's the only dimension that doesn't involve Peter Parker (Spider-Man 2099 is Miguel O'Hara), so I'm not sure how they'll make that work. Also, the boss of the level I played was Hobgoblin 2099, who never appeared in the comics. Beenox was given freedom to create some new characters for the game and I'm curious about how they were developed visually and from a character standpoint.
The last dimension is the familiar Amazing Spider-Man dimension. While it might seem easy to gloss over this dimension and write it off with a "seen it" response, it was actually my favorite within the limited levels I was given to play. Dumped off in the middle of Manhattan and chasing after Juggernaut as he tries to bring down Silver Sable's helicopter, all I could think was how gorgeous it all was. The art uses a solid black line, much like traditional comic inking, and falls somewhere in style between Alex Maleev and Matt Hollingsworth's work on "Daredevil" and Kev Walker and Frank Martin on "Thunderbolts."
The action is classic Spider-Man - acrobatic moves; web assaults like fists and hammers; and web-slinging galore. In the demo level, you chase Juggernaut through a sewer and into a construction site manned by 50 marines and three construction workers, the latter of whom need rescuing. There are platforms and obstacles aplenty, though for all the characters involved, the environments and their interactivity were a little lacking. The various vehicles and and porta potties at the site can be destroyed, but it's slow and not really in line with whatever pounding they should be taking. Other than this minor quibble, this is the best a traditional Spider-Man game has looked. The Amazing Spider-Man has no special ability, but his web repertoire is far more advanced and visually detailed than that of the Spider-Men of other worlds.
While each world has its own quirks and techniques, it's all built on the same engine. And while most of it is good, some of it still needs work. First and foremost -- and this is the one that never makes sense to me -- someone really needs to figure out how to smooth the shift in perspective and control from standard running-and-swinging to wall-crawling. It's always jarring, especially when you move from one wall around a corner or from the wall to the floor. This is a basic element of being Spider-Man and no one really seems to have mastered it. That being said, I didn't notice any camera issues in any of the levels played, which may balance this out. The web slinging is very good, but it didn't feel quite as slick as it did in "Web of Shadows." Beenox took a more literal approach in terms of what you can attach to, and there are various indicators that help this out. While this bugged me when I wanted to just swing around, it came in handy during boss fights and when trapped in a crowd. When you need a quick escape a simple tap of the web button will rocket you to the selected indicator and out of harm's way. It's a good system, but I'm less enamored with it than the previous game. I also couldn't figure out a reason to really use the block button except in concern with the dodge maneuver.
One aspect of the game I didn't have a chance to explore is the Web of Destiny. As you perform various moves or fill certain quotas, you unlock new achievements and abilities. Whether this means you unlock moves for each world or ones that can be carried across them, I cannot say. We were only allowed access to snippets of the game and this mode didn't come into play. There will be some options for leveling up and improving your character via hit totals and collecting spiders as in past games, but without seeing this in action it's hard to say how it will affect the gameplay.
Unfortunately I also can't comment too much on the story. While I know the game is written by "Amazing Spider-Man" writer Dan Slott, Activision did not allow access to the full game or to see anything other than the opening cinematic. I can tell you that the cinematic was visually stunning, and even featured a cameo by Spider-Ham.
As no headphones were provided and there was too much noise to tell what was going on sound-wise during standard gameplay, including voice acting. The talent is all top notch - Neil Patrick Harris as Amazing Spider-Man, Josh Keaton as Ultimate, Dan Gilvezan as 2099, Christopher Daniel Barnes as Noir with narration by Stan Lee - it would have been nice to hear them in action.
The game only features a single-player campaign mode; there are no co-op or online modes as the developers felt the focus should be firmly on Spider-Man and developing each world, not the supporting cast. While the game will not allow you to take a Spider-Man from one dimension and play with him in another, there are a bevy of alternate costumes which should delight fans of various other Spider-Men that didn't merit their own world.
"Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions" has all the makings of a worthy and ambitious successor to "Web of Shadows." It's clearly made by a team with great admiration and respect for the source material (note the various visual references to Stark Industries and other Marvel mainstays), and they underwent great pains to try and make each level unique and different while maintaining a through line. From the limited time I had to play, it's clear the game delivers on fun and excellent visuals. With no nagging gameplay issues, it's hard to imagine this one falling apart as you get deeper into it. Fans of Spider-Man definitely can't go wrong as it feels so much like getting four games for the price of one.
"Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions" is available September 7, 2010 for the DS, PS3, Wii and Xbox 360. For more information on the game, check out the official website.