FORGET ALL THE INSUBSTANTIAL NARRATIVES: What we needed was a single, original Spider-Man tale.
The Spider-Man 3 game has been out for a few weeks now, and the feeding frenzy has subsided a bit. The reviews have been brutal: 1up.com claimed that the game “looks like ass,” and even the usually obsequious IGN called it a “bust” and gave it a score of 6.0, which on the IGN scale is the equivalent of punching the designers’ mothers in the face. It’s easy (and fun) to pile onto these movie adaptations, since most are created under tight deadlines, with quality a mere afterthought. Spider-Man 3 isn’t immune to the genre’s more unfortunate afflictions. But, despite some obvious flaws, it’s actually a lot of fun to play.
Webslinging is its most prominent feature, and its best. The game takes place on an enormous replica of Manhattan, which you can explore in full without any load times or even hitches in play. (One caveat: I played the Xbox 360 version, which is reported to perform better than its cross-platform brethren.) Starting from street level, you swing through New York’s canyon-like thoroughfares and hop from one web strand to another up to the top of the Empire State Building. The sense of scale isn’t as overwhelming as in a superior game like Crackdown (falling from a great height doesn’t create a sense of vertigo), but the elasticity of the webbing and the changes in Spidey’s velocity feel just right. Even traversing the island to reach a mission objective is made fun this way.
The mission objectives, alas, are a mixed bag. In addition to the those that mirror the story line of the film, developer Treyarch has grafted on nine unconnected narratives. It’s a nice way to introduce some characters from the comic’s rogues’ gallery who haven’t had a chance to shine on the silver screen, such as Rhino and Electro. Often you’re simply asked to beat up a mess of bad guys, but there are also innocent citizens to rescue, and puzzling bombs to disarm. Each individual story line is short and insubstantial, however, and they don’t add up to a satisfying whole. Merely following the movie script would have produced an even shorter game — we’d have been much better served with a single, original Spider-Man tale.
The battle system and the combat scenarios are similarly uneven. At heart, Spider-Man 3 is a button masher, prizing numerous control inputs over skillful ones. There are some quirks. When an opponent is about to attack, a yellow icon appears over his head; that’s your cue to trigger your Spider Sense, which slows down time and gives you a chance to counter-attack. It sounds like a cheap stunt, but as the enemies get more powerful, it becomes harder to pull off. There are also God of War–style scripted scenarios that require you to press buttons when prompted on screen. These segments lack the élan of those found in GoW, but they help keep Spider-Man from coming off as a thug.
Most of the film’s actors phone in their contractually obligated voiceover work (which is pretty much what you expect from “the official game” of a movie), but Bruce Campbell is subversive as the obnoxious, needling narrator, and J.K. Simmons turns the hamminess dial to 11 as J. Jonah Jameson. Yes, Spider-Man 3 exists to capitalize on a popular film and not to give us the Spidey experience we so richly deserve. But it doesn’t always seem that way when you’re swinging high above the city lights.