When I stopped reading comics Todd McFarlane was still drawing Spider-Man. (Protip – it was 1991). Without cataloguing the entirety of my nerdy reading habits, let’s just say Spider-Man was a staple.
Then let’s say that Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions captures some of that look and feel of those Spidey comics.
And then let’s say … there was a reason I stopped reading comics. (h/t Police Squad)
With Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, Beenox have delivered a comic book Spider-Man experience. The problem is that the comic book is not any of the classic ones, but all the other ones … like this one:
This game is pulpy and mildly entertaining but eminently forgettable. If I could have played it on the toilet I would have. It’s popcorn. It’s bubble gum. You get the idea.
The story kicks off the pulpiness: some mystical power-tablet has been Shattered and the pieces have gone into four different Dimensions, each of which contains a different version of Spider-Man who has to get them back. There’s traditional, cel-shaded Amazing Spider-Man, the black-Venom-suited Ultimate Spider-Man, a 1920s Spider-Man Noir, and futuristic Optical Overstimulus Spider-Man set in a very neon 2099.
The selling point is that the 4 Spideys each have a different playing style, but it’s not as deep as it seems. Essentially it boils down to Noir Spidey being stealthy and the rest being melee with a few gimmicks thrown in. Ultimate (blacksuit) Spidey gets a rage mode with power attacks and Future Spidey gets that incredibly futuristic and not-at-all-overused video game favourite, bullet time accelerated vision. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve played a game this year that didn’t have a time-slowing mechanic in it. Except Civilization V, which has that effect on real life.
The game has 3 Acts, and each Act contains a level for each of the 4 Spideys. You have to do all the levels in Act 1 before you can do Act 2. But … you get to do the levels in each Act in whatever order you want! That’s player-directed narrative, folks.
Shattered Dimensions appears exciting at the start because it seems to offer a juicy variety of playing styles and level design. However, it ultimately shows that throwing heaps of shit to the wall doesn’t always make for a Pro Hart creation when the various flung things are not integrated well. The main problem here is that the combat and stealth systems are not fleshed out during the game, so they start to feel stagnant and samey rather quickly.
For non-Aussies who need to know what a Pro Hart creation looks like:
Spider-Man Shattered Dimensions is not as good as this ad.
Combat is configured along Kratosian lines in that Spidey gets heavy, light and grab attacks. Very little of it feels uniquely Spider-Man. You get Spidey-sense, which enables you to dodge blows and bullets, but it plays mostly like Batman’s counter system from Batman: Arkham Asylum. The only move that feels like a Spider-Man move is a web zip where you can web a goon from afar and zoom in for a strike or to backflip over them. What about using webs to slow or temporarily incapacitate foes?
Each melee Spider-Man gets the same goon types, with different skins. You meet most of the goon types you will fight in Act 1. Act 2 introduces … wait for it … goons with shields. Act 3 goes for quantity over variety, so you will get bored by the enemies.
Spider-Man also get his own rudimentary upgrade system that is the standard for melee brawlers these days. Defeating goons and finding orbs spider tokens yields currency which can be exchanged for more combos, health boosts, rage, bullet time or bonus costumes. The costumes confer absolutely no in-game benefit and are a shout out to the figurine collectors who like to play silly dress-ups with their avatars.
The upgrade tree is unbalanced. There are too many combos to take out light enemies, such as grabby and air launching moves, and not enough to deal with heavy enemies who can’t be grabbed or launched. The lack of variety of enemies would have been less shite if the upgrade tree provided more combos to deal with these enemies.
The stronger combos and area-effect power attacks (ie the ones you actually want to get) have to be bought separately for each Spidey. You don’t feel like you get much chance to use these upgrades because you’re constantly changing Spideys and each only gets 3 levels anyway. If you upgrade mid-level, you get 5 to 10 minutes with the new combo before you have to play as another Spider-Man. Or you can think ahead and buy a combo for the next Spider-Man you will play. Like drinking cordial that is a little bit too watery, it’s not a dealbreaker but it does leave you with a strange sense that you’re missing something.
I am surly with the upgrade system because upgrades are important. Melee games need to provide worthwhile upgrades to keep the player chasing them. The search for better upgrades motivates the player to carry out side tasks and explore for orbs tokens. When the player gets the feeling that the rewards are pointless (such as those unique costumes) the player will start to notice the repetitive nature of the combat and side tasks. Repetition without reward turns productive grinding into yawny spamming. There is a psychology thesis there about how we can endure or loathe essentially the same task depending on how it is framed, but there is not here so we will move on to diss the Noir stealth elements.
Spidey copies his stealth from Arkham Asylum. However, it’s more like a trace outline that a 12-year- old does of his favourite comic panel than a convincing replica. Batman had a host of gadgets to play with and the goons had more complex behaviour – they would check out alert areas, they would investigate their co-goons being taken out, they would get increasingly panicky as their numbers thinned and change their patrol behaviour. All Spidey does is lurk in shadows and web a guy when he’s not looking. The only variety is that there’s a different animation depending on whether you’re on the ground or a wall when you web someone. Worse, the goons stick to their preset walking routes regardless of the mounting number of unconscious webbed-up colleagues that they’re walking past.
The one aspect of the stealth that is unique to Spider-Man – the wall crawling – has two teensy problems that completely stuff it up: the controls and camera. As soon as Spidey gets on a wall, the controls seem to rotate clockwise with an inverted pike, where left is down and right is diagonal left. The camera sticks close to Spider-Man’s shoulder as if it’s scared of falling off. As a result, navigation and stealthy surveillance are near impossible, so you end up avoiding wall crawling wherever you can. This would not be such a big deal, except it’s a friggin Spider-Man game. If you’re going to cash on a superhero with a game, you should at least be able to render his key powers in a playable way. Take away Spider-Man’s webslinging and wallcrawling and he’s just an overly chatty acrobat. If I wanted that I would watch the Olympics.
Beenox must have realized the combat and stealth are a little bit poo, because they garnish them with Web of Destiny challenges. These are optional tasks that grant extra XP and they aimed at providing some variety, eg kill 10 enemies by throwing things at them, or perform 10 stealth takedowns in a row without being seen. Admittedly these challenges did spice up the porridge, but not enough to make me forget I was eating porridge.
Shattered Dimensions feels like that rushed 1st year University essay you did the night before it was due, where you realised at 3am that you’ve only been footnoting one source and you know you’ll get marked down for it, so you threw in a few other token references to pad it out. Spidey’s most obvious token bit is during boss fights: the game goes into a first-person boxing mode and you have to waggle the thumbsticks to punch out on the boss. It feels like variety for variety’s sake and doesn’t add much to the experience.
The best feature of the game is the top notch voice acting. Beenox have assembled a strong cast and they all do good work. There’s a different actor for each type of Spidey. Neil Patrick Harris plays Amazing (classic) Spidey and he absolutely nails it. He should totally play Spider-Man. Oh, he has? He should do it again, in movies. It was also cool to hear Thomas F Wilson (Biff Tannen) as Electro, doing a great line of dumb villain who doesn’t know he’s dumb. Stan Lee is the narrator. Nolan North bobs up as Deadpool and provides another entry for my “He’s better when he’s crazy” file, next to Steve Heck.
The banter between Spidey and his foes often made me smile. It is a damn shame that all this strong voice work isn’t backed up by a game of equal calibre. It’s the opposite of Just Cause 2.
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is decidedly average. There’s not much to hate here, but not much to love either. It’s gaming Kmart. People who collect figurines and argue about “canon” on forums will enjoy the fanservice on display but for normal people there is less appeal. The strong voice acting was just enough for me to finish the game despite its stale combat and stealth.
Coming soon: Wasteland Warrior– When Felix finally stops playing Fallout: New Vegas he might tell you what he thinks of it.