The turn of the millennium was a great time to be a Spider-Man fan: The first even Spider-Man movie debuted to huge numbers in 2002 and spawned a sequel that is still regarding as one of the greatest comic book films of all time; The comics were not only back on track in the still new Ultimate universe, but in the regular, or 616, universe thanks to writers like Brian Michael Bendis and J. Michael Straczynski and Activision were producing a continuous series of Spider-Man video games that kept getting better with each installment.
In 2004 Activision produced one of the best regarded Spider-Man games by fans and critics alike in Spider-Man 2, a game that allowed players to do something they had never done before in the interactive space: realistically swing around an open-world New York City. Barely a year after the release of that game Activision and regular developer Treyarch had plans to release yet another Spider-Man game, this time set in the Ultimate universe. The question was just exactly could Treyarch improve on what they did in such a short time, and the answer is incrimentally at best, yet Ultimate Spider-Man somehow managed to tweak their new winning formula in some great ways but at the same time still not patching up some of the holes that kept both games from being Ultimate or Amazing.
Set in the Ultimate universe, Ultimate Spider-Man takes place after the origin of that universe’s Venom. Thinking his one time friend and new-found foe has passed, Spider-Man’s senses are overloaded when Eddie Brock returns looking for answers as to how he’s still alive and what the capabilities of “the suit” are. Unfortunately for Eddie, as well as the suit’s first host, Spider-Man, other parties are interested in the return of the suit, including the company responsible for the death of Peter Parker’s and Eddie Brock’s parents, Roxxon and its CEO Bolivar Trask.
A big selling point for Ultimate Spider-Man was that it’s story was actually considered canon to the ongoing comic book series. Previously games like Maximum Carnage and Separation Anxiety had taken plot from pre-existing comic series but never once had a video game starring Spider-Man been produced that shared its universe with the material it was based on. It has since become a bit murky as to where, or even if, Ultimate Spider-Man still exists in what we know as the established Ultimate universe, but even without that distinction it still has one of the more interesting stories in a Spider-Man game to date thanks to bringing on series writer Brian Michael Bendis. The game provides an easy to understand recap of Ultimate Venom’s origin for those only familiar with the character’s alien origin and weaves in other villains like Electro, Rhino and Beetle while still keeping things focuses on the twisted relationship between Peter, Eddie and their alter-egos. The only real complaint I have with the story is that it brings in Green Goblin and uses him as a throw away boss fight, which is a bit disappointing and a waste given Norman Osborn’s importance to Spider-Man’s origin in the Ultimate Universe.
If the story for Ultimate Spider-Man wasn’t what hooked you, its art style certainly will. There’s nothing I love more than a cel-shaded look in any video game and in replaying this game again it still manages to not only hold up, but still look really impressive. The world is filled with bright, vibrant colours that make them fell like a comic book brought to life in three-dimensions and expertly recreate the designs of artist Mark Bagley who helped bring the Ultimate universe to life. This can be seen not only in the gameplay graphics, but in the cut-scenes as well that really show off the work that went into translating Bagley’s art from the page to the screen. The graphics also help this game stand apart from all of the movie games that came before it and went for a more realistic approach to capture the look of the films.
Given that this game arrived not long after Spider-Man 2, it’s not surprising to find that this game played a lot like the game that came before it, but it does have some of its own tricks to help it stand out. The swinging mechanic found in this game was divisive among fans because it took out some of the advanced mechanics that made Spider-Man 2 such a fun game to learn. You no longer have to time your swings with the left trigger to speed up your swings, instead you just hit B for an extra boost which you rarely need. Personally I like the feeling of swinging in this game over 2’s because its much easier to just pick up and play but I can why some would find it less satisfying.
More so than just swinging around, controlling Spider-Man in this game overall just feels better than even Spider-Man games being produced even now. Whether swinging, double jumping and ascending walls, Spider-Man feels fast and nimble but at the same time you never feel like he’s out of your control or that the game is taking over for you. Contrast this with the game that would follow this one, Spider-Man 3, where you see Spider-Man do a lot of really cool things, but all you’re ever doing is hitting a giant button prompt when it comes on-screen. An area in where this game needed improvement over its predecessor was in the combat department. You unlocked a lot of combos in Spider-Man 2 yet mashing buttons always seemed like best way to win and that’s the case here as well. You can mix up your punches and your kicks by alternating attacks, but you’re never in a situation where one combo is better than another.
Structurally this game feels a bit too much like Spider-Man 2 and in that area it could have used a little more time in development. You swing around the city, collecting items when they you come across them, and compete in a handful of side-missions until the game tells you that you can move on with the story. Thankfully the sub-objectives: racing through hoops, beating up bad guys or saving civilians never take that long and are all fun for the most part, but you never escape the feeling that the Treyarch is trying to hide the length of their game behind tedious side-missions; An assumption that is indeed very correct. Subtracting the time your moving from area to area or completing sub-missions, you’re looking at a game that’s only a handful of hours long. There are medals to get, collectibles to hunt down and costumes to unlock after the story is over, but I would’ve given up a lot of that for more game as it’s just so much fun to play.
How Treyarch decided to break-up the repetition that plagues a lot of games like this is the inclusion of Venom as a playable character. This isn’t the first time where Venom is a secondary character, but it’s the first time where he feels like more than a more powerful version of Spider-Man. If anything, when controlling Venom it feels a lot more like playing as the Hulk in Ultimate Destruction. Venom can’t web-swing and instead must rely on a powerful jump capable of sending him over tall buildings. Combat feels just as repetitive as Spider-Man, but attacking with claws and tentacles feels much better. Given Venom’s overall size, he can perform feats that Spider-Man can’t like throwing cars at enemies and helicopters.
All this power comes with a cost though. Venom’s power is continuously depleting and in order to stay alive he has to feed on living people, which is a bit morbid for a Spider-Man game, especially when you’re first introduced to the mechanic and have to feed on a small child. This is inline with how the character is in the Ultimate universe as Eddie Brock needs to feed on fresh DNA in order to maintain control of his symbiote. There are a few instances where you feel like the game is unfair because your power is dropping too fast or too often, but there’s normally plenty of bystanders around to help keep your strength up.
As radically different as Spider-Man and Venom are as characters, the main story missions the two participate in are pretty much the same and that is my biggest complaint in Ultimate Spider-Man. The game look great, the story is interesting, the controls are spot-on, but each mission you enter is the same thing over and over. As either character you’ll chase a villain, stopping to save people as Spider-Man or eat them as Venom, and once the chase is over, you fight them. Spider-Man’s stages checkpoint at a decent rate for when you fall behind in a chase, but too often in the Venom levels I found myself losing my target and then having to repeat a huge portion of a level which can be very tedious and frustrating. It’s things like this that make me really miss the games on the PSOne where you had to traverse through environments as only Spider-Man can and do things like stop a rogue plane with your webbing. The unfortunate formula for this, and all Spider-Man games of this type has always been put all the effort into the open-world section and figure out everything else afterwards and it’s because of this I’ll firmly stand by the linear Spider-Man games as being the best, though even with its problems I do love this game an awful lot.
It’s amazing, or spectacular, or even ASTONISHING how much Treyarch managed to build upon their smash-hit Spider-Man 2 in such a short time with Ultimate Spider-Man. The style makes it feel like you’re playing a 3-D comic book, web-slinging still manages to be thrilling despite not being as “WOW” inducing as it was when it first appeared and the inclusion of Venom as a secondary playable character helps break up the games overly repetitious nature. As far as Spider-Man games go, this is one of, if not the best game to star the character, but I can only imagine just how much better it may have been had it been given more time to be thought out before it was rushed to shelves. It’s still a great game, but not deserving of the “Ultimate” that’s in the title, unfortunately.