Today, franchises like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Battlefield take a lot of heat for having annual releases that water down the brand they represent, but two console generations ago, the term “annual franchise” didn’t carry such a negative connotation. Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank series released one year after the other and got better as they went along, which was the case also somewhat for Sucker Punch’s Sly Cooper series. Though the sequels were not nearly as good as the original game, Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia trilogy: The Sands of Time; Warrior Within and The Two Thrones is also a beloved series of games that came out one year after another. I bring this up because one year after the release of the ground breaking Spider-Man 2 game from Trerarch came what is arguably the best open-world Spider-Man game: Ultimate Spider-Man.
2004’s Spider-Man 2, a game based on the movie of the same name, revolutionized the way people thought about how a Spider-Man game should be, allowing players to freely swing around a virtually recreated New York City with “realistic” physics that made you have to anchor your web-line to buildings. Building upon the foundation of that what made that game so good, in a year’s time no less, Ultimate Spider-Man take’s what made that game so great, and makes it better.
What’s one of the first noticeable improvements from this iterative game than the progenitor title is that unlike Spider-Man 2, it’s free of the shackles of a movie license. With a story penned by Brian Micheal Bendis, who is still writing Ultimate Spider-Man today in a very different form than eleven years ago when this game arrived in stores, the game, like Neversoft’s Spider-Man, has a scenario that feels like it’s a lost series of issues, which is was once sold as until future issues conflicted with the events of the Ultimate Spider-Man video game. Taking place sometime after the introduction of Venom into the Ultimate Universe, Eddie Brock returns to torment Peter Parker’s under duress from Trask Enterprises who tried to control the symbiote for nefarious purposes in the past, even killing both Peter and Eddie’s parents to hide their less than legal machinations.
Though Venom was an almost overused character in Spider-Man video games at the time, appearing in some form or another in every game starring the character with the exception of the movie titles, the character carries more weight in the Ultimate Universe because he’s more than just an angry former co-worker cloaked in an alien parasite. This version of Eddie Brock is in possession of a power that he has little understanding of, and is actively trying to consume him, with this aspect being reflected in the gameplay as well. Other classic Spider-Man villains, like the Beetle, who made his Ultimate debut here, Electro, and Green Goblin also make appearances, but they don’t take the focus away from the continuing Venom saga.
Despite being a game that as I mentioned is now approaching eleven years old, Ultimate Spider-Man’s art style and graphics hold up today, due to the bright and colourful cel-shading on the characters as well as environments. Spider-Man 2 though still fun to play, looks very dated and of its time with character models that look somewhat like their cinematic counterparts back then, but don’t hold a candle to Ultimate Spider-Man that looks like a 2-D comic book morphed into the three-dimensional world. This, along with Bendis’ writing, make Ultimate Spider-Man feel timeless.
A complaint logged against Ultimate Spider-Man when it was new was that its web-swinging mechanics felt dumb downed compared to those of its predecessor, but having played both games within these past few years, I personally feel this isn’t the case. Spider-Man 2 takes a while for the web-swinging to click, and even after a few hours, it still doesn’t quite feel like you could be as natural as you feel you could be. In Ultimate Spider-Man on the other hand, things come a lot more naturally and in moments you’ll find yourself banking around corners and zipping over rooftops. It also helps that Spider-Man himself is a lot more nimble, with jumps that can propel him over rooftops and other obstacles during the game’s many chase sequences.
Similar to Spider-Man 2, Ultimate Spider-Man has a virtually recreated New York with side-missions and story quests to complete. Sadly story missions are locked behind completing side-missions to extend the short playtime, however the rate at which you can get back to the story is cut down considerably. Random street crimes for example where you stop muggers or escort someone to a hospital, don’t have accompanying dialogue or cut-scenes, and just populate in the same way random crimes would happen when Spider-Man is on patrol which makes events feel a lot more authentic. I loved swinging around, seeing a mugging pop-up, webbing up a few bad guys and then going about my business. This to me is Spider-Man role-playing at its finest.
Sharing the spotlight with Spider-Man in Ultimate Spider-Man is Venom, who in the past has appeared in other Spider-Man games as a playable character but he always felt like Spider-Man’s Ken to Venom’s Ryu in that he was more or less the same character but with a few different abilities. Here Venom is completely different and helps change things up considerably. Not only do you have to gruesomely absorb bad guys and civilians to halt your slowly depleting health meter, but Venom is far less graceful and more powerful than his counterpart. In previous games like a Maximum Carnage for example, Venom had the 1:1 abilities of Spider-Man: Wall crawling; web-slinging, etc., but Venom in Ultimate Spider-Man is much more of a tank. He can still stick to walls, but can’t swing and instead must leap over buildings with Hulk-sized bounds. He’s also considerably more powerful and can pick up and swing a tank like it’s nothing. For those who prefer Venom’s version of locomotion over Spider-Man’s, you can even switch between characters to explore New York upon completing the main story campaign.
Ultimate Spider-Man is not a perfect game, but until hopefully Insomniac’s title for the PS4, no other Spider-Man game past or present has been what Arkham is to Batman either. With its story that feels authentic to the comic,beautiful cel-shaded graphics, gameplay refinements from Spider-Man 2 and an alternate playable character, Ultimate Spider-Man is one of the games, along with 2000’s Spider-Man and Shattered Dimensions, that have come closest to being the best Spider-Man game. I personally have this on Gamecube, but it’s also available on the PS2 and original Xbox.