PlayStation 2
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Ultimate Spider-Man is the latest installment in Activision?s highly successful Spider-Man series of action-adventure games. Unlike the last two Spidey games, however, this one is not based on a movie but rather it is a part of Marvel?s Ultimate Spider-Man comic series (a retelling of the hero?s early career set in the 21st century). The reason I say 'part of' and not 'based on' is because Ultimate Spider-Man is unique among comic book video games in that, as far as I know, it is the only game which is actually in continuity with the books. That means what happens in the game?s story has an effect on the story of the comic series and vice versa. This isn?t just some throwaway story that fans can miss either. Written by Brian Michael Bendis, the man behind the comics and one of Marvel?s top scribes, this tale sees the return of the monstrous Venom (as a playable character no less!) and the first appearance of several characters in the Ultimate universe. The story does quite a bit to shake the status quo of Peter Parker's life, so while non-fans might simply see the story as a means to set up a series of cool battles, fans are going to need to check this out. This isn't to say only fanatical web-heads like myself can get enjoyment out of this game. If you have any interest in the character or in comic books in general, you ought to give Ultimate Spider-Man a spin. Pun intended.

Game play:

USM is a free-roaming superhero simulator. You are given unlimited access to a medium-to-big sized recreation of Manhattan and Queens to swing and crawl around. The folks at Treyarch have proven that a game with an open environment need not be centered on gang violence and car theft to be exciting. Oh, there are gang wars and stolen vehicles in this game, but this time the player gets to be the one who stops rival gangs from killing each other (by knocking them out and tying them up, Spidey doesn?t kill) and stops carjackers from getting away by jumping onto the car and pounding on it until the crooks are forced to come out. In this way, USM is an antithesis to Grand Theft Auto. All of the random events which pop up around Spider-Man as he swings between story goals involve being a hero, not a villain. The player gets to save people who are dangling from high windows, thwart bank robberies and muggings, and carry injured people to the hospital. While it is technically only necessary to be a Good Samaritan a few times to progress the story, my conscious just wouldn?t allow me to ignore any person in peril that I came across.

No other game has made me feel so much like a hero with great power and responsibility because so many developers forget that being a true hero is more than just beating up bad guys. A lot of the game is spent traveling around the city, so it is good that the web-swinging mechanic is such a blast. The swinging has been simplified since Spider-Man 2, so it isn?t quite as stylish but it is more functional and user-friendly. The tradeoff is worth it though, since controlling Spider-Man perfectly is a must in the game?s intense chase scenes. The sense of inertia and momentum that makes swinging around skyscrapers so exhilarating is thankfully still intact, so flying around and looking for heroic opportunities is always fun. Spidey also has a new double jump move to help him get through the city faster. Sure, it breaks that laws of physics but, as Spidey tells the player early in the game, ?so are most of the things I do.? As fun as the open-ended good deeds are, the game gets really good in the story missions.

As the plot unfolds, the Spider finds himself pitted against an array of his most dangerous foes. With a focus on boss battles, majority of the game is spent chasing down and battling super villains. Luckily, these confrontations are quite entertaining. Most of the battles boil down to the old-school formula of memorizing patterns. There are a few fights that are very unique, but the lion?s share involve dodging attacks and waiting for the enemy to expose his or her weakness. This sounds like it would get old fast, but the presentation is such that it almost always feels fresh. By the time the formula started to become predictable, the game was over. The combat system its self is not the best to ever grace an action game, but it does capture the Ultimate version of Spidey?s fighting style from the comics. Spider-Man is a fifteen-year-old kid in USM, so he isn?t tough enough to fight his enemies head on. What he can do well is bounce around and frustrate enemies by coming at them from every direction. It takes getting used to for gamers used to the direct approach, but once the player gets the hang of it getting the drop on enemies this way is pretty fun. Unfortunately, this style of fighting only works well when Spider-Mans is taking on a group of thugs even though most of the story missions are dedicated to one-on-one brawls with bosses. It isn?t that great to attack hulking brutes like the Rhino or the Green Goblin with attacks that were designed for packs of smaller enemies. It is still functional, but it just isn?t as satisfying as it could have been.

Everything I wrote above completely changes when playing as Venom. Every now and then the story shifts from Spider-Man to center on this deadly foe and the player gets to control the fanged behemoth. While Spider-Man?s game play focuses on being a hero, the short bursts of game play starring Venom focus on being a monster. As Venom, you will have no problems killing innocent people. You can even feed off of their bodily juices to restore health. Venom?s levels are rampages of destruction, and they body count you create as him cancels out the casualties you prevent as the web-slinger. Venom control?s very differently from Spidey. Instead of a puny teen, Venom is raw power. He can throw cars at his enemies and smash armored tanks. The environment?s aren?t nearly as destructible as they would need to be to make the type of game play great (see Hulk: Ultimate Destruction), but it is good fun to run through the city while tearing apart traffic and street lamps. Fighting as Venom is more fun too. His tentacle-whip move is overpowered and cheap, but there are a few darkly amusing special moves- like picking up baddies and snapping their backs- that players will want to try out. Fighting bosses as Venom is more fun too, because his strength allows for a satisfying beat-down. Overall, I enjoyed playing as Spider-Man more because of the swinging and the chances to be a hero, but the Venom levels balance the game and add variety to a game which would have felt a bit flat otherwise.

There is a bit of replay value here, which is a good thing because the story mode is much too short. In addition to completing every single random city event you can complete the many combat tours, where you swing around and beat up gangsters, and races, in which you race through checkpoints against either the clock or Johnny ?the Human Torch? Storm of the Fantastic Four. There are also hundreds of hidden tokens dispersed around the city which unlock comic book covers and new costumes for Spidey. These side-quests fill out the game, but honestly I had no desire to keep playing once I beat the story mode. USM is a fun game, but even as a hardcore fan I can only recommend it as a rental.

Graphics:

The artists at Treyarch have done a marvelous job of recreating Mark Bagley?s drawings from the comic series in cell-shaded 3d. Efforts such as XIII have attempted this before, but no other game has quite captured the feeling of a comic book come to life like this. Some may be put off by the ?cartooniness? of the game?s look, but I think once the skeptics realize that this is a game based on a comic book (in other words, a CARTOON), they will warm up to the truly refreshing visuals. The cut scenes are presented in comic book style frames, and attacks are punctuated by visual SMACKS onscreen. The animations are fluid and the Gamecube version I played had a flawless frame rate.

One glaring problem with the graphics is the way textures on distant buildings are handled. When a building is far away, it looks like a solid block of color. When Spidey gets closer, details like windows and bricks are visible. The problem is that the textures suddenly pop onto objects at a certain distance rather than gradually becoming visible. I found this extremely annoying. If I had played USM on the PS2 I would have probably given the graphics a slightly higher score, but this doesn?t even come close to pushing the Gamecube?s power.

Sound:

The music is the wholly adequate and wholly forgettable techno-rock you?d expect from a superhero game. It fit the mood of the web swinging just fine. Sometimes the music stops during exploration and there are a few minutes of silence which can be quite boring for the ears. Where the game does succeed is in the ambient sounds of the city. This is especially entertaining when Spidey catches a snippet of somebody?s conversation while swinging past. You won?t be able to eavesdrop on an entire dialogue, but the little bits of everyday life that you can catch make the city feel a little more real. The voice acting is quite good even though there are no big names in the cast. Everyone sounds exactly like they should. Some might be caught off guard by Spider-Man?s high-pitched, nasal voice but it helps remind us that this is a kid we are playing as, not a full grown man.

The acting its self is very well done, but this may be because Brian Bendis? script is so well written. Bendis is a master of dialogue so every spoken word flows naturally and feels authentic. Appropriateness: - People killing people in cold blooded murder (Ex. Grand Theft Auto 3) (-5 pts) As I have written above, murder is encouraged when playing as Venom. There is no blood and gore in the game, however, so the kills aren?t graphic. When playing as Spider-Man, which is most of the game, killing people is impossible. The game falls well within the ?t? rating in terms of violence -No Foul Language (-0 pts) -Sexual Jokes are made once or twice. (-2 pts) I don?t recall hearing any profanity. There was one sexual joke that I caught. When Spider-Man first meets the Rhino (a super villain in a mechanical rhinoceros suit) he asks ?is that a giant rhino horn or are you just happy to see me?? That is it as far as language goes.

-No Nudity (-0 pts) - No Sexual Content (-0 pts) Surprisingly, considering this is based on a comic, the few female characters that exist are well clothed. The male characters wear tight spandex underwear (also known as ?superhero costumes?), but all the important things are covered up. -There is no occult or supernatural in the game. (-0 pts) Though there are characters with special powers, their origins are supposed to be ?scientific? rather than mystical. -Game requires rejecting authority figures or laws. (-2 pts) - Good value decision making is required to progress in the game. (-0 pts) Spider-Man is technically a vigilante, but the police are generally appreciative of his help in the game. Being a ?good Samaritan? by completing city events heroically is necessary for unlocking new story missions. The negative points in this category mostly come from the portions where the player controls Venom. - The story in this game delivers a good moral lesson. (+3 pts) This is the first time I have ever given bonus points to a game in a review, but they are well deserved considering how integral acting like a hero is to game play. Besides saving civilians, there are also times when Spidey must even rescue his enemies from peril. After fighting a boss as Spider-Man, Venom picks her up and runs away with her unconscious body with the intent to kill her. As Spider-Man, the player must chase Venom down and save the woman?s life even though she is a mutual enemy. This is a key Christian value because Jesus said ?Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you? (Mat 38:44).

Game play: 17/20 Graphics: 8.5/10 Sound: 8/10 Control: 4/5 Stability: 5/5 Appropriateness: 44/50

Final Rating: 86.5%

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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