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Josh Tolentino avatar 6:45 PM on 10.24.2008  (server time)
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows: "Thwip!"

Let's face it - Spider-Man games have never quite reclaimed the glory of Spider-Man 2, which also holds the title of "Movie tie-in that didn't suck." Spider-Man 3 didn't help, Ultimate Spider-Man was decent but was Ultimate, and Friend or Foe was so bad I'd gladly make a deal with Mephisto to forget all about it (heh, story arc reference).

I preordered Web of Shadows primarily because I was going to be visiting my relatives abroad, and I would need a game to occupy my 10-year-old nephew, who I'm hoping hasn't completely switched out Spider-Man and Hellboy, since I have not (and will not) be purchasing the Hellboy game).

In any case, I picked up my game and its ugly preorder bonus t-shirt, and loaded it up with some trepidation.

My conclusion? Web of Shadows could use more Tobey Maguire.

Wait wait wait! I meant his voice. Or, for that matter, anyone's voice but the actors who were tapped to play Web of Shadows' cast. The voice acting is that bad. Spider-Man sounds even whinier than he did in Ultimate, and here he doesn't have an excuse, because Ultimate Spider-Man is a teenage nerd. Tricia Helfer of Galactica fame does well as Black Cat, but in this case she doesn't have the benefit of being in cheesy Command & Conquer FMV cutscenes, which exposes how badly some of her lines are written. Don't worry, Tricia, it's not your fault!

To the game then. Does it live up to the lost glory? I'm actually happy to say that yes, it does.

To begin, all of the Spidey games have been heavily troubled by the disconnect between fluid web-swinging and precise combat, Spider-Man 2 included. Web of Shadows goes farther than any other title to remedy that wound. Fighting is still a single-button beatdown, but the greatness lies in Shaba Games' finally managing to, at least in part, integrate the web-slinging with the punch-swinging, mainly through their "web-strike" mechanic.

Using Spider-Sense to lock the camera on an enemy, you can trigger a web-strike, which has Spidey shoot a thread at a locked foe, rocketing him towards the target. Timing a button-press just before impact allows you to hit the target and then leap off, allowing you to switch targets and web-strike the next. With that, it's almost effortless to pull off huge multi-hit combos, bouncing from enemy to enemy, and looking fantastic while doing so. A third button shoots out web-bullets to tie up enemies, which is useful for incapacitating the thugs who can counter a web-strike attack and break the combo chain. With the web-strike, it almost feels wrong NOT to be fighting people in mid-air.

Fighting enemies and completing missions earns XP, which can be used to purchase additional moves (usually extensions of the basic attack combo or variations on which button to time during a web-strike, and the occasional special attack.

Spidey can also switch between his regular red costume and a Venom-enhanced black suit, even in mid combat. Black suit attacks have different animations (usually preferring violence to acrobatics) and cause more damage. The red and black suits are also key to the whole moral choice thing people insist on shoehorning into every game these days. Then again, choosing "evil" allows you to make out with Black Cat, so I won't hold it against anyone for that small mercy.

Visually the game is stunning, especially with the animations. All those daydreams you have of swinging around New York with every "Twhip!" are pretty much visualized here. Character designs, though, are not quite as flattering. Textures are drawn from the Everything-Is-Shiny-And-Made-Of-Plastic school of art, though the Venom-ized bosses are compellingly vicious-looking.

Part of the fun for fans of the comic is how many referential nods Web of Shadows makes to the canon continuity. Ads to join S.H.I.E.L.D. or buy Stark products are plastered all over the city. In the distance one can see Stark Tower, complete with the Sentry's Watchtower glowering from its roof. You can tag-team with practically anyone who ever knew the wall-crawler, and at one point you can see the helicarrier. The Helicarrier!

The spider silk, however, is not all that strong. There are still a lot of repetitive grind missions between stories. You won't be rescuing hanging workmen or chasing down lost balloons anymore, but killing 75/150 bad guys isn't much better. The camera is also wonky, and still can't quite keep up especially when you start going vertical, running up the sides of buildings and zip-lining down alleyways.

All things considered, Web of Shadows is probably the best Spidey game to date, though considering the competition, that doesn't say much.

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