The circumstances of this play test reminded me of how awesome it is to work in this industry -- I'm was sitting on the open deck of the Hard Rock Hotel overlooking the convention center, while scantily-clad superwomen are bringing glowing game-branded cocktails (see gallery) to little groups of young game journos, as well as GameStop managerial types, none which offered me an affordable annual subscription to Game Informer.
Being here made me think about how lame many kiosk setup were at this year's E3, and how the sheik environment and alcohol may totally impair me from giving this an absolutely cynical bastard write-up while I slit my wrists in emo angst. Luckily, the running version is just as cool as the preview reel.[video]96718:90[/video]
This is not a movie game
The story picks up from the Venom/symbiote storyline that puts New York City at siege, as civilians are turned into mini-venoms and every crook nearby is jumping into the fight. According to Wikipedia, the confirmed characters include Kingpin, Luke Cage, Mary Jane Watson, Venom, Wolverine, and a new interpretation of Vulture. Instead of appearing as the classic, feathered old geezer, he uses a jet pack that commands two-dozen swords that magnetize as wings, or shoot out like boomerang projectiles.
Marvel has decidedly put a few surprises into this game: "You are going to run into characters that have never been put into a Spider-Man game." While most of the work comes from the comics, they did add in a dash of the Spider-Man 3 movie littered here and there. I won't ruin it for you, nor can I brag about knowing too much. I couldn't talk them into giving me details of the final battle though, but they gave me a hell of an ending spoiler ... "Spider-Man wins."
Go ahead, control everything
Spider-Man: Web of Shadows boasts a non-linear RPG-style character building system, allowing you to literally "build your own Spider-Man." This is done in two ways: You can apply experience points from battles towards new attacks, and a morality system that will determine if the good guys or bad guys ultimately fight on your side as you progress.
Before you begin to reminisce about how much you loved games like City of Heroes, there is something you should know: This is a single player experience, and a hard one at that. Although there won't be any multiplayer or downloadable anything, there is tons of unlockable and hidden content strewn around New York City (the map is an upgraded version of the original NYC map from their previous engine and the lighting system is also new).
Nevertheless, the non-linear gameplay works. You can literally dick around the city fighting crime (hero points go up!) or ignoring it and throwing cars at business people (evil points go up!) to level up your character, or follow the compass and cursors in the HUD to move along to your next mission. There are also quest-giving NPCs and many side jobs to do, so you're always on the go. This is good. It was hard to tell how effective the ally system was in the demo shown, but it seemed like their presence was constant at the least.
The combat system is the jewel of the game. Fast paced and just pure fun to watch, you can literally bring a non-flying enemy up from the ground and onto the side of a building, kick his ass, and move on seamlessly to an air battle or swing around to something else. The fluidity marries ground air combat in a way we really haven't seen in previous Spider-Man games.
Not bad for a franchise milker
This is truly an action game -- a real button masher. The "Web Strike" feature allows you to juggle brutal combos by combining air and ground melee attacks. If you suffer from O.C.D. and are a nervous mess you can also pull off costume changes in mid-combo, which opens the door to some amazing combat performances which evolves as you level-up your character. For example, the alien (black) suit has more destructive power attacks while the red suit is more balanced and agile. You can literally control everything.
There map is vast -- Web of Shadows boasts a respectable draw range, so in-air battles and swinging around wildly through the city looks as it should with a fair amount of detail and destructible environments.
My spidey sense did go off a little bit
The game is a blast. But. But. But.
I have no shame in admitting that I am a total graphics whore, so please allow me to nit-pick for a second: The irony of Web of Shadows is that the build that we saw rarely had any actual dynamic shadows from the characters as you'll see in the screenshots and videos. This lends to the cartoony look but makes some well-designed elements look unnecessarily dated. I'm going to assume that this is due to the unfinished build, but it could be an optimization decision for the great draw rate and giant map we're given. There are some frickin' huge boss fights, so this is pardonable. Hell, one of my favorite games is Earth Defense Force, so I should just STFU.
The amount of camera management our host was doing led me to believe that play-control might be this game's Achilles Heel. You're constantly in and out of tight alleys, and there are long camera shots when you jump or Web Strike. This may lead to getting mauled by things you had no awareness were beating your face in, beneath you or off-camera. Many third-person action games struggle with this, so that would be my primary concern that they will hopefully address before it goes gold. This build was also missing some sound bytes and seemed to lack shadows completely in some boss battles, so the jury's clearly still out on this one.
The characters seem extremely shiny in the build we saw -- Venom and his transformed civilians looked like they were constantly drizzled in baby oil, which kind of takes away from the classic matte comic feel (depending on which artist you prefer, I guess). Detail also seemed a little dicey: While the models are authentically proportioned and modeled well, it's no Gears of War; don't expect to look into Wolverine's rug-like face and find a detailed grizzled mess. Nevertheless, it does manage to stay above 30 frames per second without much chop, even when the entire screen is littered with bad guys and sparse crowds of mildly campy civilians running for their lives.
Not for the faint of heart
At a glance, this game is aimed at the hardcore. I'll give you an example of one of the cooler boss fights (possible spoilers): After you smack around The Vulture a bit, he becomes weary of you and begins to keep his distance. The only way to reach him is to jump off a giant skyscraper and hop around him and nearby flying objects without plummeting to your death, which resets the level. I couldn't be sure if the difficulty would be in the timing of the jumps and attacks or managing that damn camera.
The bottom line
If you enjoyed the previous Spider-Man game and Iron-Man you're going to really dig this. If not, you're probably going to at least want to rent it and find yourself an anger management counselor.
PS. Don't miss our Spider-Man / Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 swag bag giveaway!
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