When there's a new movie on the horizon, Activision's usually on call to bring us the obligatory videogame tie-in. As is the creed of the obligatory videogame tie-in, the product is rushed, slapdash, visually unimpressive, and interactively vapid. It is the irrefutable law of such licensed products. It is a law you do not break.
Unless you're The Amazing Spider-Man which, despite everything going against it, and in the face of gameplay systems ripped wholesale from a rival licensed game, actually manages to be quite good.
The Amazing Spider-Man (PC, PlayStation 3, Wii, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Released: June 26, 2012 (August 10, 2012 PC)
Interestingly, The Amazing Spider-Man is not so much based upon the upcoming movie of the same name as it is an epilogue to the film's events. It doesn't spoil much about the plot, focusing mostly on a new story in the aftermath of the Lizard's Manhattan rampage, but do be warned that there might be minor giveaways. Unless, for some reason, you're laboring under the impression that the Lizard defeats Spider-Man at the end of the movie, there's no reason that this game will ruin your theatrical experience.
Curt Connors (the human half of the Lizard) is incarcerated as Oscorp sets about destroying all his cross-species research. Our adventure begins with a first-person walk through Oscorp's science labs, where Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy come face to face with some of the company's more disturbing creations: the half-human Rhino, Scorpion, and Vermin. Naturally, all hell breaks loose shortly after Parker's arrival, and the hybrids escape, along with the highly contagious disease they carry that can turn regular humans into cross-species monsters.
As a story, The Amazing Spider-Man's tale of science gone wrong isn't too enthralling, although it gets points for a rather nice portrayal of Alistair Smythe. Spider-Man's other opponents -- the aforementioned Rhino, Scorpion, and Vermin -- are rather disappointing in that they're not really the same characters from the comic books. They share names and vague likenesses, but they're all mindless monsters that only possess thematic similarities and exist mostly to pad out the boss roster. With that in mind, the game does what it's supposed to do: provide some sort of conflict for Spider-Man that can and will be easily discarded when the movie gets its inevitable sequel.
Amazing provides a healthy mixture of indoors and open-world sections, with Spider-Man web-slinging his way across New York and entering interior environments to undertake crucial missions. The simple ability to swing through the streets and skyscrapers of New Work is as enjoyable as it's always been, aided by some surprisingly nice visuals and fluid animations. Aiding the web-slinger in his quest is a new "Web Rush" power, which allows Spidey to zip from walls to ceilings to predetermined locations at the press of a single button. The button can also be held to slow time and more carefully select destinations and enemy targets, who can be rushed into for extra damage. Though Web Rush serves as an interesting new mode of transportation and augments the traditional web-swinging movements nicely, savvy players may notice something familiar about it, and once they do, everything else clicks into place -- this is basically Batman: Arkham City, with Spider-Man standing in for the Dark Knight.
To say the game copies Rocksteady's Arkham games is to put it mildly, as Beenox has essentially scavenged everything it could from Spidey's industry rival. The Web Rush is Batman's grappling hook, but that's just the first similarity. The combat system, too, has been taken wholesale from Arkham, with players button mashing and hitting counter-attacks as soon as they see a visual cue on screen. There are boss encounters mimicking Batman's fight against Bane in Arkham Asylum, there are shielded enemies that must be jumped over and hit in the back. There are even photography sections in which players take pictures based on vague cues, à la The Riddler's challenges.
By far the most significant link between Spider-Man and Arkham comes in the predatory stealth sections. Just like Asylum and City, Parker will enter rooms in which heavily armed thugs patrol and must be taken out one by one. If Spidey is exposed for too long, the guards will open fire and he'll die pretty quickly. However, he can hit a quick-escape button to leap back into the shadows -- again, just like Bats -- and resume his hunt as the enemies grow more paranoid and panicky. The mimicry on display is utterly shameless, to the point where Beenox had to know we'd spot it, and just didn't care.
The thing is, though ... I don't much care, either. Unoriginal or not, the gameplay works with the wall-crawler standing in for the caped crusader. With Parker able to crawl on almost any wall and ceiling, he's afforded more flexibility than Bruce Wayne, and it's never unsatisfying to land a sweet stealth takedown, cocooning unwitting opponents and dragging them to the rafters. Fact of the matter is, the same predatory stealth that worked so well for Batman is just as perfect for Spider-Man, and since Beenox has used it pretty damn well, I can't fault the studio one bit.
Admittedly, it lacks some of the polish and tightness of the Arkham games. The camera, in particular, can be quite awkward to deal with, especially when Parker's stuck to ceilings. It can be quite hard to navigate the environments, with no mini-map for indoors environments, and the constant perspective shift as the player traverses multiple surfaces can be rather disorienting.
The combat system, too, doesn't do quite so good a job of providing player feedback, and the customary Spider-Sense visual cues can be a bit too subtle and brief to effectively help counter opposing attacks. With Spider-Man's superior flexibility in the stealth arena, some players may find the action isn't very challenging, either. The game rarely provides much in the way of resistance, existing purely to make players feel like badasses, which it pulls off fairly well.
The Amazing Spider-Man differentiates itself from Arkham City in a number of impressive open-world boss fights, as Spidey takes on Smythe's "Spider Slayers" and other twisted machinery. Some of these robots are huge in scale, requiring Parker to swing across entire city blocks as gigantic metal snakes and other creatures smash half of New York apart in an effort to get to him. Again, these battles aren't too hard, and most of them involve repetitive action (shoot webbing, rush to weak point, hammer button, repeat), but the sheer scale of these conflicts still manages to keep each fight exciting and makes excellent book-ends to methodical interior sections.
The main game will take between six and eight hours to beat, but there's plenty of optional content to keep things running longer. The city is full of sick pedestrians, petty crimes, and car chases to deal with, and there are side missions that Parker can trigger in order to find new upgrades for his combat abilities. Bruce Campbell is also on hand to provide some "Xtreme Challenges" consisting of acrobatic displays, timed checkpoint races, and other distractions. There's a wide variety of stuff to do, although many of the tasks on offer are repeated to a significant degree.
The Amazing Spider-Man is a good game, but being chained to the movie painfully holds it back. Unable to introduce any iconic villains in any real context, and forced to work off the back of the film's plot, one gets the constant feeling that this game is restrained and never allowed to be all that it could be. It takes many good things from Arkham, but one aspect it fails to exploit is the deft use of a rogue's gallery. One of the biggest joys of Arkham Asylum and City was waiting to find out which villain would turn up next, or which memorable location would be discovered. There is none of that here, bound as it is by a universe that has only introduced Kurt Connors as a true antagonist. The fact is made even more egregious when one realizes that not a single cast member from the movie shows up to provide any voice acting -- this could well have been its own thing, and should have been, but had to bolt itself onto Hollywood in the name of money.
Money is what The Amazing Spider-Man will make, and some of that cash will be deserved. However, something tells me this game is merely establishing itself as the foundation for a better product somewhere down the line. I will be surprised if Activision doesn't announce a standalone Spider-Man game in the future, taking the elements from this title and putting them in something that can take far better advantage of them, with a more original story and a wider range of characters. The publisher would be stupid not to, as what we have here is fun, and could truly be great if applied to a more flexible title.
At any rate, The Amazing Spider-Man is still a good game, even if it does feel like a wasted creative opportunity. It steals liberally from the Bat, but it does so with a high enough degree of skill and style that it can be forgiven. If you've ever played one of the Arkham games and felt that you'd enjoy yourself more in blue-and-red as opposed to black, then The Amazing Spider-Man will provide you with plenty of harmless fun for a good few hours. Since that's better than most Spider-Man games have done in the past few years, I'm happy with it.
Happy, but certainly longing for more.