Ultimate Spider-Man is a sandbox superhero game published by Activision in 2005. The console versions (GC, Xbox, PS2) (which are the focus of this review) were developed by Treyarch. The PC port was handled by Beenox and the GBA and NDS versions were made by Vicarious Visions. The game is an adaptation of the comic of the same name, centered around a younger Spider-Man and his encounters with Venom.
Going further than earlier game incarnations of Spidey, this game embraces its panel-based origin in full. It's cell-shaded and cutscenes are made to look like comic book pages that jump out at you. It's quite snappy, and features some really fun camera cuts.
But that's about where my praise ends. It's common thought that cell-shaded games remain good-looking for longer, but I think something went wrong here. Be it the rendering or perhaps merely the quality of the models, something about the game looks off to me. Especially the giant heads.
The choice of panels feels like a randomized filter at points, with shots being split into panels for no discernable reason. Characters also have a habit of just standing outside panels, which looks a bit silly from time to time. There's also a distinct lack of background detail in many shots, which works sometimes for effect, but just looks unfinished for the most part.
And while the snappiness is cool, it does do a terrible job of setting up scenes. It's impressive just how quickly things move from location to location. The cutscenes are paced as if they only had half the budget needed and so doubled the speed of the scenes. Seeing as comics live and die by their iconic establishing shots, I find this rather ironic.
As expected going by the pacing, the story is rather short and frankly, there isn't much substance to be had. The main aspect of the story are interactions between our two protagonists, plus some stuff about S.H.I.E.L.D. Inbetween that, there's just a bunch of filler fueled by one-scene-wonder cameos that barely move the plot forward.
What's presented doesn't grab me. Spidey shouts at Venom to get rid of the suit whenever they meet, which culminates in a final battle, as expected. But the game opens as it ends, with the characters having undergone no proper changes. It's less a story and more a climax that's been stretched into a narrative.
The cameos are fun, but come and go so fast that they feel wasted. Carnage in particular. I'm not up to date on stories between him, Venom and Spider-Man, but there has to be some story ideas that you can weave into a compelling narrative instead of what we get.
And that's a shame, because a game exploring the relationship of Spidey and Venom properly is rife with potential. If this game spent the time to lay down the differences between them, worked in Spidey's experience with the black suit more, made our protagonists' ideologies clash and had them (or just the one) grow either more violent or heroic, I think we'd have something interesting on our hands.
Hell, with a bit of restructuring and a common foe (like Carnage), you could totally ape after the story structure of Devil May Cry 3 and end with a amazing showdown. That'd be rad. More people should take lessons from that masterpiece.
Combat in the game is a rather simple matter. So much so that you can master it in like 2 minutes.
Spidey has punches and kicks, and a dive attack that can be used either from a normal jump, or be bounced off a wall. To finish off an enemy, you need to web them up, which also serves as a grab for enemies with health left. That's pretty cool, but it's so simplistic it hurts. The camera is also a bit too drunk for my tastes and there's no manual lock-on outside of bosses.
Now, what's there works, so I can't complain too much. But the fact remains that there is a criminal lack of interesting enemies outside of bosses. There's a little bit of variety between the enemy types, but you fight them exactly the same. And there's a hefty amount of fighting, let me tell you what.
But my biggest beef with the combat are the boss fights. Their movesets aren't to my liking and they have ludicrous health pools. Even when I felt like I mastered a fight, I still died due to smaller mistakes piling up. And with the game featuring quite a few bosses, it remains an annoyance throughout.
The abundance of button-mash QTEs is also a bit of a pisser. They're balanced correctly, but don't do anything but make it annoying to save civilians or escape Venom's monster hugs.
The sandbox you're let loose in is a real letdown. Not only is there little detail due to the era the game came out in, there's barely anything fun to do.
You can collect asinine collectibles that are next to impossible to find unless you search every side of every building, do checkpoint races (with terrible music), punch a whole lot of dudes in combat tours and stop random crimes.
And to make matters worse, the game holds story missions hostage until you've cleared an ever increasing quota of side stuff. You can get ahead by going above your quota, but it's almost a certainty that you'll have to swing around aimlessly (with no music) until random crimes appears sooner or later.
Thankfully, swinging around is rather pleasant, especially with the addition of the web zip, which you can use to accelerate before you start swinging or to climb up buildings really fast. And it's a good thing that the traversal works so well, as the tailing missions in the story require an infuriating amount of care, since you must give chase without getting too close or losing your target.
Venom's missions play out very similar to Spidey's, except with a bigger focus on rampaging and engaging in ultimate destruction. Which shouldn't come as a surprise, seeing as Venom is a hulk of Liefeldian proportions.
His basic moves are similar, except that he has more range and can throw stuff. But the most fun part about him is his super jump. It's how he gets around without swinging (even though he has a tentacle zip) and it's awesome. I know few games where you get a super jump this powerful, and it's great.
But that power comes at a price, as Venom constantly loses health and must feed on people to restore it. In regular encounters, it's just a matter of hunting down a poor bystander (as enemies give very little health). But in boss fights, it's next to impossible to get a break in the action for a snack, meaning that you're better off engaging in a DPS race.
Man, beating down cameos should be more fun than this.