Spider-Man: Web of Shadows
After a controversial reboot in the comics, a critically panned live-action sequel to the movie series, a slew of less-than-stellar handheld video games, and the general thanklessness that comes with being a public menace, Spidey circa 2008 was due for a good outing in some form or another. Spider-Man: Web of Shadows is the 2D counterpart to the high-profile console release on the Wii, PlayStation 2 and 3, X-Box 360, and PC, in which the Spidester can explore open-world Manhattan a la Grand Theft Auto. Non-linearity on a 2D plane generally means one thing: Metroid-style gameplay.
All of Manhattan is being taken over by a symbiotic virus, and Peter Parker as Spider-Man thinks he knows just who to see about it. In pursuit of Eddie Brock, the current host to the Venom symbiote that originated several successors (though never this many), Spidey must contend with an infected, not-so-friendly neighborhood, including a handful of super symbiotes of a higher caliber than the rest. The setup is a fun way to put Spidey, with his humorous, snappy quips, in a gritty setting against an unsympathetic enemy, and it really has a Marvel comic book event feel to it. Choosing between good and evil isn't as central to the gameplay as in the console version, but how it is utilized - with the player being able to choose to help Nightcrawler or Green Goblin, the one selected becoming a helper at points during boss battles - proves helpful. The web-swinging science wiz frequently breaks the fourth wall, suggesting at outright aspects of the gameplay in his dialogue. One inconsistency that isn't explained in this version of the game is how Peter Parker and Eddie Brock can both be in possession of the symbiote suit at once, but that's unimportant.
The 'B' button has Spider-Man jump, an extra 'B' while in mid-air and wearing the red suit creates a web swing, 'Y' attacks, 'A' shoots a web, and 'X' operates miscellaneous functions like saving, opening manholes, and communicating with Black Cat. Just as there are two choices in the game, so there are two costumes - and at least a doze play styles. As enemies are defeated, points are collected which allow the player to purchase new combat moves for both the red (classic) suit and the black (symbiote) suit, as well as moves for both. There are seven for each category, and they range from longer combos (the Spider Dance for red suit gameplay and the Black Widowmaker for black suit gameplay), to combat enhancements that make fighting faster and more effective (the Amazing Speed Boost for the red suit and the Super Charge for the black suit), to simple but effective attacks (the Launching Uppercut and Drill Kick for both suits). With the red suit allowing for more agility and nimbleness and the black suit allowing for more power, along with the sheer ability to play as one likes no matter which suit one picks, there's a lot of accommodation for different players and their particular strengths and preferences. The spider-silky smooth controls are without a doubt on the same level as the Mega Man Zero and ZX games, albeit much different.
The map is non-linear, and made all the more interesting in that the rooms rarely stick to the standard hallways/corridors and squares/rectangles the Metroid and Castlevania series rely heavily on. Rooms also have so much inside them that the Spidemeister attaches to walls and ceilings when this is not intended, and it's usually hard to get a good swing. In all, the map is split up into five sections: the Residential, Sewer, Pier, Downtown, and Hive areas, each one's structure making sense in terms of the real world, adding realism to a sub-genre not necessarily ripe with it (Dracula's castle in the post-Symphony of the Night games, for instance). In addition to all the basic abilities that help in fighting enemies, there are several miscellaneous abilities and collectibles. The miscellaneous abilities are: Tarantula Strength, letting Spider-Man lift large objects; Reinforced Web, which lets him grapple them with his webbing; Bulldozer Dash, which allows him to charge into and break red ichor walls; Ichor Web, giving him the ability to swing from ichor ceilings and zip to ichor walls and ceilings; Ichor Crawl, letting him crawl on said surfaces; and, lastly, Sledgehammer Slam, by which he can crash and break red ichor floors. The collectibles include health, damage (attack), life (orbs that allow Spider-Man to come back after running out of HP), and defense upgrades. Unlike in Metroid and post-Symphony Castlevanias, the power-ups are almost always in plain sight; the only trick to finding them is to get the necessary upgrades that open a blocked path or make an untraversable area traversable and simply return to previously-visited parts of the map. There's definitely a sense of growth as the player collects more of these power-ups and reveals more of the map.
The enemies, including the bosses, are all symbiotes. The minor enemies are not high risk, but each have their own role to play in a group and fighting a bunch at once can wear on health. In fact, many rooms on first exploration require the player to defeat a number of enemies before the ichor on doors open up and allow passage through to the next area. Enemies and their projectiles can be tosses about with webbing, and their attacks can even hurt one another. The bosses are instead super symbiotes, which present a greater challenge. Against them, there's always a way to emerge victorious if the player makes use of repetitive strategies: in all but the later instances, for example, Spidey can web-wrap grounded super symbiotes and perform a snazzy combo before retreating and getting positioned to rinse and repeat.
The polygonal 2.5D graphics are excellent, thought the dark atmosphere means most visuals take extra effort to appreciate. The titular webhead's sprite animates beautifully, motivating the player to pull off combos against enemies simply to view his movements. The camera automatically moves in and out to complement the swingin' super-spider's actions and surrounding environments, and this doesn't seem forced and in fact works seamlessly. The music is much like the scoring by Danny Elfman for the movie series, with that same epic feel and cinematic intensity that perfectly complements the gameplay. The voice acting by Mike Vaughn is expressive and lively, cheering the gamer up in the face of the game's dark atmosphere. The presentation as a whole is great, and it's quite obvious when the engine is being reused in later Griptonite games.
Honestly, the game isn't as epic in scope as its console counterpart, nor did it have as much hype. And truth be told, the gameplay is effortless, the combat rich, and the open world platforming satisfying. This is just one example of the symbiotic relationship between licensed games and poor quality being ripped apart, and it's a shame it was overshadowed by the console version.