Friday, November 07, 2008

Oh what a tangled web we weave...

Wow, it's been awhile since I last posted. I apologize; I've been pretty gosh-darn busy, and consequently I've had almost no time whatsoever to read comics or do the other various geektastic things that I tend to talk about on this blog. Things have freed up somewhat now, leaving me a little more time to do the nerdy things I enjoy so much.

And one such nerdy thing, which has also eaten up a bit of my comic reading/blogging time, is playing video games. I recently managed to acquire an XBox 360, which means that for the first time since the Sega Saturn, I own a current-generation system.

My first purchases for this new and wonderous white rectangle of joy, as you might have guessed, were Marvel: Ultimate Alliance and The Incredible Hulk, since I already knew I loved the former, and since the latter looked like it might be picking up from the spirit of Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, which is a fantastic game. I'm a little disappointed with how that turned out, but that feeling may or may not be balanced out by eventually getting to play as Hulkbuster Iron Man.

Apparently not contented with those and the half-dozen other assorted XBox games I've managed to pick up on the cheap, I went out and rented Spider-Man: Web of Shadows. You might recall that I'm a pretty big fan of the Ultimate Spider-Man game, which in my experience has had the best combination of mechanics, writing, and voice acting of any of the Spider-Man video games to date. I never got around to playing Spider-Man 3, and while I was impressed by the inclusion of the Prowler, I didn't give Spider-Man: Friend or Foe more than a single rental. I'd heard a lot of hope and hype about Web of Shadows, so I was excited to try it out and see if it'd be a worthy successor to USM.

First, the good: the game is gorgeous. New York City is huge and feels very realistic; the animation is fluid, and the character designs (with one notable exception so far) are spot-on. The action sequences are fast-paced, the combat is fluid, and the web-swinging mechanics are just about perfect (largely because they're just about the same as in USM). The storyline so far is fantastic; there's the obligatory in media res part at the beginning, and then a good, slow build-up to the main plot, with some of the usual side-quest stuff, involving the street gangs and the Kingpin. One thing I really like is that most of Spider-Man's powers work in boos battles about as well as they do in regular combat, which is a nice change of pace, since usually bosses seem to be immune to webs and various other special moves. The option to switch between the classic and black costumes, and the different powers that go with each, is fantastic. The moral system accompanying the costumes also works well with the plot and Spider-Man's character in general. The game feels very open; the only time I've encountered any problems was when I tried to go across one of the bridges while exploring early on, and hit up against an invisible wall. I haven't yet gone to see if there are other bridges in the city, but it seems to me like a Spider-Man game ought to contain a traversable bridge. It really doesn't matter which one--George Washington, Brooklyn, Queensboro--I can't tell the difference, and apparently neither could Stan Lee when Gwen Stacy was thrown off two of the three.

Now for the bad. The first thing I noticed that raised my hackles was the flash effects. Pretty much every time Spider-Man throws a punch, his hand creates little trails of light, which get bigger and brighter and more explosive as the combos increase. Last I checked, Spider-Man had not plunged his fists into Shou-Lao the Undying, and thus should not be demonstrating the iron fist--let alone the iron knee, and every other iron body part he happens to use in the game. For a game with such realistic-looking characters and landscapes, these cartoony effects really hurt the sense of immersion. I don't think I'd have noticed if they were more understated--speed lines, a flash when hits connect--or if they were limited to special moves, but it's every gosh-darn punch.

The next thing I noticed was the voice acting. Actually, that's not fair--so far, most of the voice acting is very good. Wolverine is spot-on, Venom and Black Cat were great, and even the stock phrases sound fine. Luke Cage is good, though I think my opinion is tainted by the fact that he doesn't sound like the version in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, and thus sounds a little off. No, the biggest problem with voices is Spider-Man himself, and to a lesser extent, Mary Jane. Spidey does pretty well with the humor, but otherwise he's way too whiny and high-pitched, which makes listening to him more than a little annoying. In fact, the same complaints could be levied at MJ as well, but you don't actually hear much from her, except over Peter's "hands-free cell phone." This may, again, be because I'm spoiled by previous games--Ultimate Spider-Man had pitch-perfect voice acting pretty much the whole game, so it's a little jarring to hear bad choices now.

The game is occasionally glitchy. I haven't experienced any of the freezing and restarting that the Newsarama review mentions, but early on I had to fight one enemy who was stuck below the street. Later, a cutscene played toward the end of a battle, and one of the remaining enemies turned invisible thereafter. That wouldn't have been too problematic, except that the game's targeting system stayed inexorably locked onto him until he was beaten.

That targeting system is the biggest gameplay flaw. Well, the targeting system and the camera, which are related flaws. First, targeting has a tendency to never quite lock on when you want it to. Sometimes it'll decide that what you mean to be aiming at is not the symbiote creature who is gnawing on your face, but the Kingpin squad trooper minding his own business eight blocks away. Sometimes you can change which enemy you're targeting by moving the right analog stick--something rather difficult while you're already trying to juggle your left stick, buttons, and triggers in the midst of a heated battle--and usually that results in switching to an enemy nine blocks away.

The camera, ostensibly, moves to center whichever enemy you've targeted. Sometimes it does this well; other times, it locks onto Moon Knight halfway across the city and outright refuses to be swayed in any other direction. Part of this is because the right analog stick is used to control both the camera angle and which enemy (or ally) is being targeted at any given time, and it's never the one you want when you want it to be. Not being able to see who or what I'm web-shooting at has been the single most frustrating problem of this game so far.

Especially when that problem interferes with the game's moral system. See, the moral system operates on "Red Points" (good deeds) and "Black Points" (evil deeds), which you're awarded...well, pretty much randomly, I think. As far as I can tell (since there was no manual with the rental copy) there's no way to see how many points you have in either column, even though presumably the points determine which allies you can call and what direction the plot goes in. As long as Luke Cage and Wolverine are still coming when I call, I guess I have to assume I'm still on the side of the angels. Sometimes it's easy to tell when you're doing the morally right thing--after big cutscenes, the game usually makes you explicitly choose between Red and Black, which dictates your next action and presumably results in you receiving oodles of points one way or another. When you save civilians, you get red points. When you fail to save civilians, you get black points. I really like that aspect; it seems to me to fit Spider-Man's personality to a T. There are few other heroes with moral compasses so finely tuned that they'd beat themselves up over civilians they failed to save while in pitched battle with the forces of villainy, so that much is spot-on.

After that, though, it gets a little muddy. Sometimes collateral damage gets black points, sometimes it doesn't. After awhile, there's no apparent Red Points reward for saving civilians. During the fight with Wolverine and a bunch of symbiotes, red and black points seemed to be awarded more or less randomly. There's no color point reward whatsoever for stopping crimes or other criminal activities, as far as I can see, even after the police decide Spider-Man's a menace and shoot at him as readily as the bad guys.

Ultimately, it seems that the game seems to really, really want you to show off that black suit and play as a bad guy. Only the black suit has the power to detect symbiotes-in-disguise; only the black suit gives you the power to throw cars, which the game tells you to do so that you can stun and defeat the giant mecha enemies, even though throwing a car nets you two Black Points. No Red Points are awarded, so far as I can tell, by beating the mecha with fists and webs alone. And most obnoxiously, you'll occasionally be in a battle, with the glitchy and unresponsive targeting and camera system, when you'll get a flash of blue spider-sense around your head (good luck noticing it with all the other colorful flashes in the battle), and you might notice a tiny note at the bottom of the screen about there being a civilian in danger. Once in awhile, it'll tell you more explicitly to use the Left Trigger to target the civilian and the Y or B button "while near them" to rescue them. Fail to do this, and you'll get a very clear notice that you earned 10 Black Points. Do this, and I'll hail you as the god of button-mashing, because I've only ever been able to do it through sheer dumb luck. See, things slow down a little when the civilian's car explodes, launching them into the air, but Spider-Man slows down too. Which makes it darn near impossible to right the camera, lock onto the civilian, jump up to them, and press the right button while near them in midair. And that's assuming that hitting Left Trigger actually locks onto the civilian, and not whatever the nearest bad guy you're fighting is. I realize that the evil path is supposed to be easier, but the good path shouldn't be impossible, especially not in a game centered around a superhero, and especially not just because the targeting and camera mechanics are crap. As long as your Red Points (which you ought to be able to monitor) are in the lead, targeting and camera should automatically lock onto civilians in danger, and spider-sense shouldn't slow down Spider-Man. That's the whole point of spider-sense.

On more minor notes, this game seems less diligent than previous installments in making sure that your webs are actually sticking to something as you swing around the city. After a few instances of wondering what I'd hooked onto, I've looked up to see, in fact, that Spider-Man has managed to web the sky. Perhaps in addition to acquiring the iron fist, Peter also managed to get the Power Cosmic (he presumably took over for Golden Oldie). It's a small thing, sure, but it's another contribution the game makes to killing the immersion. Besides that, there's the matter of the black suit itself. I know my "Maximum Carnage" better than most, and consequently I know that symbiotes--or at least, the Venom/black costume symbiote--are weakened and hurt by sonics, heat, microwaves, and electricity. Consequently, I find it odd that a symbiote would be able to take over Electro. Besides that, I was a little annoyed when I managed to find an in-game church tower, with a giant bell, that rings if you hit it, that did absolutely nothing to my symbiotic costume. The game was clearly made by comic geeks with a real attention to detail--the billboards advertising careers in A.I.M. and S.H.I.E.L.D. are a testament to that--so failing to include one of the most iconic scenes in the black costume's history seems like a glaring omission.

I'm sure I've missed some things, but after a review that long with a reference to Aunt May's stint as a Herald of Galactus, I feel like I've reached a good stopping point. Bottom line: I'm planning on buying the game, but I won't drop $60 on it. A good story with some great moments and decent mechanics makes Spider-Man: Web of Shadows at least worth a rental.


Derek said...

Okay, the "random" red and black points you were getting during the Wolverine fight were given for a reason. You got red points for beating up symbiotes and black points for attacking Wolverine. It was kind of a cheap trick because you weren't really given any kind of indication that the battle terms had changed.

Also, you can throw empty cars and not accrue black points.

Aside from that, I agree with you on everything. Spidey's voice is too whiny, the targeting is... less than intuitive, distracting flashy punches, the game damn near forcing you to play as black suit Spidey, frustrating civilian saving, and disappearing enemies.

But, like you, I'm still enjoying the game. The flaws aren't enough to ruin it for me, though I wish they'd patch it.

Hey, have you had this problem? I'm at the part in the game (SPOILERS, I guess) where SHIELD has come in and you're helping keep the symbiotes at bay. At first, it let me call in my allies, which was really helpful in the rescue missions. But then it just stopped.

I can't think of any reason for it, so I'm wondering if that was supposed to happen or what.

Tom Foss said...

I more or less figured that was the case about the Wolvie fight, but the sloppy targeting--especially when you're fighting symbiotes while anywhere near Wolverine--made it seem pretty nonsensical.

I've had problems even with empty cars, or at least cars that appeared to be empty. At one point, I was exclusively throwing cop cars that the cops had gotten out of, but still managed to pick up black points once the cars hit buildings and such.

My luck with calling allies has been rather spotty--it's not always clear whether or not they've shown up, and then they stay longer than I want them to, so I tend to forget I have the ability. I'll keep an eye out once I get the game again, because I left off in that part of the game.

Managed to pick up a copy on eBay for relatively cheap, so it should be here for my obsessive and somewhat disappointed consumption within a week.

And I'm really hoping for a patch, though I doubt we'll get one. Still, it'd be pretty nice.