Platforms: Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Does whatever a spider can… more or less
It’s been a tough ride for the spandex clad pantheon of comic book superheroes. For every decent video game culled from the pages of DC and Marvel, there are ten more horrible adaptations waiting in the wings like the proverbial henchmen of a mad super villain. Then along came 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game that was both a paean to fans of the Dark Knight as well as an innovative gameplay experience. As a result, it now almost goes without saying that Arkham Asylum has become the new benchmark against which all future comic book adaptations are compared.
Enter Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, a game which is not only clearly inspired by the success of Arkham Asylum, but also borrows liberally from the game in terms of both level design and basic gameplay mechanics. Shattered Dimensions however, is also a bit of a mixed bag, with a weak storyline and some occasionally clunky level design slowing things down. Fortunately the unique visuals and creative gameplay more than makes up for these short comings and as a whole Shattered Dimensions manages to hold its own as perhaps the first webslinging title in years to get gamers’ spidey senses a-tingling.
Like his pointy-eared caped crusader cousin, Spider-Man is no stranger to videogames, having spun his way onto the cover of countless titles on almost every known console and gaming platform. Perhaps sensing gamers’ weariness towards the once beloved web head, developer Beenox chose to forsake the all-too familiar gameplay approach (see: the mediocre Spider-Man: Web of Shadows) and offer a relatively novel solution. Players now take on the role of four different versions of the wise cracking superhero: the classic Amazing Spider-Man, the alien symbiot Ultimate Spider-Man, the futuristic Spider-Man 2099 and a 1930s inspired crime-noir Spidey. Comic book fanboys will of course likely be familiar with all four versions (if nothing else it’s an excuse to finally dust off those foil cover variants from Marvel’s ill-advised 2099 series), but for the uninitiated no real knowledge of Spider-Man lore is required.
The story, however, is also the weakest aspect of the game, which is a shame since for Spidey-geeks like myself it seems like a missed opportunity to really draw on the comic books’ rich mythology. Instead Shattered Dimensions foregoes the cinematic tone of Arkham Asylum and offers a hackneyed plot written by longtime Marvel scribe Mike Carey. The plot begins when the super villain Mysterio steals a mystical tablet which is shattered during Spider-Man’s familiar fisticuffs with the bowl headed baddie causing a rift in space and time that threatens to—what else?—destroy the entire friggin’ universe.
The enigmatic Madame Web (think Doctor Strange meets Bea Arthur) offers her services, reaching out her mystical geriatric hand and connecting with the four different Spider-Men across various dimensions. Players must then set out to recover all the pieces of the shattered table while facing down a rogues gallery of Spidey villains and preventing the universe from tearing itself apart. Or imploding. Or something. Again, both the plot and Madame Web are a little fuzzy on the details.
Shattered Dimensions’ unique gameplay more than compensates for the lackluster script. Each of the four Spider-Men has their own abilities, which in turn translates into four specific styles of play. The Amazing Spider-Man offers classic beat em’ up action, borrowing the Arkham Asylum style of rapid fire combat with players able to string together satisfying combo attacks and create devastating web-based attacks to take out multiple enemies. There’s also the inclusion of a dodge feature which really captures Spider-Man’s ability to effortlessly duck punches and avoid blows.
The Ultimate Spider-Man is able to use the black Symbiot suit (that’s the alien entity that created Venom for those uninitiated in comic book nerdery) to power a “rage meter” for added damage, in addition to carrying out a series of devastating suit-based attack, such as generating whip-like tendrils.
Spider-Man Noir follows a more classic stealth-based approach—again, borrowing a page from the Arkham Asylum criminal ass-kicking handbook—with players forced to sneak through the shadows, silently dispatching Tommy Gun-wielding enemies. Noir in particular, contrasts nicely to the levels of Spider-Man 2099, which are colorful, visceral experiences, including freefalling levels, with players tumbling at breakneck speeds past dizzying, futuristic skyscrapers while avoiding hover cars and enemy attacks.
The end result is four styles of play which, when taken individually, probably wouldn’t be enough to sustain a game. When mixed together, however, the four styles offer more than enough to keep gamers interested. That being said, at times the level design is a little overly simplistic and linear (such as the Kraven the Hunter jungle world early on in the game and some of the Noir elements) but these occasional stumbles are few and far between, and as a whole the corresponding levels work well regardless of which of the four Spider-Men players have selected.
Visually the game also looks gorgeous and the four unique worlds offer their own corresponding style, from the sharp, cell-shaded look of the Amazing and Ultimate Spider-Men, to the washed out sepia tones of Spider-Man Noir and the chaotic futurescape of 2099. The game also cleverly includes a number of some fantastic little first-person quick time moments which allows players to engage in close quarters hand-to-hand combat during boss battles. These were incredibly entertaining and got me wondering just how feasible an entirely first-person Spider-Man game would be.
Shattered Dimension’s audio is also top-notch with a great score and some surprisingly decent voice acting - including Neil Patrick Harris and a slew of other actors which devoted and sharp-eared webheads may recognize from Spider-Man’s various animated TV incarnations. Marvel Maven Stan “The Man” Lee also lends some voice work with intros for each level. It’s classic grade-A fromage, but you can’t blame Stan for trying, it’s a weak script with ham-fisted dialogue that never really captures Spider-Man’s quirky wit, not to mention being chocked full of repetitive lines (I cringed every time Spidey belted an enemy in the face and bellowed “Take that, yo!”). Again, these shortcomings are easily overlooked thanks to the impressive range of gameplay and generally well constructed levels. Completionists and fanboys will enjoy the slew of unlockable new powers, collectable items and alternate costumes.
With Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, developer Beenox should be commended for their risky gamble of juggling four distinct styles of gameplay, because their efforts do indeed pay off in a very satisfying way. Sure the story is about as appealing as listening to Aunt May yammer on about her heart medication, and yes, at times the levels are as generic as Doc Ock’s haircut, but the unique game design and impressive visuals easily overshadow these pitfalls, offering an entertaining experience that should satisfy both gamers and comic book nerds alike with a resounding…THWIP!