Saturday, September 18, 2010

Review: Spider-Man Shattered Dimensions

Waitaminit, you're telling me there's some other game besides Halo: Reach?


The game opens with The Master of Illusion - Mysterio - attempting to steal the Tablet of Order and Chaos from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You're friendly neighborhood Spider-Man comes on the scene, and in the ensuing confrontation, the tablet gets shattered into pieces, causing rifts in the space-time continuum and scattering the shards across multiple realities. The rest of the game is spent traveling to each of these 4 dimensions - Amazing, Ultimate, Noir and 2099 (all based on various comic incarnation of Spider-Man) recovering the pieces of the tablet from various members of Spidey's Rogue Gallery, and putting an end to Mysterio.


Overall, S-MSD is a beat-em-up but with the added fun of slinging around on webs and crawling on walls. The feel of flying around the environments on webs is great, and while the levels are all very linear, you can fly around in any direction within them. You have your standard light and heavy attacks that you can upgrade throughout the game by collecting Spider Essence - the games money system. I can see where Beenox was going with the four dimensions design, hoping to create four distinct gameplay experiences. Unfortunately, three of the four dimensions all play pretty much the same. The only major difference is between 2099 and Ultimate, where those Spideys have unique power abilities that need to be charged up before releasing them on enemies: Ultimate unleashes the full damage potential of the symbiote suit, and 2099 has a bullet-time effect that slows down everything around Spidey.

The one really unique dimension is the Noir one. This particular Spidey is significantly less powerful than the others, in that he doesn't have any web-based attacks (in fact, he uses his web almost exclusively for traveling) and has no unique power ability. Instead, his tactic will feel very familiar to fans of Batman: Arkham Asylum. He must sneak around in the shadows and silently take down enemies in order to advance through the levels. The takedowns are extremely satisfying with varying types depending on Spidey's location relative to an enemy. He can leave them hanging in a web cocoon from a high wire, slam and stick them to a wall while on the ground, or pull them off ledges from below. The animations are appropriately brutal. When he does enter into direct combat, it is strictly hand-to-hand with no super powers at all. The two drawbacks to the Noir dimension are the detection sensitivity - either you're concealed or you're not, there is no middle ground - and the camera is VERY wonky when in close quarters or scaling surfaces. The other similarity to B:AA is the addition of the Spider Sense which highlights all of your enemies - even through walls and solid objects - and displays their health levels so you can accurately direct your attack against weakened enemies to thin out crowds more quickly.

Each level also has a set of 15 challenges to complete, which adds a twist to the gameplay and encourages you to explore different types of attacks and strategies. Completing challenges gives you bonus Spider Essence which can then be used to purchase said upgrades - everything from new attack combos to increased health and even new outfits. Nothing quite like zipping around in a Fantastic 4 outfit with a paper bag for a mask.


This game is really a joy to watch. Each dimension has a unique art style that fits well with the vibe of them. Amazing is a classic comic style - the wife even commented "It's cool how they make it look like an actual comic book"; Noir is more photo-realistic with a desaturated palette with splashes of color a la Sin City; 2099 has a futuristic bent with the classic hexagon-style fabric patterns that seems to be de rigueur for sci-fi settings; Ultimate is similar to Amazing but has more gloss and clean lines. The end result is that each dimension feels unique and different, and while the combat is pretty much the same in each, the design helps to alleviate repetitiveness in the gameplay. One fun twist is that in certain confrontations the camera changes to a first person view and you get to beat the crap of out an enemy Punch-Out style using the analog control sticks. While it's a bit clunky, there is a certain gratification derived from pummeling dudes in the face from point blank range.

As I said above, the levels are very linear, and there is a certain pattern to them all:

introduction of Rogue

initial battle with said Rogue

Rogue runs off, Spidey chases and battles henchmen

Spidey rescues civilian hostages

Spidey has another encounter with Rogue

Rogue runs off again, Spidey chases and battles more henchmen

Spidey has some sort of timed encounter

Spidey has final confrontation with Rogue.

But the game itself is very arcadey. I would compare it to Resident Evil 5 because you get a score and rating for each level upon completion, you can replay levels to better your score and rating, and each level's final boss battle is more about exploiting a weakness than wearing them down with constant attacks. That said, the level design is pretty amazing (see what I did there?). Each level is centered on a particular enemy from Spidey's Rogue Gallery, and ends with a final confrontation with each. The developers did a great job of capturing the essence of each: Kraven's level is a jungle hunting ground with combat arenas peppered throughout; Electro is ravaging a power plant replete with generators and power lines; Goblin hides out in his old carnival freak show tents; Doc Ock is sequestered in a high-tech lab with genetically engineered freaks running around. One particular highlight - as many reviews have pointed out - is the Deadpool level. It's a reality TV show that breaks through the fourth wall and is hyper-aware that it is a game within a game. Keanu says 'Whoa'.

One other thing that I noticed towards the end of the game is that while you bounce around from dimension to dimension, there is an internal consistency within each dimension. Example: in the Noir dimension, Norman Osborn is re-imagined as an ex-circus freak who has risen to a powerful crime boss. The bosses you fight before facing the Goblin himself are all employed by him, and are all ex-circus freaks as well. And the end of one boss transitions into the next boss level smoothly. The way the game is set up is 3 acts with 4 levels in each that you can approach in any order you want. It would be interesting to go back and do all the levels in one dimension in a row to see how the storyline develops and culminates within each.

While the plot is fairly cookie cutter, the voice acting is fantastic. They enlisted the original voice actors from the various animated Spider-Man cartoons: Josh Keaton from The Spectacular Spider-Man, Christopher Daniel Barnes from the mid-90's Spider-Man, Neil Patrick Harris from the early 2000's Spider-Man, and my personal favorite Dan Gilvezan from Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. While the media darling is NPH - and he does a great job - Dan Gilvezan holds a special place in my heart because that is the only Spider-Man cartoon that I watched as a wee lad besides the OG 1960s-70s cartoon re-runs. So Neil can get off my lawn, dammit! The cherry on top is the man himself - Stan Lee - doing all of the narration for the major cut-scenes. We even get an Excelsior! at the end. So. Fucking. Awesome.


It's too bad that this game came out a week before Halo: Reach. It really is a delightful and fun game that I fear will get overlooked in the onslaught of Noble 6. This is a love letter to our favorite Web-head and all his various incarnations throughout the decades. Even if you're not an avid reader of the comics, they include so much Spider-Man material that if you don't get at least one or two of the references, you must have been sleeping under a rock for the past 30 years. The combat is satisfying, the web-slinging is great fun, the dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the art design is superb. The only drawbacks are the wonky camerawork while wall-crawling and the somewhat repetitive gameplay. This game is a joy to play and I would highly recommend it.

Score: 8/10

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