In October of 2000, Marvel set out to do the unthinkable: reboot Spider-man! The idea was to create a whole new Marvel continuity starting the characters over from square one in an attempt to bring in new readers, and Spider-man would be the cornerstone of that universe. Enter Ultimate Spider-man, a re-imagining of the Spider-man mythos not plagued by 30 years of continuity with which it’s writer Brian Michael Bendis could shape and mold into his own vision of what Spider-man could be. 11 years later and Ultimate Spider-man is still one of the best selling marvel comics thanks in large part to the fact that Bendis has been the sole writer for all 160 issues. However, with the latest issue we find that Spider-man is dead. In honor of this momentous occasion I thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at the single video game entry we have gotten for this series, join me true believes as we take a second look at this comic book classic!
Released in 2005 by developer Treyarch (yes, THAT Treyarch) Ultimate Spider-man follows the comic book versions Venom saga pretty closely. In the Ultimate universe the black suit is not an alien from another dimension, but rather a symbiotic suit developed by Peter Parker and Eddie Brocks fathers as a means to cure cancer. However when Peter puts the suit on it enhances his powers, but eventually tries to control him. Peter is able to get rid of the suit due to his enhanced spider DNA and tries to destroy it, but Eddie has some in his own personal storage and uses it on himself to become Venom. Without the enhanced powers Peter has, Eddie has no chance of removing the suit and slowly it comes to control him. Peter is on a quest to help his friend and destroy the suit, while Eddie is attempting to control the suit and destroy Peter who originally shunned the suit.
As both games were developed by Treyarch, Ultimate Spider-man has a lot in common with its predecessor the critically acclaimed Spider-man 2. The way the game world is set up is the same between both games, in that there is a large open environment that you are free to swing around in as you please. Missions appear on the mini-map as waypoints that you must go to in order to begin the next mission, but in between these you can swing around the virtual New York to your hearts content. Additionally there are a number of side objectives you can accomplish, such as finding hidden comic book covers, landmark tokens, taking part in races, or solving city crime events which pop up randomly as you swing around the city.
However the two games are also very different from each other. As Spider-man 2 was based on the film series, that games art direction took a much more realistic approach and it’s cutscenes were rather bland typical cinema fare. Ultimate Spider-man being based directly on the comics allowed it to take a much more colorful approach to it’s world. The game is fully cell shaded giving it that comic book feel to everything you see, and the cutscenes are all done with animated panels that move in and out of frame. The cutscenes are extremely well done in this game, as they really capture the feel of what a living Ultimate Spider-man comic book would look like.
Throughout the story of Ultimate Spider-man you will run into many of Spider-mans famed rogues gallery including the Shocker, Rhino, Electro, and the Green Goblin. The main story arc concerns Silver Sable and her attempts to capture Venom and the black suit. Even though this game was the first appearance of Ultimate Silver Sable, she was eventually brought fully into the comic book continuity as a fully developed character. In fact, the entirety of the Ultimate Spider-man game was originally meant to be fully canonical to the comic book series. For a while this held true, however the Silver Sable arc of the comics re-adapted the game story to the comics cutting out a few key details and changing some events around, so while the game is no longer fully in continuity it is more of an extended look at the events that took place surrounding the War of the Symbiotes.
The biggest selling point of the game, and the real major difference between it and other Spider-man titles available, was that Ultimate Spider-man is really a tale of good and evil. You control both Spider-man and Venom throughout the course of the game, and actually see the story from both points of view adding up to the overarching plot. The story is very well done in that it all fits together as you see everything unfold, but if you had only gotten one side of it the story wouldn’t make any sense. Playing as Venom also isn’t just a thrown in extra, much like simply reskinning Spider-man and calling it a day would have been, he actually plays completely different from Spider-man. Where Spider-man relies on his webbing to swing around town, the developers wanted to differentiate Venom completely so he has no webs to speak of, instead for locomotion Venom uses a super jump which is surprisingly effective at traversing the town. Instead of crawling on walls gracefully as Spider-man does, you can see Venom crunching his claws into buildings to pull himself upward. Venom is also much stronger than Spider-man so instead of acrobatically jumping around the battlefield taking foes out one at a time, Venom is able to punch and pound his way to victory. Venom is even strong enough to lift and toss large objects about the battlefield such as nearby cars. In this way Venom actually plays a lot like The Hulk from his video game offering Hulk: Ultimate Destruction.
All of this adds up to a really interesting story that is told in a cinematic style that is still interesting and beautiful to look at today. However, that isn’t to say the game isn’t without it’s problems. As is customary with all Second Looks we don’t write these without going back and playing through the game again, and while it’s been some years since I last played this title, I can say it held up very well in most areas but commits a few very big sins. The least offensive issue is the traversal of the world. The web swinging is identical to that found in Spider-man 2, however I don’t think time has been kind to this system. In an effort to ground the game in realism Spider-man cannot swing from his webs unless they have something to attach to. This keeps it from looking like you are swinging around on nothing, but it has a tendency to pull you towards buildings making it very difficult to swing in a straight line down the street. I don’t know if the problems are with the camera not being able to keep up, the controls not being fine tuned enough on the last gen consoles, or what but every time I would swing around I wound up being sucked towards a building which usually spun me around and sent me in the opposite direction. Eventually you get used to how this works and can get around town fine, but I just don’t understand why they kept this system in. In Spider-man 2 the game was supposed to be based in reality so it makes sense, but in Ultimate Spider-man we have only comic book physics to answer to, it wouldn’t have been completely out of place for Spider-man to freely swing along his web lines without physically being attached to something. At the end of the day, this is simply a minor annoyance, and may really just be an aging issue where in 2005 it wasn’t a problem, it’s only an issue now because travel systems and camera control has been fine tuned so much over the years.
The place where the game commits it’s cardinal sin, and again probably one of Mikes Broken Commandments, is that it locks you out of story progression without completing arbitrary city tasks. So for before the mission start icon will even appear on your map you must complete an arbitrary set of 5 possible goals. These are limited to finding a set number of hidden tokens, completing a race event, or solving a street crime event (Stopping muggings, drunk drivers, etc). The story missions will not reveal themselves until you do these events and they are completely boring. It is unthinkable that I cannot move onto the next story mission because I have only finished 4 of 5 street races. It was probably implemented this way to extend the life of the game as the story mode is somewhat short, but it doesn’t hold up to the test of time, it feels archaic and sloppy that they set their game up in this way. The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that you can front load the events. Since you know you will have to complete the races at some point if you go around and do a bunch of races in one sitting they will still count going forward as you complete missions so you can just do a chunk of the races and city crimes and not have to worry about them for a while. Also there are enough easy race missions to get you through the requirements of the story missions so you won’t have to be stuck frustrated that you can’t finish an extreme difficulty race just to move on to the next story mission.
Great Power = Great Responsibility
Overall I think Ultimate Spider-man holds up very well in today’s gaming landscape. The cell shading and comic book cinematics are very nice to look at even today and it’s clear this game is the reason that Ultimate Spider-man was cel-shaded in Spider-man Shattered Dimensions. The game has a unique dynamic between playing as Spider-man and Venom where they really feel like completely different characters and being the destructive Venom really is a nice change of pace to keep the Spider-man sections from becoming too tedious. The combat is fast and frenetic as Spider-man as it should be and ponderous and powerful as Venom. The writing is decent and we get a laundry list of villain and hero cameos unlike the movie tie in games which were limited to 1 or 2 token villains and had to be grounded in a realistic world. The camera and web-slinging will take some getting used to and adjustment but once you play for an hour or two there shouldn’t be anything you can’t do, however the story progression via mundane city tasks will likely grate on current generation gamers. As a whole the package overcomes it’s two glaring flaws and this is one game I’d like to see make a comeback. Perhaps with the death of Spider-man Marvel will think about giving us an updated version for current gen systems.
Ultimate Spider-man was released for all previous generation systems. For this Second Look I played the PS2 version running on my PS3 and ran into no gameplay stopping issues. There were minor graphical problems in the opening cutscene but nothing serious and the game played perfectly on the new system. The xbox version is listed as compatible with 360 but I do not have a copy to test so your mileage may vary with that one.