This review was originally written for Reset Games, a video game store in the Pacific Northwest.
For fans of Marvel Comics' iconic webslinger, new video game Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is definitely something to behold.
While its cover might confuse someone unfamiliar with the concept of alternate universes in the established lore of superhero stories, comic book fans know all too much about the different versions of Spider-Man that have shown up in the pages of Marvel for the last 46 years, ranging from a version from the year 1602 on up to one from the year 2099, as well as the cartoon pig known as the "Amazing Spider-Ham." For the uninitiated, make no mistake: there is no shortage of different versions of Peter Parker (or in the aforementioned Spider-Ham's case, Peter Porker).
Taking a noted departure from the more recent Spidey games based on his recent film series, Shattered Dimensions has an entirely different aim by telling a new, original story, unbound by movies or TV shows. Taking a very welcome cue from the likes of last year's Batman: Arkham Asylum, publisher Activision and new Spidey developer Beenox have finally learned that a good Spider-Man story doesn't necessarily come from a basis on the films: instead, it can more easily come from a basis on the comics.
Taking its from some of the more cosmic angles that Spider-Man stories are able to come from, the game begins in the "primary" Marvel Universe (which fans know is designated as "Earth-616"), as Spider-Man catches wind of regular rogue Mysterio robbing a museum for a mysterious artifact. When Spidey interrupts Mysterio's attempted theft, a scuffle between the two shatters the artifact, known as the "Tablet of Order and Chaos," into 17 different pieces. Not long afterward, the mysterious Madame Web appears and reveals that this blunder sent 12 of the fragments into three different realities across the multiverse.
These realities include "a past unlike ours", "a present day out of sync", and "a distant future which may or may not come to pass", each with their own indigenous incarnation of Spider-Man. To restore balance to the multiverse and to keep it from spiraling into chaos, the Amazing Spider-Man (of Earth-616) is assisted by Spider-Man Noir (from an alternate history), Spider-Man 2099 (Peter Parker's worthy successor from a possible future) and Ultimate Spider-Man (a yunger Peter from an alternate present, who re-bonds with a Venom symbiote to accomplish this task) as the fragments landed in their worlds.
Each Spider-Man easily gains their first tablet fragment and turns it over to Madame Web; however, she explains that its power will make Mysterio's normally fake illusions real, and that evildoers will be drawn to the power of the fragments like moths to a flame. "Why'd you have to go and jinx us?"
The story is well-written. The scribe behind it is Dan Slott, a comic book writer with a lengthy run of Amazing Spider-Man under his belt, with another big run on the title starting in November (check your local comic book store!). I’ve been a fan of Slott’s work for a while, as not many writers of Spider-Man can capture the sarcasm, the wit, and the humor and balance it with the relatively dark places and deep feelings of guilt and responsibility Spider-Man has to have, regardless of what dimension he’s in.
One of the most interesting things about Shattered Dimensions is its premise. Basically, we get four versions of Spider-Man, two of which are better known to gamers and casual fans alike, and each one plays differently from the other, which accounts for slightly different gameplay experiences. The first, dubbed “Amazing Spider-Man,” is taken from the character's longest running ongoing series of the same name. This is the Spider-Man that we’ve all grown up with, the one that we know and love who first appeared in the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15 back in 1962. He's pretty strong, very fast, and has a pretty innovative web combat system that allows him to hurt his enemies in pretty cool ways.
During the boss battles, the combat jumps to a first-person perspective near the climax as a quasi-finale to the boss battle. You use both joysticks to either do straight punches, hammers, or hooks, and you have to keep it out of a rhythm or the boss will be able to block these attacks more easily. Some of the web animations look like they’re carried over from Web of Shadows, the previous Spidey game. The graphical style of levels featuring Amazing Spidey is pretty bright in contrast to the other three versions, with colors that pop off your screen as they would in a comic book, and models rendered using what appear to be cel-shaded graphics. All in all, as kind of a superhero purist, Amazing Spidey was my favorite version to play.
Next on the list is “Ultimate Spider-Man,” who had an entire game devoted to him back in 2005. In the comics, the only main difference between Ultimate and Amazing Spider-Man is that the Ultimate version is quite a bit younger, as he’s still in high school. For the game, they’ve decided to further differentiate the two by putting him in the black symbiote suit and amping up his power so that it’s fed by his quick-tempered “rage.” Control-wise, Ultimate Spidey isn’t very different from Amazing Spidey. The abilities you have in the black suit are pretty cool to look at, with some carried over from the aforementioned Web of Shadows, to a lot of other new and interesting attacks. Your strength appears to be radically increased, and sharp symbiote tentacles and constructs appear to explode out of your body at high speeds with high degrees of damage spread in all directions, which is very helpful if you’re mobbed by common enemies and need to implement a wide area-of-effect attack.
For more focused attacks, the suit’s webs fling out with the force of a hammer on the poor bastard you’re aiming at, and you can also dish out a lot of hurt by swiping them up into the air and punishing them from above. The enemies also take a pretty dark turn, becoming more menacing and threatening to match your amped up black suit’s powers. The graphics in gameplay for Ultimate Spidey show the world as a bit more streamlined, and I’m not sure if they are, but the visuals look pretty close to cel-shading.
“Spider-Man Noir,” is something I was quite surprised about when I saw the first trailer to this game, because the various “Marvel Noir” mini-series have only been coming out since early 2009. Noir Spider-Man in this game isn’t as strong as his other counterparts, and is entirely reliant on stealth to defeat his enemies and move to the next area. Defeating your enemies usually consists of hugging the walls or staying in the shadows, and when you get close enough to your desired enemy, a prompt appears allowing you to press a button for a takedown. If you’re on a wall while this taking an enemy down, Spider-Man webs them to the wall, punches them in the face a few times, and webs them again leaving them stuck to the wall while passed out cold.
If you’re on the ground during a takedown, Spidey comes from behind and pounds their face a bit and then webs them to the ground. The game does a good job of letting you know when you’re hidden from enemies’ sights by being in regular color when you’re visible, and by desaturating the color of the environment when you’re sufficiently hidden. When playing in the Noir world, the graphics take a decidedly darker turn, with a bit more gritty realism in the textures and a filter that appears to add some film grain to the overall image, giving it an authentic-feeling 1930’s vibe. Overall, the Noir version of Spidey works in the game pretty well, and the design work is probably my favorite part of this particular dimension.
The final Spidey that you can play as in this game is “Spider-Man 2099,” the only one of the four characters that is not an alternate version of Peter Parker. The Marvel 2099 line has been around since 1992, and has only been in video games as an alternate costume for Spidey in previous video games. This is the first game where Spidey 2099 and his world are fully realized characters, and his portion of the game is the prettiest to look at. 2099’s gameplay relies on acrobatics and your suit’s advanced technology to win the day, as well as your Spider-Sense-like “accelerated vision” to dodge attacks. He also has some pretty bad ass talons, which work out great when the combat pops into first-person, as it will do from time to time.
You’re thrown right into first person combat in the first part of 2099 by diving through the city after the 2099 Hobgoblin, and when you get close enough, the combat pops into first person. The 2099 world is gorgeously realized, with awesome light effects in everything from the buildings down to Spidey’s suit, and the technology’s vibrancy almost feels like it has its own biology, with light traveling through buildings and bodies like blood travelling through veins.
One of the cool aspects of the design that I haven’t mentioned yet is the voice acting. It’s notable because they didn’t just pick four random dudes to voice each Spider-Man, they decided to pick people that had voiced him in the past. Neil Patrick Harris, who voiced Spidey in the short-lived CGI animated series from MTV in 2003, provides the voice for the Amazing Spider-Man. Ultimate Spidey is voiced by Josh Keaton, who voiced the character in the most recent animated series, The Spectacular Spider-Man.
Noir Spidey is voiced by Christopher Daniel Barnes, the guy that voiced the series from my childhood, Spider-Man: The Animated Series in the ‘90’s. And 2099 is the voice of Dan Gilvezan, who voiced Spidey in the ‘80’s cartoon, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. That makes it fun for the fans especially, but even if you’re not a fan, you have to appreciate the level of detail they’re going to, even in the voice casting. Did I mention Stan Lee narrates it? Need I say more?
The gameplay, for the most part, is an improvement over the other Spider-Man games of recent memory. Gone is the empty-feeling sandbox city of the last two games, and in its place are linear levels that manage to defy expectations in a few key ways. Part of this feeling of overall freshness is likely due to the fact that Beenox is the new sole Spidey developer, and it feels like they're just excited about creating a Spider-Man game in the first place. While I was a little irked at a perceived lack of responsiveness when I first picked up the controller, as I upgraded more of the characters’ stats, that issue went away. Noir gameplay can be a little repetitive, and it’s slightly frustrating that even taking down a single enemy without stealth is quite a challenge. I was surprised at how fun playing 2099 is, because it seems like it’s at a faster pace, and the environments really make it pretty engaging.
Ultimate Spidey is also pretty fun, simply because you can make hell rain down from the sky with the black suit. The attacks you can launch at enemies are pretty devastating, and everything gets noticeably amped up if you’re using the rage meter. While in combat, your rage meter builds up, and when it’s full, you can unleash it with the press of a button. Your strength and speed increase dramatically, allowing you to dispatch enemies much faster and with an added touch of brutality. You really do feel more powerful while the meter’s going off, and the screen tinges red while a black suit tentacle reaches out from your health bar.
Amazing Spider-Man is, unsurprisingly, the most traditional of all of the Spider-Men. He’s fast, his webs hurt, and the combos he can use are really efficient, especially when they’re chained together. Sometimes the boss battles are frustrating because they start pulling out really off-the-wall tricks by the time their health starts getting low, and you have to really change your approach with the bosses on the fly. Granted, I played this on "hard," so it might not be the case on a lower difficulty setting.
The unlockable content for the game is also pretty extensive. Even after completing it, I can easily see myself wanting to pop it back in and try to complete all of the challenges and get as many of the unlockable costumes as possible.
Coming off of a bit of a lull for the last few years, Marvel's iconic webslinger has burst back into the spotlight to make clear that we've arrived in a new era for Spider-Man video games. Shattered Dimensions does a phenomenal job in evoking a lot of different flavors of the source material, with solid controls and brilliant production design making this feel like a very diverse look at multiple flavors of the beloved hero.
All in all Shattered Dimensions is probably anywhere from a 9-11 hour experience, and well worth any Spider-Man fan’s time. There are only a few things that ding it from being a definitive Spidey experience, but even those are not enough to dampen the overall quality and effort put forth here. If you’re a casual gamer, you might be surprised at how enticing the game is because at times, it can feel like four quite different games all rolled into one. It doesn't quite control differently enough between the four versions of the main character, but it's hard to knock that while seeing that the four separately realized worlds help make the experience feel quite varied.
This is a wonderful first solo Spidey outing from Beenox, and hopefully portends a lot of greatness still to come from them in the Webhead's corner of the Marvel Universe. Not sure what more I'd want from a Spider-Man game, because Shattered Dimensions is very nearly a total package.