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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions (8.2/10)

While battling the malevolent Mysterio, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man screws the proverbial pooch when he accidentally breaks an ancient tablet known as the Tablet of Order and Chaos. Madam Web shows up and lets him know that, as is always the case, he may have set about a series of events that could destroy the universe. The broken pieces of the tablet are scattered across space, time, and alternate realities. In every one Spider-Man must get to it before they fall into the wrong hands. Madam Web calls on the other variations of our iconic hero from different periods in history and different universes to heed the call. Such is the story of Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions: you will play as the Amazing Spider-Man (classic costume), Ultimate Spider-Man (black costume), Spider-Man Noir (a 1930's version of the web crawler), and Spider-Man 2099 (the futuristic incarnation).

I'm not terribly familiar with comics in general (I'm every kind of nerd but that one), and I think it's because of this that I actually found the plot rather enjoyable, mostly because I had no frame of reference to the canon. Basically, each level is all about chasing down a classic Spider-Man villain who has gotten a hold of one of the pieces of the tablet, thus dramatically increasing their power. You fight through wave after wave of henchmen with different gameplay mechanics and combat styles depending on the Spidey you're playing as before facing off against the boss himself to regain the missing piece of the tablet. There are three acts, each comprised of four levels, one for each version of Spider-Man.

The basic combat is standard button-mashing simple combos against hordes of henchmen and monsters. It can be surprisingly satisfying and frustrating at the same time. After some practice you'll be beating the snot out of them en mass with little trouble. But when they start throwing in larger enemies, things can get overwhelming. When you actually reach each boss, they are your run-of-the-mill, pseudo-scripted encounters where you have to learn their pattern, then wait for your opportunity to strike and whittle down their health bar. There are some really cool moments though; it sometimes switches to first-person perspective and you start punching it out with your foe!

Platforming also plays a fairly large role in Shattered Dimensions. As you would expect, Spider-Man uses his webs to sling himself all over the place. Most missions are comprised of multiple vertical levels. It takes some practice to get from point A to point B, but once you get it right it's an absolute blast to dart in and out of enemies, then escape to higher ground, or sling your way around to get to hard to reach ledges.

While all the Spider-Men have the same basic move set and combo abilities, each variation has their own special characteristics that make them unique. This adds great variety to the gameplay and keeps things from getting stale. The Amazing Spider-Man missions are the classic web-slinging and ass-kicking you would expect. But then things change. For example, the Spider-Man Noir levels are essentially stealth missions. Staying in the shadows turn everything black and white, while stepping into the light means you can be seen... and shot. The trick is to position yourself behind your foes, then take them down silently. It reminds me a lot of Splinter Cell: Conviction and Batman: Arkham Asylum in this regard.

The Spider-Man 2099 missions involve a lot of free-fall sections as you fight through the towering skyscrapers of the future. Combat in these levels are also a blast, due to the future Spidey's ability to have "Accelerated Vision." This slows enemies down to a crawl, creating a sort of bullet-time effect. Ultimate Spider-Man has a similar skill, his "Rage Meter." Fill it up by beating down bad guys. Once activated, Spidey harnesses the power of the black suit and becomes a cyclone of whipping tendrils... until the meter depletes.

Each different Spider-Man not only has his own unique combat style, but also graphical style as well. The Amazing Spider-Man and Ultimate Spider-Man sections are cel-shaded, reminiscent of Borderlands. Spider-Man Noir's sepia-tinted graphics provide a wonderful counterpoint to the flashy vision of the future in the Spider-Man 2099 levels. And while the game looks great with these graphical variations, the cutscenes in between the acts look fantastic too!

For me, the highlight of the game was the brilliant voice work. The Amazing Spider-Man is voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, and he is hilarious. He spouts Spidey's one liners and off-the-cuff remarks perfectly. Bad (and I mean bad) puns abound! While this is just my kind of humor, sometimes they fall a little short of the mark and can start to get stale after a while. The other voice actors do a great job as well, from the villains to Madam Web to the other versions of Spidey himself. Quick side note: after doing some research it seems that each voice of Spider-Man is someone who has previously voiced the web crawler in one or another of the cartoons over the last thirty years. How cool is that?

A lot of the levels, while fairly linear, still leave plenty of room for exploration, finding collectible spider emblems and hidden spiders. Finding these garner you 'Spider Essence' which is essentially experience you can use to upgrade your hero. There are multiple choices available, some unique to each Spider-Man. You've got "Combat Upgrades" and "Character Upgrades." The combat variations increase your combos, special abilities or health, giving you different options in how you approach battle. Character upgrades are things like increasing the Ultimate Spider-Man's "Rage Meter." It takes a lot of gathered experience to unlock them all!

Along with those previously mentioned collectibles, there also challenges you can try to complete. These are tracked in the "Web of Destiny." For each level you have optional tasks that require different styles of play or specific moves. By completing some you unlock others. There are a few things about this that kind of bug me... first, while these are optional and you can complete a lot of them without really trying, they prove to be an almost unnecessary distraction. You want to try and complete these challenges for the experience bonuses that come with them. Certain abilities and upgrades are only available after you complete a certain number of tasks. This leads to my second problem with these sorts of arbitrary challenges in-game: they force you to play a certain way if you want to get everything. There are 180 such challenges, and despite my best efforts I only completed about 150 of them. I found myself constantly checking to see what I needed to do next, which kind of counteracts the fact that they are optional. I felt like this broke up the flow somewhat. Still, that's just me; depending on how you choose to play, you define your own experience.

Far and away the major problem with Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions is the camera. Isn't that always the biggest complaint with these sorts of third-person action games? In the heat of combat it's easy to get turned around or blocked by a wall that suddenly pops out of nowhere obscuring your vision and leaving you vulnerable. When web-slinging about the city, it can be difficult to keep going the way you want as the camera seems to bounce you around a fair bit. While this is par for the course, that minor frustration is nothing compared to dealing with the camera while climbing on a wall. It really seems to have a mind of it's own, leading you in completely the wrong direction unless you get it perfectly lined up. It doesn't break the game by any stretch of the imagination, but it could certainly be better.

It seems like, as good as Shattered Dimensions is, there are a few minor issues that brought it down. My perceived flaws with the "Web of Destiny" and the camera woes aside, I felt like the game dragged on a bit. It's a fairly lengthy adventure and I started to feel I was doing the same things over and over... for a title where the whole point seems to be variance in the powers of the different Spider-Men, that seems like a failing. Don't get me wrong, playing as the different versions of the hero works, and often flows together well, but by the third act the novelty had worn off. The plot doesn't really develop a whole lot. The goal is always the same: chase down the boss battling through their cronies, fight him/her usually a couple of times on the way, then face the super-powered version as they absorb the tablet. Some of the formulaic boss fights work quite well, others not so much. Once I learned their patterns, it was simply a question of waiting, sitting there twiddling my thumbs until I had an opening. Then, it's grab that piece of the tablet... and repeat.

I also encountered a few technical glitches that somewhat spoiled the experience for me. The game locked up completely once. Another time I had to reload a checkpoint because the barrier sealing a door didn't disappear after I had defeated all the enemies. It was... annoying.

Despite these minor complaints, and the rather bigger problem with the wonky camera, Spider-Man Shattered Dimensions is probably one of the best "super hero" games I've ever played. The combat, when it works properly, is satisfyingly awesome, as is swinging around the levels on strands of webbing. There is a ton of stuff to discover and collect, and upgrading to new powers and abilities is always fun. With a sequel just announced, (Spider-Man: Edge of Time is on the way!) I hope Beenox continues with what worked so well in Shattered Dimensions, and takes note of what didn't... namely that bloody camera!


Score = 8.2 / 10

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