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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Spider Man 2 (Gamecube) Revisited

Spider Man 2, released first on the Playstation 2 and XBOX consoles, and later on the Gamecube, is not a new game. It's not a spectacular, monumental game either. Why am I writing a review of it two years after its release, and moreover, after the far more recent release of a newer installment? Well, one, because I haven't moved on to the next-gen consoles (for reasons I'll blog about later), and two (and this is more of a grounds than a reason), many of the plays that George Bernard Shaw, for instance, reviewed, were neither new nor memorable. I feel I have enough to say about the game that pertains not only to the Spider Man series, and treating games like scholarly documents seems to be all the rage these days (see my paper on the phenomenology of games like SecondLife on my selfportrait profile). I'm secondarily hoping that IGN.com will read this and hire me.

After finishing the main game in just under 15 hours last week, I puzzled for a while over a variety of feelings I had towards it. Generally, when rating a game I consider, first, whether it is overall a good game, an excellent game, an abysmal game, etc. and second, whether it is an important game. I concluded that Spider Man 2 is a good, not great game, which suffers from completely unbalanced design, and that it is an unimportant addition to the gaming canon, except for one single feature or moment, which is the ability to jump from the top of every building (the highest of which in post 9/11 rendered New York is the Empire State Building), and experience a vertiginous freefall which I imagine must be much like suicide, imparting an an excellent element of realism to the game. The freefall, though incomparable to jumping from a harrier jet at 30,000 feet in GTA San Andreas and rocketing downwards for two minutes, is a beautiful, if inadvertant, moment for meditation.

Controls: Spider Man 2's controls do not port well to the Gamecube. It is very difficult when web-slinging to execute sharp corners, which must be done by holding down A in advance, releasing R, pushing hard in one direction on the analog stick, and then pressing R again, and supplementing it with L, if you wish to get any speed. The problem is that the Gamecube's R button is so shoddily built. Perhaps it's from so many hours of Super Smash Bros. Melee, but my R trigger tends not to react anymore to delicate taps, or rapid sequences of taps. Also, the Gamecube's R trigger, rather than being wholly pressure-sensitive like that of the Playstation 2, uses a two-tier system, where you have to make sure the button 'clicks' to execute the corresponding move. Furthermore, directional movement when swinging is not sensitive enough. There is a learning-curve to swinging, and it's enjoyable to upgrade your swing speed and learn the most efficient technique, but the problem is that by the time you can swing well the main game is over, and you've spent the past 15 hours bumping into the sides of buildings because you can't shift direction quickly enough.
The fighting engine also suffers because of the controls - Because the B, Y and X, buttons center around the A (main action) button, and are consequently spaced far apart, the numerous combos available in the game are difficult to pull off, and one must resort to button-mashing. This could have been rectified somewhat by a Customize Controls option, BUT THERE ISN'T ONE.
Finally, too much weight is put on the Gamecube's miniscule d-pad. The d-pad facilitates both lock-on and Spider-Reflexes. Lock-on is mildly helpful during the game, but really only to keep track of where the enemy of your immediate concern is (since most battles are fought in open arenas) and not to use strategically. On the other hand, I went through basically the entire game without needing to use Spider-Reflexes once. I would call it gimmicky if it weren't so unnoticable. I used it on occassion for my own enjoyment, but it's an entirely superfluous and un-integrated feature. I think part of that is due to its marginalized location on the d-pad.

Camera: In a game where you spend 90% of your time web-slinging through concrete and steel canyons at high speeds, a responsive and intelligent camera is important. For the most part, I think the developers did a good job with the non-battle camera. One gripe is that I wish the camera would shift from a bottom-up vertical perspective to a horizontal one when reaching the tops of buildings. Many times (especially in the myriad extra races you can complete), you'll scale a building by using the spring-jump, where you pounce up the wall and land at intervals. On the final jump however, it's often difficult to gauge how much farther the top is, and you'll often overshoot it. This happens a lot on tripartite buildings, or buildings with wedding cake setbacks. If the camera switched to horizontal more quickly, you could push in and land, but instead you have to wait out the height of your jump, wasting precious seconds on the way to a marker. Similarly, when scaling buildings sideways or upsidedown, the camera has a hard time paralleling your movements, and you often have to pause and orient yourself. This makes navigating more complex structures like the Brooklyn Bridge or the spire atop the Chrysler Building difficult. Adam Sessler would have a field day with this! The battle-camera on the other hand is horrible. Granted that slaying hordes of thugs in this game is pretty easy, you hardly ever know who you're about to attack, or who's about to attack you (despite that your Spidey-Sense alerts you to impending attacks). In tight or low-ceiling spaces, this is especially harrying. Overall though, the camera is not as bad as in many action-adventure games.

Sound/Graphics: I put these two together because I'm usually not hugely concerned with either; I think that considering the state of game production these days, gameplay, pacing, camera, and immersion are paramount. So, unless either is especially good or poor, I consider them both secondary. The graphics are decent, even on the Gamecube. Though there is a lot of draw, that's expected and acceptable considering the vastness of the rendered city. Spider Man himself looks a little . . . fragile . . . (though better than the rest of the character models) and his default ready-for-action pose is cheesy, but most of his animations are good; he moves with an elasticity that juxtaposes the rigidity of the buildings. Also well done are the highly-reflective glass and steel surfaces which I've seen criticized elsewhere, but which glimmer gorgeously at night. I didn't watch any of the cut-scenes, so I can't tell you if they were well rendered. I did very much like the blur effect, both visual and aural, that occurs when you're swinging or falling fast, and frankly I wish it happened more often!
The sound is okay. There's some beautiful Philip Glass-esque (forgive my lack of research, but I'm not sure if it is in fact Philip Glass) mood music which cues in all too infrequently (randomly, it seems, once you've completed the main game), and the butt-rock that complements races and fights is above par butt-rock. The voice overs, as usual, are stilted.

Gameplay: I won't cover over all the facets of gameplay, since you can find them elsewhere, but the most concerning flaw is this games unbelievably unbalanced design. Treyarch have rendered one of the largest playable environments in any game yet, second only to the GTA series, and perhaps True Crime, though I'd hardly call the latter's environments 'playable'. Nearly every major Manhattan landmark is present. Swinging from Inwood Park all the way down to the Financial District takes nearly 10 minutes. But here's the caveat - IT'S ALL FUCKING USELESS! The main game is divided into 16 chapters, buffered by repetitive hero missions where you have to stop armored car holdups, bank robberies, carry wounded civilians to the hospital, deliver pizzas, etc. You do these missions to gain upgrades like faster swinging, combat moves (my favorite is The Lamp Post, where you can tie up baddies and hang them from street lights), and fun acrobatics moves. The main missions though, are mostly brief episodes, hardly related to one another. In other words, this game is more like 'several months in the life of a superhero', than a cohesive game. You blunder and then reconcile a relationship with Mary Jane, you fight the Rhino, Shocker, and Mysterio (the first and by far most fun battle), and meanwhile there is the Doc Oc strand which is like a condensed adaptation of Spider Man 2, the film. Then, after a final showdown with Doc Oc, a mission that is ten times harder than anything else you've previously done in the game, it's over. You're left with a 50% completion, a la GTA, and a wealth of mini-games to accomplish, like races, collecting skyscraper coins, and the like. You begin chapter 16, poetically titled "The First Day of The Rest of Your Life," and realize something horrifying: Treyarch, probably funded by the film studio, got an army of programmer monkeys to render a way-too-big New York, and about 1 fucking percent of it is utilized in the main game. Sure you can complete every outstanding challenge, but other than that, everything is just scenery; what a waste! GTA San Andreas, though vast, offered some sense of purpose, of accomplishment and territory, in cruising around it's cities once the main game was complete. Spider Man 2, on the other hand, leaves one with a terrific void of solitude to aimlessly swing around in. You turn off the console and feel as if Spider Man is trapped in that purposeless, lonely metropolis eternally. I'd feel worse if I gave a shit about Spider Man.

I chose not to rant about movies-turned-videogames, because we all know the often ugly results (Dukes of Hazzard, Pirates of the Carribean, etc. are all perfect specimens). I also think comics, and comic games, suck. There's something so unappealing to me about comic book superheros - Spider Man is a bumbling goody-two-shoes who got bit by a radioactive spider for fuck's sake; how sexy or romantic is that? Bugs are disgusting. But, this game obviously had some real effort put into it, more than that which is put into most games, and swinging around New York is fun. Plus, it was only $14.99, at GameStop. IGN gave it an 8.8, which I think is a little high. I give it an 8.0, because game developers really need to step things up.

Author: Paris Ionescu

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