Activision fuses the best elements from Grand Theft Auto with the worst curses of movie licensing.
As I write this review, Spider-Man 2 is running on my GameCube, as it has been for the past two hours, unattended. Spider-Man is floating several feet above the street, and traffic continues to roll by, each car honking at the hero. The cars emerge from the street as they turn a corner, then sink down again until about half submerged into the asphalt before they escape the camera’s gaze. A woman on the nearby sidewalk is walking in place, clearly in a hurry. The game can be paused and saved, but otherwise there is no control over Spidey. I’ll have to reset to continue playing.
No, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen something like this happen in the game.
There are a lot of things I hate about the Spider-Man 2 game. The movie-based missions are horrible, the graphical quality is wildly inconsistent, and the game is infested with bugs and glitches. Yet the game’s primary strengths are enough to make it enjoyable in spite of its shortcomings.
At the heart of Spider-Man’s abilities is the theme of mobility. There may be faster and stronger superheroes, but few comic characters are capable of darting around with Spidey’s stylish, not-quite-uncontrolled acrobatics. This new game captures that sense of mobility better than any of its predecessors, and when it’s focusing on movement from one place to another, the game works extremely well.
Spider-Man 2’s main draw is its precision web swinging mechanic. The feature is deep and versatile: not easy to use, but rewarding to master. Combined with the living replica of Manhattan Island, the new web swinging essentially turns New York City into Spidey’s personal playground. If the game never gave you any objectives, you could still amuse yourself for hours just swinging around the city, checking out the sights, and looking for hidden items.
Of course, the game does give you objectives, some pertaining to the story and some randomly generated as you explore. The latter type amounts to stopping random crimes, which range from dealing with a purse snatcher to chasing down heavily armed carjackers. There are also rescue missions, in which you might have to carry people from a sinking boat or catch a window washer who has lost his footing. You can even busy yourself with catching runaway balloons for children or delivering pizzas, among the dozens of tasks the game throws at or offers to the player.
The story-based missions are not nearly as interesting. The game guides you through vaguely defined “chapters”, each one outlined by a “To-Do” list that doesn’t even begin to describe what you must go through to advance. The story missions are picky and unforgiving, which is a cardinal sin for a game in which you should have tremendous freedom in how you achieve victory. On the contrary, Spider-Man 2 has a very specific way it wants you to beat each enemy and solve each “puzzle”, and until you stumble on that particular method, you’re going to die over and over in frustration. The boss battles are particularly awful, since they are immune to all attacks except the one the designers want you to use against that particular villain.
About half of the required chapter-forced missions are based on the Spider-Man movie sequel (the rest are based on other villains and events from the comic books). The game attempts to retell the events of the movie, which turns out to be a big mistake. The movie is heavily based on character and plot development, which the game mostly ignores in favor of the story’s sparse action scenes. To fill in the gaps and explain major plot events, there are a handful of poorly rendered CG movies which directly imitate scenes from the movie, except with stodgier acting and uglier sets. The game saves itself from licensed mediocrity by offering so much to do outside of the story missions; there certainly isn’t much enjoyment to be had from “playing along” with the movie.
Spider-Man 2 contains hours of voice samples, the bulk of it recorded by Tobey Maguire and Bruce Campbell. Alfred Molina (Doc Ock) and Kirsten Dunst (Mary Jane) also reprise their roles, and the many supporting characters and random people on the street are voiced by lesser known actors. Maguire sounds just like he does in the movies, muffled and sleepy. Molina steals the show with his scant lines; the delivery is perfect. Campbell once again proves that he is the king of game narration, and this time around, he has a lot more to say, thanks to helpful (and some not-so-helpful) tip icons scattered all over the city.
However, the real star of the game is New York City. Spider-Man 2 contains a scale model of Manhattan, from Harlem through enormous Central Park, heavily commercialized Time Square, and Ground Zero. You can even swing over (or under) the bridge to Roosevelt Island or catch a helicopter ride to the Statue of Liberty. The city isn’t building-for-building perfect, but each neighborhood has accurate architecture and street layout, and there are tons of landmarks. It’s a good enough replica that swinging around brings back fond memories of my recent trip to the city. There aren’t nearly as many people or cars on the street, but the people do speak in New York accents and exhibit the city’s famous antagonism (“Get a job!”).
What really matters is whether the game is fun, and with certain reservations, it does succeed in that most basic gameplay quality. My recommendation is to get through the chapters as quickly as possible or find some way to skip them, because the game is much more enjoyable once those missions are out of the way. Then you can enjoy being Spider-Man and all the freedom that goes with that role, and with so much city to explore and so many things to do, you’ll be playing for weeks.