Review: Spider-Man: Web of Shadows (Xbox 360)

Spider-Man may be able to swing from a thread through the skyscrapers and high-rises of New York City, but his videogame adaptations haven’t typically been as nimble.

Spider-Man: Friend or Foe and Spider-Man 3 were largely broken and uninteresting, universally considered average to terrible by multiple media outlets. For fans, 2004’s Spider-Man 2 has been the perennial example of how to make a quality game about their favorite web-head.

But true believers may want to shift their praise-gaze to a new entry in the franchise, as Spider-Man: Web of Shadows—last year’s attempt by Treyarch to ensnare a successful Spidey formula in their web—is the best Spider-Man game yet released.

Unfortunately, that’s not saying much, as with even one great improvement comes a great mess of problems. Gamers and fans beware; this is quite the videogame paradox.

Web of Shadows is sort of an underdog considering its predecessors’ erratic review histories, but also because past attempts to translate acrobatic comic book battles into a videogame format have been anemic at best and broken at worst. But Web of Shadows shucks the trend and includes a surprisingly polished and enjoyable combat system—in fact, it’s the game’s strongest feature.

You'll be hearing from Captain Falcon's lawyers soon, Spidey

You'll be hearing from Captain Falcon's lawyers soon, Spidey

In a brilliant choice of design, Spidey can now bounce from enemy to enemy, deftly moving from ground, air and even wall combat to take down his opponents. Zipping from one airborne enemy to the next in a stepping-stone fashion is ridiculously fun. Treyarch managed to craft combat that’s simultaneously easy to use and enjoyable to watch. It’s quite addictive, too.

Though quality, Web of Shadows’ brawling is guilty of adhering to action game stereotypes of quick-time events, multiple button presses for combos and encouraging the use of only the strongest attack over and over. Fighting is really nothing special in comparison with other action games, but it is impressive among the crop of Spider-Man videogames. But, as is the case with paradoxes, where there’s one exhilarating aspect to be found there’s always the adverse counterpart in tow.

As fun as fighting is in Web of Shadows, the spotty voice acting for Spider-Man himself almost ruins the entire experience. It’s not to say Mike Vaughn is a bad voice actor, it’s to say he was miscast for the role. Even so, Vaughn’s Spider-Man is one the worst incarnations of the character, ever. Web of Shadows graces players with a whiny, loud, grating and extremely childish superhero to listen to for the approximately eight hours it takes to complete the game. No one can be faulted for wanting to play the entire thing on mute.

Yet (again with the paradoxes) the other voice actors all give solid performances: Luke Cage, Venom and Wolverine especially sound true to the source characters. It helps that Wolverine is voiced by quite the Logan veteran.

Jazz feet!

Jazz feet!

Visually Web of Shadows is an impressive game with high-resolution character models, but it’s still flawed technically with severe pop-in, lag, audio glitches and even the occasional freeze.

Treyarch’s engine shows its shortcomings especially if players opt to raise Spider-Man’s swinging speed to level nine of the 11 possible. Nothing breaks the flow of a play session more than seeing Spider-Man abruptly pause mid-swing to wait for the rest of Manhattan to load. There’s no point in offering such fast speeds of traveling if the programming can’t keep up. Even installing the game to the Xbox 360’s hard drive didn’t fix the visual lag. In a way, the development team is punishing anyone who wants to go fast.

Spider-Man: Swinging faster than the engine can handle since 2008

Spider-Man: Swinging faster than the engine can handle since 2008

Development issues aside, the overall problem with calling Web of Shadows the “best” Spider-Man game is in acknowledging it’s essentially an update of Spider-Man 2, a now five-year-old, last-gen adventure. Web of Shadows is certainly a step above that game with its new fighting element, but the leap from past to present is still evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

The main downfall here is Web of Shadows adheres to the theorem of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” something championed by gamers and game journalists alike. This school of thought encourages developers to continue recycling what works; in the end, what were once great ideas have been run into the ground. For example, ever since Treyarch nailed the feel of traversing a steel and concrete urban jungle as one of the world’s most popular heroes, they’ve done nothing to advance their work.

The result is a stock control scheme that becomes a detriment to Web of Shadows because it’s far too similar to Spider-Man 2. It’s unfortunate to think that just because something works developers can keep shoving the same gameplay down fans’ throats, tweaking small things here and there at each release.

But to be fair, Spider-Man videogames do work best when players can effortlessly traverse their hero’s environment like in the comics. Web swinging has always been a bonus for fans, a major pro for purchasing a new Spider-Man title that’s otherwise full of cons.

Yeah, it's basically Spidey of War

Yeah, it's basically Spidey of War

Let’s just hope that the one, significant improvement to combat made by Treyarch and Activision in Web of Shadows indicates a future when Spider-Man games are more than decent rentals.

Maybe it’s the right time for an adaptation of one classic web-head adventure: Italian Spider-Man.

Now that’s combat.

Recommended for:

  • Hardcore Spidey fans who really don’t care about pros and cons and just want some web-action
  • Those who find web-swinging a relaxing, even cathartic experience; likely those mentioned above
  • Action game enthusiasts needing something other than space marines and elves in their gaming diets

Not Recommended for:

  • If quality over quantity is your mantra: there’s a lot there but with the numerous glitches and uneven gameplay, Web of Shadows can be arduous
  • Those who aren’t hardcore Spidey fans

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