[18 October 2010]
It’s no secret that comic book video games have traditionally been fairly lackluster affairs. Why this should be so is not immediately apparent. It seems likely that there is a good deal of crossover between comic book and videogame fans. Further, the action oriented nature of most traditional superhero comic books makes it seem like transforming a popular comic into an enjoyable game should be relatively straightforward. But time and again, there have been mediocre attempts to bring beloved comic characters into the video game medium.
While the relative dearth of quality in games featuring characters introduced in other media is nothing new, it does feel a little disappointing in the case of comic books, given how much potential there seems to be. I think it’s interesting that one of the most successful comic inspired games in recent memory was Infamous, a title with clear comic book roots but without a previously established mythology. Perhaps this speaks to the incongruous expectations of gamers as to how their favorite comic characters should translate from the page to the console.
Spider-Man titles have typically been better than average as far as superhero games are concerned. The nature of the character seems to lend itself particularly well to games, given the swinging mode of travel, the memorable cast of villains, and the high action content. In the last ten years, the progression of Spider-Man games has clearly been influenced by the open world nature of Grand Theft Auto 3.
While this approach makes a lot of sense in terms of giving players the freedom to swing around the city, fighting petty crime as they see fit (in many way making it the exact opposite of Grand Theft Auto), it has become fairly mundane over time. It seems to me that this is because we expect the actions of superheroes to be larger than life, and unless the hero is engaged in elaborate set piece battles against dangerous supervillains, or in dispatching the henchman of the villain en route to that showdown, that expectation is not met.
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, which comes to us from developer Beenox (a studio whose body of work has largely been populated by ports of existing titles to the Mac and PC) is constructed much more linearly. In many ways, this is a refreshing change of pace, despite how relatively constrictive it is. Players are tasked with stepping into the shoes of four different versions of Spider-Man in an effort to collect the pieces of the Tablet of Order and Chaos from four different realities. On paper, this is a great setup. Of the four versions of Spider-Man present in the game, Noir is the most unique, and the gameplay in that universe is not dissimilar from that of Arkham Asylum (in my estimation, the best comic book-inspired game in recent memory).
Certainly, the game functions well as fan service. Winks and nods to the Spider-Man mythos are prevalent throughout. The audio production alone provides a good example of the amount of thought that went into crafting the title with fans in mind. Each of the four protagonists is voiced by an actor who has provided the voice for Spider-Man in one of the many animated incarnations of the character. The voices for many of the villains, too, are provided by actors that have previously voiced Spider-Man characters. Stan Lee himself narrates the story. These details serve to make Shattered Dimensions evoke nostalgia in those that have followed the character for some time. Some of the boss battles are downright fantastic, and the opportunity to see so many bad guys from the iconic Spider-Man rogues gallery in the same title is a treat for fans.
But this attention to detail doesn’t carry over to the title at large. It seems to me that at the end of the day, if all the references to Spider-Man were removed and this was an entirely new property, it might be seen as nothing more than a repetitive beat-em-up. The narrative is a little disjointed, clearly nothing more than an effort to shove four distinct Spider-Men into the same game.
Further, as unique as the overall setup of the game is, individual levels are quite similar to one another, relying on the abilities of the relevant protagonist and visual style, rather than the level design (or perhaps goals), to set them apart. What this amounts to is that while the game is undoubtedly fun, I can’t help but feel like just a little more gameplay innovation (as well as a better camera) could have made it great.
Ultimately, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions succeeds on many levels, and will almost certainly be enjoyed by those with even a passing affection for the character, or indeed superhero comics in general. It doesn’t quite meet the standard set by Arkham Asylum, in that it’s not a title that I would recommend to gamers in general, regardless of their predilection towards comics or familiarity with the source material. But it’s still so much better than the vast majority of comic-based games that pop up as to be well worth it for anyone interested enough to try out.