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Spider-Man: Friend or Foe

(Activision; US: 2 Oct 2007)

With Great Power Come Great Apologies

Editor’s Note:  This review contains some spoilers regarding the end of the game.


The early reviews have not been kind to Activision’s new Spider-Man: Friend or Foe.  As a result, I feel the need to serve as an apologist for the much maligned game.


It certainly is not by any means a great game, but, given the wretched nature of other material licensed from Marvel Comics’ recent films (I’m looking at you Ghost Rider and Fantastic 4), the game is not horrible either.


While I am comparing this new Spider-Man game to the films, though, and, while it does seem to be based on the films’ mythos rather than the comics, nevertheless, Spider-Man: Friend or Foe seems to be more of a commercial for the upcoming WB Kids animated series The Spectacular Spider-Man with both its cartoony aesthetic and kid-friendly game play.  Additionally, the big hint is the trailer for the cartoon neatly packaged in the extras and unlockables section of the game itself.


Assuming then that the target audience for the game is kids, I would even kick my final score for the game up by a few points as the game really does have both very accessible “pick up and play” mechanics as well as a goofball sense of humor, which will likely be fairly appealing to the junior video gamers in the family.  Much like old school Nintendo games as well as newer family-friendly fare, like the PS2 release, Lego Star Wars, one of the game’s attractions is the ability to play through the game co-operatively with a friend as one of Spidey’s friends or foes.


...now this is confusing.

...now this is confusing.


Additionally, like Lego Star Wars, the game’s heart is in a simple combat system—an extremely basic beat ‘em up style—as well as a collection system, which serves as the dominant interest in the game.  Proceeding through the game unlocks both new sidekicks for Spidey to pair with (friends like Silver Sable, the Black Cat, and Iron fist and even foes like the Green Goblin, Rhino, and Doctor Octopus) and some stylish new artwork that I am assuming bears some relation with the WB series’ aesthetic approach to these characters.


Such collections seem to tap a basic childlike instinct as a collector, making the experience fun for kids and, likely, also for older “kids” that are fans of such fare as the comic books themselves or even ye olde cartoon series Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends (whose chief—and maybe only—charm, Gen Xers may recall, was that Spidey teamed up with other characters from the Marvel universe).


The game is ultimately a button masher with some mildly interesting role-playing-lite power-ups that allow Spidey and his sidekicks some special moves, but it is relatively diverting and lends itself to casual play with its brief levels, easily acquired collectibles, and sometimes chuckle-worthy sense of humor.  Given the lack of games geared towards kids on the 360, Spider-Man: Friend or Foe does fill a niche that is not an unwarranted one, justifying Dad relinquishing the controller once in awhile to the young ‘uns.  Though I would probably first recommend the far superior Viva Piñata to folks looking for “kid-centric” games on the 360, this Spidey game might run a close second as a recommendation to those for whom their kids have already abused a heckuva a lot of piñatas and are looking for something new to do on the system.


Anyone else having Golden Axe flashbacks?

Anyone else having Golden Axe flashbacks?


One final note for parents considering the game, though: Spider-Man: Friend or Foe certainly does have a bit of a cynical edge despite its cornball humor and cartoon style.  In addition to and despite its likely corporate origins as an advertisement for a cartoon, its conclusion is interestingly sophisticated in its approach to the military industrial complex. 


Indeed, the title of the game itself suggests that there is, perhaps, something more morally hazy than might be expected for a cartoon-inspired game given that Spidey is being joined on missions by both heroic as well as villainous sidekicks.  Likewise, Spidey’s agreement with Nick Fury and SHIELD, sponsored as Nick himself says by “Uncle Sam,” to wipe out an invading force of alien “symbiotes” leads to a morally ambiguous ending in which Fury suggests that the military will be keeping the meteors that he has located to see “what we can do with them.” 


I am not suggesting that this poke at the grayer areas of intelligence agencies is necessarily a bad thing to point out to kids.  Indeed, if one is hoping for a game with an element of thoughtfulness (which this brawler doesn’t generally require a lot of) that might get the kids thinking a little, what little educational value that Spider-Man: Friend or Foe may have is to breed a little reasonable cynicism or skepticism toward governmental authority.  After all, you are letting the kids fantasize such a libertarian perspective a bit by letting them play around as a red-and-blue-clad vigilante anyway.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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