“Spider-Man 4” may still be a few years off, but Activision has turned the web-slinging superhero into an annual feature in its videogame lineup. This year’s “Web of Shadows” uses the same open-world, skyscraper-swinging model seen in previous games, but adds sharper graphics, improved combat and a decidedly darker tone driven by the alien symbiote black costume that was a major plot-point in “Spider-Man 3.” There are enough improvements here to please existing Spider-Man vidgame fans, but a shaky story and poorly implemented moral choice system — and the lack of a new movie — could leave it hanging by a thread in a crowded market.
The primary gameplay mechanic is, of course, web swinging, which has gotten progressively more forgiving in Activision’s “Spider-Man” games, and at this point is almost idiot-proof. The main gimmick in “Web of Shadows” is a dual Spider-Man who can switch freely between his normal red self and his alien infected black self. Each version has its own set of upgradeable powers. For instance, red incapacitates bad guys with his web, while black can clobber them by chucking cars.
Players’ actions determine Spider-Man’s alignment, which is constantly updated based on accumulating red points or black points: Smash a bunch of stuff for black points, or take the time out to save wounded civilians for red points. Ultimately, this doesn’t have much impact on the game, since Spider-Man can freely switch between red and black powers regardless of his alignment. The only effect beyond inconsequential storyline variations, mainly in the dialogue, is whether a hero or villain shows up to help Spider-Man at certain moments. But since good-guy Wolverine fights just as well as the evil Black Cat, for example, and most of the potential allies are largely unknown second-rate Marvel characters, there’s not much incentive to lean one way or the other.
Not that all this moral choice makes for a very brooding Spider-Man. Although the costume never comes off, nebbish teen Peter Parker is readily apparent under all that spandex, his voice barely changed as his puns hover somewhere around the level of an eighth grader. It’s never a good sign when the writers actually make fun of their own dialogue, though there are some funny moments, including a few attempts to catch up with the times: (Who knew Wolverine had a MySpace page?). But the juvenile tone of the writing is mostly a poor fit with the heavier themes of moral choice, particularly since the game is set against the backdrop of a cataclysm that devastates New York City.
The controls for fighting get pretty complex, but they’re introduced gradually as the player spends experience points to unlock them. As it progresses, “Web of Shadows” does a wonderful job of letting Spidey flit around wildly, defying physics, gravity and the camera. The web (and black version’s “evil” tendrils) are a great combat gimmick, fully realized during crazy battles fought in the streets, on rooftops, in mid-air, on moving cars and even on the sides of buildings with the entire city turned sideways. A new “Spidey sense” gimmick makes it easy to track enemies through walls, which is crucial when everything’s going topsy-turvy.
Graphically, “Web of Shadows” is far superior to the previous Spider-Man games. The animation is fantastic, although the open-world New York is mostly generic, without any of the landmarks of the recent Hulk game, much less the detail and charm of “Grand Theft Auto IV.” But the game world changes along with the plot, which makes for a much better narrative arc than a series of missions in a static city.
During the final act, it’s a bit disconcerting to see columns of smoke rising from Manhattan, but it’s here where “Web of Shadows” really shines, playing out its finale like a good old-fashioned zombie apocalypse.