Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hero of the Week 2010 #11: Spider-man

SPIDER-MAN (Marvel) (2009) 
Real Name: Peter Parker
First Appearance: Amazing Fantasy #15 (August, 1962)
Group Affiliation: Secret Avengers
Gaming Credentials: Questprobe #2 Spider-man (1978); Spider-man (1982); Spider-man & Captain America in Dr. Doom's Revenge (1989)The Revenge of Shinobi (1989); The Amazing Spider-man (1990); Amazing Spider-man vs Kingpin (1990); Spider-man: The Video Game (1991); Punisher: The Ultimate Payback (1991); Spider-man: Return of the Sinister Six (1992); Spider-man & X-Men: Arcade's Revenge (1992); Spider-man & Venom: Maximum Carnage (1994); Amazing Spider-man: Lethal Foes (1994); Spider-man (1995); Spider-man & Venom: Separation Anxiety (1995); Marvel Super Heroes (1995); Marvel Super Heroes: War of the Gems (1996); Spider-man: Web of Fire (1996); Marvel vs Capcom (1998); Spider-man (2000); Marvel vs Capcom 2 (2000); Spider-man: Mysterio's Menace (2001); Spider-man 2: The Sinister Six (2001); Spider-man 2: Enter Electro (2001); Spider-man (2002); Spider-man 2 (2004); Ultimate Spider-man (2005); Marvel Nemesis: Rise of the Imperfects (2005); Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (2006)Spider-man: Battle for New York (2006)Spider-man 3 (2007); Spider-man: Friend or Foe (2007); Spider-man: Web of Shadows (2008); Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2 (2009); Marvel Super Hero Squad (2009); Spider-man: Shattered Dimensions (TBA)
Infinite Wars Cumulative Ranking: #2

As you can gather from the long list of video game titles above, you've had ample opportunity to know exactly what it is that a Spider-man does. It's a crucial part of what's made Spider-man one of the most enduring figures in pop culture and one of the three most iconic and recognised comic book superheroes, along with Batman and Superman, in the world. Spider-man fosters a sense of familiarity in even the most casual of fans, arguably more so than his iconic DC counterparts, due in no small part to the routine licensing of the character to cartoons (since the sixties) and video games (since the seventies, particularly in the nineties). Ponder your experiences with the character prior to the release of the feature films, and I'm sure you'll know what I'm talking about.

Unfortunately, time hasn't been kind to the Spider-man license in video games.
With the revolution of three-dimensional polygon graphics, the character lept into a new world more demanding and potentially reflective of a real-world Spider-man. 2000's Spider-man stripped levels down to rooftops and scaffolding, developing 3D space unfamiliar to Spidey's iconic web-swinging in previous releases, slowly building up to a fully realised city in 2004's Spider-man 2. 2007 saw a third film-based game elaborate on the interactive elements of the city further, opening up sewers and more in-door arenas, but with much less fanfare than the definitive stages included in it's precursor.

It was recently reported by 1up (via MTV) that the next game from the Activision/Marvel license deal will be Spider-man: Shattered Dimensions, a game that is supposedly set to include a greater degree of "web-slinging," as ordered by Activision CEO Bob Kotick, in an effort to restore a certain amount of intrigue the series has lost. It marks the latest in a long line of sub-titled entries that included Friend or Foe and Web of Shadows, and another deviation from the film license that took over from the comic-centric titles of 2001-02. A cunning strategy to reinvigorate a franchise that's seen by many as stagnant and over produced? I think not...

Spidey and Venom battle Doctor Octopus in the movie-inspired team-up game, Friend Or Foe.

By today's standards, it's admittedly a tad rote to lay out a list of classic villains and have players battle through them, each getting successively harder. Yet, it's been so long since such a simple concept has been applied to Spider-man, one wonders if that isn't exactly the remedy the character needs to regain relevance on the video game platform.

Spider-man has one of the very best lists of "Lethal Foes" when it comes to comic book villains.
For the last twenty-five issues of Amazing Spider-man, Marvel Comics have been taking advantage of this fact, rolling out and reinventing classics like; Doc Ock, Electro, The Mad Thinker, Sandman, Mysterio, Rhino, Vulture, and Scorpion, with Juggernaut and The Lizard on the horizon, and a string of guest spots by Daredevil, Deadpool, Black Cat, and Morbius. The Gauntlet has been part of a conceited effort to freshen up the web-slinger in comics, and with just a slice of these characters utilized, it's a compelling argument for video games, too!

2009's award winning Batman: Arkham Asylum set a new standard for what makes a great comic book video game. It combined the necessary elements of design and mechanics to finally get the experience of being The Dark Knight Detective adequately realised in gameplay, but also gained monumental kudos for utilizing established cartoon and comics writer, Paul Dini, to help create what was a heavily story-driven experience. Web-slinging and wall-crawling hasn't been much of a problem for a pixelated Spidey since the 16-bit age, and has been a developing art as technology has been able to further embellish the depiction of spider-powers, to a peak in Spider-man 2, which simulated new movie-inspired ways to web-swing. All very good for the Spider-man game legacy, but not so much for players rendered bored and frustrated by unnecessary incremental changes to the games, and gimmick hooks increasingly removed from the license and disruptive in the face of anything resembling a good story.

Web of Shadows -- Guest-stars aplenty become obscured by an overwrought plot about alien costumes.

Spider-man 2 -- named such after the film it was based on -- is worthy of recognition for developing not only gameplay mechanics of it's predecessors, but also the notion of playing as Spider-man in a real-time New York City environment. Though plotlines centred around embellishments to the movie sequel's story, the game offered up the first example of a fully realised city, complete with random spontaneous encounters and other achievement-based objectives. Though widely derided for it's repetitious fascination with runaway balloons and angry drivers, the game remains one of the most loved entries in the series for it's promising open-ended experience.

I believe a strong central storyline is a must for any game, but as The Gauntlet demonstrates in many of it's issues, the life of Spider-man revolves heavily around the city and chance encounters with danger that might arise. Area and time based triggers are perhaps the simplest, most effective way to capture the city-spirit of the character, whilst also extending play, and there's no reason the reviled mini-quests of Spider-man 2 couldn't be replaced with character-driven villain encounters, and chapters into new sagas. The possibility of downloadable additions that could be inserted into the random chance of encounters (or triggered specifically) also present promising avenues of extention.

As a Spider-man fan and reasonably enthusiastic gamer -- all I can really ask for is a chance to be Spider-man. To clash with a list of recognisable villains, maybe team-up with some classic running buddies, and just generally feel engaged by that experience of being the character from the comics.

It remains to be seen what Shattered Dimensions actually means.
The name may conjure images of Spidey's less characteristic sci-fi exploits, but there's every chance the title refers to developments in the way players are able to interact with the space of the game; a character-driven epic of more pedestrian origins; or a reference to attempts to take Spider-man off the page and flesh sequential storytelling out in the digital domain.

A science-fiction alternate universe hopping adventure, while not inherently displeasing, seems like the exact opposite to the refreshment the character needs. While there's plenty of precedent for strange adventures in the comics, we saw how precedent could go awry in 2008's Web of Shadows, which took video games' obsession with Symbiote characters and completely obscured what makes the character attractive. Namely; more urban superheroics with the occasional twist.

The Gauntlet has been a true revelation since beginning in late 2009!
Amazing Spider-man, for the time being at least, remains an absolute must-read, and is available weekly from Marvel Comics! As always, you can find more information by checking out the Marvel website. Spidey's also a part of the New Avengers and Marvel's Early '09 event, Siege. The Gauntlet and versions of Avengers are all subject to change, though, so do your research!

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