This review was originally published 03/13/2011 on Game Observer (now defunct). It has been republished here for archival purposes.
I’m so glad that the last few Spider-Man games have not been constrained to follow a movie’s plot. Even though the Spider-Man 2 movie game was arguably the best Spider-Man game since the first one on the PS1, I really want to see developers try something a little more creative with the Spidey character. I’m one of the people who thoroughly enjoyed Web of Shadows and was really hoping to see further development with that game’s fantastically tight controls and combat mechanics. But Beenox had different ideas for a Spidey game – much more ambitious and creative ideas. They scrapped the free-roaming open New York and web-swinging mechanics that have become a staple of Spider-Man games since the second movie game in favor of a dimension-hopping beat-em-up. It’s actually a nice change of pace.
Mysterio steals the MacGuffin stone.
The basic setup is that in a conflict with Mysterio, Spider-Man accidentally shatters an inter-dimensional tablet that grants expanded powers to its possessor in the four different universes in which the fragments now reside. The Spider-Men in each of these dimensions are enlisted by Madam Web to recover the tablet fragments to prevent some inter-dimensional cataclysm. This cross-dimensional plot allowed the developers to use different versions of the Spider-Man character to create different styles of gameplay, visuals, and bosses.
The Amazing (traditional) Spider-Man is a cell-shaded brawler and platformer that utilizes a lot of web attacks to dispatch enemies. The Ultimate Spider-Man uses the power of the black symbiote (oddly equipped by Madam Web because apparently the Ultimate Spidey is not strong enough to fight his villains) to use more powerful melee attacks in his slightly more cartooney universe. Spider-Man 2099 fights and platform-jumps above the future’s huge neon skyscrapers. And last but not least, the Noir Spider-Man is a monochrome stealth game that feels like a blatant, sub-par rip-off of the fantastic Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Combat is generally smooth although the game tries to vary the gameplay with different attack schemes based on the dimension being played. All of them except Noir feel pretty much the same. Whether you’re attacking with Amazing’s webs, Ultimate’s symbiotic tendrils, or 2099’s dash attacks, the same combinations of button presses in each universe have roughly the same range and effects. So only Noir stands out as being really different than the others.
Spider-Man vs. Camera-Man
As for the Noir levels, they feel like an attempt to replicate the success of Arkham Asylum, but since these sections of the game only received ¼ of the attention given to overall game mechanics, it just doesn’t feel as polished as Arkham Asylum does. I applaud the developers for trying this style of gameplay in a Spider-Man game. I’ve been wanting to see indoor environments and some sneaking mechanics brought back into Spider-Man games for years, and I can’t count the number of times while playing Arkham Asylum that I thought "Wow, many of these concepts and mechanics would be perfect for a Spider-Man game!" But Beenox simply wasn’t able to give these mechanics the attention to detail and precision that Rocksteady was able to give its Batman game. The Noir levels are still fun, but they feel like a missed opportunity.
All the dimensions also suffer from several control and gameplay issues. Controls don’t always seem as responsive as I’d like them to be (especially the "web strike" attack). The game also has a button assigned as a "defensive stance" trigger that allows Spider-Man to lock the camera onto a specific enemy as well as dodge many attacks and perform counters. This is a nice thing to have. In fact, it’s so nice that I ended up holding it down pretty much the entire game – which got really old, really fast. And in the final boss battle, the defensive stance/camera lock is useless; the camera insists on focusing you on the boss instead of the hundreds of minions that you have to wade through before you can fight said boss directly.
Your "Spider-Sense" is also not nearly as useful as it should be. It sometimes goes off at the absolute wrong time, making you think an attack is coming now, but the enemy waits and hits you during your dodge. It also doesn’t alert you to some enemies’ ranged attacks, or just stays on continuously even if no enemies are present. The Spider Sense can also be used similar to Arkham Asylum‘s "detective mode," highlighting enemies and objects you can interact with, and pick-ups (even through walls). The Spider Sense is much more useful for this purpose and is very helpful for solving puzzles or finding hidden items.
The game tries very hard to encourage wall-crawling stealth during the Noir levels. Unfortunately, the camera and controls are trying very hard to make you not want to do that!
Wall crawling is also a horribly-implemented and (thankfully) under-utilized mechanic in the game. There is no button that allows you to choose when you stick to walls, so you just have to press up against them or jump onto them and hope you stick. But not all walls can be climbed, and the game gives no indication as to what walls can be climbed and which ones can’t. This is especially troublesome in the Noir levels, which require precise and deliberate movement to keep Spidey hidden in the shadows.
Once you’re on the wall, the camera focuses right on your back or in a pre-set direction in areas where wall-climbing is necessary to progress in the level. If the camera isn’t locked on a pre-set destination, and you try to move the camera around, wall-crawling becomes nigh impossible due to Spider-Man frequently changing directions as the camera moves, so good luck trying to focus on an enemy. A similar problem comes into play if you crawl around a corner. As you move from one side of a wall to another, the panning of the camera will cause Spidey to change directions, often resulting in him going around in circles.
I also ran into an increasing number of problems in the last set of levels. Spider-Man seemed to become less responsive, often wouldn’t perform web zips reliably, and the Web of Destiny challenges suddenly became irritatingly obnoxious. I’m not sure if this is due to the developers getting lazy with the last few levels letting bugs, glitches, and balance issues get through, or if the levels and challenges weren’t designed to work well with the game’s controls. Or maybe I was just getting lazy. In any case, the last few levels seemed much more frustrating than they probably needed to be.
The Amazing Set-Pieces!
In the end, most of the levels end up degrading into button-mashing. Most of the time during fights, I don’t know if I’m hitting the enemy, being hit by the enemy, dodging attacks, or what. Unlike Web of Shadows, I never really feel like I am in absolute control. Spidey rarely seems to do exactly what I want him to do or land exactly where I want him to, except for web-zipping, which works exceptionally well and does a fantastic job of capturing the mobility and grace of Spider-Man. But wall-climbing, web-swinging, jumping, and movement in battle all seem irritatingly imprecise and unreliable.
What does impress me, however, about Beenox’s approach to the game was the way in which they crowded the game’s levels with fantastic action set-pieces! There are several segments of the game in which an obstacle appears that you would expect to be handled with a cutscene (or at best a limited quicktime event), but Beenox managed to turn these unique segments into 100% real-time gameplay instead! And they are amazing!
This battle against the Sandman early in the game is one of several exceptional action set-pieces.
The best example is an early level against the sandman in a sand quarry. At one point, Sandman stirs up a whirlwind, throwing boxes and pieces of debris out towards the edges of the environment, and Spider-Man must web-zip from piece of flying debris to piece of flying debris to navigate between disintegrating platforms in order to stop the whirlwind. It’s all pure, uncut gameplay, and it looks and plays astonishingly! There are similar sections in other levels (such as the Deadpool level later in the game), but the Sandman encounter stood out to me the most (and it’s early enough in the game that I don’t feel too bad if I spoiled it - hehe!).
The game itself is pretty short, and only seems longer if you take the time to complete the various challenges in the "Web of Destiny," which rewards you for using a variety of play styles and offers some fun extra challenge to the game. Cutscenes are well done, with decent voice acting, but in-game dialogue can be very repetitive and irritating. Overall, the game’s story (being split between 4 dimensions) feels very disjointed. Little-to-no effort is made to tie the events of one dimension into the others, and even the levels within a given dimension are not tied together. A little bit more integration or interaction between the various universes and levels would have been nice.
When all is said and done Shattered Dimensions is a bit of a rollercoaster ride, going from expertly designed set-pieces and action sequences to tedious, mind-numbing button-mashing and novelty gameplay mechanics (such as the first-person boss sequences). Fortunately, the game’s entertainment factor outweighs its problems, and it does a good job of capturing the feel of its source material and should provide plenty of enjoyment for fans of Spider-Man and comic books in general. But if you’re only going to buy one comic-book game and have to chose between this game and Arkham Asylum, you should go with Arkham Asylum.