Spider-Man gets tangled in tech



Publisher: Activision

Platform: PS2/GC/XB

Genre: Action

Rated: T (teen)

"Fahrenheit 9/11" may be the only summer film without an accompanying video game, but this week's release of a digitized web-slinger in tandem with Sony Picture's new "Spider-Man 2" movie demonstrates anew the uneven execution of what has become the new staple of entertainment synergy.

A superhero romp high above the skies of Manhattan seems like pitch-perfect source material, but Activision's "Spider-Man 2" game suffers from its stickiness to movie source material, as well as the video game industry's continued love affair with Rockstar's "Grand Theft Auto" template.

Since the movie's plot has received wide critical acclaim and "GTA" is one of the most successful game formats ever, that seems surprising. But at this stage in movie-licensed video games' evolution, strengths in one medium still can be a weakness in the other.

Players, as Peter Parker, must engage in a Gotham-size showdown with the tentacle-waving madman Doctor Octopus. Sounds good, but a movie plot that excites in two hours of screen time is not enough for a $50 video game -- which is expected to last at least 12.

So developer Treyarch, with the blessing of Marvel Parker's exploits with appearances from other Spider-Man" villains such as Black Cat and Rhino, as well as a glimpse into the everyday life a superhero. You might not think that saving innocent people day in and day out could become rote and boring, but in "Spider-Man 2," it does.

Using a modified version of "GTA's" brilliant open-ended game-play model, "Spider-Man" gamers have an impressive model of Manhattan to explore (if Spidey wants to swing from the Garment District to the Chelsea Piers, he can), and it is alive with trouble. Sure, there are events triggered now and then -- such as a series of meetings with Doc Ock -- but the majority of the game is spent pursuing a seemingly endless supply of mini-missions.

They become dull and repetitive quickly. Half of Manhattan's populace apparently enjoys purse-snatching and carjacking. Workers dangle from the sides of skyscrapers with alarming frequency.

And gamers are required to keep fulfilling these missions to earn enough points to move on to the game's next chapter.

Within a few hours of play, saving people becomes as tedious as a trip to the post office, but you have to keep on keepin' on if you want to plow through to the next encounter with Doc Ock.

"Spider-Man 2" is at least the fifth movie-based game this summer, and while it is certainly far more successful than the ugly "Van Helsing" game, it trails far behind Universal's incredible "Riddick."

One of the biggest reasons "Riddick" succeeded is because it abandoned the movie plot in favor of an original story set in the same universe as the movie -- a story deliberately designed for the pacing of a video game.

Purely as a game, "Spider-Man 2" offers technical pluses and minuses. Beating up bad guys is easy, thanks in part to both Spider-Man's extra strength and a simplified combat engine.

Thugs are dispatched with a series of punches or blasts from Spidey's webbing, and while you can string these moves together into combos, most bad guys never present much of a challenge. (Especially since Spider-Man's full health is restored after every enemy encounter.) You can also purchase extra moves that add to your combat potential.

But getting from crisis to crisis is enormously entertaining. Treyarch handles web swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper -- the Spider-Man ability every little boy wishes he had -- expertly.

There are two control schemes, but gamers should definitely opt for the complex mode because it offers greater precision when zipping along Central Park as you explore the massiveness of Manhattan.

The "Spider-Man 2" game was given incredible access to movie assets, including voice work from stars Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Alfred Molina.

All three turn in decent performances -- which are quickly dampened by their absolutely awful in-game models. In fact, almost every character in the game, from Rhino to average pedestrians, looks decidedly last-gen.

Is this because the game's designers had an absolute drop-dead date to release the game? It is becoming a common practice to release a movie-based game day and date with the film. Could these truncated development schedules be preventing otherwise talented designers (such as Treyarch) from getting the most out of the game? Would "Spider-Man 2" have looked better with an extra three months? Would we have seen more variety in mini-missions? It's not as if "Spider-Man 2" would suffer from any decrease in brand awareness by October.

When Spidey soars above Manhattan or snares Doc Ock in his web, it's a blast. But when gamers are stuck delivering yet another clumsy worker to the hospital, they may wish they had just gone to the theater again instead.