While Batman and the X-Men have had some standout entries, their overall histories with video games are checkered at best. And don’t get a blogger started on Superman. Spider-Man has been the lucky one. Even on Peter Parker’s worst day his games are typically playable, and on his best day his games grow to become the finest titles for that particular console. Spider-Man 2 remains a classic from the last gen, and it was a title that forever changed the way Spider-Man games would be designed. Gone were the sinister gauntlets and ‘longest-day’ structure, and in rushed the open world super-sandbox which let players swing around and address crime sprees at their leisure. But this didn’t last forever, and by Web of Shadows players found themselves growing weary of both open worlds (which every other game seems to have anyways) and the awkward new clauses they have attempted to wedge in. Beenox, the crew behind Shattered Dimensions, probably saw themselves walking into this hostile environment, and their strategy became to take two steps forward by taking one back. Does this no-strings-attached swing at the spectacular webslinger pay off, or does Shattered Dimensions snap under the pressure?
Spider-Man has made an oopsie. Interrupting Mysterio’s museum heist, Spider-Man accidentally breaks apart a tablet which controls order and chaos, or matter, or reality, or whatever — this piece of rock kept in an unassuming plexiglas case in a New York museum is really powerful. Its destruction causes realities to shatter, according to Madame Web, and pieces of the stone have fallen into incarnations of Spider-Man’s rogues (plus Deadpool) across four marketable worlds. There’s the Amazing world, retro earth toned, lighthearted, comic goofy place where Kraven builds a secret jungle base and the Juggernaut will charge through a seventies looking construction yard hounded by the Wild Pack. There’s Noir, where everyone says ‘mug’ and ‘galook’ (or at least more often than in other worlds). There’s 2099, where it’s the future so everything flies and is covered in chrome while the police force is owned by the evil science corporations. And lastly, Ultimate, which yeah I know already got its own video game but Activision has some sort of ‘you need to include the black symbiote suit’ policy.
Each universe has three bouts with three separate villains, all coming together at the end with one final brawl with a new uber-powerful Mysterio. What stands out the most about the game is not the story as a whole (which is just a weak excuse to throw the party in the first place) but the micro-adventures that within it. In a way, each level is a simple though self-contained story, which just provides what these beloved foes would do if their powers got a little bump. Future Scorpion becomes an intensely mutated beast that builds xenomorph nests, Sandman learns to control all the sand around him, creating armies and becoming a sentient sandstorm. The Noir villains gain powers period. It’s probably the most delightful thing about the package, seeing what can be done when the game decides to focus on the possibilities of an end boss alone instead of desperately trying to tie everyone’s fate together. Everyone gets a ‘lair’ and you don’t just end up picking fights in a specific back alley available on the world map.
While this justifies the level structure, it doesn’t explain the multi-spider dynamic. It seems that, sans Noir, the developers jumped into the idea without thinking it much through. Amazing, Ultimate and 2099 play relatively the same way, the only exception being Ultimate’s ‘rage’ meter and 2099’s ability to slow down time, though both only serve as hail mild Marys when combat becomes cluttered. Amazing, as it turns out, gets nothing. Noir has a deeper orientation towards stealth. By which I mean ripping off Batman: Arkham Asylum. See Arkham was an amazing Batman game, so Activision decided they would try making it work for Spidey too. It doesn’t. What you get is a very watered down experience. You lurk through the shadows to snatch up enemies while they aren’t looking, take them out one by one without trying to be detected. If you are spotted you run away, rinse, wash, repeat, a lot, because for whatever reason in the Noir universe bullets are more powerful than ever and only a few bits of hot lead can take you out. Spider-Man’s spider-senses also take the role that Batman’s all-seeing Detective Mode had, giving you the ability to see through walls and which way the thugs are looking, but this comes at a really baffling price. There’s a greater emphasis on shadows here than in Arkham, and all you need to do to avoid evil eyes is to stay out illumination, and tragically you can only tell how dark it is you are when you are not using the otherwise stealth specific senses mode. Oh, and the controls don’t help.
The controls are a hot mess. Swinging and snap actions never feel sharp enough to dodge the sometimes overwhelming force against you. The mapping is all jumbled, some buttons, like R2 and the all-mighty circle, are overloaded with responsibility while the D-pad is practically unused and R1 is used only for a web ball shooting move that never ever comes in use. No helping is the military force of bugs, glitches and hiccups that, when dancing with sloppy controls, makes for a symphony of frustration. You will punch foes through walls, walls that are not supposed to be punched through. You will go from healthy to deathbed due to a sudden outburst in enemy hatred. You will launch yourself into the beyond, sometimes, if you die or arrive at a checkpoint at just the wrong time. During a fight sequence in Norman Osborn’s fun-house, I found the checkpoint saved itself mere moments before a larger enemy clocked a chunk of health out of me, a moment I would re-live for every failed attempt to subdue the galooks. Great, now I’m saying it too.
One things fans will enjoy, and I’m talking super-fans here, is the family reunion of voice actors. From Christopher Daniel Barnes who voiced Spidey in the 90’s animated series to the guy who gave the words ‘Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends’ purpose, everyone who had given the web-slinger a voice gets to do so again here. Plus Neil Patrick Harris, who I know for a fact no nerd is about to complain about anyways. Stan Lee’s in there too, narrating over Madame Web’s narration, and Jim Cummings makes an attempt to fool you into thinking he voices a third of the universe. And about forty percent of the things these people will say will make you smile, assuming a glitch doesn’t cause them to go broken record on you. Graphics are pretty great, and greatest yet when certain dimensions look as if they came from entirely different games. Noir is soaked muted colours and drenched in stale coffee, while the Amazing sequences may be one of the best looking spider-adventures to come to a player’s hands.
Shattered Dimensions is a lesson that not everything can be done in the sandbox, especially when it comes to more uncanny boss fights and level variety. There isn’t much for content after you finish the story, though we’ve only started complaining about that kind of thing in recent memory. It’s a good game, despite an awful mess of flaws, and should set a standard for the tone of all light-hearted Spider-ventures from here forth. Of all the dimensions I had the most fun in the Amazing levels, which seems to defeat the gimmick but still illustrates that there was a really fun creative force at play. This game structure may have worked better with a more varied team of Spider-men, or even a different superhero altogether, perhaps a team. At the very least, I’d love to see a more expansive list of worlds, and someone with a history like Spider-Man, there’s quite a pot to reach in. Zombie. Manga. Elizabethan. Italian.