Superhero games, like superhero movies, are steadily starting to improve. Generally, it helps to base a game more within a hero's given comic book universe, as opposed to directly upon any of the aforementioned films. Compare the recent Incredible Hulk and X-Men games based within the comic universe with the Fantastic Four and Batman games based on films; the difference ought to be clear. One franchise that's been stuck somewhere in the middle over its last couple of installments is the Spider-Man series. The first two games were based directly on the megapopular films, and while neither could be called bad, exactly, they weren't anything to write home about, either. Ultimate Spider-Man is developer Treyarch's third attempt to make a quality Spidey game. Based on the eponymous comic-book series, Ultimate Spider-Man is certainly an improvement, adding a great sense of comic-book style to the package and getting a whole host of familiar Marvel characters into the mix. Unfortunately, it also suffers from some of the familiarly flawed gameplay of its predecessors, and it's a disappointingly short ride.
Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can!
The Ultimate Spider-Man comic series is a reenvisioning of the early days of Spider-Man lore. Here, Peter Parker is a scrawny 15-year-old kid, granted his powers via the infamous radioactive spider on a class field trip. The plot of the Ultimate Spider-Man game doesn't spend much time getting you up to speed with this, instead taking just a brief minute or two to quickly show Parker's transformation into the titular hero, as well as a bit of backstory about how he and his childhood friend, Eddie Brock, stumble upon a mysterious bioengineered suit that both their fathers had apparently been working on before their deaths. As any comic aficionado might assume, this is the suit that turns Brock into the gruesome, tongue-lashing beast known as Venom, and that's right where things pick up. The plot itself is something of a disjointed affair; it's really more of an excuse to squeeze as many relevant Marvel characters as possible into the package. But it does a good job of achieving this goal, including plenty of friendly faces such as Wolverine and the Human Torch, as well as modern versions of big-time villains such as Carnage, Electro, Green Goblin, and, of course, Venom himself.
The story ends up a winner because it sticks so closely to its comic-book roots--it's just too bad that there isn't very much of it. To get through the entire story mode, it shouldn't take you more than a half-dozen hours at most, and only about five hours of that actually make up story missions. Ultimate Spider-Man retains the sort of open-ended nature of Spider-Man 2, letting you roam around the city of New York, swinging your way to assorted side missions scattered about the town. Most of these are basic checkpoint races, combat missions in which your entire goal is to beat up a bunch of gang members, and city events, which simply consist of quick-rescue operations and break-ups of bank robberies or what have you. These missions aren't optional, though. They appear that way at first, but you'll soon find that you have to beat them to unlock more story missions--and in some cases, you only unlock a cutscene, and then have to go back out into the city to beat more side missions to move on again. Essentially, it feels like the developers quickly ran out of story and hastily decided to make these missions required play to pad out the length.
This padding really does kill some of the fun, because the races, of which you'll be doing the most of early on in the game, just aren't much fun. The combat tours and city events make more sense, since Spidey's known for swooping down, whooping some ass, and then swinging away into the sunset. But these missions are far too repetitive, requiring you to perform many of the same tasks over and over again until you just don't want to do them anymore. This is doubly unfortunate, because that's pretty much all there is to do once the story mode is over with.
Fortunately, the story missions are a lot better, especially the boss fights against the main villains, as well as the several sections where you actually play as Venom. These fights are often challenging and satisfying, though the final confrontation is a bit anticlimactic. The game also leans a little too heavily on chase missions, where your goal is, again, to race around the city, but with the twist of having to stay within a specific distance of the opposing character. It's an OK idea in theory, but there are too many of these sequences, and it can sometimes be tough to get a good bearing on where your target is, since there's no icon or anything denoting where the target is--all you get is a sometimes unhelpful arrow to point you in the right direction. Were there more of the big, epic fights against the villains and more variety to the day-to-day rescues and crime stoppage, Ultimate Spider-Man would be a lot better off.