One of my most vibrant childhood memories is of the 1982 Amazing Spider-Man annual, one of those hard backed publications that came out seemingly to coincide with school holidays and contained a few standalone stories alongside various themed puzzles and other space fillers. I remember in particular a story (or stories, it was a long time ago) that had Spidey up against both Kraven and Vulture in an adventure that seemed, to my young eyes at least, to be the greatest story ever told. I'd never read a Spider-Man comic before (or indeed since) but something about the character and his powers enthralled me and I must have read that annual cover to cover a hundred times at least leaving it spineless and dog-eared but still intact, I can even tell you with unnerving accuracy exactly where it currently resides in my loft (just behind the hatch amidst a pile of similarly aged Roy Of The Rovers and Beano annuals in case you were wondering). Now, as an adult, with seemingly every comic book hero getting their own film franchise at the moment it's the Spider-Man films more than any other that fill me with excitement, reawakening the childhood attachment to the character that's never been forgotten.
So, having rushed out to see the thoroughly entertaining Spider-Man 3 film on its opening weekend it came as a pleasant surprise to find the official game of the movie waiting on my review pile a few days later. The game starts out right in the middle of a short first mission/tutorial that tasks Spidey with stopping a crazed bomber from blowing up an office building before then following on with another short section teaching you how to guide the webbed wonder gracefully through the city before finally leaving you to your own devices in a sprawling version of New York. At this point it'll be a hard nosed gamer that resists the urge to spend some time simply swinging their way around the vast open city. In fact at first such aimless sightseeing seems like a whole game in its own right, whether it's swinging effortlessly down busy streets skimming the tops of cars, climbing skyscrapers simply for the fun of jumping from the top or leaping from rooftop to rooftop in a kind of DIY free-running game the elegance of the controls and the sense of freedom they give you will force a smile from even the most jaded gamer. In a nice touch that may be more accident than design that feeling of revelling in your powers links in perfectly to the mood at the start of the film where Peter Parker is finally enjoying being Spider-Man and all that entails. However, soon the responsible reviewer inside me took over and I realised as much fun as I was having I really should dip into the game proper and see what it had on offer. Unfortunately, that was where things started to go wrong.
Spiderman 3 takes the now familiar sandbox approach to its game world, with an overhead map of New York allowing Spidey to pick and choose which of the currently available missions he wants to tackle next, then a yellow on-screen indicator helps guide him to its start point. The three main plots from the film are all replicated in-game (yep, the funky black suit makes an appearance too) along with an impressive number of new story arcs meaning villains like Scorpion, Lizard and Kingpin share game time with the expected Sandman, New Goblin and Venom over a total of ten storylines. With so many recognisable bad guys on display there is a sense that none of them really get a chance to shine with each done and dusted in a few missions, but it's a nice change from movie licences that slavishly follow the film's plot. It's not all story missions though, there's a wide selection of standalone side missions to complete too if you fancy a change of pace. These tend to see Spidey up against one of three gangs battling for turf throughout New York. The all female goth girls of Arsenic Candy, the brutish meat heads who make up the Apocalypse Punks and the kung-fu nasties of Dragons Tail are unfortunately as generic as their names suggest and their lack of depth stands out even more against Spider-Man's more traditional foes who come to the table with decades of history behind them. There are also more recreational activities to while away the hours if all that fighting gets too much for you, from various special tokens hidden around the city to collect, each variety coming complete with achievement points rewards for their successful collection, to a number of fun skydives off the top of skyscrapers and time trial races through the streets to win trophies. You can even take a very demanding Mary-Jane on some thrill rides (although the collection of large floating hearts seems a little out of context during these) and fulfil Peter Parker's day time duties as a photographer for the Daily Bugle if you feel so inclined. As you can see, the one thing it's hard to criticise Spider-Man 3 for is lack of content.
Unfortunately, since the majority of the content is basically about fighting things it's more than a little disappointing to find that combat is by far the weakest part of the whole experience. There's a fine line that all action games tread between being a game with beautiful well balanced combat full of elegant combos and graceful controls and a game that could be played just as well by woodpeckers attacking a game pad as it could by even the most skilled gamer. It's not hard to guess which side of the line Spider-Man 3 falls on, lets just say that thanks to the wireless nature of the 360's game pads I actually managed to leave the front room and get a drink at one point, all the while continuing to randomly whack the attack buttons, and returned to find Spidey safe and well with the room cleared of bad guys. The already weak combat also suffers from having non-interruptible combo animations which have a habit of leaving you high and dry when you need to change your focus quickly. Being Spider-Man you can snare bad guys up in webbing, swing them round the room and hang them from poles as well as using your spider reflexes to slow the action down bullet-time style to make things easier and when you do finally get access to the black Spidey suit (six or so hours in depending which missions you do) combat takes on a darker, rougher feel that's certainly more enjoyable than using old vanilla Spider-Man. All of which does go some way to putting some fun back into things but its not enough and on the whole combat is a soul destroying mix of repetition and boredom that causes ever increasing apathy toward progress. To give things a more cinematic feel at certain points during things quick time events raise their pretty heads and the camera will suddenly cut away and play out what is essentially a Simon-Says style interactive cut scene where you have to press a sequence of buttons as they appear on screen while the action plays out. In principle these moments are a great way of having spectacular but scripted events retain a degree of interaction, however, by jumping into them with no warning as Spider-Man 3 does it's all too easy to miss the first button press while you adjust to what's happening - which drains a bit of the dramatic momentum it was meant to inspire. <>On the 360 Spider-Man's version of New York is rendered on an impressive scale, it takes an admirable amount of time to get from one side of it to the other and it's a glorious sight as you're swinging and leaping your way through it especially as night falls and the city lights up. Slow down however and things start to look a little less impressive with featureless buildings and bland textures cropping up more often than they really should on a next-gen console. The city's well populated as New York should be, its streets teeming with pedestrians and roads that look as if they're stuck in perpetual rush hour. Closer inspection of these reveals seriously stunted traffic AI and a disappointingly small variety of car models but if you don't look that hard it all hangs together fine to produce a compelling illusion of a breathing city. The camera isn't one of the better examples of its kind and has a nasty habit of providing just the view you want to avoid, especially during combat, and the constant need to adjust it with the right stick is a chore I could have lived without. Spider-Man himself looks fantastic and is beautifully animated throughout but this is offset by the appearance of the other major characters whose dead looking eyes and jerky movements border on the scary. The film's cast (bar Kirsten Dunst for some reason) reprise their roles for vocal duties although most give a distinctly phoned in performance leaving the appearance of a suitably sage and knowing Bruce Campbell as the narrator and J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson the two highlights.
Spider-Man 3 is very much a game of two halves, the conventional game elements with their inherent problems actually get in the way of the fun you can have just 'being' Spider-Man. With its well balanced and intuitive control scheme you'll have far more fun swinging through the vast city hunting out tokens, taking part in time trials, snapping photos and simply sightseeing than you will performing your crime fighting tasks where the far clunkier button bashing combat and quick time set pieces let the whole thing down. With each game Treyarch are edging further down the road towards creating the perfect Spider-Man game, if they can just smooth out the combat and rethink the dull boss battles they'll stand every chance of reaching that target next time. As it is there are still hours of fun to be had in Spider-Man 3, just not perhaps where the developers expected you to find it.