Be Spider-Man, be Venom, be a happy DS owner.
Right before the Nintendo DS launched in the states I recall reading how pleased developer Vicarious Visions was that it managed to shove Spider-Man 2 onto the system in a matter of weeks. At the time is was definitely impressive considering how cool the game seemed, but this old school Atari 2600 style of programming (E.T., Pac-Man) doesn't always produce quality hits, and it wasn't long before Activision's product was stinking up stores across the country. It's not that Spider-Man 2 is awful per se, but it's just poorly designed and lacks the passion of the series, something Vicarious Visions has perfectly captured with its second attempt, Ultimate Spider-Man. It bests the original in just about every possible respect while incorporating a fabulous comic book style presentation that sort of makes me feel like saving the world from some evil mutant or Electronic Arts.
Just like the console versions, Ultimate Spider-Man features a brand new story line that follows the life of high school student Peter Parker, and in between juggling his studies he's out beating the crap out of a bunch of lowlifes. But in a cool yin and yang twist, you can also play as Eddie Brock aka Venom. Both characters share equal halves of the game, so as Spider-Man you'll swing through the air and save innocent people, while as Venom you'll just eat them. The developers have done an excellent job contrasting these different styles of play, not only through the storyline but the actual gameplay as well. Whenever you're Spider-Man the action is contained on the top screen and you use the stylus to activate special moves displayed on the bottom. Yet with Venom, things are somewhat reversed. Not only does his adventure play out on the bottom screen, but you can actually use the stylus to pull off his maneuvers on the fly, so tapping the screen versus stroking it upwards will yield different results.
You don't have to use the stylus to control venom. The face buttons definitely get the job done, but what Vicarious Visions has accomplished with the touch screen is quite interesting and it just works extremely well. Venom's controls aside, you'll frantically move the stylus up, down, left, or right to help Spider-Man lift cars, tap a correct button sequence to turn off electricity, and other cool stuff. Everything just works a lot better and makes a lot more sense than it did in last year's game. Rather than misuse the DS' abilities and turn them into cheap gimmicks, the developers made them an integral piece of the gameplay which helps Ultimate Spider-Man stand apart from its console brethren.
Throughout the course of the adventure both characters' paths will intersect and you'll run into familiar villains. The game is quite linear, yet there are a few branching paths that help to give it some much needed replay value. But when it's over, it's over like the New York Jets. After investing the 7-10 hours that it takes to complete the game there's not much to come back to. That's not to say that 10 hours is a bad number considering that most of the DS' titles are nothing more than a nice mix of fun mini games, but it is something to think about before handing over the $39.99 plus tax. There is a two player battle mode, but it's not too much fun and requires two carts in order for it to work.
There's no denying that Ultimate Spider-Man is a solid beat-em-up and a text book example of how this kind of game should be done on the DS. The web slinging feels great, the punching and kicking is spot on, and eating people never gets old, especially since Venom needs to consume folks in order to survive. But the gameplay is easily overshadowed by the presentation, for which Activision deserves great praise. Featuring comic book inspired panels and images that take up both screens, Ultimate Spider-Man is as much fun to watch as it is to play. The story boards are well done, the voice acting is superb, and the actual game engine runs at a fairly consistent 60 frames per second. Actually, Ultimate Spider-Man looks and plays almost exactly like Spider-Man 2 in that you're moving a 3D character around an equally 3D world but you can only maneuver him from left to right, so much like Capcom's Viewtiful Joe this is more like 2.5D. It certainly would have been nice to have a straight port of the free roaming console game, yet having this pintsized throwback works in Activision's favor because it almost feels like an entirely different game. Also, and just like its big brothers, the fact that it's cell shaded makes it sweet looking.
I was a little wary of Ultimate Spider-Man because it's $39.99 and that's a bit steep for a DS title, yet it wound up being one gamble that I'm glad I took. It's just a marvelous and beautifully constructed adventure game that's a must buy if you own or are planning to pick up a Nintendo DS, and it'll hopefully be the start of a series of excellent super hero games from Activision.
What's Hot: Enjoyable kung fu karate chop gameplay and a gangbusters presentation covered in honey BBQ sauce.
What's Not: Very little replay value and the multiplayer mode is about as lukewarm as grandma's old bath water.