It's no secret that I like my super-hero games and I'm a big fan of sandbox-style gaming. In fact I often prefer a sandbox to play in rather than a linear storyline. There are certain genres and heroes that fit this kind of gameplay, Batman from DC Comics for instance would suit a non-linear city-based free-roaming sandbox environment down to the ground. Spider-Man of course suits it perfectly, there's something extremely liberating about being able to swing from building to building as Marvel's iconic hero, shooting across the skyline in an acrobatic ballet of movement.
I also think that Spider-Man is probably one of the hardest heroes to get right in a video game. There have been numerous attempts, movie tie-ins and various linear-non-linear story based games to come out of the franchise throughout the period of various console generations. My firm favourite is Spider-Man 2 and I am glad to say (for me) that Web of Shadows sits up there with that game in my favourite list of Spider-Man games to date.
I won't spoil the storyline but I will say that it has numerous twists and turns that are fairly telegraphed in places, yet still somehow it manages to deliver a darker version of Spider-Man's universe that doesn't draw on a movie for its inspiration and isn't tied down by the same problems that face movie based games on last and current generation hardware. There are lots of familiar old Marvel faces and heroes/villains to encounter as you play through Web of Shadows.
The control takes a little getting used to, once you've mastered it however you should find that the web-slinging aspect of the game is pretty well done. It's fairly exhilarating to leap into the air, latch onto a building with Spider-Man's web and shoot off at high speed across a beautiful New York City sky-line, falling down gracefully and then web-swinging again at speed between the narrow confines of an alley. The web-slinging/swinging system is pitched somewhere between Spider-Man 3's and Spider-Man 2 with a few tweaks here and there to help you maintain control.
The camera (whilst swinging) maintains a good view of Spider-Man and you don't really feel as if you lose control of the character or the camera as you move gracefully about New York City. You can do the usual arsenal of Spider-Man style web tricks, swinging from building (right trigger) to building, flipping around poles with the left bumper and web-zipping with a tap of the right trigger. The A button jumps and when held down gives you a boost of speed. I'll go out on a limb here and say that Web of Shadows has one of the best web-swinging systems in a Spider-Man game to date.
Wall crawling plays an important part in Spider-Man games and it's implemented here in a fairly slick way, pressing down the right bumper will let Spidey cling to a wall and then he can climb around it to his heart's content. Hitting the left bumper will let you wall run and again, this is done extremely well with no loss of control. It's down to the context-sensitive way that Spidey reacts to a surface. If he's running across a wall to the side and he hits a corner, he'll effortlessly flip around it and let you continue the run.
If he's running on a roof and you want to quickly get down to ground level or onto a wall, holding the left bumper and heading towards the edge nets you a simple little web flip that sees Spidey run down the wall and towards the ground. It's controls like this that make the game a joy to play when you're free-roaming around the city and picking up various collectible Spider-Icons that increase your overall speed when you've gathered enough of them (and there are lots to collect).
Web swinging and combat are tied in to the same systems, so the animation and the controls are near-flawlessly implemented with the lock on system. Tap left trigger and you'll target the nearest enemy, right stick flicking will change targets and Spider-Man will automatically lock onto the nearest enemy when one has been defeated. Holding down the left trigger engages Spidey's Spider Sense and he'll be able to see enemies using that. It's the combat that elevates Web of Shadows to the next level, I've seen some people complain about the system but I haven't had any problems with it. I'm reminded in many ways of Assassin's Creed with this game and the amount of critical acclaim that title raked in regardless of the flaws and repetitious nature.
Web of Shadows combat is simple enough, you have a decent array of combat moves and combos but the true star of the show is the fact that you can switch at will between both Spider-Man's iconic regular costume (good guy) and his Symbiote costume (bad guy) with a click of the left stick. As you battle bad guys in Web of Shadows and do missions (similar in many ways to Altair's side-missions in Assassin's Creed) you'll gain experience (XP) that can be spent on various upgrades to your fighting arsenal. Both costumes have their own unique moves that can be purchased and upgraded at any time, evolving your own Spider-Man skill-set as you play the game how you want.
One of the key points to the combat system is that it can take place anywhere, and it's pretty seamless. You'll encounter enemies on walls, so you can battle on walls, leap off, web-swing, and kick an enemy who has been catapulted into the air and so on. You can learn web-striking, a neat set of chain-attacks that allows Spider-Man to effortlessly bounce from one enemy to the next with the correct timing and understanding of the system. So in essence you can combine air based combat, with wall and ground and flow between them in a few simple moves. Once you've mastered this system it makes beating on the bad guys a lot of fun.
As you battle around New York in free-roaming escapades and core story missions, you'll collect allies (heroes and villains) that can be summoned in to help you using Spider-Man's special meter. You'll be able to save (or ignore) the helpless citizens of New York as you fight the ever-increasing threat of this new and darker world. You will begin to evolve Spider-Man as a hero or as a villain, playing the game as you want, switching between red and black suits at will and gathering heroic points or black (evil) points from your deeds.
The citizens aren't just eye candy, they can (and will) get hurt if you become a rampaging force of destruction. If you can live with that then you will find that you'll head down the Black Path in the game and influence the story and ending towards the darker side of life. There are various choices throughout the game that can influence that alignment more, but I'm not going to explain what they are. You'll see a darker and more dangerous Spider-Man as you play the bad guy, growing more and more reckless with the lives of others for instance. Trying to play the hero is a lot harder.
Yet both sides of the story bring their own rewards and the game is fun to play as you flip-flop between suits putting the beatdown on the various enemies. The major flaw here stems from the fact that unless you like repeatedly brawling with bad guys as you free-roam around New York, rescuing those who get caught in the crossfire, there's very little to do apart from that it seems. It's a welcome change for me since I was bored with the old formula but I can see where some people might want to get their teeth into a little more than just a web-swinging beat-em-up.
Boss fights are long winded affairs that might be a little too long for some people, multiple stage chases across New York City are common here and the combat however makes it extremely satisfying, the aerial combat especially so when you master the various tricks and realise that you have near complete freedom in how you take the fight to the enemy (boss or not). The first big long fight and chase elicited a great sigh from me until I realised that for once, it was actually possible to catch up to the target with very little trouble thanks to the excellent control and flawless context sensitive web-slinging system.
To go along with the great web-swinging and combat you have some extremely well created animations. Spider-Man is fluid and his moves are beautifully crafted. Web-swinging is a joy to watch and they seem to have captured the elegance created from some of the finest comic panels and certain movie scenes. He really does flow from one motion to the next, whether triggered by the player or part of his own context sensitive reaction to the environment, you'll be able to chain together an impressive looking swing across the city.
In combat Spider-Man's moves are just as good, with a wide variety of reactions if you're knocked down, swing or leap into a wall. Perhaps for a moment Spidey might attach himself to the wall before he leaps off again towards the bad guy to deliver a ferocious and well animated kick to the face.
The graphics are nicely done; New York City is big and well rendered/designed. Spider-Man in both costumes looks the part and the various heroes and villains you encounter are likewise well designed and animated. The game has very little pop-up and pop-in and the frame-rate stays rock-solid throughout even when a lot is going on around Spider-Man.
The music is of good quality, it kicks in when it needs to and provides a suitable backdrop for Spider-Man's adventures. The sound effects are solid and they're effective, the web-slinging and the sound of a punch have all been crafted with a decent attention to detail. The voice acting varies from character to character with Peter Parker/Spider-Man sounding suitably cocky and Mary Jane as whiny as ever. There are some familiar voice actors from the various Marvel games who reprise their roles alongside some new talent.
The enemy AI does what it has to and it's nothing amazing in that respect, it provides a decent enough challenge.
All in all Web of Shadows is one of those games that you're going to probably love or hate. I don't see there being much middle ground here, which again is how it was with Assassin's Creed, people either loved that or despised it. There is replay value here since you can adjust the story based on your actions in the world and trying to play the true hero is extremely hard when civilians get caught in the crossfire and you have to break off beating up bad guys to save their ass. Still, it provides a great deal of fun and web-swinging action for a Spider-Man fan and with the non-movie storyline you can expect to be entertained on the game's own merits, the lack of stars like Tobey McGuire and so on only serves to elevate the game from the mire that Spider-Man 3 was and if you're looking for a solid dose of action as one of your favourite Marvel heroes, then you really need to look no further than this one.