Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Spider Man Shattered Impressions

Last night I posted two tweets after playing the new Beenox developed Spider-Man Shattered Dimensions.  They weren't exactly positive comments about the game.  I don't regret tweeting them but I got a polite DM today asking to clarify my comments.  Since it has been a long time since I've actually posted anything worthwhile here I figure I would expand on my experience with the game.

I haven't played any past solo Spider-Man games, but I have played X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse, Marvel Ultimate Alliance and MUA 2 as well as forming my early years nose buried in too many Marvel comics to list.  I try to avoid reading too much about a game I want to play for fear of it skewing my feelings before getting to actually play, but I have skimmed one or two reviews to get the sense that SMSD has a lot of good but a few points that keep the game from being a game of year contender.

The story boils down to a tablet being destroyed on accident by Spider-Man and he must retrieve all of the pieces that have been scattered across the four different dimensions.  Each dimension is designed around the four "types" of Spider-Man, Amazing, Noir, 2099, and Ultimate.  Each dimension has a unique art style and a unique addition with regards to combat.  Split into three acts, with one level for each dimension per act, game play is varied enough to keep the game from feeling repetitive.  That's not to say that game play isn't repetitive, but by spacing out the dimensions they don't feel completely the same level after level. 

Additionally as you battle the various bad guys, you can earn Spider Essence by tying combat combos together or finding silver or gold (or hidden) spiders.  Spider Essence is then used to buy upgrades for combat perks or character perks.  These perks are unlocked by completing Web of Destiny challenges that are defined for each level.  The more challenges you complete, the more perks you have to buy.  The challenges range from finding X number of spider, to defeating X number of bad guys, or performing level specific feats in a given time.  The challenges give each level an added depth that could be viewed as an opportunity for re-playability or (in my case) an OCD player's dream or nightmare (depending on how good the game is).  Fortunately I found the challenges worthwhile and their context worked well in each level.  As challenges are completed the perks unlock alternating between combat and character which is great way to compel a player to finish challenges as the next best combat upgrade may not be available until you've unlocked character perks.  The challenge then faced by a player is where to spend the Spider Essence.  My only gripe with combat unlocks are the descriptions or rather the lack of description of when to best use the perk.  I should clarify that my gripe about the unlockable combat moves is the fact that it is fairly hard to distinguish between moves even with a snippet of animation on the combat perk screen showing what the move should look like when successfully performed.  Perhaps this is my own failing as a gamer to be able to know what a two triangle combo attack should look like versus a three triangle combo attack, but I think that it has more to do with the animation chaining the moves together becoming muddled and thus hard to know what has been registered by my input (or not) and what is actively being performed in the game at any given moment.  Overall combat feels good, but trying to chain combos can be a bit of a pain if you want to get the most Spider Essence to buy all of the perks.

As I mentioned earlier each dimensional Spider-Man has a unique type of combat which is built upon by the perks (some perks are shared across all four dimensions while some are dimension specific).  In the Amazing levels, combat benefits from chaining the bigger combos.  The problem I have with this is while Spider-Man can target an enemy, the target doesn't "lock".  If a chain starts, one of two things happens, either the enemy dies early in the combo hopefully a second or third enemy is close enough to take damage as well OR the combo continues with no enemy to receive the devastating attacks and Spider-Man is seen bashing at the ground with great gusto while the rest of the enemies line up behind him to take their turn at trying to squash him like a bug.  Or a third thing happens, enemies shield themselves from the attack and no matter how much damage is dished out, the bad guy will stand there and take it.  There are ways to quickly hop over the defensive enemy but the trick then is to successfully turn around to hit the bad guy while his back is still turned to you once you've hopped over them.  Because of an overuse of enemies with shields in the later Amazing levels and no truly special attack (rather just brute force) I found myself playing through the Amazing dimensions as if they were a chore rather than a game.

The special abilities that the Amazing levels lack are put to mostly good, fun use in the other three dimensions.  Comparisons of the Noir dimension levels to the entire game Batman Arkham Asylum are unavoidable.  Stealth, moving through shadows, quick zip kicks from one stalking point to another, and silent take downs all feel similar to Batman.  They say that imitation is a sincere form of flattery.  I would agree.  As long as the imitation is handled without a complete 1 to 1 copy. Also it helps if that imitation works as intended.  Beenox puts enough of their own touches on the stealth mechanic that I found myself enjoying the Noir levels far more than the Amazing levels.  My only complaint with the Noir levels deals with if Spider-Man is detected.  Every goon near Spider-Man immediately starts shooting (with better accuracy than you'd expect from the sheer volume of street thugs who inhabit the levels) and if you're not quick enough you'll find yourself dead in seconds and facing a restart from the last checkpoint.  Fortunately the quick zip escape mechanic works fairly well.  Add to the escape, severely lazy bad guys who may rush to the last known location only to quickly rush right back to their designated guarding spot and you can typically escape and hide in the shadows long enough to recharge your health.  The recharging health is one thing that I wish was applied across all of the dimensions, but for obvious reasons if it was in all of the dimensions the game would then end up being all about starting a fight, getting hurt, running away to recharge health and then continue the good fight.  At least in the Noir levels hiding in the shadows fits with the rest of how Spider-Man would act.

2099 and Ultimate dimensions handle the special combat moves in similar fashions.  In 2099 pressing the L1 button triggers a "bullet time" type of effect where all combatants slow down and give you a better chance of defeating large quantities of bad guys.  In the Ultimate dimension L1 triggers the symbiotic tentacles of rage which basically causes Spider-Man to go medieval on bad guys in the same way you'd expect Wolverine or Hulk to cut through wave after wave of bad guys.  Once the combat perks and Ultimate specific perks have been sufficiently built up I have to say that my favorite levels are playing with the Ultimate Spider-Man.  There is something satisfying about going into a rage, see sybiotic spikes shoot out in every direction which then causes all of the bad guys around to go flying to their doom.  Unfortunately the 2099 ability just doesn't help.  Sure it would slow down enemies, but it also felt like Spider-Man was not moving any faster and any sort of input applied to the controller felt like it was being delayed along with all of the enemies.  One thing that I don't understand from a design stand point is why the Rage could only be activated if the rage bar was filled completely but the 2099 "accelerated vision" could be activated whenever there is any amount filled in the bar.

Now the whole point of my writing this post stems from my complaint of how ineffective the "accelerated vision" is implemented specifically in the final boss fight.  Through the previous 2099 levels, Spider-Man finds himself free falling, needing to dodge various objects (elevators, moving cars, explosive barrels, etc) to maintain his speed so that he can catch up to the various bosses within those levels.  If during the free fall Spider-Man doesn't dodge the various objects damage is applied but the free fall sections don't last for any real length of time.  The accelerated vision even helps to some extent with being able to dodge objects.  None of this can be said about the 2099 section of the final boss fight.  While it feels like Spider-Man is supposed to be free falling to Mysterio (who is sending out pulses of ringed energy that must be dodged) it feels more like a really long drawn out anime pan/zoom effect with lots of action lines flashing to make it feel like movement.  Adding to the ringed pulse energy that must be dodge, Mysterio also shoots out purple energy blobs which also need to be avoided.  The problem though is the rings and blobs start flying at Spider-Man in such quick succession that dodging fully becomes impossible.  Activating the "accelerated vision" doesn't help either.  Sure the rings and blobs have slowed down, but so has Spider-Man's reactions.  Even if you think that you've managed to dodge a ring or a blob the game thinks that you have not and registers damage and applies the full body damage animation which then cause Spider-Man to change his positioning which opens him up to hitting even more rings or blobs or both, quickly reducing your health to nothing.  This event occurs three times.  Or I'm assuming it occurs only three times.  I gave up.  

I'm so close to finishing the game, but I absolutely cannot tolerate how bad this last section of the game is.  Sure I may come back to this section of the game at a later date the same way that I finally beat Radec in Killzone 2 almost 5 or 6 months after becoming so frustrated with one little, minor section of a game.  I don't understand how a good game can be so tarnished by one small section.  How does something like this not getting tested, focus grouped or QA'd?  Maybe it's because I'm an old man....I don't think that is it since I managed to play through even the less than great sections of the game without a severe urge to hurl my controller through my TV. 

Visually Shattered Dimensions has so much going right for it,  Four distinct art styles.  Unique areas to find each level in.  Fun voice acting.  The story has a great balance between being a video game story and a comic book story.  Did I have fun while playing the game?  Most of time.  Where there glitches?  Yes.  Once my PS3 rebooted after I got stuck re-playing a civilian rescue/escort mission during one of the Ultimate levels.  I also found that some of the escort missions would see themselves as being completed without having to restart from the last check point.  Not a great thing, but not a total deal breaker.  With lots to OCD/obsessively collect, the game has some great things going for it.  If you can tolerate little nuisances this is definitely a fun game to play.  Just don't expect to have any fun playing the last level. 

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