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Are four heads really better than one? Beenox's multiversed Spider-Men seem to think so...
With a chequered history on the current generation of consoles, it's possible that the announcement of another Spider-Man title elicited more than a few groans from the grumpiest of the gaming community. After all, some observers of the industry routinely accuse Activision of squeezing its franchises until all that's left in its hairy palm is a wet, smelly mess (and they might have a point). But others, including myself, welcome another shot at a series that has never quite lived up to its promise. As the front-line development duties are handed from Treyarch (off to play the stadiums with Call of Duty) to Beenox, a new primary developer brings with it a new approach. Not a hugely original approach, admittedly - Shattered Dimensions sports the distinct odour of Rocksteady's wheelie bins - but one which follows a proven formula. That's a decent story, boss battles and a greatest hits list of villains in case you haven't played Arkham Asylum. The result is one of the better Spidey games of recent times, but one in which shiny cinematics and big set-pieces come with a price.
Shattered Dimensions is built around four playable Spideys from the Amazing, Noir, Ultimate, and 2099 universes. The story conceit that allows this one-stop multiverse centres on the Tablet of Order and Chaos which, when accidentally shattered by Spider-Man in a showdown with Mysterio, threatens to destroy everything, like, ever. Mysterious old crone Madame Web is your guide as you're tasked with tracking down the fragments of the Tablet, all of which have apparently been snapped up by a different Spider-Man super-villain. You'll need to play as the four different Spider-Men and track down a villain in each level, culminating in a boss battle.
The predictability of the game's structure - chase, fight grunts, boss battle - has a pleasantly-retro feel to it, at least initially, and Beenox keeps things rolling along with some fantastic set-pieces. It's all credit to the developer that the boss battles in Shattered Dimensions feel suitably large-scale and epic. Obviously, a game featuring a so many of them isn't necessarily going to get them all right, but there are definitely some memorable moments on offer. For example, an early face-off with Sandman results in a spectacular airborne finale, a clash with Electro (an electroclash, if you will) takes place in an impressive dam level and you'll also ship out to an off-shore oil rig to take down the profoundly irritating Deadpool in a stage replete with vibrant visuals and tidal waves. Beenox has brought a new cinematic focus to a series that has never really taken advantage of its connection with the big (or small) screen. Shattered Dimensions feels like an authentic Spider-Man product, using voice talent from the various animated series and there's even a cameo for Stan Lee as the game's narrator. In a series which has been consistently criticised for its lack of polish, this is a definite improvement.
Unfortunately, this new focus doesn't come for free and fans of prior Spider-Man games may struggle with its new-found linearity and self-contained levels. Because, let's face it, we all loved swinging freely through Manhattan (not like that) in the open-world adventures and the web-slinging defines the character. Obviously, you'll still find yourself chasing down villains using your web but the game jettisons that sense of freedom in favour of web-slinging 'hotspots' and scripted events. With a story that spans a number of distinct Marvel universes and a focus on set-pieces, it was never going to be particularly compatible with an open-world structure, but it's hard to shake the feeling that the series has lost something in this latest outing. Ironically, while Shattered Dimensions moves away from the open-world series, it holds on to some of its predecessors' bad habits, most notably, a lack of variety.
With four playable Spider-Men, you expect them all to play out differently which, unfortunately, isn't really the case. While each Spidey has unique combos and special powers at his disposal - a Rage mode in the Ultimate Universe and Accelerated Vision in 2099, for example - three of the four universes play out almost identically with their focus on grunt combat between boss encounters. Only Spider-Man Noir really serves up something different with its emphasis on stealth and takedowns. However, this in itself is a mixed blessing. While slipping through the shadows of the Noir world to stalk your prey holds some initial appeal, you soon feel somewhat impotent - and, ironically, a little stiffed by the game - as Spider-Man's legendary close combat skills are rendered frustratingly redundant against even the most grunt-ish of enemies. The result is a large amount of time spent zipping away from enemies to pre-approved perch points, or wall-crawling in areas that inexplicably don't allow web-slinging. What's most frustrating about the Noir section of the game, however, is that it's by far the most atmospheric and stylish but while its gameplay is undeniably different to the rest of the game, it's not necessarily any better. This one concession to variety isn't really sufficient and, sadly, this theme also extends to the game's combat.
Close combat hasn't been star of the series to date and, despite the developer's more fashionable take on the fisticuffs (stringing together combos is the name of the game here), it's hard to argue that there's an engaging combat experience at the heart of Shattered Dimensions. That's not to say there aren't some nice touches - the first-person sequences that pop up in some of the boss battles, and the slow mo finishers, to name a couple - but it, like other aspects of the game (and others before it), falls foul of the Law of Repetition: we will only do the same thing a ludicrous amount of times if it is fundamentally fun, or we get to disembowel stuff, or both (see God of War III). And for most of the time, the fighting in Shattered Dimensions feels a bit plastic and lacks the "oof!"-inducing, visceral thrills of its inspiration/rival, Arkham Asylum. The combo system and unlockable moves conspire to keep things interesting, but it's not long before our wretched old friend repetition sidles up, as you're drawn evermore towards the same few combos which deal out the most damage (or allow you to break an enemy's guard). All too often during the game, you find yourself wanting to just get to the damn boss battle. And in a game which pushes you from A to B in thoroughly linear fashion, you want to enjoy the journey.
And yet, despite its shortfalls, there's still a lot of fun to be had with Shattered Dimensions even if it fails to endure for the entirety of the game. The developer's focus was clearly to create something altogether more contained and cinematic than in prior Spidey outings and it's been largely successful. The game feels more faithful to its source material than any other in the canon, and is more than just a multi-universe cut-and-paste job. It may feel a little imbalanced with three versions of Spidey that play out in similar fashion, but it's hard not to admire Beenox for taking a punt with the new structure. And when it gets the boss battles right, they're pretty spectacular. The big question, however, is whether, for you (yes, you with the neck beard), there is enough in this new linear, contained Spider-Man to compensate for the loss of freedom.