Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Spider-Man: The Edge of Time preview

An edited version of this preview can be found at BeefJack

With the 50th anniversary of everybody's favourite neighbourhood web-slinger approaching, not to mention pressure from a certain Dark Knight, developer Beenox have a lot to prove with their second stab at a well-loved franchise. Will Marvel's brightest star be dazzling enough to extinguish the looming shadow of DC's Batman: Arkham City, or will SPIDER-MAN: THE EDGE OF TIME merely be a superhero stop-gap until Rocksteady roll out the big gun?

Beenox had a hit on their hands with their previous game, Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions. So much so that Activision officially announced that the New York-based hero's future outings would thereafter be handled exclusively by the Quebec studio. But with Spider-Man comes a 50-year timeline more convoluted and confusing than the United Kingdom's Royal Family and Sonic the Hedgehog's family trees combined: there have been, to date, 21 different 'versions' of Spidey ranging from red and blue suited reboots, to a black suited noir interpretation (not to mention the best forgotten Spectacular Spider-Ham of the 1980's).

Beenox could not have been short of inspiration, then, for their upcoming release Spider-Man: The Edge of Time. The Activision owned developer did a sterling job handling four alternate Spider-Man portrayals last year. But I would rather have played a more focussed game that concentrated less on how to please all the fans, all the time, and more on pleasing those out there who aren't concerned with how much fan service can be squeezed from a franchise and who just want a good romp through New York with a classic super-hero.

To some extent, it seems that Beenox have listened to the fans by halving not only the hero but also the villain quota, making for a hopefully more streamlined, less alienating experience. But let's talk about that time-travel plot.

I don't know if I can manage this without going cross-eyed. The year is 2099 and Dr. Walter Sloan is your everyday, run-of-the-mill evil scientist. He has the bright idea of acquiring a fortune by travelling back through time to the present day and use his knowledge of the future to found mega-corporation Alchemax. This causes the future of 2099 to change to a dystopia where Alchemax rules the world with an iron fist. Now, it is elementary level common sense not to play with the forces of time, and although everything is tickety-boo for the mad scientist, things are not going well for 2099's version of Spider-Man, who finds his timeline begin to unravel. Dr. Sloan's meddlings, see, have caused the death of Peter Parker in the present day. No Parker means no Spidey. No Spidey means no legacy to carry through time to 2099 and as a result, no future Spidey, which has understandably got Spider-Man 2099 slightly bristled. Bristled enough to travel back through time himself to alert Parker of the impending danger.

So the scene is set for a time-hopping jaunt with your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Men. The game is presented, unsurprisingly, in much the same way as Shattered Dimensions, a third-person action adventure, in which the two Spider-Men join forces in their relative time zones to set the future right again. How this time-hopping conceit works was the real surprise for me and allayed any fears I had that time-travel could not be conveyed convincingly in a videogame.

The way it works is like this: present day Spidey (Peter Parker) and Spider-Man 2099 (Miguel O'Hara) are able to maintain constant communication despite their being separated by almost 90 years. In one segment of the game O'Hara is having trouble battling some of Dr. Sloan's super strong un-dead minions in 2099, playing as Parker, in the past, you have to do battle with these same minions, essentially weakening them so O'Hara is able to defeat them. This cross-dimensional double teaming is played out in parallel (see above screen of a different level in which O'Hara's success defeating a giant robot depends on present day Spidey's input) as you play; an unobtrusive picture-in-picture is displayed during battle, showing you how your actions in the present are helping (or hindering) Spider-Man 2099. It's seamlessly done and that sensitive handling, with immediately apparent cause and effect, could be the deal-breaker for people like me who were concerned about that aspect.

The pre-E3 trailer and subsequent Comic-Con video showed a great deal of combat and, it should come as no surprise that both regular and 2099 varieties of web-slinger have an arsenal of moves that utilise the surroundings in pleasing ways. Desks and fire extinguishers can be snatched from their fixtures with a flick of a webbed wrist, swung about our hero's head and used to devastating effect to despatch a bad guy. Webbing, of course, makes a useful shield, projectile and zip-line. It's the zip-line that looks most interesting, however. Spider-Man seems to run at a more sedate pace than I would like him to, by using the webbing he can attach it to a distant wall, then zing himself to his destination at triple speed. The same move is also handy to snare unsuspecting villains and yank them towards you for a surprise clothes-line finisher. Moves can be linked together, Devil May Cry Dante style, to create a combo string causing henchmen to topple while you hover, mid-air, dishing out the sticky stuff.

The environments are large and airy affairs befitting the kind of hero Spider-Man is. Spidey isn't Batman, all pummelling knees and elbows at close combat. This hero needs wide open spaces to use his greatest asset, his webbing. Both Parker and O'Hara handle enemies like a cowboy at a rodeo, environments blur with 'lassoed' baddies swung against walls and each other. New combat features include an 'evasion' maneouvre, that seems to behave much like Batman's counter in Arkham Asylum, and an 'accelerated vision' mode which shares a little in common with Max Payne's Bullet Time mode. Combos can be extended throughout the game as more combat moves become unlocked.

Spider-Man: The Edge of Time, then, should see Beenox improving on the Shattered Dimension's formula. That game was very good, nearly great, and with a few nips here and tucks there (particularly I had issues with SM:SD's short storyline and cluttered cast) Edge of Time could finally be the 'perfect' Spidey game.

Not since Neversoft adapted their Tony Hawk's engine to include the Web Head have I been quite so hopeful of a Spider-Man game. A pleasingly sparse rogues gallery should mean that each villain gets a decent amount of screen-time and the game will feel less crowded and more streamlined as a result. Unexpected outcomes upon the future when altering the past should keep us on our toes, too. Factor in some of the cheesiest, wise-cracking one-liners heard in a videogame, and thisslightly more lightweight offering from Beenox should web itself a decent amount of cash and finally help Marvel's star performer stand toe-to-toe with DC's finest.

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