Publisher: Activision / Developer: Beenox / Price: $59.99 / Played on: Xbox 360 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Cartoon Violence, Suggestive Themes]
Following up last year’s Shattered Dimensions this newest offering in Spidey’s stable of videogames focuses on two members of the character’s legacy: Spider-Man and his future counterpart, Spider-Man 2099. The game’s main hook revolves around time-craziness worthy of Marty McFly, where the two Spider-Men team up to fix a broken timeline, where what you do in the past affects the future. But while Edge of Time takes some great strides forward from its predecessor, it takes several more strides back, resulting in a game that only barely rises above average. Despite all the webs, there isn’t too much that holds this game together.
Throughout the game you control present-day Spider-Man, Peter Parker, and his counterpart from 2099, Miguel O’Hara. The action largely consists of combat and hitting switches, without much variation. You upgrade your character with purple power orbs or golden spiders you collect as you progress, revealing flashier and more powerful moves, as well as health and regeneration bonuses. Combat is fun and exciting when you start, but the repetitive fights and fetch-quest challenges wear thin as the game continues: go to this room, beat up bad guys, get three keys, move on, hit a switch, hit bad guys, repeat. Even this much repetition would be forgivable if it played fair, but as you progress the fights start to seem unfair; some enemies are powered up to the point of absurdity, often resulting in cheap deaths that frustrate instead of challenge.
On the subject of enemies, it’s unfortunate that the majority of the bad guys are generic hench-things, failing to take advantage of the rich history of Spider-Man enemies ripe for beating up in a game. Boss fights with Anti-Venom in his various incarnations are cool, but the only other big-name villain you fight is Black Cat—a boss fight so cheap and unfair that I eventually switched the game to easy mode so I could get past it and move on.
While combat provides the majority of the experience, there are significant non-combat portions that feel kind of like tacked-on mini-games. Though sometimes fun on their own, these sections mainly seem out of place and jarring. Sometimes you crawl through turret-filled obstacle courses, activating your agility-powers at the right moment to avoid getting shot to pieces. And there are at least five lengthy segments featuring Spider-Man 2099 free-falling great distances, tasking you with steering him safely through openings in rapidly shifting walls. While it’s super-cool to pilot through these freefalls the first few times, these sections are more annoying than fun the more you have to do it.
In addition, the level design is not great. The entire game takes place in Alchemax Tower (more on that in a moment), and the layouts are either so bland you don’t know what side of a room you came in and need to go toward, or needlessly complicated and difficult to navigate. In short, it’s often tough to know where you’re supposed to go. In fact, often the only way you know which direction to head for your next objective is through collecting the aforementioned purple orbs, a virtual trail of breadcrumbs that aims to cover up some unpolished design work.
The game’s plot and dialogue is a powerful highlight in an experience that’s otherwise pretty average. Penned by Peter David, a comic book and novel writer with a great reputation in the medium, the script is full of great banter between the two Spideys, each of whom get on each other’s nerves and urge each other forward. The plot surrounds time-rewriting shenanigans on the part of Walker Sloan–a corporate sleazebag for Alchemax–that’s the big-business conglomerate where our future hero works as a scientist by day. Sloan goes back in time to rewrite history, altering Peter Parker’s timeline, and resulting in his death at the hands of the villain Anti-Venom—which you witness in the opening moments of the game.
The plot hinges on the Spider-Men working together to unravel the twisted time-knot Sloane has created, averting Parker’s death, saving Mary Jane (of course), and stopping the mysterious CEO of Alchemax who’s been pulling the strings all along. While there are plot holes you could drive a truck through (a staple of time-travel stories), as well as the aforementioned underuse of Spider-Man’s excellent rogue’s gallery, the script is ultimately a lot of fun, and what keeps this game from being simply mediocre. The first third of the game is supremely exciting because you really experience the anxiety and urgency that the characters feel as a result of the broken timeline, compelling you to act as quickly as possible to avert these time-disasters. Of course, even the fun story can’t save repetitive and cheap gameplay, but it makes a valiant effort.
While the two Spider-Men share a lot of similar moves and feel roughly the same when they’re fighting bad guys, their minor differences are enough to make playing as 2099 a blast and playing as standard Spider-Man a chore. The chief discrepancy comes from each hero’s agility powers: hitting left-trigger activates Spider-Man’s spider-speed, while for 2099 it activates the spider-decoy. While spider-speed’s benefits should be evident—he goes faster!—I still had a hard time employing this ability to strategic benefit. While getting slammed by a ring of foes, activating spider-speed never seemed to do much to help me avoid dying, even when in-game prompts told me to activate it because I was losing so much life.
On the other hand, using the spider-decoy was awesome. When activating it, you roll out of the way, leaving a ghostly Spider-Man where you stood. Enemies attack the decoy, and you attack the enemies from behind before the power deactivates. The strategic applications of this move were easy to grasp and a lot of fun to use against your increasingly tough foes.
The game’s graphics are solid, overall. The future is full of neon and metal angles, and while the present-day environments aren’t too impressive by comparison, they get the job done. The animation is smooth and it’s fun to watch the Spideys bounce around—no slow-down here, and camera issues are minimal. The cut-scenes, too, look very cool and are interwoven pretty well with the in-game action. My only gripe comes from the aforementioned spider-speed. When activated, Spider-Man appears as a blur of movement and action, which looks cool, but actually gets in the way of knowing quite what’s going on or where you are amid all the action.
Here, again, is the other highlight that goes hand-in-hand with the story. While the supporting cast does an admirable job in their minor roles (Val Kilmer as Walker Sloane has a surprisingly light amount of dialogue), the real stars are Josh Keaton and Christopher Daniel Barnes as Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2099, respectively. These two voice actors have performed as Spider-Man in the animated and videogame adventures of the character for years, and as such, have got these characters and line-deliveries down cold. While Peter David’s delivered a solid script, the main reason it all works is the performances of these two actors. These guys are more Spider-Man than Tobey Maguire and James Garfield combined, and Barnes and Keaton absolutely steal the show.
As a side note, the music’s actually pretty good, too. I found myself humming the main theme once in a while after I’d stopped playing. It seems to riff ever so slightly on the classic 1960s theme song—at least, it does to my ears. I may be off-base on that observation, but my point is that if this game annoys you, it won’t be because of any of the audio.
I’m glad that this game didn’t focus on four different versions of Spider-Man, like Shattered Dimensions did, delivering a more focused gameplay experience overall. But it seems like that focus became too narrow, leaving out the rest of what makes the character great: crazy-awesome villains and Spidey doing “whatever a spider can.” Hopefully the next Spidey game will learn from this one’s missteps and give spider-fans a return to the character’s videogame glory.