Ultimate Spider-Man: Finished

I guess I’m done. The rooftop fight with Venom and the helicopter was, in fact, the final mission, and a little extra health from the combat tours was enough to get me through it. The game clearly wants me to keep playing, though, doing races and hunting for tokens and so forth. It even unlocked Venom for use outside of the missions. But I’m done.

Venom gets his own races, designed around his abilities, and also a special rampage mode where you try to cause as much damage as possible to people and cars before soldiers take you down with escalating firepower. It’s highly reminiscent of playing GTA and committing crimes until your Wanted level hits five stars. I tried this out for one full session, getting to the point where they were sending helicopters after me. I don’t see a need to do it again. I do like how it started, though. Unlike the races and combat tours, there’s no in-world token you use to start a rampage. You just pick up a car and throw it, and that starts your rampage. The game seamlessly adds some rampage-specific UI to the screen in response, displaying your current Wanted level and how many points of senseless damage you’ve scored. It makes perfect sense: if a player is throwing cars around, of course they want to be in rampage mode. I’d like to see more special modes and mini-games activated naturally and automatically like this.

Overall, this game is a weird mixture of highly polished and not quite satisfying. The art is stylishly toon-shaded, but not quite toon-shaded enough to remain visually interesting. Swinging around the city is viscerally fun (especially in comparison to earlier Spider-Man games), but kind of empty, especially when you wind up mostly visiting the same two or three locations. Races try to address that, but they’re too disconnected from the fiction to be really satisfying. The combat tours have a bit of tactical depth, as you try to decide whether it’s more urgent to knock another thug down or to web up his already-fallen droogs to keep them from getting up, but there’s no application of this depth to the story missions, which are nearly all one-on-one fights. As Venom, you can throw cars around, but you can’t damage buildings. There are a lot of Ultimate Marvel cameos, but a couple of really noticeable absences: even though the game keeps telling you to go to Aunt May’s house and the Daily Bugle to trigger story missions, you never see Aunt May or J. Jonah Jameson. I think I have to regard this game mainly as transitional, an experiment in open-world Spider-manning that would eventually lead to better-developed works like the recent PS4 game. But even there, I’m seeing some reports of similar sentiments.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Combat Tours

I wasn’t having much luck in what I believe to be the final mission, a rooftop battle against Venom where he’s suddenly more powerful and also you have to stop him from destroying a helicopter. It’s possible that there’s some trick I’m missing that would make it easy. It wouldn’t be the first time I was stuck on something like that: a mid-game Venom vs Electro battle in Times Square hinges on the realization that you can destroy the electrified signs that Electro is using to recharge his powers. But I’ve gotten close enough to beating him that I don’t think this is the case for Venom. Maybe he has a second form that’s more puzzle-like. In fact, I’ll be a little disappointed if he doesn’t.

Due to my lack of progress, I did what I always seem to do at the end of GTA-like open-world games: I took a break from the missions to go grinding. Ultimate Spider-Man doesn’t exactly have an XP system, but it does provide character improvements based on optional side stuff. Do enough combat tours, and your maximum health increases. Get enough race medals, and you can throw more punches in a row. (There doesn’t seem to be a mechanical benefit corresponding to city events. Doing good is its own reward, I guess.) Both of these rewards seemed like they might help against Venom, although perhaps not much — it’s usually the helicopter that makes me lose. But perhaps if I had more health I could be a little more reckless in its defense.

I mostly pursued the combat tours, because they seemed easier than the races, although I may be wrong about that by now — new combat tours appear as you complete the old ones, and some of the new ones took multiple tries. The more I played them, the more I thought about what I was doing, and the less I liked it. The whole idea behind combat tours is that they send you seeking out members of one of the four fictional gangs roaming different parts of New York. Queens has the Yancy Street Gang, a bunch of low-level chumps from England; midtown Manhattan has the High Rollers, a bunch of rich kids with expensive weapons; uptown has the Die-Caste, military enthusiasts with cybernetic enhancements; and downtown has the Mei Hua Bang, a bunch of Chinese martial artists. That’s all comfortably remote from any real New York street gangs, although the fourth feeds into stereotypes, and it’s not like the game has any Chinese characters, or British characters for that matter, who aren’t in a street gang. Moreover, the combat tours cast Spider-Man as the aggressor. The people you’re seeking out to beat up aren’t committing any crimes before you approach them. If they were, it would be a city event, not a combat tour. You’re essentially profiling them, pummeling them to unconsciousness and tying them up with webbing on the sole basis of how they dress.

If the game were a little more abstract, I wouldn’t mind. But this is set in a fairly detailed (if artistically stylized) replica of New York City, and that’s enough for me to take the place of these game pieces in that city just a little seriously. GTA3 has similar issues, but at least it has the decency to acknowledge that it’s being a jerk.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Cross-Purposes

I’m pretty sure I’m in the endgame at this point, a longish sequence of set-pieces with no free exploration separating them. Before this point, you’re pretty much playing two separate stories that intersect occasionally: the story of Spider-Man battling various bad guys wreaking havoc in New York City (including Venom), and the story of Venom battling the mercenaries sent by Bolivar Trask to capture him and retrieve the symbiote. These stories merge when Trask figures out that Peter Parker is connected to Venom and sends forces to collect him as well.

There’s a narratively peculiar thing that happens in games sometimes, where the interactive portions make you expend effort towards an end that is then contradicted by a cutscene. Here, Silver Sable attacks Peter with a tranquilizer gun to capture him for Trask — yielding some good comedy as the only immediate visible effect of the darts is his increasing annoyance — and you have to defeat her in combat. But after the fight is over (and after a chase sequence and fight against Venom), Spider-Man winds up falling unconscious and getting captured anyway, because the story needs the action to move to Trask’s laboratory and that’s the easiest way to get all relevant parties there. So why bother fighting, if you’re going to get captured anyway? Because getting captured before the cutscene is failure, and failure ends the game. But there is no real in-story reason for Spider-Man to prefer one outcome over the other.

But then, this isn’t exactly a game about playing a role and advancing a character’s goals. The player’s goal is to advance the plot, whatever that means at any given moment, even if it means acting in contradiction to previous goals. Sometimes you’re Venom, sometimes you’re Spider-Man fighting Venom. At one point, you’re Venom defending Spider-Man from another villain, in a Joker-like “No one is allowed to kill him but me” kind of way. Later, in the endgame sequence in the lab, you’re Venom fighting Spider-Man, although the game hides this from you: you’re attacked by a smaller red symbiote that you might assume to be Carnage, but when you defeat it, it turns out to have Peter Parker inside. Presumably it was considered necessary to trick the player into attacking him. It might have felt weird otherwise.

The point is that the player’s goals vary from scene to scene, even if the means of achieving those goals are generally the same: chasing, fighting, going to checkpoints, a little light puzzle-boss solving. I feel like the interstitial cutscenes often go by too fast and don’t take enough time to make the character motivations comprehensible. Perhaps someone more familiar with the comics wouldn’t have this problem. But it hardly matters, because the game is usually pretty clear about what you’re trying to do, even if you don’t always know why you’re doing it.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Chases

I have to admit at this point that I’ve never actually read any comics featuring Venom. He was invented in the middle of the indie comics boom of the 1980s, when I was turning up my nose at Marvel as a matter of principle. Most of what I know about him is what I’ve picked up through geek-cultural osmosis and secondary sources like movies and videogames. So I didn’t really get him as a character until I played the Neversoft Spider-Man game from 2000.

His depiction there isn’t much like in Ultimate Spider-Man, because The 2000 Spider-Man doesn’t take itself at all seriously. It wallows in the comics’ goofy, silly, childish side, where supervillains are just schoolyard bullies writ large. In this context, Venom isn’t just Spider-man as a monster, as I put it in the last post. He’s a bigger kid who you’re jealous of because he’s better at being you than you are. He’s Spider-Man’s Spider-Man, casually outdoing him in the same way that Spidey outdoes ordinary people. And he teases Spidey relentlessly about it, in a deep, gravelly voice — which stings all the more because teasing your enemies is just another thing that he stole from Spidey. The encounter with Venom in this game isn’t even a fight. It’s a race, one web-swinger against another. Because apparently at this point in the continuity, Venom has made his peace with Spider-Man and no longer wants to kill him, but still wants to prove he’s better at being Spider-Man.

That race was one of the most memorable things about the game, partly because it was so hard. Getting from place to place via web-swinging using the controls in these games is difficult enough to do at all, let alone to do fast. And Ultimate Spider-Man keeps reminding me of this sequence, because so many of the supervillains you’re fighting have to be chased down first. The chief difference is that these aren’t races you can win by going faster. Your goal is to keep close enough to the enemy to keep them from escaping, sometimes with the additional constraint of not getting so close to them that they hurt you.

But the one chase that I had the hardest time with, it was because it was the first time I chased someone using Venom, and I hadn’t really learned his controls. Unlike in that first Spider-Man game, Venom doesn’t swing. His chief means of getting places fast is by jumping high in the air, like the Hulk. It’s not quite leaping over tall buildings in a single bound, but he can easily use one bound to get on the roof of a medium-sized building and leap a tall building from there. The problem is, I had forgotten how to do this, or even that it could be done. By this point in the game, I had Spider-Man’s controls down completely, because I had spent so much time just exploring the city as Spider-Man. But Venom only comes out for the Venom missions, and my explorations meant that it had been a long time since the tutorial. Thank goodness I still have the printed manual.

Gish: Bosses and Bossiness

The final boss in Gish is an interesting one. As hinted by a couple of prior boss speeches, it’s another ball of tar, similar to Gish himself. The chief differences: first of all, in a concession to readability, it’s white. I’ve never heard of white tar, but you need to be able to tell it apart from Gish. Secondly, it doesn’t have quite the same capabilities as Gish: it doesn’t seem to be able to jump, or to turn sticky and climb up walls. It does have the ability to turn heavy and ram you, and when thrown into the air, can zero in on you with all its crushing weight. Beating the level requires hurling a block up onto a platform (so you can use it to weigh down a switch that opens a trap door into a lava pit), and aiming it while being battered by a white tarball is the most difficult thing about the fight.

Thirdly, despite my use of the neuter pronoun above, the end boss is female. (Don’t ask me what distinguishes male tar from female tar.) This is a twist on the usual kidnapped-girlfriend plot that I only recall seeing once before, in Earthworm Jim. Usually the person who kidnaps the hero’s girlfriend is an implied romantic rival, regardless of his ostensible motives. Here, the relationship archetype is instead that of jealous psycho ex. Her motivation for the abduction was that she wanted the girlfriend out of the picture, mistakenly believing that she was the only thing standing in the way of destined love. But even then, her pre-fight rant implies that she really understands underneath it all that she was never anything to Gish, and never will be: she hollers “What do you mean, you don’t even remember me?” and similar disappointments when Gish hasn’t actually said anything of the sort.

In fact, Gish never says anything at all. All the bosses in the game begin their bossing with boasting and taunting and bombast, and Gish’s reply is always the same: “…..” And then the clever, agile hero overcomes his overconfident foe by exploiting the environment. (It may take dozens of lives to accomplish this, but we don’t count these failures as part of the actual story of the game, do we?) It’s often the mark of the difference between hero and villain, isn’t it? The villain is ego-driven. The hero just wants to get the job done. Even when the hero is given to wisecracks, like Spider-Man, the villain has to step up his boasting to compensate, or else the hero just comes off as something of a jerk. And it’s particularly appropriate here, in a game based around cartoonish grotesques, with a strange hero with strange abilities , but notably awkward in the things that other platformer characters find easy. If Escape from Butcher Bay was a game written to appeal to the school bully, this is a game written for the school weirdo. Getting your way without the need for verbal sparring is part of the fantasy. (Although Spider-Man has a similar sort of appeal — heck, he even shares Gish’s wall-climbing abilities — and, as noted, engages in verbal sparring all the time. Maybe there’s something wrong with my analysis.)

At any rate, it’s finally off the Stack, where it would have been back in 2009 if it had been working properly. I may come back to look for secrets, I may not. Just having it on my Macbook makes it more likely that I will.

Freedom Force as Early Marvel Pastiche

Freedom Force is definitely trying to evoke early Marvel. For one thing, most of the heroes are closely based on familiar Marvel heroes, in some combination of theme, powers, and/or personality. It’s loose reinterpretation, though, rather than strict adherence. We’ve got a Captain America-like super-patriot called the Minuteman, but instead of a soldier, he’s a former atomic scientist. We’ve got a flying fire-thrower like the Human Torch, and also like the Human Torch he’s hotheaded and impulsive, but here it’s because he’s a Latino stereotype (and, true to context, therefore a former gang member as well). I remember from my previous go-rounds that the player eventually picks up a Spider-Man-like wisecracking nerd who climbs walls, but here he’s themed around ants, and capable of spitting acid (a power that would probably be too grotesque in its effects to use in an actual silver-age comic, but the combat system here abstracts the melted flesh away.) And no one here has the same origin story as their Marvel counterpart, because they all basically have the same origin story, one involving canisters of Energy X that fell from an alien spacecraft.

It all reminds me a bit of Alan Moore’s 1963. This was likewise a fairly detailed variation on the theme of early Marvel (and, to a certain extent, silver-age DC), but with a greater emphasis on satire, on casting a spotlight on the illogical and exaggerating the already-exaggerated, carrying the pomposity and the bathos and the pointless alliteration to the point of complete ridiculousness. I draw a contrast here, but sometimes Freedom Force feels the same way. Sometimes there’s a fine line between homage and mockery.

It really comes down to this: When you want to imitate something respectfully, how do you handle its glaring flaws? Freedom Force aims to be a celebration of a style that was, when you come right down to it, pretty goofy. It wants to capture the open-mouthed childlike “Whoa, cool!” reaction, but that comes as a package deal with the flat and childish characters, the frankly stupid stories, the awkward and overenthusiastic narration. You can’t throw that stuff out, because if you do, it doesn’t seem like early Marvel any more. It becomes something else — not necessarily something better, but less evocative of that particular point in the medium’s history, with all its unpolished verve and energy. But if you include it on purpose, it becomes camp. And that’s not what they’re aiming at either.

If you ask me, Freedom Force errs on the side of camp. I remember that when I first started the game, Treyarch’s Spider-Man was still fresh in my mind. This had a strong sense of goofiness as well, but it somehow contrived to seem much more sincere about it, more like an actual Spider-Man comic. Freedom Force is handicapped by its wannabe status from the very start.

Freedom Force

Freedom Force is a game I’ve started several times over the past eight years, each time with the intention of seeing it through to the end. Somehow it’s never quite worked out. Something about its highly episodic structure makes it easy to abandon in the middle.

It’s a game about superheroes, which is something that actually used to be pretty rare. Sure, there have been superhero games for a long time — The Marvel “Questprobe” illustrated text adventures by Scott Adams 1That’s “Adventure International” Scott Adams, not Dilbert Scott Adams. and the Atari 2600 Superman come to mind as early examples — but they didn’t form a genre that you could rely on seeing every time you walked into Gamestop. Hollywood changed this: once superhero movies became staple summer blockbusters, superhero movie tie-in videogames became inevitable, and by now it’s a sufficiently established genre that companies are comfortable devoting major resources to superhero games that stand on their own — one of the best-regarded A-list titles of last year is a Batman game that isn’t linked to a movie at all. But this only started happening after the wave of movies inaugurated by 2000’s X-Men, and even then, it lagged behind the movie industry somewhat. Freedom Force, released in 2002, was something of an anomaly.

It’s also anomalous in other ways. For one thing, it takes the Astro City-like approach of making up its own roster of heroes and villains rather than licensing them. That’s actually not so weird under a broad understanding of the word “superhero”. Plenty of games have original super-powered protagonists — like Prototype and Crackdown, to name a couple of relatively recent examples from the Zero Punctuation archives. (Even the player character in venerable Doom is arguably superhuman, seeing how he can run at about 90 miles per hour while not only lugging a chain gun around but actually firing it.) But games not based on pre-existing heroes usually stray pretty far from what we usually understand to be the superhero genre in other media. (Even the licensed heroes sometimes have problems sticking to genre norms when they’re plunked into a game. Treyarch’s unjustly-neglected 2000 Spider-Man gave the player every incentive to throw policemen off of tall buildings.) Freedom Force, on the other hand, is not only about super-powered characters, it’s conspicuously superhero-styled. Or, to put a fine point on it, comic-book-styled. More specifically, the style of Marvel comics from the early 1960s. There’s a mention early on of someone working on the Mahattan project “twenty years ago”, which definitely fixes the setting between 1962 and 1965, but even without that detail, the game goes to great lengths to establish the style and zeitgeist of that era. I’ll have more to say about that later.

The final major strangeness that I’ll note before signing off is that it’s not an action game. It’s essentially a hybrid of RPG and squad-based tactical combat, with something like a streamlined Baldur’s Gate interface (complete with pressing the space bar to pause the action so you can give new orders to the entire team). I’ll probably have more to say about this later as well. It’s not the only non-action-oriented superhero game, of course — for starters, there’s the aforementioned Questprobe adventures. But those at least still provided the fundamental draw of the superhero game: the appeal of putting yourself in the superhero’s shoes, of having superhero experiences. Freedom Force actively interferes with identifying with the characters. It’s impossible to play without being constantly reminded that you’re acting on the gameworld from outside. For one thing, you have to play the whole team at once, juggling their actions. For another, the default (and most useful) perspective is highly elevated, looking down on your heroes like they’re toy soldiers, or possibly action figures. Which, I suppose, at least jibes with the affectations noted in the previous paragraph. This isn’t a real world that you can walk around in. It’s a brightly-colored, highly artificial comic-book world. It exists to be played with. The same is true of most games, but this one isn’t even dreaming of being anything other than what it is.

Well, except a Marvel product. It really, really wishes it were written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby.

1 That’s “Adventure International” Scott Adams, not Dilbert Scott Adams.