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Spider-Man: Edge of Time review: Excelsibore!

Justin McElroy

Before I grew to the chiseled, abs-carved-from-stone man I am today, I was a chubby kid. Like most chubby kids, I loved pretending to be a superhero, and I had a fairly robust stable of go-tos. Superman, that's easy. You jump off a couch, get a moment of weightlessness, boom. Superman.

Spider-Man, he's trickier. The key is nailing the feel of the swing, speeding up your run and then slowing down as you flick your inverted devil horns to the sky. I even nailed the costume. Between the ages of four and six, I was known to occasionally keep my Spider-Man PJs on under my street clothes, which was especially precious during the summer months.

This is Spider-Man. It's the idea that underneath a nerdy exterior lies a super-strong acrobat that can, at any moment, leap high above the bullies and teachers and swing away from it all.

The staffers of Beenox may have done their research and read plenty of back issues, but if Spider-Man: Edge of Time is any indication, they never, ever wore the PJs.

Gallery: Spider-Man: Edge of Time (PS3/360) | 8 Photos

After bringing us four -- count 'em! -- four Spideys in Shattered Dimensions, Beenox has scaled back to just two: the classic blend and future-dwelling Spider-Man 2099 (who, I'm told, prefers to simply be called Spider-Man).

I say "classic" but that's not exactly accurate. Because evil genius Walker Sloan (played by Val Kilmer) has done some mucking with the timestream, our boy Peter Parker now works for Sloan's corporation, Alchemax, just like 2099's alter ego, Miguel O'Hara.

Since both Sloan's plan and the ramifications of it are incomprehensible, I'm going to lay it out for you thusly: Shit's messed up. Time's all shitty and dumb and broken. Spider-Man and Spider-Man decide to fix the shit. And they can talk to each other, through ... magic, or something. (As Clarke famously wrote, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and then when it advances beyond that, it's stupid.")

It's baffling, and a perfect representation of just how poorly the studio understands what makes this character worthwhile.

It's a lucky thing the parallel heroes can talk too, because they inexplicably hate each other. Almost all of the dialog in the entire game is two Spider-Mans bickering like a radioactive, more clunkily-written version of The Lockhorns. Which is fun. You know, to have to listen to.

Anyway, the key thing is that the actions of one Spider-Man can effect the world of another Spider-Man in what Edge of Time calls "quantum causality" and I call horse apples. Sadly, this is never used as a game mechanic, but rather just a narrative device and a way to prod you into pulling a series of levers that somehow helps the other Spidey out.

When you're not flipping switches, you're going to be fighting dudes. A lot of dudes.
A brief history of Spider-Man combat, a diversion by Justin McElroy:

OK, so it was always pretty bad. The one time it was decent was in Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, which featured a web-zip system that let Spider-Man move fluidly from one enemy to the next. Though Beenox has included web-zip, it's a one-off move, not a way of kinetically combining enemy encounters.
Here, classic Spidey's big draw is "hyper sense" which lets you hold the left trigger and move with super-speed to avoid enemy attacks. It's a great-looking effect, and is especially handy for avoiding lasers and the like, but it doesn't do anything to improve the feel of combat. In fact, using hyper sense depletes the energy you need to do genuinely useful special attacks (like web torpedoes, which stick enemies to walls), so you're discouraged from using it in battle. While combat is a little more refined than in Shattered Dimensions, it still lacks Web of Shadows-level fluidity.

2099 fares a little better. Rather than hyper sense, left trigger activates a decoy 2099 that draws enemy fire and lets our hero get the jump on the the waves of robots and mutants. It's a one-note trick, but an enjoyable one. 2099 also has the advantage of starring in a few thrilling freefall sequences in which O'Hara becomes a hurtling human torpedo that must be steered through a cylindrical tube as he avoids gratings, wires and flames. The idea's a hold-over from Shattered Dimensions, but I'm happy to see it return.

I can't be as charitable about the the in-game challenges. Every couple of minutes or so, you'll be prompted to start a test like "kill 10 enemies in 30 seconds" or "get from A to B in a minute." Starting a challenge stops the game and throws up a menu screen, killing both immersion and flow constantly -- which is bad enough. But since they're "challenges," you probably won't pass them on the first try, and you can't repeat them without leaving the game entirely. As completing them nets you the energy used to upgrade health and abilities, the challenge system delivers a steady stream of discouragement and doubt about whether or not you're strong enough to move forward. Whee!

And you'll want to move forward, if only to see what thrilling floor of Alchemax HQ you'll see next. Yes, the entire game takes place inside an office building, which is luckily comprised entirely of neon-drenched video game levels. Better yet: You frequently backtrack through areas you've already seen, just in case you missed a thrilling corner of the neon breakroom.

I tried to be understanding when Shattered Dimensions took Spidey out of an open world, but this is downright claustrophobic. Beenox took one of the most graceful, kinetic heroes and put him in an eight-hour-long tour of a series of tiny boxes. It's baffling, and a perfect representation of just how poorly the studio understands what makes this character worthwhile.

When I pretended I was Spider-Man, I didn't imagine I was fighting hordes of endlessly repeating robots. I fought bad guys who did something wrong, and I rescued people from danger. Because that's real, that's understandable, that's relatable. I never pretended I had to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling, because I actually had to avoid the ceiling.

Beenox has abstracted the idea of Spider-Man so much that he's meaningless. He's a robot-punching, switch-flipping machine who creates swaths of neon energy with every punch. Not only has he got no Peter Parker in him, if he saw that nebbish amateur photog from Queens, he'd probably steal his lunch money. Not for one second while playing Edge of Time did I feel like Spider-Man. I felt bored and depressed.

As a tot, my Spider-Man impression was $8 K-Mart pajamas and saying "Thwip!" loud enough to irritate my parents. If Beenox can't beat that with a video game studio, millions of dollars and tech that's somewhere between magic and stupid, why the hell is it making Spider-Man games in the first place?

This review is based on a retail Xbox 360 copy of Spider-Man: Edge of Time purchased by Joystiq.

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