After his date with MJ, Spider-Man gets out on the town to discover that his old foe Shocker has just been paroled and is already tearing up the city, stealing cash.
I really have to question the parole board of Spider-Man’s New York. Shocker can obliterate cars and shatter walls. He crosses the city by launching himself in the air with shockwaves, meaning he leaves a Hulk-style path of destruction in his wake. He could do a few million dollars of damage just crossing town, not to mention the mess he’d make when he got to the bank. I have to assume he’s done this at least once in the past, so I’m not sure how he’s out on parole. Or how he got his suit back. Or why there wasn’t anyone keeping an eye on him.
Shocker vs. Electro
Yes, Spider-Man has both Electro and Shocker in his rogue’s gallery. Yes, that can be a little confusing for casual fans. For the record, Shocker doesn’t shock people. Electro shocks people while Shocker uses shockwaves. I think maybe the writing team ought to have spent a little more time coming up with some alternate names. Maybe they should have spent a little more time on his costume, too. His suit looks very… quilted.
In the early comics I remembered they actually described his powers in terms of being “vibrations”. Maybe his name is innuendo now, but at least he didn’t wind up named Vibrator. I don’t know when they re-worked him from using vibrations to shockwaves, but that makes a lot more sense. As a kid I could never imagine how localized airborne vibrations could be as dangerous as they depicted. Isn’t that just really loud sound?
His origin story isn’t anything special either. His real name is Herman Schultz, which strikes me as a very pedestrian name. I realize not every villain can have a name like Otto Octavius or Victor Von Doom, but Herman Schultz doesn’t sound like a guy who would terrorize New York so much as a guy you vaguely remember from gym class in high school. His origin doesn’t have any cool twists or drama. He wasn’t driven to the dark side by injustice or outrageous fortune. He’s not suffering from any major personality flaws like a bad temper or a fragile ego. He just invented some “vibro-shock gauntlets” and decided the best use of them was robbing banks.
He’s not a terrible character. He’s an interesting character concept that could have benefitted from another writing pass before he hit the page. Then again, he was introduced in 1967. The business was pretty rough back then and creators did a lot of shooting from the hip. They had short deadlines, writers stretched thin over many titles, and there wasn’t a lot of quality control. Nobody was much worried about continuity and long-term branding problems back then. You just had to get the funnybooks out the door and deal with the bad ideas later.
Spider-Man vs. Shocker
When he hears that Shocker is running loose in the city, Spider-Man takes the news in stride. “No worries. Herman is just a big cupcake. I’ll have him back in Rikers by bedtime,” he says.
It’s not a boss fight so much as a boss chase. Shocker flees the moment Spidey drops in, and you have to chase him across the city. During the chase, Spidey has lots of fun dialog that manages to characterize both of them.
As a matter of taste, I’d have preferred it if this playful tone had hung around a bit longer before the story took a turn for the serious.
Sadly, this conflict is resolved in a cutscene rather than letting the player defeat Shocker in gameplay. I get why this is. Open-world environments are hard. What happens if the player keeps backing away and drags the fight away from the intended intersection? What happens if the player just decides to swing away? Those messages announcing “You are leaving the mission area!” are pretty annoying, particularly if you start bumping into them by accident.
In a contained fight the designer has enough control to make sure the player’s goals are clear and the AI behaves reasonably. They can put a roof on the arena to keep you from leaving. They can place lights in the right places so the bad guy is properly illuminated. They can make sure decorative clutter doesn’t get in the way of the action. They can have all sorts of cues and triggers to help the poor stupid AI behave in interesting ways.
In the open world, cars get in the way of the combat. Trees get in the way of the camera. Buildings constrain movement without containing the fight to a particular arena. The player can swing away or run up the side of a building. Maybe one intersection is so bright that the bad guy’s particle effect gets washed out and is hard to see. Maybe another spot is so dark that it’s hard for the player to see what they’re doing. There are decorative objects that can confuse or confound the AI like lampposts, mailboxes, cars, and trash cans. It’s okay if the mooks freak out and don’t participate in a fight, but you can’t afford to have something like that happen in one of your super-expensive boss-fight encounters. The player only gets a few of them in the entire game and every malfunction will end up on a highlight reel on YouTube.
It’s not impossible to make a fight work in the open world. It’s just… really hard.
I get why we can’t fight Shocker in the open world. I’d be a lot less salty about this fight taking a place in a cutscene if that wasn’t such a pervasive problem in this game. Even the proper arena boss fights end up culminating in a cutscene battle.
You do get to fight Shocker in a future mission. That fight takes place inside a bank so the gameplay designer has a proper area to work with. It’s not a bad fight, but it’s not particularly impressive either. Like a lot of boss fights in this game it ends up being pretty one-dimensional.
I’ll talk more about the bosses when we get to them. In the meantime let’s talk about…
Spider-Man recovered one of the Chinese opera masks from the auction house and he wants to know more about it. As it happens, Mister Li has an Art History degree. Peter isn’t very genre savvy and hasn’t yet figured out that Li is the bad guy, so he takes the mask to Li to ask about it.
Mister Li is actually a villain called Mr. Negative. He’s a relatively new villain by the standards of Spider-foes, being introduced just ten years ago. He was created by Dan Slott, who is credited as one of the writers on this game. Slott is also the guy that came up with the idea of having Doc Ock take over Spider-Man’s body and get his own comic book. I guess Mr. Negative and Doctor Octopus are his favorite villains to write, since they’re our two headlining villains in this game.
The strange thing is that the name Mister Negative is never used in dialog anywhere in the gameThe game does list his villain name if you open up the characters screen in the menu.. If you’re not already familiar with the character then there’s no way for you to know his proper villain name. What we end up with is a villain lineup of Electro, Rhino, Shocker, Vulture, Doctor Octopus, and… Martin. That’s a strange choice.
On the other hand, his goon squad gets nicknamed the “Demons” based on the masks they wear. I guess that’s something.
Mr. Negative is our “main” villain for the first three-quarters of the story. He gets a lot of screen time, and yet I feel like the writer somehow short-changed him. We get to watch archive video of how he got his powers in a lab accident. We get to poke around his office and see that he’s got this yin / yang thing and he’s always torn between being a nice guy and being a murderous evil asshole. We get lots of dialog where it’s very clear he hates Norman Osborn. We even get some dialog that explains a bit about how his powers work.
And yet despite all the screen time, I never really cared about him. His grudge against Osborn is muddled by several factors I’ll talk about later. His plan to get revenge is stupid and counterproductive in ways I’ll talk about later. His good side / evil side never really made sense to me. Is this a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type situation? Or is he a really nice guy being occasionally possessed by an evil demon? Is he just a selfish cruel bastard who tries to put on a friendly face to throw people off the scent as he builds his army of sadistic goons?
At one point Li writes in his diary that he can’t contain the demon any longer. Is that a metaphor, or are we talking about a literal demon here? How do you suffer from demonic possession as a result of a lab accident?
I’m not saying these questions are plot holes or anything. It’s just that it feels like the story is assuming I already understand this guy and how his powers work. The story seems to think I’m going to care about this guy and his fall to evil, but I can’t tell how that fall worked or when it happened. I wouldn’t mind if Martin Li was another madman goof to punch in the face like Shocker, but the Mr. Negative story has this whole emotional angle that falls completely flat for me.
I’ll talk more about Li and his ridiculous plans once they’re in motion.
At work the next day, Peter helps Dr. Octavius fit a volunteer with a prosthetic arm. In the middle of the test, Norman Osborn shows up and tells Octavius that the city is shutting down his research. In the original comics continuity Osborn became the Green Goblin, but in this universe he’s become mayor of New York.
Again, this is a very cartoony story. Octavius is making this miracle technology on a shoestring budget, when in the real world the working prototype they’ve built would have investors lining up and begging them to take their money.
The mayor shows up to personally shut down this operation, despite the fact that no sane politician would do that. Osborn is shown to be a savvy politician, so he would know better than this. If a publicly-funded project hits success, then you don’t shut it down. Instead you show up and take credit for it. “I’m so glad these brilliant nerds were able to invent this technology thanks to my flawless leadership and staunch support for their funding!”
Even if the research was a boondoggle, you wouldn’t want to kill it personally. You’d very quietly cut its funding when the media was busy with other news. Shutting down medical research is not a photo-op. Your picture might get taken and wind up under the headline MAYOR AMPUTATES FUNDING FOR MIRACULOUS PROSTHETIC TECHNOLOGY FOR DISABLED VETERANS.
Instead Norman struts around the lab, mocking Octavius and twirling his non-existent mustache. This is fine in a cartoony universe, but to me it feels a little off when paired with these quasi-photoreal visuals. Again, I’m fine with the outlandish comic-book story, I just wish the visuals would join in.
 The game does list his villain name if you open up the characters screen in the menu.
Overused Words in Game Titles
I scoured the Steam database to figure out what words were the most commonly used in game titles.
Quakecon 2012 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
Batman: Arkham City
A look back at one of my favorite games. The gameplay was stellar, but the underlying story was clumsy and oddly constructed.
The Middle Ages
Would you have survived in the middle ages?
A look at the main Borderlands games. What works, what doesn't, and where the series can go from here.