It's been a long time since anyone has got too excited about a Spider-Man game. For too long, the Web slinger has been ploughing the same old open-world, crime-fighting furrow, each version sinking a little further into the soil of mediocrity, and though last year's Web of Shadows was a distinct improvement on the wretched Spider-Man 3: The Video Game, this was one hero in desperate need of a rethink.
Obviously somebody at Activision agrees, as Shattered Dimensions is a real departure from what has come before. Open-world gameplay and triggered missions are on their way out, linear levels and a more straightforward story are on their way in. Well, straightforward is pushing it a little too far. After all, Shattered Dimensions features not just one, but four different versions of Spider-Man.
It's all set up by a tale that involves that fishbowl-headed, magician menace, Mysterio, stealing a mysterious tablet of enormous power from a New York City museum. In the ensuring confrontation the tablet shatters, the chunks ending up in the hands of different super-villains in entirely different times and dimensions.
In one the classic "Amazing" Spider-Man is battling old-school favourites like The Sandman and Kraven the Hunter. In another, a 1930s "Noir" Spider-Man is fighting crime in a gritty, film-noir universe, facing twisted versions of Hammerhead, the Vulture and the Green Goblin. In yet another, an alternate, "Ultimate" Spidey is back in the black symbiotic suit (as seen in the movie, Spider-Man 3) and dealing with the likes of Electro and Deadpool. And, in one final, futuristic reality, a Mexican "Spider-Man 2099" has to deal with oppressive corporate cops and mutant versions of the Hobgoblin and Scorpion.
The game is divided into three main, four-chapter acts plus a final section, and completing all four Spideys' chapters will open up the next. The levels are incredibly linear, and common abilities and game mechanics mean that there's not a huge distinction between battling Vulture's goons in the Noir universe and Kraven's in the classic one, but the four-way structure does add a certain variety.
The Noir universe is the most interesting, putting the emphasis on stealth and surprise takedowns over straight-up fisticuffs, but in each world you'll find some interesting new challenge, whether it's fighting a super-charged Sandman through sandstorms that destroy the scenery around you, or an over-charged Electro who can make water lethal and send out electrical critters to give you grief. The future episodes, with their focus on fast movement and airborne set-pieces, have a different feel from the classic and ultimate sections. Within each chapter you'll find odd sections with hostages to rescue or endangered bystanders to save, and the game shows an admirable willingness to play with the basic "hero chases villain" formula.
What's more, the game hits a nice balance between acrobatics and combat, with a solid working system for web-swinging, leaping and rapidly moving from point to point, and a smart, tactical fighting system that encourages you to try different strategies on different foes. The Noir sections have a touch of Arkham Asylum about them, and are all the better for it, but while Shattered Dimensions isn't in the same league as last year's Dark Knight masterpiece, it's never less than entertaining. Like the best Marvel comics, it's big, bonkers, brash and - most of all - fun.
Visually, the four universe idea pays dividends too. The monochrome tones and restrained palette of the Noir chapters, with their gruesome characters and gritty textures, look very different from the high-colour, cell-shaded "Amazing Spider-Man" sections, and each Spidey's world has its own spectacular highlights and distinctive style. Across the board, there's great animation and strong character design. This is how you want a Spider-Man game to look and feel.
There are some reasons to grumble, so grumble we will. Many episodes hang around slightly longer than they should with multiple boss battles broken up by more straightforward stealth or fighting sections that effectively repeat what you've seen before. In a few places, confusing layouts or poor signposting make it hard to know what to do next. The worst thing is the camera. You soon learn to avoid actual wall-crawling, so disorienting is the effect on your point of view, but even in fights and simple web-slinging, sudden lurches and weird changes of angle prevent you from seeing what you really need to see. It's not game-breaking, but it is annoying, particularly in the Noir sections where you'll find yourself moving around and adjusting the viewpoint in order to make a takedown that any smart web-slinger should pull off with ease.
Otherwise, Shattered Dimensions is a winner. Some may miss the free-roaming and the complexity of the earlier Spidey titles, but the new game still has a deep and interesting character upgrade system, and a wealth of bonus challenges and collectibles to maintain your interest. Most importantly, it's a great game for fans, not only because it's steeped in Spidey's history, but because it also introduces those of us who don't regularly follow the comics to some different takes on the character and, arguably, the most brilliant villain roster of any super-hero. No, it's not as good as Arkham Asylum, but it's still the best Spider-Man game for several years, and a great game for true believers, young and old.