Who'd have thought it? One bite from a radioactive spider and it's all web-slinging this, spandex-wearing that two weeks later. We all know the history of Peter Parker and how he made the transformation from schoolboy to superhero, but until Brian Michael Bendis delved into the young Parker's life, we had little idea what a teenage Spidey actually got up to. Sticky copies of Tarantula Keeper Monthly under the mattress? Awkward moments with the girls - do I kiss them or suck their brains out? Thankfully, Bendis's creation answered everything we wanted to know about the life of pubescent spiderboys. He brought us Ultimate Spider-Man, the stylised alternative comics based on young Parker's life, and a visual style which, for the purposes of this piece we'll call Comic Inking (Activision's trademarked word for something rather like cel-shading).
In fact, although it sounds like a fancy pants way of renaming something we're all familiar with anyway, there's a bit more to it than that, and a very good reason the word 'comic' is being used.
Ultimate Spider-Man not just looks like a comic, it plays a lot like one too. Moments of outstanding action, or particularly violent kills (more on those later) are separately animated in comic-style panels on screen. A close-up of an eyeball, a jaw-shattering power punch and graphic deaths all appear in real time in XIII-style pullouts, as you perform the actions. They're also used to highlight your Spidey sense and warn of imminent danger - and there's a considerable amount of danger going on.
Although Ultimate Spider-Man uses the same engine as Treyarch's previous Spider-Man instalment Spider-Man 2, the developer has upped the ante on Spidey's perilous tasks. The most obvious is the 'Threat Assessment' system, an element of the game that sees all shades of crap thrown at our hero at once, and his near-impossible task of having to deal with it. At any one time, usually before an end-of-level battle, the boss decides to cause havoc, which you have to sort out. In one bit where Rhino goes on a nutjob rampage, Spidey needs to prioritise which of the terrorised citizens he needs to save before tackling Rhino head on. Crushed pedestrians, live electric wires, and babies in burning cars all require sorting first - if anyone dies, it's game over. It's relentless too - by the time you've webslung a man trapped under a pylon to safety, lifted a car away from a petrol spill, and stopped looters within a specified time, there'll be more chaos up the road to deal with. The quicker you do so, the sooner you can get to the boss to give him a kicking.
But - and it's a first for a Spidey game -you don't spend the entire game saving stupid civilians. Occasionally, you have to eat them too. Yes, eat them. Ultimate Spider-Man is, to quote Motty, a 'game of two halves', split definitively between doing what's right, and being a total bastard. Because when you're not helping the innocent, you're Spidey's evil nemesis, the dastardly symbiote from space... Venom!
Venom has very different playing mechanics to Spider-Man. Forget stupid web-slingers - Venom can leap tall buildings in a single bound, and stretch his symbiote arms to grab and hurt anything in range. People, cars, you name it - if it's in the way, Venom can wrap his oily tendrils around it and chuck them down the road, where they'll explode in the distance with a faint orange plume. Of course, there's a downside - the unnatural outer-space brute must constantly feed to keep his life-energy up. Excellently, Venom does this by going up to a pedestrian, sucking them into the gaping black chasm in his chest, then spitting out their twitching, lifeless carcasses like used prawn shells. De-lish!