The game has little to do with the first Spider-Man game released by Activision. Spider-Man 2's basic gameplay mechanics are entirely, clearly taken from the two latest Grand Theft Auto games. Everything in the game, obviously with the important exceptions of Spidey's superpowers and of the fact you must fight crimes and not commit them, is taken from Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto games.
Spider-Man 2 is a freeform mission-based third person adventure game played in a virtual recreation of Manhattan where you can go from street to rooftop. While Treyarch didn't take a map of the city and reproduced exactly every street, the general layout is basically the same of the real Manhattan. You will find Central Park, the Empire State Building, the George Washington Bridge, and even Ground Zero in the game. Like in Vice City, in the virtual Manhattan you will find civilians walking in the streets, cars and other vehicles driving around, plus lots of bad guys that have the tendency to disturb the peace. And like in Vice City, you will have to play story-driven missions, random missions, and collect stuff throughout the city.
Unlike Tommy Vercetti, Peter Parker has superhero powers. Spider-Man wouldn't be Spider-Man without his web-shooters (organic or not, that doesn't matter); the developers knew that and created
a fine, enjoyable web slinging experience that any fan of the comic books and of the movies will love. You will need just a few minutes into the game to find yourself traveling across Manhattan using Spidey's web-shooters. The game features two types of swinging, easy and normal. In easy mode, you just need to press the R2 button to shoot a web and then hold on the button for as long as you want to swing; then you just must release the button, and Spidey will let his web go sailing through the air, ready to shoot another web. I actually used Easy mode just for a minute, since normal Swinging felt honestly more intuitive and more fun. In normal Swinging, you must still press R2 to shoot a web, but you can tap R2 again in any moment to rapidly shoot another web; you can use the X button to jump off your web and fly in the air, and you can charge your jump by holding the X button and then releasing it, while a meter shows the strength of your jump. The Left analog stick can let you steer while flying in the air before you shoot your next web. By shooting two webs, you can also stop in midair hanging from two web lines at once. Both in normal and easy mode, the Left analog stick is used to shoot a web in the direction you need.
By pressing circle next to any wall, Spider-Man will start crawling; in this way you can reach the top of all the buildings in Manhattan. But there are much more nice moves that Spider-Man can perform in the game. He can grab onto and swing around poles, and he can perform all the acrobatic tricks you have seen in the movies. These include air tricks (useful to refill your hero meter), wall walking, and a series of moves related to webbing, including the amazingly cool double web line catapult.
I know that this explanation may sound complicate, but the developers did a miracle in making this amazingly simple once you get your hands on the controller; Treyarch did a work of crazy fine tuning to make the web slinging controls of Spider-Man 2 incredibly comfortable and easy to learn, making of this feature one of the most impressive achievements of the game. Regardless of the big limits of the game, the great web slinging experience is alone enough to make you come back to it often, just to have 10-20 minutes of relaxing pure fun swinging over the streets of Manhattan.
Of course, Spider-Man can do much more than web slinging. The basic attack buttons are Square, used to perform punches and kicks, and Triangle, used to attack enemies with webbing. The Square button must be combined with the other buttons of the Dual Shock to pull out the rich selection of combos featured in the game, from jump-off kicks to special punches; the Triangle button can be used to tie up enemies or disarm them with webbing, and can be used as the starting button for many other webbing based combos. By holding the L2 button and then pressing the Triangle button, Spider-Man can also shoot a web ball to temporarily incapacitate an enemy - a useful move, considering that in the game you are almost always fighting at least three enemies at once. There are really countless combos in the game, and it's usually not difficult to learn them since they often imply just a combination of attack, webbing, and jump buttons. Spider-Man's defensive skills are as important as the strength of his attacks. During a fight, Spider-Man head will flash when his spider sense tells him to dodge an attack - in the exact moment you see the head flashing, you must press the circle button, and Spidey will pull out a cool looking move to dodge the incoming attack. Another key element of the combat system are Spider Reflexes, which work exactly like Bullet Time in Max Payne. By pressing a button (L1 or Up on the d-pad) Spidey will activate his Spider Reflexes: everything will be showed in slow motion, while Spider-Man can move at normal speed, with a big advantage over his enemies. A meter, which you can refill by performing stylish moves and combos, rapidly depletes to limit the time you can use the Spider Reflexes. Surprisingly, more than a gimmick, the Spider Reflexes are important even when fighting weaker bad guys, and you will find yourself relying on them often. Overall, the combat system is extremely well developed and complex enough to attract also skilled players, even if controls occasionally don't seem as responsive as you would like them to be; sometimes, especially in the most crowded fights, Spider-Man seems to react too slowly to the pressure of the buttons on the Dual Shock, inviting you to rely on normal punches and kicks more often than you would probably do. It should be noted that the game isn't as easy as you would expect at first. Yes, button mashers will have a good time with Spider-Man 2, since almost any combination leads to a cool looking combo, but in many of the game's missions you are clearly asked to make a proper use of Spidey's special attacks. Even a group of stupid thugs can kill Spidey if you don't use your head while fighting - this means good design.
You will not have all of Spidey's special moves from the beginning of the game. Spider-Man 2 features a simple upgrade system that constantly rewards players by letting them purchase upgrades in one of the many stores scattered throughout Manhattan. Upgrades include new attack combos, new jumping abilities, but also web swinging upgrades necessary to travel faster across Manhattan.
The game graphic interface and presentation are marks of the brain put by the developers in making the game clear, immediately enjoyable, and always nice looking. The in-game map, that you can access by pressing the Select button, is a beautiful 3D top view of Manhattan; when you press again the Select button, the camera zooms into the map over the place where Spider-Man is located, creating an elegant transition effect that brings you back into the game. The in-game menus look clear and stylish, as do the unobtrusive meters showing Spidey's Health, Jump and Spider Reflexes Charge in the corner of the screen. Like in Grand Theft Auto, once you have saved your first game, the next time you play the latest save game is loaded automatically, thus avoiding you the hassle of having to navigate through menus to restart from where you left.
All these good qualities unfortunately don't make for the experience that one would have expected. After the first two hours with the game, anybody will realize that the life of a superhero is a repetitive one. Spider-Man 2 is lacking were a freeform game needs a lot of attention and variety - mission design and environment interaction.
The game is divided in chapters; to proceed to the next chapter you must complete a series of objectives. Usually, in a chapter you must complete a game's main mission, collect hero points, and purchase upgrades in the stores. So the game proceeds in a linear way, but if you want to go around Manhattan and collect stuff, or just spend your time web slinging across the city, you can do it at any time and just ignore the main missions. Unless you complete all the objectives in a chapter the story won't progress. The main missions are unfortunately just a few; forget the dozens of brilliantly designed missions you could play in Vice City. A few of them are really enjoyable - for example I loved some boss battles which asked me to use all of Spider-Man's superpowers - but others are downright annoying and frustrating. For example, in one of the early missions you must chase the Black Cat on the roofs of the city, but the mission takes place too early in the game to not make the task uselessly frustrating; similarly, missions that should have been absolutely fun, like those against Mysterio, are horribly irritating. Fans of the comic books know that the extravagant Mysterio uses all sorts of fancy and crazy tricks against Spider-Man that would fit perfectly in a videogame; unfortunately, the developers were able to recreate only the atmosphere of those fights, without making them really enjoyable.
Anyhow, the story-driven missions are just a few, and will keep you busy for a small percentage of the time you will be playing the game. Almost all chapters ask you to collect hero points to progress in the game and purchase upgrades with them. Hero points can be obtained by completing main missions, but mainly you will get them by completing the randomly generated missions you can find throughout the city. The game's map will indicate you where interest points are located; these can be indicated by green icons or purple ones. Green icons are scattered throughout the city; usually, they give you just suggestions to play and enjoy the game, but they can also indicate a civilian that has a mission for you. These missions are what you will be doing more often in the game, and sadly they represent the game's biggest limit. As I said, these missions are randomly generated; there are just five-six types of missions you will get from civilians, like shootouts, car chases, men falling from the top of a skyscraper, and so on; sometimes, civilians will be just baits to attract you in an ambush, where you just have to fight against a gang of stupid guys that want to see Spider-Man dead. The lack of variety in random missions soon starts to be extremely tedious, since you are forced to play them in order to get hero points; worst of all, the developers had the bad idea of using brief cutscenes as introductions to every single random missions you play. The sensation of repetitiveness after the 20th time you see the same cutscene introducing the same mission you have already played 20 times is something that will really make you understand the frustration and the surprising monotony of being Spider-Man, as seen in the movie. Purple icons indicate random petty crimes that are occurring in the streets, so they usually imply you have to stop pickpockets or stuff like that.
Spider-Man 2's Manhattan has also all the limits, plus many more, of Vice City. There are just a few buildings that can be entered, and you play for the most part outdoors, web slinging from skyscraper to skyscraper. The interaction with the city is very limited, and there is really little you can do in the game besides the occasionally frustrating main missions and the repetitive random missions. Of course, Spider-Man can't drive cars, buy real estates, or hit civilians; he can do almost nothing in his virtual Manhattan. Interaction with civilians is non existent (like in Grand Theft Auto), so the only things you can do in the city are collecting stuff (skyscrapers icons, secret icons), work as a pizza delivery boy (you must just deliver pizzas within a time limit), or compete in the game's "races". These vary in difficulty, and consist in reaching a place using Spider-Man's powers (web slinging, wall crawling, wall walking, etc.) within a time limit. Other than this, there is nothing more you can do in Spider-Man 2.
And that's a shame, because Treyarch spent a lot of time in developing a fine control system, a rich combat system, and the best web slinging experience any fan of the series could have ever dreamed to see in a videogame. Despite its good qualities and the solid technology behind it, Spider-Man 2 offers a gameplay that after the early surprise gets soon repetitive and absolutely uninspiring. With a good mission design, and with more possibilities of interaction, Spider-Man 2 would have been an entirely different game.