Review: If this is Spider-Man and friends, where's the SpiderCar?
The idea behind Lego Star Wars has become something of a phenomenon. Take a well known property and "kiddie-fy" it by simplifying the gameplay while still keeping it fun for "adult" gamers through humor, nostalgia, whimsy or a combination of the three. It has been so successful that it's spawned a sequel, a next-gen remake and two upcoming projects (Lego Batman and Lego Indiana Jones). The formula behind Lego Star Wars has also inspired Activision to take a more family-friendly tack with the latest Spider-Man game, Spider-Man: Friend or Foe.
Spider-Man: Friend or Foe takes a lot of inspiration from the Lego Star Wars series, but it's also clearly modeled after the beat 'em ups that were popular in the 16-bit days. The story, as it were, also seems inspired by that bygone. Spider-Man is out enjoying a nightly websling when he's attacked by several high-profile members of his rogue's gallery. In turn, they are all attacked by an army of monsters called Phantoms. Phantoms are the result of fusing Venom's Symbiote with a bunch of nanomachines, so like all good cannon fodder from the 16-bit era, they disappear after you punch them enough.
But someone has also taken pieces of the Symbiote and slapped it on the same group of villains Spider-Man was tangling with at the beginning of the game. And as Spidey frees these foes from their mind control, they become his friends and offer their services in taking down the supervillain that attempted to use them as slaves.
It's from this plot point that the "Friend or Foe" concept comes from and also the Lego Star Wars-like multiplayer options. Before each level, Spider-Man can choose a teammate from the pool of defeated villains (including Doc Ock, Green Goblin, Venom, Rhino and Sandman) and a group of Spider-Man's allies (people like the Black Cat, Iron Fist and Blade) that are along for the ride. Switching between the two is performed by holding down Triangle and a second player can join the fun at any time.
From there, the majority of the game is a neverending battle between Spider-Man and the Phantoms. Players will punch away at four different types of Phantoms across five locations and more than fifteen individual levels. Like the beat 'em ups of old, this can feel repetitive at times, but the inventive combat helps keep it fresh. Spider-Man has multiple web abilities including a web line that grabs Phantoms and pulls them in for a punch or throws them across the screen, his "impact webbing" and the ability to wrap up an enemy in a web cocoon. All of his abilities can be upgraded between levels (in a SHIELD helicarrier) and can be chained together to create some truly fabulous fighting. The sidekicks, however, only have a few attacks, so they are not as interesting to use as Spider-Man. Which can take a bit of the fun out of the "Friend or Foe" concept.
Taking yet another page from Lego Star Wars, the Phantoms in Friend or Foe drop Tech Tokens when defeated. Like Lego Studs, these tokens are the currency used to purchase upgrades between the levels. Friend or Foe also does not allow players to die as they progress through the game. A few Tech Tokens are taken away and it's right back to the action. Sadly, because of the game's "never-say-die attitude", all of the stages can be cleared in a few hours.
Similar to that humorous retelling of a galaxy far far away, Spider-Man: Friend or Foe goes for the more jokey comic book and Saturday morning cartoon-style of Spider-Man story. And for the most part, it works. A plot featuring supervillains teaming up with the ol' webhead is a ridiculous idea on the surface that works because the game never gives us a reason to doubt it. The villains grumble about working with Spidey, but they're doing it because they want to stop someone who's also a threat to themselves. And that's a common enough comic book trope that it was even used in last year's Spider-Man 3. Spider-Man cracking wise as he dispatches Phantom after Phantom is good for a chuckle as well.
Spider-Man and his friends will travel across five different locations in Friend or Foe, but few of the stages offers anything interesting to look at. Players will travel to Tokyo, Egypt, a tropical island, Transylvania and Nepal, but the levels are presented using simple designs and color patterns that make the whole world appear a little flat. There's no unifying art style to give the game that extra boost. Instead, the levels come across looking very generic with lots of similar looking sections that are meant to symbolize places like "big city", "tropical island", "spooky castle", "spooky church", "Asian monastery", "pyramid" and "desert".