I may love video games, but my true love has always been that most American of art forms, the superhero comic book. I grew up with the adventures of Batman, the Flash, and Spider-Man surrounding me, and my love for these heroes has never dimmed a single watt. When Gameloft released their free-to-play endless runner Spider-Man Unlimited, I was thrilled. But as is always the case in Peter Parker’s life, there’s good news and bad news. Spider-Man Unlimited is a treat for the eyes, especially if those eyes belong to comics fans–but Gameloft has once more succumbed to the siren song of pay-to-win gaming and pushed out a shoddy product too early, rendering the adjective “unlimited” wildly misleading.
The premise of Spider-Man Unlimited is a common one in superhero comics, based on a sci-fi trope that never gets old (for me): Spider-Man’s enemies have opened a dimensional portal to recruit alternate versions of themselves from different realities. To fight off the onslaught, Spidey and S.H.I.E.L.D. (led by Nick “Samuel L. Jackson” Fury) have opened a portal of their own to recruit alternate Spider-Men. Over the course of six “issues,” players will face each member of the Sinister Six in turn and punch them repeatedly. Two issues are released; the rest will come in future updates.
As an endless runner, SMU is generally amazing, like its protagonist. The mechanics are hardly different from those of Temple Run (or Gameloft’s last runner, Minion Rush), but their execution works delightfully with the source material. You won’t just be running and jumping: your parkour antics across New York City also require web-swinging, wall-crawling, and general minion-stomping, just like the comics. Climbing up and falling down buildings is controlled by tilting your phone left and right, and swinging by tapping and holding, providing a brief respite from the mad swipe-fest that makes up most of the game. Basic endless mode is supplemented with a series of story missions and time-sensitive events that yield various rewards.
As fun a runner as SMU is, it’s even more fun just to look at. The graphics are fantastic overall, the running animation is fantastic, the environments are lovingly crafted to look like a Manhattan skyline (and evil geniuses’ lair), and everything adds up to create an immersive experience that, as clichéd as this phrase has become in games journalism, is literally heart-pounding. And true to its comic-book roots, the out-of-play interface is designed to resemble a series of panels, while in-play notifications resemble sensational comic narration from the Silver Age, when Spider-Man reigned supreme.
The only core gameplay area where SMU comes up short is in its controls. It should be simple enough to swipe left, right, up, and down to perform actions, but even the slightest deviation from side to side can turn a jump attack into a left turn, bringing an exciting run to an anticlimactic finish.
Here’s where things start to get frustrating, though. After you’ve accidentally crashed into an obstacle five times in a row, you’ll be out of energy. That’s right, SMU uses “Spidey Energy” to determine how often you can play, like a high-octane Candy Crush. But unlike King Games’ casual juggernaut, SMU deducts an energy credit every time you go on a run, even if you complete a story mission’s objectives successfully. Energy maxes out at 5 credits, and regenerates at a rate of one every ten minutes (assuming it ever reappears at all, given the bugs–but I’m getting ahead of myself). My average run time was somewhere around two or three minutes, so you might get fifteen minutes of play every hour or so.
The energy mechanic would be less annoying if it weren’t for another free-to-play gimmick: premium currency. As you run, your Spider-Man collects vials, which can purchase some limited power-ups and recruit new (common) Spider-Men. To get more powerful characters (which are required for issues past #1), continue runs after a collision, and get useful power-ups, you’ll need crystals of ISO-8, the rare isotope that fuels every other Marvel game from Puzzle Quest to Guardians of the Galaxy. It doesn’t come cheap, either: outside of occasional sales, ten crystals will run you $2, and they’ll be gone in a flash. There are regular opportunities to earn a small number of crystals through unlocking achievements and participating in events, but it’s akin to throwing breadcrumbs for pigeons.
Even if you fork up the cash, there’s no way to get a specific Spider-Man, so you have to rely on luck to get the rare characters you need. If you want to get a rare five-star character to its maximum level–which is required to play missions with high level requirements–you’ll have to “rank it up” from its first star to its fifth by obtaining four more identical rares, or by spending upwards of $100 USD on ISO-8. It’s pay-to-win at its worst, and the irony of a game called “Unlimited” that’s so incredibly limited by its business model is painful.
The situation wouldn’t be quite so bad if the game worked correctly, but Gameloft, a studio whose good reputation for bringing the Might and Magic series to mobile is now smeared with licensed freemium schlock, has rushed out a product that’s riddled with bugs. I didn’t have many problems on an HTC One, but the SMU forums are clogged with reports of unhonored rewards and purchases, energy refills that take several days, and straight-up game crashes. I experienced frequent problems with gyroscopic controls and moderate to severe lag in higher-level runs. Meanwhile, Gameloft seems content to leisurely investigate hackers and address various bugs on a case-by-case basis. Their temporary solution to the energy refill problem, for example, is to encourage players to buy an energy refill from the store–only 3 ISO-8! What a deal!
SMU should be one of the best licensed games on the market, and it almost is. When you take your favorite Spidey for a run, it’s like you’re really in hot pursuit of the Green Goblin. And collecting different costumes is pretty neat for any comics aficionado, or just someone who likes neat-looking outfits. But Gameloft has failed to make that sense of fun extend to the rest of the game experience in any way. Unless they make some major overhauls soon, SMU is bound to be just another big-name disappointment.
Is it Hardcore?
Spider-Man Unlimited spins quite a web, but it’s not enough of a superhero to overcome heaps of bugs and terrible pay-to-win gimmicks. With so much emphasis on overpriced crystals and “premium” perks that don’t work, it’s clear Gameloft has given up.