There's a unique challenge in designing superhero games: How do you make it fun to play a character who, by definition, is vastly more powerful than his opposition? Hulk encounters a purse-snatcher: Hulk smash! Hulk win! Hulk bored. With battles that one-sided, the thrill of being superheroic quickly wanes -- which is probably why there has never been a decent Superman game.
Spider-Man 3 avoids this problem in a bizarre way: by making the player feel not superheroic at all. The result is too much boring, sloppy game play distracting from the stuff that actually works.
Among the elements that do work is the web-swinging around Manhattan. Though the city isn't gorgeous, it gets the job done, and Spidey glides between buildings with a nice feeling of speed and momentum. This -- plus the fact that Manhattan is filled with landmarks even a nonresident can recognize -- makes exploring a nice diversion.
Exploring also leads you to the various missions that demand the attention of a certain nerdy mutant. Some represent the events of the movie, but most are concerned instead with marauding street gangs, other villains from the comics -- even photography gigs for the Daily Bugle.
Unfortunately, you might be better off just swinging around aimlessly -- the tasks just aren't much fun. Some involve combat, which consists of little more than mindless button-mashing. Others require you to swing from one part of the city to another within a time limit -- though you'll be regularly frustrated by the in-game camera, which constantly gives you a poor take on the action, blocking your view of Spidey with skyscrapers, trees, you name it. And some tasks -- Spidey hurrying to . . . defuse bombs? -- just seem weirdly out of place.
What's even worse: For a pro crime-fighter, Spider-Man feels kinda wimpy. It's one thing to get KO'd by Venom; it's another when our hero finds himself face-down in the dirt at the hands of some random thug with a club. Likewise, your punches and kicks are surprisingly puny, forcing you to whale on some foes for an eternity before they'll even flinch. Spidey's strength gets a small boost once you find his black suit, but it shows up way too late in the game, and it makes the proceedings only marginally more exciting.
The action is further muddied by "Tests of Strength and Agility," sequences where players must press buttons indicated on the screen as fast as possible in order to proceed. Sometimes these make sense -- say, when Spider-Man is pulling off elaborate acrobatics that wouldn't normally be possible -- but usually they're an annoying distraction during a boss battle; the first throwdown with New Goblin is a mostly non-interactive "press the button shown!" sequence that lasts minutes -- entirely too long (and too boring) for something that could have been handled conventionally.
And for those interested in the Wii version: Put the wallet down. Though it would seem that the motion-sensitive Wiimote could enhance the thin game play, in reality it just drives it into the ground. Not only is the web-swinging clumsier, but the combat sequences force you to wave your hands around like you're having a fit. And the game itself is shorter and much uglier than the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions. If you're looking for the Wii's rating, subtract two from the score here.