There's a reciprocation that comes from certain games. They give back the love that is given or better yet, they might multiply that love—those rare games that aren't played so much as they seduce the player. Games that make it easy to love them, or even games that offer up an initial bit of resistance before opening up and allowing the persistent gamer access to their hidden treasures.
Spawn: Armageddon is not one of those games. Spawn doesn't even match the love given, it sucks it all in and gives the player the same lemon-puckered visage it always wears. Really, Spawn doesn't have a face. It's a DVD (or maybe a CD, quite a possibility given the Dreamcast-esque quality of its graphics) that sits in its plastic case, somehow giving off this sense of malice, an impressive feat for a dead piece of metal and plastic. Not malice in the sense of actual evil or hatred, but the malice common to high-school goths who want people to fear them. The game is fully in thrall to the concept that black, red and neon-green are the only colors necessary and that the enemies don't have to be actually interesting as long as they look like something cribbed from the margins of your average 13-year-old Metallica fan's biology notebook.
Or, to put it more concisely, Spawn: Armageddon is what would seem like a pretty good videogame to your stereotypical junior-high school male. Note that I have been one of them myself, and I really don't have that much against them. I just don't think many of them should be designing videogames.
Spawn is kind of a natural choice for our hypothetical designer. He's edgy, in the sense that lots of black and red is edgy. He's got a backstory that enables the designer to add lots of gnarly demons and sexy looking girl-angels (and demons). He's got a honking big axe and a mutable cape that makes for great cutscene…really all that could be asked for, plus a soundtrack featuring Marilyn Manson and an 'epic' story that's straight out of the comic-book writer's My First Plot Handbook. This all adds up to a videogame that is slighlty more generic than the sum of its parts.
Structurally, Spawn: Armageddon is your average third-person action game. Taking control of the titular main character, the player navigates a series of levels, fighting monsters and jumping around when necessary. Spawn has a bewildering amount of attack options available to him, and I don't mean that in a positive sense. When there's a choice between various magical attacks, several kinds of weapons, some sort of ranged chain-shooters and Spawn's trusty axe, that's when it becomes too many cooks for me. The over-abundance of attacking options is in sharp contrast to the monotony of the gameplay, which basically boils down to killing loads and loads of enemies interspersed with platforming sequences, many of which seem specifically designed to induce obscenity-laden tirades.
It's the platforming that really gets to me. It's like there's this virus that makes the rounds of developers, making them feel like it's reasonable to stick extended jumping puzzle sections into videogames not explicitly designed for jumping. These sequences are almost always nothing short of excruciating, yet developers keep horning them into games with little or no thought as to whether they're enjoyable, not to mention whether they even match with the rest of the game. Add onto this the liberal use of flaming walls to keep the player penned in and some of the most frequent loading times I've ever seen on a non-launch PS2 game, and you get a game where the challenge was not making it through the game itself, but avoiding grinding my teeth down to nubs.
See, Spawn is also an excellent exercise in why the little things are so important to a videogame. When the font used throughout the game is ugly and at times difficult to read, it's a subtle sign that things are not going to go well, a foreboding propehcy that is fulfilled by nearly every aesthetic decision within the game. For a further example, the mission summary is rendered in a piss-yellow color and is a large enough type that it goes off the screen almost immediately (which isn't that surprising considering the tiny box that the developers put it in). This kind of decision is par for the course. When the loading bar looks horrible (It has horns, and the bar itself is a lovely shade of puke-green. Did I mention the font?) and appears apparently every 10 seconds, it becomes hard to feel much emotion for the game other than enmity.
I'm not saying that someone didn't work hard on this game. I'm sure that they did. It's just difficult at times to remember that games like this, like Aquaman, were somebody's labor of love, that someone out there took a lot of time and energy and spent a lot of sleepless nights away from family and friends in order to see this game through. As hard as that might be to believe at times, videogames do take an incredible amount of work by a lot of people to see through, and sometimes it helps to remember that.
Unfortunately, not all videogames are good, and the fact that somebody spent a lot of time on Spawn: Armageddon doesn't change the fact that the end result is ultimately unsatisfying. It's a stale, ugly revisiting of a genre that should be put deep in the ground, with no story or aesthetic styling to redeem it, a hollow exploration of ground that's already been trodden flat.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.
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