Movie Sleuth Gaming: Second Sight: Spider-Man (PS4) Reviewed

I was not one of the folks with a great deal of nostalgia for the 2004 Spider-Man 2 game that came roaring back to the gaming conversation upon this announcement. It seemed like a fine game, but I had a lot of World of Warcraft to play back then and there are only so many hours in the day. I enjoyed the films in the 2000s, even if looking back at them today they haven’t aged the best, but that was my only point of reference for Spider-Man as a character outside of some fuzzy memories of the animated series as a kid. What excited me the open-world pedigree of Insomniac games and, even more so, one that isn't cut from the same cloth as the slurry of Ubisoft open-world games of the last few years.

The first and most important thing to mention is that they nailed the look and feel of swinging through the city. It is the mechanic that everyone was using as the litmus test for the game as a whole and I can say with confidence that Insomniac nailed it. As simple of an experience as it is, just using the web swinging and whipping myself across town is my favorite pastime in Marvel’s Spider-Man. I generally despise busywork and collecting in games, but the fact that moving through the detailed city just felt so fluid, I found myself taking long spans of time between story missions just to check-off boxes on the map, even when the collectibles themselves were not particularly rewarding.

The ‘backpack’ collectibles are added almost immediately into the game, and outside of some crafting tokens, mostly just reward you with small blips of background narrative for Peter Parker. They were small enough that a player who didn't wish to engage with it could ignore them, but some of them added insight into the character in just a few voice lines, especially to someone like me with only a limited history with Spider-man as a non-comic-reader. Where Insomniac did succeed, seemingly where a lot of other open world games fail when it comes to collectibles, was the pace of the rollout. You aren’t immediately thrown into a world with countless icons on the map to overwhelm you. This does make the game feel a little less lived-in at first, but the ramp-up of things comes to a head with a satisfying variety of activities. Different types of collectibles with different rewards are slowly added to the map as you complete the story missions throughout the game, and they even add little bits of dialog after missions that ‘remind’ you to just go out and get things done in the city before progressing to pace out the side content and avoid main story burnout.

The story itself is exciting and well-told, especially for a game of the genre. I didn’t come into it expecting very much, so I am pleasantly surprised by the storytelling and the story itself. It leans on intrigue early in the game with a few known enemies to get its hooks in. You lock up a serious protagonist at the very start of the game, leaving a lot of things in the future to chance, and it takes the game in a unique direction.  It would be easy to throw this game into the modern MCU format and make it a grandiose take on a well-known storyline or retread the tired origin story arc, but Insomniac found a way to incorporate known villains and characters into Spider-man without being trite or just making the story an afterthought like many open world games (looking at you, Watch_Dogs). It leans on a lesser-known villain, and it takes twists and turns with just the right amount of predictability and unpredictability to keep both the fans and the new folks engaged.

There is more to be said about the story, a big part of the day-to-day story has to do with Peter’s relationship with Yuri Watanabe, a police captain that operates as the Commissioner Gordon to his Batman in many respects. Their dynamic is fun, but not without showing the tension between vigilantism and traditional police justice. Some amount of a relationship is established throughout the interactions, but for the most part, it works as a means to justify a lot of Spider-Man’s actions as the stick to hold the carrot. If you stop to think about your actions in relation to the police, it reveals a quandary of its representation. The game’s relationship with police is at best idealized, and at worst a tone-deaf misrepresentation of the modern relationship between citizen and cop. Insomniac as a studio is large enough that they had an opportunity to use their platform to make a more serious take on things, especially considering the storied history of the NYPD, but they chose not to, favoring a more idyllic police representation. This personally didn’t take away from the experience for me, but I can see how many individuals would be frustrated with the squandered opportunity to make a statement in a world where some police officers operate above the law with little punishment. I just made a rule I wouldn’t be a narc and bust up the drug deals. Spider-Man has bigger problems than a few addicts.

Something that caught me off guard was just how much this game pulls from the Arkham series. After playing it, it seems very appropriate to do so, but it was not what I was expecting coming into it sight unseen. Not to say that it does not iterate or make unique moves, but so often when playing the stealth aspects of the game or engaging in combat with groups of enemies it felt like I was just playing another Batman game. That’s not a bad thing necessarily; I don’t expect every game to reinvent the wheel, it just made me think more about how similar Batman and Spider-man are as characters, even just beyond the naming convention. I digress, but it did make me stop and think about what I was doing and what about the stealth parts of the game felt inexplicably off to me. Maybe it’s my lack of experience with Spider-man as a character, but high-stakes stealth situations are not what I think of when I think of Spider-man.

In Batman, stealth felt appropriate. As a character, he uses fear and stealth as a weapon, and the high stakes seem much more appropriate. The handful of times I was forced to do perfect stealth missions with built-in instant failures, it didn't just feel punishing as a bad encounter design that wasn't fun for the player, it also just felt like I was playing a different game or a different character that I didn't want to play. Mixing things up is important in a game of Spider-man’s ilk, but these missions did not feel like the right way to do it.

Insomniac also mixes things up with the occasional interlude wherein you take control of Mary Jane or another non-spidey character in the world for short missions. While similarly admirable in the context of keeping the gameplay fresh, every time I encountered these after the initial experience introducing the mechanic they felt like an absolute chore.  Robbing the player of their tools during parts of the game is a good design in itself. This reminds players to use tools they may have forgotten about and adds challenge to the game and can be interesting. But, to put so much time and love into making the gadgets, skill tree, and combat systems so polished just to have frequent interstitial moments that rob you of playing the character you bought the game to play and leveled-up along the way feels like a misstep. The segments don't feel good to play, but also scarcely add much of consequence to the story along the way, and for that I found them to be a disappointing aspect of the game. More often than not, I would put the game down as I  excitedly finished up a story bit and wanted to see what’s next not because I wanted to be done playing, but because I didn't want to end on the down note of doing one of the terrible sequences in question. 

Despite its roots similar to games like Arkham City, the combat outside of stealth is varied and exciting. A concern I had going into it was that the game wouldn't capture the highly-mobile and three-dimensional aspects of the game, concentrating more on the combat with feet on the ground approach, but fortunately, that is not the case. Aspects of the fluidity of the web-slinging movement around the city are present in the combat, allowing for things like quick retreats up to the girders to regain health or swinging through the air to deliver a big boot to the face of a dazed thug. This is fun and flavorful for the character of Spider-man himself, but also allows the player to set their own pace for the action, especially important for novice gamers or folks that may be more easily overwhelmed when tackling large groups of enemies. 

Adding the various spider gadgets and the skill tree system to the combat adds a level of customizability that is needed to make the combat not get boring or too challenging. Having trouble with the guns and rocket launcher enemies? Grab the disarm skills. Issues with the heavier tough thug units? Lean on the instant web up gadget or skill that lets you throw them around. I found that they added just enough tools to my arsenal to give a lot of options, without bogging the player down with too much choice. One of the early suit upgrades is called the Web Blossom, it sprays webs in a 360-degree explosion around you and I highly suggest it. It is useful at every point in the game, and if it's not your style there are dozens of other suits and gadgets to choose from.

I can’t say that Marvel’s Spider-Man is a masterpiece or a gush-worthy chart-topper, but it is still easily one of the best uses of Sony’s big-budget publishing arm in recent memory. I don’t find too many open world games that hold my interest in both story and mechanics, and this was a treat in its ability to do so and keep me playing after I had finished up the story. I’m not the kind to hunt down the platinum trophy, but the dozen or so extra hours I have put in after I saw the story wrap up have been enjoyable. I can’t help but think that I wish there could be something more to it, but what is there is a premium way to spend some gaming time.

-Justin Wicker