Rating: 9/10

 

9/22/18 – Final Update: In Which I was so Wrong that After Completing 100% of the Game I Immediately Began a New Playthrough.

 

I’m genuinely not sure if I’ve ever experienced such a quick and complete turnaround on a game in my entire life. As an exercise in humility, I went back to my first update and compared my thoughts on September eighth to my thoughts today, and they’re virtually polar in how dissimilar they are.

Gone are my complaints about the combat, and in their place is an appreciation for how satisfying it feels to make use of Spider-Man’s full array of powers. Gone is my ambivalence towards the narrative; replaced by surprise at how well Insomniac’s writing team managed to craft a wholly original story within a pre-established universe (starring a character who has been done to death at least three times over) that finds a striking balance between lighthearted energy and believable emotional stakes. Most surprisingly, gone too are my issues with the open world structure. Instead, I feel that for what may be the first time, a studio has crafted gameplay so gleefully fun that having any task to accomplish feels nothing remotely like a chore.

For example, I took particular umbrage with the fifty-five backpacks scattered throughout Manhattan. Despite the fact that this is a worrying number of bookbags for any high school student to go through over a period of four years and it acts as little other than an excuse to sneak in a few references to Spider-Man’s lore, collecting these items almost always feels like its own reward. This sense is replicated over each of Spider-Man‘s optional side-tasks because every one of them is designed to make use of the game’s strongest elements: moving and fighting. Taking pictures of more than forty landmarks throughout the city may sound dull and repetitive, but it rarely feels that way when the simple act of getting from one to the next is so damn fun (and snapping a well-framed shot while airborne is a delightful challenge).

The same can be said for the crimes committed throughout the city by any of the game’s factions of enemies, as well as their respective strongholds. Ostensibly, all you’re doing is punching a bunch of thugs wearing the same outfit (as Spider-Man himself points out in one of his signature quips), but in the moment I was always too busy trying to rack up a higher combo count, execute perfect dodges, and fling enemy missiles back at the individuals kind enough to bestow them upon me.

That’s not to say that everything is perfect, but most of the lasting issues I have with Spider-Man feel largely inconsequential.

  • I ended up ignoring most of the unlockable ‘Suit Powers’ in favor of the one included with the suit Peter has when the story starts, as I found it to be the most useful as a combat boost and a quick way to heal. It’s nice that there were others to choose from, but their lack of vitality gave me no motivation to acquire new suits on a mechanical level.
  • Getting Spider-Man to cling to a wall when walking directly up to it from the ground can be finicky, but more often than not I approached walls from the air, which is far more intuitive.
  • The story ends kind of abruptly. The narrative threads were all tied up, but the specific moment that the credits began to roll felt tonally bizarre when taken in context with the rest of the game’s events.
  • A few of the quick-time events feel frustratingly simple and hands-off. At their best, they can make you feel like you’re pulling off impossible feats like catching a plummeting helicopter moments before it smashes into the crowded street below. At their worst, they can remind you that all you need to do to save fifty lives is press the ‘O’ button when the game tells you to.
  • As good as the central musical theme is, hearing it kick in every single time you begin to swing around the city gets a little bit old.
  • No matter how much fun Spider-Man’s cocky comments are the first time you hear them, by their fifth repetition, you’ll probably be ready for a slightly less talkative hero.

These minor issues aside, there’s not a whole lot more I can say about Spider-Man. As the title of this update not-so-subtly implies, I finished the game to 100% completion and immediately began a new file. This is a rarity for me, as I usually have a difficult time mustering up the energy to complete every side mission, especially once I’ve finished the story. In this case, though, I was immediately ready to hop back into New York, collect some backpacks and web up some criminals.

This unexpected development piqued my interest, specifically in how it compared to my experience with the Arkham series. Especially in my first update, I drew numerous comparisons between Spider-Man and the Batman games, and nearly all of them painted Rocksteady’s titles as some sort of messianic idol; games beyond fault and superior in most every way. As a final experiment, I spent a few hours playing my favorite entry in the series, 2015’s Batman: Arkham Knight, to see how the experience held up in my post-Spider-Man psyche.

The first thing I noticed was the subtle difference in the control scheme. The most obvious example is the mapping of the dodge move, which is ‘O’ in Spider-Man and a double-tap of ‘X’ in Batman. While both make sense within the context of their own movement systems, it’s hard not to take note of how much more responsive the action feels in Spider-Man. Clearly, combat is meant to be more acrobatic in Insomniac’s iteration of the formula and ‘O’ has its own functionality in Batman (a cape-stun, for those who were curious), but when played side-by-side, one feels monumentally more intuitive than the other.

Similarly, Spider-Man’s encounters feel slightly less strategic but somehow more precise. In order to keep the combo meter flowing, Batman will automatically target whatever enemy is closest and in the direct line-of-sight of the camera. The result is a character who fluidly flips around the combat arena with far more grace than his heft would suggest. The other result is the occasional misplaced punch, as encouraging the caped crusader to assault your desired target can sometimes be difficult. In Spider-Man, the game gives you total control over which enemy you want to focus on while simultaneously empowering you to switch at a moment’s notice and cover enormous swaths of ground with a single zip of your web.

A few more thoughts:

  • Batman shares more with Spider-Man in terms of structure than I had remembered. There are collectibles, bases, combat challenges, and side missions that make use of secondary villains from the comic books. While Batman makes better use of its baddies, the act of completing these tasks is far more enjoyable in New York than in Gotham. This is certainly the case with the Riddler Puzzles scattered throughout the city, which are a charming and clever diversion, but quickly become tiresome.
  • The tutorial segment of Spider-Man is mercifully brief and opts for multiple hint-boxes that pop up as new mechanics are introduced rather than the five mandatory Batmobile instructional challenges players are forced to endure before they can do much of anything.
  • While the city of Gotham has more character and ambiance than Insomniac’s New York, it’s worth pointing out that they’re both fairly barren, albeit in different ways. Spider-Man fails to give players any meaningful or interesting ways to interact with the citizens we’re meant to protect, which makes the world feel less natural and alive. On the other hand, Batman dealt with this problem by just getting rid of the civilian population before the game actually starts, meaning that for the duration of the story Gotham is populated exclusively by police officers, Batman, and people Batman is going to punch. His fight for the city is close to literal, as the only portion of it in immediate danger seems to be the infrastructure.
  • The bases in Spider-Man, while thoroughly entertaining challenges, always end up devolving into extended punchathons, and in fact, there is no way to clear the entirety of a compound stealthily. Batman‘s predator sequences, however, function as much as puzzles as they do combat trials, layering enemy types and environmental features that require serious thought before action is taken.
  • If there’s one thing Rocksteady excels at, it’s messing with the audience’s mind. Whether this takes the form of Arkham Asylum‘s sneaky game-restart or the brilliant implementation of the Joker in Arkham Knight, the studio has mastered the art of the surreal. By comparison, during a few late-game sequences, Spider-Man‘s attempts at replicating this quality feel forced and shallow.
  • Beat for beat, the stories of both games aren’t too terribly different regarding quality. Batman has the benefit of being the conclusion to a beloved trilogy (as well as sporting a far more recognizable voice cast), but the implications of Spider-Man‘s finale promise an exciting second chapter, should Insomniac be afforded the opportunity.
  • Neither game felt the need to depict their respective character’s origin story for the 450,000th time, and for that, we can all be thankful.

All-in-all, Spider-Man is an exceptionally fun adventure, and one that I can see myself playing and replaying for years to come. When the game was announced at E3 2016, all I hoped for was that Insomniac would be able to match the stellar work they’d done on Sunset Overdrive‘s movement. If they could get that much right, the rest would fall into place. Now, two years later, I can’t believe how right I was, and how completely that hope has been fulfilled.

 

09/16/18 – Update Two: In Which I Admit that I was Very, Very Wrong.

 

Spider-Man is a mediocre Arkham-like…”
– Me, eight days ago.

 

The above quote works not only as a fairly accurate summary of my early opinions of Insomniac’s new open world game, but also as a perfect example of why nobody should assume that they understand a AAA game’s strength’s and weaknesses well enough to publish them on the internet after only a few hours of playtime.

The majority of my problems with Spider-Man stemmed from its stale gameplay (towers, collectibles, simple skill trees, etc.) and the fact that the combat system borrowed heavily from Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series without introducing any original concepts to shake things up. While I will continue to stand by my interpretation of the open world structure as unimaginative, I will potentially negate that by saying that around my tenth hour in this iteration of New York, I had ceased to care at all.

This is due in large part to the movement system, to which I gave far too little credit in my last update despite thoroughly praising. In the beginning, I let the lack of innovation in the mission structure/variety rob swinging around the city of its magic, when in fact the complete opposite is the experience with which I will always associate Spider-Man. To call the way the controls work “intuitive” is borderline slander considering how much work must have gone into making physics bend to the will of the programmers so gracefully. To say that entering a dive towards a crowded intersection only to pull back at the last moment to careen under a bridge is “breathtaking” does an immense disservice to the sense of momentum and precision this action conveys. To call effortlessly shifting between swinging and wall running without losing an iota of speed “impressive” completely ignores the childlike glee it managed to pull out of me every single time.

Up against all of this, repetitive missions like stopping the same burglary upwards of three times in each area of the map or picking up fifty-five backpacks feel less like inconveniences or items on a list, and more like excuses to move. As with Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac has produced a game that practically taunts players with the availability of fast-travel. What possible reason could I have for robbing myself of the pleasure of crossing the map again? The fact that this sentence is entirely truthful and unironic should speak to just how much fun it is to treat New York like your personal playground.

Outside of selling the moment-to-moment gameplay short, I also dismissed Spider-Man‘s combat as a cheap replication of Arkham‘s. In this case as well, I was exceptionally wrong. In fact, I would go so far as to say that there’s a compelling argument to be made that Spider-Man is actually the superior competitor in this arena.

Arkham‘s combat system was clearly an inspiration for the team at Insomniac, but contrary to my earlier opinion, they’ve actually evolved the style into something that makes Batman feel old and slow by comparison. Attacks can be launched from either the ground or the air (with transitions between the two feeling lightening-fast), and Spider-Man can quickly zip across the battlefield fist-first with a tap of the triangle button. As your combo counter increases, so too does your Focus Bar – a meter that allows you to execute an automatic takedown once full, or to replenish your health proportionately to the amount of Focus you’ve accrued.

This last feature adds a surprising amount of strategy to a system known for its button-mashing. Do you take out the troublesome thug with the baton and try to ride the fight out a little longer with low health, or refill a quarter of your Life Bar but leave a problematic enemy standing for a few more moments? This idea works incredibly well, and is further supported by unlockable skills that consistently reframed the way I approached encounters.

In my neverending shortsightedness, I also drew an unfair comparison between Arkham‘s stealthy Predator Fights and the lack thereof in Spider-Man. And yet again, I was incorrect.

As the story progresses, players will be prompted to clear out a variety of bases – strongholds set up by Spider-Man’s enemies that serve as extended combat trials. You’ll repel six waves of enemies in each base while attempting to complete two or more optional challenges. These objectives (perform four stealth takedowns, execute ten perfect dodges, use the trip-mine on five enemies, etc.) encourage different playstyles for each situation and keep them feeling fresh even after tackling several bases. This kind of mechanic rarely motivates me to replay this type of mission (which is hardly a new concept), but it complimented the combat so well that I always wanted to complete them as fully as possible.

This leads into yet another issue I took with Spider-Man that I have since reversed my position on. Outside of experience points used to level up your character, the game is built on an economy of tokens. Tokens are received upon the completion of any side-task, and each class of task is given its own kind of token. Stopping robberies and high-speed chases yield Crime Tokens, helping Harry Osborne with his research stations is rewarded with Research Tokens, and completing bases fills your digital coffers with Base Tokens.

These, among other types, can be used to unlock new suits (each of which comes with a unique power that can be applied to any suit you own) or upgrade your Spider-gadgets. The inclusion of this form of currency gives value to each action you take within the world and effectively destroys my original argument that each icon on the map did little other than artificially pad the game’s playtime.

Spider-Man has also managed to surprise me with its story thus far. It’s not anything that will go down in history, and it has yet to throw any curveballs like the high-profile death in Arkham City, but it’s kept me thoroughly invested and even managed to spin off in a few directions I never expected.

With all of that said, Spider-Man is not perfect. However, it plays to its strengths with such excellence that it’s nearly impossible to tell. By my best guess, I’m nearing the end of the story, and I’ve completed nearly all of the additional content available. I’ll be updating and finalizing this review as soon as the credits roll, but at this point, it would take some serious nonsense to make me flip on this one again.

 

09/08/18 – Update One: In Which Spider-Man Finds Himself in a Time Paradox.

 

As Spider-Man zips, flips and swings his way through New York City, it’s difficult not to be impressed with what modern games are capable of. Zooming effortlessly between skyscrapers, the reflection of the sunset coming off of the glass is nearly enough to distract from just how unprecedentedly fluid the movement system is. When transitioning seamlessly from leisurely web-slinging to a high-speed car chase without a single dropped frame, it’s worth appreciating just how much power developers have been able to eek out of the PS4. In these moments, it’s hard not to honestly believe that you’re catching a glimpse of the future of gaming.

Conversely, while actually playing the game, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that rather than a peek through a keyhole into tomorrow, what you’re actually witnessing is a set of wide-open French doors showcasing the best game design 2014 has to offer.

Before I go into detail in an effort to explain this metaphor, I would like you to consider the following list of games.

  • Assassin’s Creed Unity
  • Assassin’s Creed Rogue
  • Dragon Age Inquisition
  • Far Cry 4
  • Infamous: Second Son
  • Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

And now, and extremely brief quiz:

All of the above titles have which of the following elements in common?

A) A huge map populated by very little of any actual value outside of padding the playtime.
B) A Seemingly endless list of collectibles that serve no practical purpose.
C) Skill trees.
D) Map zones that must be cleared in order to increase visibility, safety, or unlock additional quests.
E) Open worlds structures.
F) A release date in 2014.
G) All of the above.

The answer is, predictably, G): All of the above. This was the dominant style in the mid-2010’s and has only recently begun to be supplanted by the more open-open world methods of Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey, or even Far Cry 5. The gameplay loop was heavily focused on climbing towers to reveal sections of the map, completing repetitive sub-quests to earn skill points, and applying those points to a fairly linear skill tree to unlock new abilities or gadgets. There were certainly exceptions: Inquisition had no towers to speak of (but it and Far Cry 4 are also the only two games on the list not to feature combo-based combat that was, on some level, inspired by the Rocksteady’s Arkham series).

That’s not to say that this design methodology is inherently bad; I’ve played and enjoyed several games on this list, as well as many others that could safely fall under the same umbrella. The main drawback of setting up a game in this manner is that tasks quickly become repetitive, and the gameplay devolves into little more than checking items off of a list. This is why developers, even those partially responsible for popularizing the structure, have begun distancing themselves from it. After enough years of opening up maps littered with hundreds of icons, each indicating something that the player had to do (but could not discover for themselves), audiences started to burn out.

Enter Spider-Man: a game that looks exceptional and plays like a dream, but has so far wasted its massive potential on the stale gameplay loop that made the last few years of open worlds feel homogenous.

I’ll start with the good. The moment to moment sensation of playing Spider-Man is absolutely delightful and makes good on any hopes that developer Insomniac would bring what they learned from crafting the unconventional but satisfying traversal system for their previous title, Sunset Overdrive. Whether you begin at street-level or the top of the Avengers Tower, it’s incredibly easy to build up speed without ever sacrificing control, and making hairpin turns through alleyways can be exhilarating.

At its best, this system melds effectively with the combat, making for enemy encounters that demand mobility. At its worst, this is where the first chip in the veneer makes itself known. The combat mechanics have been lifted wholesale from the Arkham series, but that style has become more or less standard for action games since its explosion into popularity in 2009. The issue is more so that each fight is virtually identical to its predecessor and inevitable successor.

You jump in, punch a bunch, dodge a bunch, and try not to get shot or run over by a brute (thicker enemies that demand a slightly different strategy, like the knife-wielding baddies in Arkham that Batman stuns with his cape). Wash, rinse, repeat. One of Arkham‘s greatest strengths was the way it balanced in-your-face fights and opportunities for stealth and strategy. Juxtaposing massive arena fights where the goal was to land as many punches as possible with tense, atmospheric sequences that saw the caped crusader picking enemies off one by one from gargoyles kept things feeling fresh, regardless of how many times you were confronted with similar situations.

Here, whether you’re stopping an armed robbery, a mugging, or an assault, it all plays out exactly the same way every single time (including repeated dialogue samples). This speaks to the larger design issue at the heart of Spider-Man, which is that there’s just not much going on. I mean sure, who doesn’t love activating twenty-plus radio towers so you can clear off the whole map? And what’s a person to do once they’ve tracked down all fifty-five of Peter Parker’s discarded high school backpacks? It’s not bad, per se, just bland and repetitive.

Then again, I’m currently sitting at around only 10% total completion, so there’s still a ton of time for the game to introduce new elements that will shake things up. It is also entirely possible that the story, which so far has been a beautiful combination of generic and forgettable, will perk up once I dig a little deeper.

And so, the time paradox. It’s a unique and strange experience to play a game that excels so wildly in one area that it almost feels like the rest of the game came from a prepackaged unit; like Ubisoft had the framework of an all modern-day Assassin’s Creed just kind of laying around, and Insomniac prettied it up and mixed in an incredible movement system. When you fly around Manhattan, you feel like you’re soaring into the future. When you have to return to Earth to beat up your seventh set of identical do-wrongers, not quite so much.

Regardless, I’m very much looking forward to scaling some more buildings, snagging some more backpacks, and returning in a few days with a more informed opinion. For the time being, I’d say that Spider-Man is a mediocre Arkham-like that’s elevated by just how much fun Insomniac has made it to feel like its titular hero.

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