This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.
Video games are the best medium to convey what it feels like to be another person. Other storytelling forums can make narratives more engaging to follow, but video games immerse a player completely into a fictional world. This amazing feature of the interactivity can result in wildly different experiences across games, but in practice most video games play identical to one another. This is especially true for open world games, which tend to adhere to unstated presumptions about what players can expect to do in their game. There’s always a large map, towers to reveal more of the map, an upgrade system that uses collectibles as currency, half-baked side missions — often with some form of “timed” element — and the game generally throws boatloads of content that you don’t have to engage with at all. This repetition across games in the same genre is a common criticism of open world games, but I’ve never minded familiar concepts. For me, I’m much more bummed when the concepts are haphazardly inserted into a game without translating them into the reality of the character we’re playing. After all, the ability to feel like the hero you’re playing as is one of the essential strengths of video games as a medium.
Spider-Man has been shrugged off as “just another open world game,” and although the familiar mechanics may make some players remember similar games in the genre, the game’s greatest success is providing the undeniable feeling that you are Spider-Man. No matter the task, whether you’re climbing towers or rounding up collectibles, it always feels like you’re playing as Spider-Man. You solve problems like Spider-Man, you move like Spider-Man, and you live the life of Spider-Man. It’s an accomplishment most games don’t even consider and it’s what makes Spider-Man unique.
Why did I play it?
I have no love for Spider-Man 2 on the PlayStation 2. I only owned a GameCube at that point in time so the hype for Spider-Man passed my notice (although I do have a distinct memory of seeing Spider-Man 1, 2 and 3 in the theaters). Which is to say I wasn’t very excited for Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man. I got access to the game on a whim and decided to give it a whirl with very low expectations.
How was it?
My descent into the Spideyverse was slow but I ended up really loving this game. The beginning of the game doles out introductions at a steady pace. The game begins with you in a main story mission that’s more than a glorified tutorial, it’s closer to an actual mission with some quick lessons taught along the way. As such, it takes a little bit longer than you might expect to complete but it doesn’t feel like a mandatory tutorial. By the time you beat the first boss you have a good handle of all the mechanics and you’re unleashed into the world. The game wastes no time introducing an oppressive number of collectibles that you can choose to start picking up right away or save for later. Of course, being the crazy person that I am, I almost always immediately went to collect every single one of these optional completionist goals once they were available. There are a lot of them. Backpacks you can pick up, towers to unlock, photography landmarks, combat challenges, web-slinging challenges, a plethora of “research stations” — which could be anything — and many more.
The reason it’s so easy to fall into doing these collectibles is 1) web-slinging around the city never gets old 2) the challenges are likely more difficult than the main story which is by-and-large, stupid easy. I played the game on hard and had some difficulty with the boss of the introduction level, but otherwise I breezed through the game rarely dying at any point. This isn’t a game about challenging your ability, it’s about being your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
All of the content in the game reinforces the fact you’re playing as Spider-Man. Many open world games tend to rely on genre conventions for mission design. It doesn’t matter if you’re a ghost in Shadow of Mordor or an assassin in Assassin’s Creed, these games almost always end up playing the same way. There’s a stealth functionality that you typically open with but once you fail stealth you fight guards for 35 minutes by parrying them endlessly. Spider-Man has its own stealth, combat and parrying, but it has a Spider-Man edge. For starters, it’s always a viable option to utilize the openness of the world and web-sling far away from your opponents. Attacking a base and screwed up a stealth takedown? Zip down a few floors and chill out for a minute, then come back and try again. In combat and need a breather? Put some distance between you and the bad guys by zipping away several hundred yards. In addition to web slinging, Spider-Man has access to an impressive number of gadgets you can upgrade. Web shots, spider-bots, electricity surges, concussive force and levitators are some of the abilities available to you. All of them utilize strategies that realistically seem like how Spider-Man would fight and move around.
The satisfaction of the side missions is shared in the main storyline. Pretty much everything about the game is designed with Spider-Man in mind. Consider the concept of a “heavy” enemy that’s very popular in games. These are bruisers with more health that dish out immense amount of damage. Pretty much every game in existence handles these enemies in the same way. For the “heavy” enemy, you use the “heavy” attack button. Press it a few times and that big guy is no longer a problem. Spider-Man has no such button because it doesn’t make any sense for Spider-Man to have a heavy attack. Instead, bruisers are dispatched by outmaneuvering them, or webshotting them until they’re incapacitated. It’s a solution that only Spider-Man could perform and it not only makes sense, it’s a lot more fun. The best example of this design choice is when Spider-Man faces off against enemies with jetpacks. These encounters often end with the two combatants hitting each other in the air, chaining combos, for a decent amount of time. Juggling enemies in the air feels unique, like it’s something games haven’t done before.
While the combat is easily the main draw of the game, the story is surprisingly well-written. The main antagonist seems to have an explainable motivation and seems more like a tragic tale of revenge rather than a moustache-twirling villain who basks in the misery of others. Spider-Man’s voice actor is great at selling the charismatic jokester personality of the character, and he also portrays the empathetic earnestness of Peter Parker. There are only a handful of characters, but each of them have a distinct personality and purpose for being part of the story. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the game’s plot is how it handles law enforcement. Spider-Man has a congenial relationship with the police, since they’re both committed to keeping the city safe. This — of course — is wildly different than the depiction of police in modern day America. The police officer characters feel like they’re out of time from another era, like a post-9/11 view where all police were valiant heroes. I don’t have a political view on if this depiction is “correct” or “problematic,” but it certainly stands out.
I ended up 100 percent completing Spider-Man, which is unusual for me. I like open world games a lot but there are usually a handful of activities that are too annoying to put up with. Spider-Man didn’t have any of those annoying side missions or brutally difficult challenge rooms, so it makes it very easy to consume everything completely. The relative ease of the game shows how far developers have come since the mid-2000s when plenty of games had notoriously difficult sections that turned players away. We’ve reached the point where you can simply enjoy a game for the experience and not get bogged down by random spikes in difficulty.
I originally viewed Spider-Man as a “good” game, a solid four out of five. It’s better than most, but misses the “wow” element that I usually need to give full marks. Since that initial assessment, I’ve spent some time considering other games from this year and I’ve realized how quickly we’re departing from straight-up fun in favor of other ambitions. Games like Horizon Zero Dawn or God of War want to pretend to be cinematic epic tales, with gimmicks like continuous camera shots or misguided mechanics in service of “immersion.” I’ve always hated games that lack the confidence to be good games first, then try other things. A game like Mass Effect 2 is an incredibly engaging RPG, that also uses black bars and camera angles to look like a space opera. That’s the example I think of for how games should be, but instead we get games like Red Dead Redemption 2 where you don’t do anything for the first five hours other than watch cut scenes and long animations.
Spider-Man might not swing of the stars, but it doesn’t have to. That “wow” element I was looking for is a misnomer. As it stands, Spider-Man is the most fun I’ve had with a game this year. It actualizes the world of Spider-Man and it accomplishes design choices that are unique to the genre. It’s a testament to how good games have become and the skill of developers who can provide a reliably balanced experience. It’s a huge accomplishment and worthy of praise on its own, it doesn’t need to be anything else.