Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Microreview [Video Game]: Marvel's Spider-Man 2 by Insomniac Games

Be Greater? Check.

A challenge arises when dealing with a popular license. Can the developer do it justice? Can the game service the fans in a way that shows the developer’s deep understanding of the IP’s characters and world? When those parameters are met, as they so deftly were with Marvel’s Spider-Man in 2018 and Miles Morales in 2020, the next challenge is doing it again, but better. I was curious to see how Insomniac Games would handle the potential sophomore slump. I did not doubt that Insomniac is a great developer (in fact, they’re one of the most talented and efficient AAA dens in the industry) and could pull off a great game. But a better one? When Marvel took the Spider-Man video game rights back from Activision in 2014 due to displeasure with the movie tie-ins, Activision told Marvel, “Good luck finding your unicorn.” And Marvel did just that.

It’s difficult to say what the 2018 game does better than the sequel. I loved the backpack collectibles that showed what Peter had been up to over the last eight years. I thought the emotional climax where Peter has to make a difficult choice carries more weight than any specific moment in Spider-Man 2. But that’s it. Not to say I didn’t love the first game, I sure did, but Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is a better game in just about every regard. Insomniac showed true ability with this release.

Let’s divide the gameplay into two segments here. First, traversal. Traveling through Manhattan and Brooklyn is delightful, and at times exhilarating. For the sequel, Insomniac added web wings (which work like a flying squirrel) to the traversal arsenal. Along with these, the added wind tunnels allow the player to increase speed while never losing height as they use the web wings. Combining traditional web-swinging with the web wings feels right. It adds additional movement options, but above all, is enjoyable to use. Doing tricks in mid-air, switching to a deep dive, and then popping the web wings out for extra velocity never became stale. This isn't to mention the slingshot ability (launches the Spider-Men very far, very fast) and other additions. Oh, and the swinging has a significant speed boost.

Speaking of travel, I must make a note about the fast travel system in this game. It’s the best I’ve ever seen. No equal. Once you’ve done enough Spidey work in a certain district, you are free to travel anywhere in said district instantaneously. That’s right, New York City instantly loads without any wait time. Not only that, but the transition is seamless, ensuring that Spider-Man is constantly moving when he spawns from the teleport. The only downside to this is that I now want this in every upcoming game (I can forgive past games for their technical deficiency, but all future games must follow suit).

The other side of the gameplay coin; the combat, has seen significant improvements as well. In addition, the player has access to two Spider-Men at any given time (minus some exceptions for story-specific and side-mission-specific instances). The basic combat between them is the same, but they differ in their special abilities. Miles's combat focuses more on his electric abilities, while Peter uses his spider arms (long mechanical arms). Eventually, the characters can choose between two moves per ability slot to give a little bit of gameplay choice. All of these abilities work in tandem with the Spider-guys’ ability to combo and create an engaging combat experience. While Miles does have the advantage of going invisible, stealth is rarely necessary. That said, Insomniac added a web line gadget that allows both heroes to craft a tapestry of traversable web above enemy heads. This allows you to take everyone down without making a peep. It’s enjoyable to see all your hard work pay off as a plethora of enemies are caught in your web pods. You just have to suspend disbelief for a bit and assume no one knows how to look up.

The game looks fantastic. Animations (in and out of cutscene), suits (of which there are many), character models, ray traced reflections, and New York City itself are all very detailed. Taking in New York City at the top of the Empire State Building is still a highlight, and even more so with better detail. The vehicle and pedestrian density in the game is much improved, making the game feel even more like New York City. Of course, you could always have more cars, but Spider-Man 2 adds quite a few extras. No detail is spared for the game’s villains who are captured in stunning detail. The game opens with a bang (which I will kindly let the reader experience on their own) and only gets better and better. In tandem with the animation and visual fidelity, the performances are excellent. Kraven (Jim Pirri) and Venom (Tony Todd) lend excellent talent to an already wonderful cast. Laura Bailey takes on the role of Mary Jane this time, while Yuri Lowenthal and Nadji Jeter return as the Spider-Men. This is topped off with a great soundtrack that pumps the player up throughout the adventure.

The storyline is great, and it gets crazier and crazier the further the game progresses. Spider-Man fans have a treat on their hands with this one. The boss battles are fun, though I rarely found much of a challenge (I was playing on normal). The story hits a point where the action ramps up and it never lets down. It’s almost too much. The second half of the first game had a lot of action, but a bit more balance, this game is the equivalent of a skier triggering an avalanche and watching as disaster continues to trample down the mountainside. Until all is calm, of course. But before the calm, there’s a constant sense of excitement and danger. I found it impressive that Insomniac was able to maintain that height for so long, but it would have been nice to have one or two more breathers in between. Even still, it was a ton of fun.

Though it feels like there are fewer side quests, I believe their quality has improved. I’ll take quality over quantity any day, there are too many games to play and I can’t squeeze them all in. Completing all quests of a specific type will yield more information on specific Spidey villains. Those were some of my favorites, as it made me eager to see which character would be revealed and what Insomniac would do with them. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), some of these villains are simply revealed as a tease for the next game. Selling two and a half million copies in twenty-four hours pretty much guarantees a sequel, right?

While the game was mostly stable, I did experience approximately four crashes. The PS5 loads the game with incredible speed, so I wasn’t out of the experience for too long. Despite this, it still took me out of the game for a moment and should have been fixed before launch. Thankfully Insomniac made the car-jacking crime easier to finish (in SM1/MM, it was a bit of a hassle) and added a few different crime report missions, that said, I would have loved a few more to switch it up a bit. It’s a big city, there should be even more crimes. There were also a few moments in the story where problems get solved without clarity while some things are never mentioned. Some instances where problems are glossed over or completely ignored create some ludonarrative dissonance in an otherwise riveting superhero story.

Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is a triumph. It’s a video game that does what any sequel should do; strive to be greater than its predecessors. Whether it’s witnessing the characters you know and love interact, swinging through New York City, or fighting crime and webbing up some fools, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 delivers on all fronts. If you’re a Spider-Man fan, you now have three modern games you need to play, though I suggest saving this one for last as it might spoil the other two for you slightly (from a gameplay perspective). Everything in this game points to a Spider-Man 3, and I couldn't be more hyped. I have not played every game from Insomniac, but I played most of them, and I can say with no qualms that I enjoyed this one the most. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is my new bar for superhero games, so suit up and get those web shooters filled.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 9/10

Bonus: +1 for an intense Spider-Man story and for being a love letter to fans (with extra villains, cameos, and suits). +1 for even more amazing gameplay.

Penalties: -1 for occasional crashes. -1 some ludonarrative dissonance.

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.