There’s a certain end of the video game industry that mistakes emotional manipulation for quality narrative. The goal is to find the right voice actors, get the players invested enough in the world that they spend a lot of time in it, and then make sure those key scenes are dripping with sentimentality. There doesn’t need to be any depth to it – in fact, it works better if players are emotionally attached but intellectually detached – and if you do it well, you’ll be celebrated for it. This populist approach to narrative applies to a huge swathe of the blockbuster industry. Especially Sony. Sony’s development studios have really mastered the “art” of producing games that make you feel things while not saying anything.
Spider-Man 2 is a good example of this.
To be clear, this is actually a very entertaining game. Once I got into it, I found it hugely enjoyable. However, I did roll my eyes at it, hard, at first. The opening big action scene was exactly the same over-the-top set piece that the first Spider-Man offered, just with a different villain involved in the battle. A much bigger villain than Fisk (it’s Sandman this time), but coming from the enormously memorable battle with Titan in Final Fantasy XVI earlier this year, the by-the-numbers approach to tackling the big guy was functional, in teaching you the basics of the game, but hardly inspiring or interesting. I wasn’t enjoying it out of the gates, in other words.
And yet the game still slowly dug its claws into me. There was the reunion with Peter and Harry, and the sentimental way they cycled through town and reminisced about their good old days at school. Then there was the contrast with alternative Spider-Man, Miles Morales, and his own challenges in life, as well as the interactions he had with his mentor, Peter.
There were the lame, almost cringe-worthy jokes from both of them as they battled their way through their enemies, and then there were the quieter moments where they could simply zip around the New York cityscape and participate in a few side distractions. There was the steady appearance of the rogue’s gallery, to keep you looking forward to who might be turning up next, and all of that was backed by a soundtrack that swells to leave you with a viscerally cinematic aesthetic right at the point where the critical punch lands to finally finish things.
Still further into the game, two iconic villains (Venom and Kraven) become constant foils to the two heroes, and the game wraps itself in so much comic book lore fans will be delighted, without it ever becoming inaccessible to people who are more casual fans of the canon and simply want to enjoy beating up enemies with a recognisable hero. Yes, casual fans of Spider-Man exist. I was actually somewhat surprised that Kraven was selected as such a key antagonist, given that he really isn’t what I would say is a well-known character to the casual audience, but there’s a savagery in him that bounces nicely with the sentimentality of so much of the plot.
It’s a genuine good time. It’s totally, utterly shallow, and the thematic weight of the entire experience relies on the “with great power comes great responsibility” slogan, which was already shallow and juvenile enough as a moral theme to make Aesop’s Fables seem insightful. But it’s a good time and manipulates the emotions perfectly. You can’t help but care.
Combat is core to the Spider-Man experience. Without energetic and dynamic combat the first two Insomniac titles wouldn’t have landed anywhere near as well as they did, and Spider-Man 2 does build on those. Part of what makes it work is that you get to play as both Peter and Miles, and they do play differently, have different skill trees and, by the time you get deep into the adventure, are entirely separate experiences.
Equally, the moment-to-moment play is so dynamic. The core mechanic of “when an enemy flashes they’re about to attack, so either dodge or parry,” is now almost standard for big action games, but Insomniac has really elevated it with Spider-Man 2. The fluidity between the attacks and the ease in which you can track what’s going on onscreen makes it accessible. But not necessarily easy. At first, you’ll be tackling mobs of enemies that blend melee and simple ranged attacks, and that’s straightforward enough, but it doesn’t take long for enemies to show up with attacks that you can’t dodge, enemies that have special defensive abilities, and so on. Through the chaos – and combat is very, very fast – you need to quickly develop and execute strategies for taking on this particular mix of enemy types, and it comes across as a big, beautiful, violently fast puzzle to solve.
There are moments that don’t come across as well. I found the stealth sequences to be both dull and inflexible. Then again, I came to this right after playing both the latest Assassin’s Creed and the Metal Gear Solid trilogy, so it’s perhaps unfair to expect Spider-Man to stand out there. There are also some really odd mini and micro-games that I cannot believe actually got past the drawing board. For example, why on earth would they include the “fly through rings suspended in the sky” gameplay, pulled directly from Superman 64? Yes, those minigames are just fleeting seconds long, but did no one at Insomniac remember how annoying Superman 64 was to play, even for fleeting seconds? Really?
Finally, all my standard criticisms of open world games apply here too. There are so many icons and distractions to navigate through on the way to the next story beat that if you’re the kind of person who feels compelled to chase them all, you’re going to get bogged down, and feeling like you’re getting nowhere in the narrative ruins the game’s pacing. Insomniac, Ubisoft dialed that back with Assassin’s Creed Mirage and the game was so much the better for it. Take notes.
Even in those low moments, the sheer quality of the production values see the game through. This is a big, spectacular experience in every sense of the world, and what is most incredible about it is just how perfectly it transitions from the soaring cityscapes, where you can see all of New York stretch out in front of you, right down to the details of what’s going on at a street level. It’s only when you get to the very finest of fine details that you start to see limitations to the visual ambition of the game (for example, a fruit vendor’s box of tomatoes looks plastic rather than delicious), but that is really splitting hairs. It’s amazing just how much they managed to capture New York’s aesthetic and spirit… or at least aspiration and the way that the city likes to see itself, and the team (rightfully) had the confidence in what they were doing to give you plenty of moments to simply take all that grandeur in.
Spider-Man 2 is as dumb as a bag of bricks, but that’s the norm for blockbusters. What it gets right is emotionally manipulating players to become invested in it, backing that up with one of the slickest combat systems we’ve ever seen… and then giving us two entirely different characters to enjoy that with. It is a true spectacle and while I wish that we, as a community, demanded better from narratives in video games, I couldn’t help but have fun with this one once I shut my brain off and just embraced it for the silly thing that it is.