Some loosely-structured thoughts sos my brain doesn’t try to guilt me over having spent the past fortnight almost solely playing one video game.
There may be MINOR SPOILERS for Marvel’s Spider-Man and various Spider-Man movies over the years, but nothing too major.
So, I finally got off my arse following twenty-three months of various friends of mine repeatedly nagging me to play thing, with nine of those months spent having the game and its DLC sat in my cupboard with the shrink-wrap still on, and played Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games. On the one hand, it probably would’ve been much better to plough through it at the start of quarantine, instead of consuming nothing but YouTube video essays and the throes of depression like what actually happened, now that I have lots of proper work I should’ve actually been getting on with. But, on the other hand… I don’t actually have an “other hand.” Point is, I finally got it done with, much to the consternation of my Dad’s cats who failed to understand why their evening cuddle time got significantly reduced for a full fortnight.
And now, because my evil-ass petty-ass mind will otherwise attempt to curdle the whole experience for spending a fortnight just playing games instead of writing or exercising or some nebulous other thing that’ll supposedly satiate it but not really, here is Me putting down some relatively unstructured thoughts on my time with the game as an effort to justify the 30-odd hours I put into it as “work.” This is probably going to be even more bloggy in writing than my WIBWs, just jumping from point-to-point without too much substance, cos I don’t feel like reviewing the thing traditionally nor are my scattershot points developed enough for my usual essays on a discourse everyone moved on from long ago. But I do actually have a few things swirling around my brain which I wanna put out into the universe rather than just clogging up some of my friends’ Messenger inboxes, and this can be a minor experiment on my writing style and comfort, so we’ll see how this goes.
Lastly, some things to know about me that may explain why I feel certain ways about certain things. I’ve been playing video games since my fifth birthday when I got a PlayStation and for the next two generations was 100% obsessed and all-in on games in general. Hopped around all the major consoles in their various forms though my main family has always been the PlayStation, played and collected a shit-load of games over the years. But even though I picked up my PS4 in 2015, I’ve largely remained at a major distance from new games this generation. Honestly haven’t played all that many, especially big ones, with the exceptions being the recent trend of prior-generation remakes and stuff like Rock Band 4 and Hitman 2. That’s been a combination of cost, time, a shift over to film as my primary medium of choice, and my personal dislike/disinterest of Ubisoft-esque sandbox bloat, identikit AAA game design, and live service models. As for Spider-Man: my entire knowledge comes from the movies – Spider-Verse > Spider-Man 2 > Spider-Man > Far From Home > Spider-Man 3 > Homecoming > Amazing Spider-Man > Amazing Spider-Man 2 – various games I’ve played over the years – shout-outs to Neversoft/Vicarious Visions’ PS1 efforts and Ultimate Spider-Man on the PS2 – a few cartoons I’ve seen bits and pieces of, and loose comics info I’ve learned from geek-culture web series over the years but have never read an issue of.
Basically, nothing of what I’m about to say should come off as authoritative in any way. I’m a filthy casual/lapsed fan. Also, I played the entire thing on “Friendly” difficulty cos I’m at that point where I’m more interested in a game’s story and mechanics than the challenge they provide. Anywho…
I really liked it! That initial sensation when the game drops you mid-swing into Manhattan and you just start effortlessly webbing from building to building amidst the roar of the streets and bustle of civilians down below, one of shockingly intuitive instinctual joy based around a constant momentum, lasts for pretty much the entire game. Insomniac really nail that primary gameplay loop. Swinging is almost always an absolute joy, to such an extent that I only really used the fast travel subways to get the trophy for riding them five times. Combat and stealth are obviously modelled after the Batman: Arkham series – almost the entire game blatantly is – but there’s a much scrappier flow to both fights and stealthing as Spider-Man than Batman. In the Arkham games, I’d frequently fall into a kind of cool-headed near-zen state when in full flow, but here, whilst I had many go-to strategies for how to deal with certain enemy times and mobs, I found myself often scraping by, having to change tactics on a dime and just barely getting the timing windows on those dodges perfect to send missiles careening back from whence they came.
It’s just the right kind of hectic. All of the game’s mechanics are. They prioritise flow and winging it to the degree where any battle of more than three guys can forever feel one mistake away from seeing the tide turn for the worse; a key difference from the Batman games where even in giant brawls I rarely felt like anything was properly a struggle. It’s a very difficult kind of feel to execute because get that balance wrong and the game risks becoming unfair and borderline-broken, but Insomniac somehow pull it off… 90% of the time. I did have quite a few instances where gadget targeting and zip-to-point targeting would bonk the wrong person or land me on the perch next to the one I actually needed to hit, stealth efforts accidentally zipping right past my intended target and alerting everyone as a result, and wall-crawling instead of proper wall-running still feels as unresponsive and imprecise as it did in Aliens vs. Predator for the PS3. But in the main game these were only minor annoyances since Spider-Man is not about precision. I’m not saying it isn’t possible, but I am saying that game’s feel is heavily instinctual and has been primarily designed for that kind of speedy just-about-got-it approach, like Spidey himself.
That’s also why the Taskmaster challenges can absolutely do one. They actively work against what the mechanics have been designed for, brutally insisting on precision and perfect play at high-speed that constantly exposes the cracks in mechanical design to make everything look so much sloppier than it normally is. They’re worst of all on the drone races, somehow managing to outdo the AR Challenges in the Arkham games for the “Making Otherwise Great Traversal Mechanics Play Like Dogshit” award. Other than the stealth ones (which I cheesed pathetically quickly with the right loadout) and some of the bomb ones, these challenges all remain stuck on silver rather than my usual insistence on golding before moving on cos I lost 45 minutes to my first drone and combat challenges trying futilely to reach the gold score, not understanding why I was forever several thousand points short, and realised I would just end up throwing the game in the bin if I tried to stick them out. This means I am short the last few gadget upgrades cos golding everything is necessary to unlock everything, but that’s a problem for the Callie of several months from now. AND WHY IS THERE NO INSTANT RESTART BUTTON FOR THE CHALLENGES?! I GOTTA WAIT A MINIMUM OF 40 SECONDS EACH TIME I STUFF IT EARLY TO TRY AGAIN?! I HOPE THE LEAD DESIGNER OF THESE SECTIONS SPENDS AN ETERNITY IN THE BAD PLACE STEPPING BAREFOOT ON LEGO!
Whilst I’m getting my complaints out of the way, and in a debate that is always fun and civil and never toxic in the least: I’d have greatly preferred the game to be at least four hours shorter. That cut time shouldn’t come from the main plot, but instead from the usual AAA sandbox bloat which takes place alongside and distracts from the main story. Admittedly, they’re mostly based around highlighting individual aspects of the game’s mechanics and a lot of the better ones can be accomplished in about 40 seconds or so without major deviation from initial traversal, which feels amazing – just swinging along minding my own until a crime or landmark pops up, changing direction mid-flow, dropping in to beat up some perps or capturing a photo mid-swing, then leaping back off into the sky again without breaking my stride. Those ones are great and so too are most of the base missions; not so much the Act III ones, however, cos their designs are too big causing enemies to occasionally get lost in the geometry and necessitating an awkward hunt for the randomly-placed last baddie after everyone else is cleared out so the game can finally check it all off.
But there is a lot of side bullshit to do and, even with them being unlocked in chunks as the game goes on rather than vomited up all at once, it does become a bit of a chore to have to pause the narrative’s momentum and dedicate anywhere between 40 minutes and 2 hours chasing pigeons or working on a seemingly endless number of research stations or doing a very tedious game of Where’s Waldo with china cats. To clear out an entire series of side-content only to see the Total Percentage meter has increased a mere 3% with a lack of tangible progress or resolution. There is a sort of effort by Insomniac to work side-content clearing downtime into the main campaign’s forward momentum – occasionally, the game will finish a mission then wait a few minutes before handing you the next one, telling you to explore and do side stuff before the next urgent story beat crops up – but then you can still have moments where Shocker is busy doing a highly public bank robbery that will last actual days should you go activate an errant research lab that changes the time of day before swinging into action and things start to look ridiculous.
I admit it’s a personal preference gripe, first and foremost. I can’t not be compelled to knock off side activities almost entirely at once as soon as they crop up because a] my completionist instincts kick in, b] I feel like the game resents me if I do choose to ignore them all, and c] getting them done immediately lets me focus entirely on the story to build a semblance of hopefully affecting momentum. But in games like these I never really feel like I’m actually accomplishing stuff when I tick off side content? Because it’s so sequestered away from the main story and it rarely affects the game world, I find my progression and momentum is constantly stifled and creates this sensation of running in place. I see a progress bar go up, but don’t understand its effects, if that makes sense?
Like, I love collectathon platformers, which are nothing but timewasting ticking off boxes and grabbing shit that doesn’t impact the game overall other than seeing a number climb ever closer to 100. But because games like Spyro or Battle for Bikini Bottom take place in segmented levels, clearing them gives me a sense of accomplishment because I’ve had a clear start-middle-end journey that structures my play. I know how much progress I’ve actually made in the overall arc of the game because there were nine worlds, I went to one of those worlds, looted all its stuff, and now there are eight worlds left, all of which I can take at my own pace. Whereas with Spider-Man, I’m told I need to swing to an auction house to stop a possible break-in and also I need to go shut down every available Fisk base and also I need to find all of Peter’s old backpacks and also I need to reactivate a bunch of radio towers and and and… So, I clear all of the Fisk bases, the Percentage Complete number goes up a little bit and I get a well done call from Yuri Watanabe, but that’s not done anything to stop the auction house break-in and, since finishing that mission will lead to another immediate “GO HERE, DO THAT” mission call eight times out of ten, I don’t know how far along I am in the story really. The actual story is only a small aspect of that Percentage Complete ticker, so it can be at 54% yet Act I’s only just finished. It fucks with the rhythm, loses focus, and makes everything go on for an age.
So, yeah, I’d have made this at least four hours shorter and cut the side content bloat endemic to current AAA gaming in half. Halve the bases; halve the research stations; maybe halve the street crimes; definitely completely cut the pigeon, Taskmaster, and Black Cat telescope strands (even if the last one is probably groundwork laid for the DLC). Or, if this all must have been kept, rework the main story momentum a little more to accommodate the glut of side stuff. I think of how the Mass Effect trilogy had much of its campaigns, both the main and side-content, function like a season of partly-serialised television. Each one cleared sending you back to the Normandy for a debrief with most of that “episode”’s strands wrapped up allowing you to walk away and return later for the next “episode” from a clear stopping point. At least getting all of the side content cleared by the start of Act III let the story take full-focus at the time it absolutely needed to.
On that note, I adored the story. Every time I felt like a session was bogged down or actively being wrecked by the side bloat (FUCK TASKMASTER), all I had to do was activate a main path mission and, aside from the ones which only existed to introduce side content, I’d be reminded of how much I was loving my time in NYC. As mentioned, I haven’t really been keeping up with big games this generation, so I kept being completely blown away by the graphics, complete hypocrite that I am – I’m usually way more for full-on stylisation than raw power photo-realism. The spectacle of the game’s biggest setpieces are legitimately jawdropping, the mission late-on in Act I where Spidey has to protect Fisk workers from an onslaught of Demons then chase down a helicopter gave me the biggest grin and palpably flowing adrenaline. But also the added details in character animations, both facial and general body, and what they can do to communicate and sell a player on the story is nothing short of astonishing. There’s this little full-body shiver Miles Morales has during the funeral which opens up Act II, like a brief shock to his being after spending said funeral in a near-catatonic daze, which has stuck with me for a full week-plus.
There’s a very Sam Raimi touch to the writing, in general. Insomniac and their writers just seem to get Spider-Man and his fellow cast of characters so completely, even whilst making some apparently major changes to certain characterisations – I’ve heard complaints from some of my more comics-knowledgeable friends that MJ here is basically Lois Lane with the serial numbers filed off. But regardless of what changes may or may not have occurred, the important thing is that I found myself loving every single character no matter how minor their appearances and that said love didn’t come at the cost of the thematic appeal of their individual existences. J Jonah Jameson is re-envisioned as an obvious Alex Jones analogue whose podcast rants are frequently (hilariously) delusional, but he’s not treated solely as a cartoonish joke, either. Jameson is revealed to genuinely care about the city and its people, even if he has tunnel vision with regards to Spider-Man being the root of all evil and can’t help but let his self-involved capitalist side show from time to time, to such a degree that his podcasts in Act III are a combination of rousing and guilt-inducing depending on the episode; rather like those flashes of humanity and strong moral character he gets to display in Raimi’s films.
The team understand that Peter Parker’s entire appeal is that he’s a scrappy working-class New Yorker perpetually on the verge of letting his conflicting responsibilities collapse on top of him, forever in a state of struggle and hard sacrifices but never giving up because the needs of others outweigh that of his own. It’s something the game reminds the player of early and often throughout its campaign, always chasing the fun power fantasy moments with tougher emotional beats demonstrating the toll that great responsibility which comes with great power is. The grounding influence of Aunt May amongst the chaos, the doomed friendship between Peter and Otto Octavius, even the abrupt turn of Peter becoming homeless due to missed rent payments (handled sensitively whilst perhaps also could’ve used some greater integration into the game at large). And that understanding means when things kick into overdrive in the last act-and-a-half, the game becomes nothing but home-run swing after home-run swing. (An Act which, err, plays a lot differently in 2020, to put it mildly.)
All of the boss fights are great, but the dual-boss ones against Sinister Six members in the late-game are some of my favourites in all of gaming for that frenetic powerful sensation and character they provide. The free-roam in Act III does a fantastic job of communicating the overrun degradation of NYC in its darkest hour, where swinging through is a hostile prospect compared to the relatively lackadaisical Act I but without ever becoming an annoyance to deal with either – again, that precarious balance made to look effortless. I’m still thinking about the second-person(-ish) gameplay during one particular MJ stealth mission where you lure enemies away into isolated corners and then give Spider-Man the order to pick ‘em off one by one as you sneak by; I was positively giddy the first time I executed that, witnessing it from ground level. The big climax, meanwhile, is a masterclass in bringing everything together in a satisfying manner even whilst the act of playing it out, thanks to the fantastic writing and all the groundwork laid across the first two-thirds, just hurts and brings little catharsis for the player, much as it does for Peter himself.
If anything, I feel like the Marvel Cinematic Universe should be studying this closely for their Spider-Man going forward. Not that I haven’t been mostly enjoying the Tom Holland era (with Holland doing a great job of playing Spidey as written), but they don’t feel like Spider-Man films and their Spider-Man doesn’t really feel like Spider-Man. They’re really Iron Man films and Peter here is basically Kid Tony Stark – I’ve even referred to Far From Home as being a better Iron Man 3 than the actual Iron Man 3 since they cover almost the exact same thematic and character ground nearly beat-for-beat. Peter is entertaining, but across both of his solo films and the trio of Smash Bros. team-ups he has yet to really struggle on-screen in a meaningful way. He’s never barely making ends meet, cos Tony took him under his wing and both financially & scientifically furnished him in life & death. His relationships are rather ancillary to the superheroics, so precious little feels at stake. And, much more damningly, I feel he’s honestly yet to have to sacrifice anything or deal with lasting consequences. He doesn’t really earn anything by himself, he’s only fixing other people’s shit with no personal investment, and kinda just ‘fails’ (not the right word but you get what I mean) upwards thanks to out-of-universe hands. As a fantastic Medium essay from a few years back brilliantly put it: the MCU’s Spider-Man feels gentrified.
(That’s all without getting into several thousand words over what they’ve done to Aunt May: taking arguably the core grounding presence in Peter Parker’s life and reducing her to a one-joke “Marisa Tomei is HAWT” background furniture, with Far From Home upgrading to “our Aunt May FUCKS,” which does an unforgivable disservice to both the character and Tomei as an actress.)
And I don’t know why the biggest movie franchise in the world has so far failed to grasp that appeal. It’s not even about holding the Raimi movies as gospel; Spider-Verse similarly threw out most of the Raimi signifiers and material for big spectacle yet still managed to remain true to the character’s appeal. Maybe it’s just an inherent issue with the MCU at this point that the machine is rendered physically incapable of envisioning legitimate small-scale struggles and meaningful lasting consequences beyond perma-death. Maybe it’s a side-effect from spending two films leaning heavy into the meta-aspect of positioning Spidey as the new series head going forward so they feel they need to lean into the Iron Man parallels. Maybe it’s because they made a point of junking all the material covered by the Raimi films yet still don’t know what to replace it with.
But whatever the case may be… I dunno, I just find it real weird that a video game primarily designed as an escapist power fantasy, where the player gets to BE SPIDER-MAN and revel in that awesome power, fully understands and so effectively communicates the core appeal of Spidey that I had stronger emotional responses to this one game than either of the Spider-Man entries in the world’s biggest movie franchise, with its dream team of a creative brain trust and all the resources in the world to do better. It’s strange, is all I’m saying.
Lastly on my major points: I’ve repeatedly invoked Sam Raimi and the Sam Raimi feel in my praise for Marvel’s Spider-Man, but I don’t just do so with regards to the handling of the characters. Spider-Man felt like the movie Sam Raimi was born to make, that every step in his career up to that point was leading to Spider-Man. It’s a synthesis of every one of his stylistic traits, all of his narrative and thematic preoccupations as storyteller, carrying strands from every single one of his films – though most specifically Darkman, which in many respects was a dry-run for the first Spider-Man, and Evil Dead 2 – all coming together on his biggest canvas yet to create, if not his best work, then definitely his most Sam Raimi work. That itself is obviously impressive, but the fact that he was able to do so whilst working within the straightjacket confines of mainstream blockbuster Hollywood studio filmmaking and a tightly-controlled licensed property is nothing short of a miracle.
Likewise, Marvel’s Spider-Man feels like the game that Insomniac have spent their entire history as a developer building up to. Whilst the template of both the Batman: Arkham quadrilogy and The Ubisoft Game are clearly on display, I equally see aspects from all of Insomniac’s major games nestling alongside each other in a synthesised hybrid. The open-world and fast-paced combo-centric combat of Sunset Overdrive; the cinematic storytelling aspirations of the Resistance trilogy; the puzzle mechanics, gadget wheels, upgrade systems, and carefully-managed seriocomic tone of the Ratchet & Clank games; even the fluidity and pure joy of the swinging has its roots all the way back in the flying stages of the original Spyro the Dragon trilogy. For all its obvious outside influences, for all the obvious inspiration of the Raimi movies, and for the likely maddening hell of constant vigilant Marvel oversight on every single major design decision… Marvel’s Spider-Man came out for me never not feeling like an Insomniac game. That, bluntly, is even more than miraculous. I dunno what the term for something greater than “miraculous” is, but this game turning out the way it did whilst retaining clear-as-day Insomniac’s thumbprint deserves that term.
So, err, yeah. Those are my thoughts on Marvel’s Spider-Man. I did not think they’d go 4,000+ words, so I guess they were more extensive and detailed than I assumed my rather-sparse notes would end up being. In any case, I’m stepping away from the game for about a month or two before diving into the City That Never Sleeps DLC cos I’ve got a lot of work to get on with and don’t want to burn myself out on the game anymore than I already have done. But I’m really happy I got off my arse and played it! And, in the process of writing this behemoth, it turned out that Miles Morales is coming to PS4 as well as PS5, so I won’t have to wait two years and several hundred bones I don’t (and still won’t) have to experience that for myself! If it takes an Uncharted: Lost Legacy approach to being the same great taste but with all traces of fat from the main game sliced out… baby, we got a stew going!
Yuri Lowenthal, Best Peter Parker Spider-Man, don’t @ me. And did you know that Octavius was voiced by Rigby from Regular Show? I didn’t until afterwards! That’s pretty cool!
Callum Petch guesses the end is here.