I wasn’t really expecting to be able to pick up Spider-Man (PS4) until it had been out for at least a month or two, but last weekend I was feeling pretty under the weather and my other half took pity on me, so… thanks to her, we’ve got Spider-Man! (The fact that the Spyro Reignited Trilogy has been pushed back from September to November also meant that we had a free slot in our games-we-can-afford-and-have-time-to-play quota, so… thanks, Activision?)
For those expecting a full review of the game, you’re out of luck, I’m afraid; I’ve not completed the game (nowhere near), and there are a whole ton of comprehensive reviews and critiques all over the Internet, so suffice to say that my overall opinion of the game is that so far, it’s pretty good!
This might be a good time to note that Treyarch’s Spider-Man 2 is one of my favourite games of all time, and I’ll staunchly defend it forever as the greatest superhero game to exist. (Yes, I rank it above the Arkham games. No question. Fight me.) Any Spidey game therefore has a high bar to live up to, and in fact this is the first game to feature our friendly neighbourhood webhead that I’ve picked up in a while – I did very briefly dabble with some of the post-Amazing movies stuff, but never in any great detail. It’s also a Spider-Man game with a really brilliant opening sequence that sets the tone for the game and gets the player just so ridiculously hyped to experience life as a Spider-Guy: you immediately get the sense that the huge New York replicated in the game’s world (I mean, it was enormous for the time, and no loading between zones!) is going to be your playground, a veritable cornucopia of buildings to climb and streets to swing down, and that’s exactly what you get.
Good Lord, that game’s traversal is viscerally satisfying.
Let’s Talk About A Game From 2004 For A Bit
(By the way, just for mood, I recommend listening to Funiculi Funicula while reading this bit. If you’ve ever played Spider-Man 2, it should bring back some happy memories.)
So how does Spider-Man 2 open? Well, it owes a lot to the incomparable Bruce Campbell, who appeared in cameo roles in (I think) the three Raimi trilogy films and also lent his voice talents to at least the first two games based on those movies, in the role of a self-aware and superlatively sassy narrator. In the first moments of the game, he instructs the player in a brief tutorial that packs a lot of fourth-wall breaking into just a few minutes; even from the first instructions he gives to the player on things like sticking to walls and, er, jumping, it’s clear that he’s here partly to be helpful, but mostly to mess around. (His first lines are something to the effect of ‘well, it’s the sequel, so I’m back at great expense to the developers to walk your dumb little butt through the new mechanics’.) He’ll mock the player and assume they’ve probably failed to understand what he’s trying to say at almost every turn – never to the point of being outright unhelpful or frustrating, though; the balance is spot-on for the player to make sure they’re picking up everything they need to know in order to get started with the game, if not to become a master of every element instantly.
After learning a few nifty tricks, the narrator tells you that the next thing you’ll want to do is simply to jump off the edge of the rather tall building you’ve just ascended. ‘I mean it, just jump. I wouldn’t tell you to do something dangerous, would I? C’mon!’
So ya jump. I mean, there’s not much else you can do. And as you fall, everything goes into slow motion and good ol’ Bruce Campbell asks if you always do everything you’re told to do. Then, of course, he lets slip (‘just a little tip, as you’re falling to your death’) that you can shoot out a web and go swinging around the city. It’s both amusing and informative, as it very effectively reinforces that – since you are Spider-Man, after all – you’re more than welcome to go throwing yourself off all the buildings you like and, as long as you make sure to shot web, you’ll actually not only not die horribly, but you’ll have a brilliant time to boot!
You’re then left to swing around for a bit, getting to grips with things; you have a bit of time to just freely make the most of your newly-learned mechanics, working out the most effective and fun ways of flinging yourself around New York. By the time Spidey notices that there’s a bit of petty theft going on nearby, you’re (while no means perfect at web-slinging) proficient enough at the mechanics of travelling around the area that it’s a fun little challenge to get yourself over to the scene as quickly as possible; once there, you’ll pick up new mechanics in a quick combat tutorial. Everything’s introduced at a really good pace: you get just long enough to experiment with each new thing you’ve learned to make learning the next thing super-fun, because you feel like you’ve already become Spider-Man, as opposed to having to learn how to walk, jump, punch and dodge all at once and probably making a bit of a tit of yourself.
So that’s Spider-Man 2, a game from 2004 for the PS2 (and a couple of other consoles of the generation, I think).
Now let’s talk Spider-Man, a 2018 game for PS4.
Just to preempt potential backlash on this one, by the way: as I said, I’m really enjoying this game. I think it’s probably one of the better games of any kind I’ve played in a while, and who knows? Perhaps by the time I’m done with it, I’ll rank it just as highly as Spider-Man 2. There is one thing about it that I find really peculiar, though, and that’s its opening.
Spider-Man 2018’s Peculiar Introduction
Spider-Man‘s gameplay commences in mid-flight, in stark contrast to Spider-Man 2‘s ‘stand still until Bruce Campbell gives you instructions as to what you can do’ philosophy. It’s a dynamic opening, giving you an immediate taste of what Spidey’s capable of, and that makes sense given that this is a Peter Parker who’s a bit older, a bit wiser, and a fair shake more experienced with the tricks he’s able to pull off. He’s not some newly-powered shmuck learning the ropes any more, he’s a fully-fledged hero at this point. The player is guided into shooting a few webs, slinging down a few streets and flying across the city to reach their first destination: Wilson Fisk’s HQ.
So far, so good. You’ve had a fair amount of time on the way over to learn how Spidey’s swinging works (for the record, I think it’s very good, although sometimes it lacks a little bit of weight – in particular, when you’re very close to hitting the floor and just sort of hover along rather than swing in an arc, and the fact that there’s no fall damage whatsoever can also make travel feel a little bit… too light for me (don’t get me wrong, though, I can definitely see the argument that webswinging should be a safe place, in opposition to dangerous combat, rather than a source of tension and/ or frustration if it’s possible to die doing it)) and you’ve probably got the hang of it to some extent. I like this bit and the way it’s been executed, if not as much as Spider-Man 2‘s approach to tutorialing; it gives the player the opportunity to get to grips with the mechanics enough that you can start enjoying them, having some real fun. There’s no time pressure to make your way to the destination marker either, so you can just swing to your heart’s content if you like – although there won’t be anything to do until you’ve completed this first mission, of course.
This is the bit that most players will have bought the game for, I’d expect. I mean, why would you choose to play a Spider-Man game as opposed to… well, any other game? The obvious answer is the web-swinging. It’s a unique mechanic that you won’t find anywhere else (although Just Cause approaches a similar sort of feeling and function with its extremely versatile grappling hook features), and done well it can be one of the most satisfying things in all of gaming. So I think opening with a mid-length swingy section is a pretty smart idea, drawing the player in by saying ‘yeah, this is what you wanted, and we’re delivering’. On reaching the first destination marker, you’ll find yourself drawn into combat with a few goons and learn the basics of battling in this game – it’s drawn comparisons to the Arkham titles for reasons I can understand, with it following the structure of ‘square to attack, triangle to do cool thing, circle to dodge when head flashes’, rinse and repeat for massive combos. I don’t mind this bit either; you’re outside, so you do have the ability to experiment with some swinging/ movement-into-attack combination mechanics, although (at this early stage) the game doesn’t encourage you to do more than basic ground and air combos. Again, OK with that; it’d be too much information.
You’ve been playing for maybe a little over ten minutes at this point, and you’ve experienced the awesome feeling of swinging around before then also getting the hang of beating up goons (which is, again, pretty satisfying on a sort of gut-feeling level; combat does feel weighty for sure). At this point you’re probably thinking ‘AWESOME! Now I can swing wherever I want and beat up all the bad guys!’ And yeah, sure, you can do that.
But first, lemme just put you inside a building for half an hour.
See, after beating up Fisk’s first crop of cronies, Spidey needs to urgently go whooshing down the road (in a straight line, by the way, with little potential for having more fun with the movement), and a cutscene then shows him beating up some bad dudes in some really sweet and acrobatic ways before landing inside a building and, uh, not being able to leave.
I mean, yeah, it’s a nice big building, and you’ve got plenty of space to, like, jump around and stuff. And there are a lot of people to beat up – a lot of people to beat up. The people-to-beat-up density in this building is off the charts, y’all. The next section, to me, solidifies the Arkham comparison in that it feels like my memories of the bits I liked least of those games: namely, just stringing together sections of going up to some dude, punching him in the face, then going to the next dude and doing it all over again. (The Bat had all kinds of gadgetry and abilities that worked just as well inside as it did outside, if not more so, making Room And Hallway Combat pretty entertaining anyway.) Sure, there’s scope to do it in really inventive, super-swingy fun ways, but you don’t really know how to do that yet and the game isn’t going to encourage you to do much more in this section than to get where you need to be and then beat up the people in those places.
My gripe with all this isn’t that it isn’t fun, by the way. I enjoyed this part a lot, partly because I did take the time to experiment and swing around through the rooms and corridors and kick people in the face from, like, twenty feet in the air and all that good stuff. It just… wasn’t what I wanted to be doing, though. I felt as if the game had teased me: ‘look, look at this beautiful web-swinging that comes closer to recapturing the feel of your childhood than anything else has in the last 14 years, allowing you to experience this entire enormous open world freely and however you like – NOW YOU’RE IN A BUILDING LOL’. It’s not the most linear of buildings, but it’s still an oppressive barrier that prevents me from going out and having the fun I want to be having with this game, which is just spending hours swinging through the city.
I realise that demanding instant gratification and wanting to have my sort of fun is all a little bit… tantrum-y, by the way; sure, I should probably appreciate the fun the game is offering me right now and be patient, wait for the moment that I finally get let loose on NYC in all its glory. I still feel a little bit taunted, though, by the fact that I got a lovely little glimpse of what that looks like – again, the game clearly wants you to think of the swinging, the exploration, as one of, if not the USP and main Awesome Thing that it has on offer – and then unceremoniously stuffed inside, away from the sunlight and the glorious freedom.
I just find it a bit peculiar. Why would the game, in full awareness that swinging by a web around a huge playground of a city, structure itself so that most of your first play session is likely to take place away from all that? It’s as if Just Cause had decided that its opening should involve half an hour of walking at Normal Human Walking Speed down a corridor talking to perfectly sensible people, rather than skydiving and blowing up boats tethered to planes and riding nukes with dodgily-accented dictators. I wouldn’t necessarily mind walking down a corridor having sensible conversations, but it wouldn’t be what I’d have bought the game hoping to get into – and here, too, the indoor combat and the vent-sneaking and the boss battle with Fisk at the end of the sequence are all perfectly good and enjoyable, but they’re not the good and enjoyable stuff I was hoping and expecting to be doing.
Indeed, the game almost seems to draw attention to the fact that its opening is a tonally separate piece from everything that comes after, since it’s only once this first section is complete that Peter gains the suit that the game really wants you to identify as this version’s iconic outfit; immediately after donning it, we’re treated to plenty of slow-mo closeups of him gliding and twisting through the air as the camera lovingly shows off every angle of this new costume. It feels like another opening cutscene, as if it’s saying ‘oh, yeah, that was weird but hey, now the real game starts’.
I didn’t initially think I really cared about this, to be honest, but after beating Fisk and finding myself back in the glorious outdoors with the freedom to go wherever I liked – and having a think about how Spider-Man 2 had done it differently – I realised that perhaps I didn’t not care as little as I thought I didn’t. If that makes sense. (Let me know if it turns out it does, won’t you?) I simply can’t understand how this choice makes sense from any perspective: commercially, it’s odd to so flippantly deny the player the thing that the game’s been sold to them as excelling in, and from a development/ plain-and-simple player’s enjoyment point of view… well, I don’t know, perhaps some players found this a really great way of showing off a few of the different gameplay elements that they could look forward to experiencing more fully by playing through the entirety of the game, but I didn’t. Maybe you did, and that’s perfectly OK!
On a wider note, I fully expect to be argued with on this, and that makes me happy! Reasonable and respectful discussion is something I’d like to encourage, so if you thought that this opening was a really smart thing to do, let me know why and I’ll be exceptionally interested to hear about it.
In short, though, I really like Spider-Man so far, and from what I’ve seen of it I think it’s shaping up to be an excellent game (though I can’t say at this stage whether it’ll topple Spider-Man 2!), but I would really have liked to have been a fly on the wall when they were discussing how the game ought to open. Incidentally, if there are any flies reading this who were present at that meeting, please do leave a comment and all that.