Spider-Men, Spider-Men, PS5 exclusive Spider-Men! That’s right, Peter and Miles have swung their way back to the virtual streets of New York City and this time they’ve left the old jet-engine roar of the PS4 behind for good. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is the latest (and so far, 5th not counting re-releases) step in Sony’s long farewell to the PS4, fully embracing the power that the current generation of hardware can offer. It certainly makes full use of the beefiness of the PS5’s internal systems in the graphics and performance department but do the story and gameplay manage to capture the same magic of the first title? Does it iterate more on the franchise than Miles Morales did? Is Spider-Man the bodega cat still around? The answer to these, I’m happy to report, is a resounding yes! I’ll be doing my best to keep this review as spoiler-free as I can, but I’ll probably be spoiling Spider-Man 2018 and Spider-Man: Miles Morales so if you haven’t played those you should go do that before coming back here!
First Impressions are Everything
Spider-Man 2018 had everything going for it when it launched. It promised an exciting, engaging way to navigate the NYC skyline. It was being developed by long-time fan favourite devs, Insomniac Games. It was able to effortlessly ride the wave of Spider-Mania that the Marvel Cinematic Universe revived. Given those three elements, it was almost guaranteed that the game would succeed both commercially and critically. And it did! I loved the game so much that I upgraded to the next-gen version when the PS5 launched and fell in love all over again.
Again, when the shorter follow-up, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, launched it was able to ride the hype train that newer, fancier hardware brought with it. While it may have played it safe in terms of gameplay innovation or major changes to the established canon from the first game, it was absolutely one of my top games of the year.
Insomniac’s third Spider-outing, similarly, does not disappoint. I already knew I was going to enjoy the game but the news that it would be a PS5 exclusive title only excited me more. It was finally time to see what a fully realised New York was like without having to ensure it wasn’t too grand for the PS4 to handle. It almost goes without saying for many games these days but when I first booted it up, I was greeted by the settings menu asking whether I wanted to experience the game in Performance or Fidelity mode. I initially chose Fidelity mode because I knew I’d most likely change over to Performance mode once I’d seen the full glory of the graphics. I just prefer a higher framerate if I can have it.
The initial impression of the graphical side of things was impressive. Glass and reflective surfaces were suitably ray-tracey and the detail on some of the textures was a thing of beauty. I don’t think it was an accident that Sandman was the chosen villain to start the game with. A behemoth made up of millions of tiny particles. What better way to show off the fancy new tech you’ve been playing with recently?
As I mentioned in my Miles Morales review you could hardly think of a better environment to show off graphical fidelity than New York City. What with its myriad reflective surfaces, its abundant traffic, and its bridges spanning over the East River showing off what Insomniac can do with regards water physics. You’re able to get a better view of the city than ever this time around due to one of the game’s biggest mechanical changes!
The key strength of this franchise since day one has been its traversal mechanics. The ability to swing and crawl and launch yourself off practically any surface was mind-blowing when we first got our hands on it. The fact that this new way of moving was balanced with the need for something to latch on to (unlike some previous games where you can inexplicably web-swing from thin air), with the opportunity to achieve some truly breakneck speeds if you timed your swings right was a marvel (no pun intended). Thankfully the same web-slinging we all know, and love is back with the addition of a few unlockable abilities to help you quickly gain altitude or speed. Same old same old.
Well, it would be if it weren’t for the glorious return of Spidey’s iconic web wings, straight from his early days. These are an absolute revelation. They allow for consistent straight-line speed ideal for chasing baddies on the run, as well as being a relatively relaxing way to get around New York. Now, these wings aren’t for flight, only gliding. This means you can be limited in your travel distance if you don’t plan your route properly. Thankfully there are plenty of wind-tunnels, updrafts, and slipstreams that will carry you along or give you a little altitude boost as you go. In fact, thanks to these it’s possible to glide from the southernmost tip of the financial district all the way up to Peter’s new home in Astoria.
These changes to how you get about make fast travel even more redundant than it was in the first two games. Normally this would be a cause for celebration. Fast travel is kind of a last resort in a lot of games when the act of immersing yourself in a virtual world is a bit of an inconvenience. In Spider-Man 2 though it’s an absolute wonder. Usually, fast travel isn’t actually fast. It’s just fast-er than going on foot. In Spider-Man 2, though? It’s not just fast, it’s instantaneous. I only did it once just to experience it myself. I opened the map, held a button and I was immediately teleported to my destination. Absolutely no loading times at all. If there was any way to show off how far PlayStation tech has come, this is it.
Traversal isn’t the only mechanical change, however. Combat abilities that first appeared in Miles Morales have returned with a whole suite of tricks for Peter as well. He’s sporting his extra mechanical arms from Civil/Infinity War (depending on if you’re a comic or a movie person) to give him a hand whenever he’s in a pinch. Presumably made of some kind of nanotech, these arms appear and reappear in the blink of an eye so they’re not always hanging around out of Peter’s back. These arms allow you to launch enemies into the air, pummel enemies with a flurry of rapid blows, or even launch yourself towards an enemy and throw them towards the nearest solid object. Miles, of course, is still generating enough electricity to power an NYC borough so that’s his deal once again.
Now it won’t come as any surprise to anyone who’s seen any trailers for the game or, hell, seen the box art, that Peter joins forces with a Symbiote (spoiler alert, it’s Venom, bet you didn’t see that coming) during the course of the game. As you’d expect this unlocks a new suite of abilities for him to do some truly devastating damage with as the story progresses.
Now, the stealthy MJ missions that many people complained about in the previous game are back. However, these have also been given an update to allow MJ to deal some damage of her own. They’re nowhere near as tedious as they were last time, and I even enjoyed one or two of them. There’s even one where I found I was able to just run straight by a whole mess of enemies without any difficulty which got it over and done with quickly enough!
And that’s really it as far as core mechanics go. The rest is basically unchanged from the previous titles. The open world now includes areas on the far side of the East River, meaning there’s an even bigger sandbox in which to find collectibles, enemy bases, science experiments, and combat challenges. All of these are unlocked as you progress through the story and are then available to you whenever you feel the need to get some extra XP or upgrade materials. The combat is that familiar Arkham-style mix of attack, parry, and dodge that dozens of other games have used at this point. Again, apart from one or two new enemy attack types, no big changes here!
Too often, sequels will add mechanics or pad out the open world just for the sake of following a “more is more” design philosophy. I think a more conservative approach really helped Spider-Man retain a lot of what made the series great in the first place. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for one or two additional extras that are definitely worth having!
The strength of the Spider-Man franchise, since its debut over 60 years ago, has always been its characters. Happily, that has carried through to the modern day. The character arcs we see in this game are excellent from start to finish. The most dramatic, of course, is Peter Parker himself who is taken to some dark places once he puts on his infamous black suit. He really embodies the “Bully Parker” we often see as his ego takes over while the Symbiote is whispering into his ear. Miles works as a brilliant foil here, doing his utmost to keep his Spidey mentor on the straight and narrow. He certainly has his work cut out for him, though, as Peter quickly goes to a dark place, eventually growing to a near-antagonist due to the influence of the black suit. I’ll keep some of the details close to the chest so as to prevent any spoilers, but Peter not only becomes more self-centered but also much more violent with his opponents. Safe to say this causes massive conflict within Miles as to when to step in and put a stop to Peter. The student/teacher dynamic can be a tough one to navigate when you feel like your teacher is in the wrong. Even tougher when your teacher is possessed by an alien bent on global domination.
Mary Jane gets a good story to herself as well. Caught between the want to do what’s right and the need to pay the bills she struggles with the idea of working for, inexplicably, the biggest selling paper in New York, the Daily Bugle. Unfortunately, the anti-Spidey rag is owned and operated by the Marvel equivalent of Alex Jones, J. Jonah Jameson. We also get an insight into how MJ feels about her relationship with Peter when it won’t always be certain that he’ll be able to hold down a steady job and pay the bills.
The Symbiote’s final host (i.e., this continuity’s Venom) undergoes a similar character change to Peter. Interestingly, we see that the change happens even when they’re not in possession of the Symbiote, growing to resent Peter for taking away what they see as rightfully theirs. I guess this is standard for Spider-Man villains all things considered. Spider-Man does what’s expected of him, someone takes personal offence to this, and that person then becomes moustache-twirling villain. This time, however, it feels much more personal, with Venom’s final goal acting as a perversion of the host’s initial vision of their place in the world.
The game’s deuteragonist, Kraven is also a well-rounded character in his own right. While he doesn’t really have much of an arc he’s very well fleshed out. His motivation isn’t as straightforward as “I want to hunt the ultimate prey”, even though that’s how it seems at first. He and his hunters really make for formidable enemies, and they really make for welcome additions to this Spidey-canon.
It can’t be ALL Good
As I mentioned, Spider-Man is a character with a 60-year history. That’s more than half a century of character arcs, suits, stories, and memes to draw from. It references iconic moments in the franchise’s history like the cover of Amazing Fantasy #15 (Spider-Man’s debut) and the Spider-Men pointing meme. That’s why I’m so disappointed to report that the variety of unlockable suits in this game really isn’t what I’d hoped for. Of the 35 suits available for Peter, a full 12 of them are from the movies. Now don’t get me wrong, I love the movie suits. The new take on the classic suit is great, Tom Holand’s first Stark suit is still one of my favourites, and the Raimi webbed suit is forever burned into my millennial brain. Miles, I have no such problem with. He gets so many suits that we haven’t seen before. Now, I’m sure we’ll see more suits in the future if there’s DLC or a title update, as we saw in the past but to have a third of Peter’s wardrobe taken up with stuff we’ve seen a million times before, especially when they don’t even take advantage of the new palette-swap mechanic is more than a little disappointing.
It’s also a bit of a let-down that the podcasts that will frequently play over Miles and Peter’s network aren’t saved in your collections menu tab as they were before. Often if you’re listening to a JJJ rant or a wholesome episode of the Danikast and come across a crime or a quest (side or main), the audio will cut out never to resume. It would be nice to be able to go back and hear what you missed out on. Spider-Man is, after all, known for his quips and jabs at Jonah so to hear him mouth off is always a treat.
Finally, and this is less specifically a gripe I have with Spider-Man 2 and more a general annoyance with open-world games,) it’s very difficult to strike a balance between side-quest completion and story pacing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be wanting to explore all the side quests as and when they become available. Unfortunately, this can lead to some weird situations like Miles saying, “Oh I need to check on Pete right now!” followed by the player saying, “but I’m gonna go hunt for a dozen little Spider-Bots first,” immediately afterwards. Again, this isn’t a Spider-Man-only problem, but I think it would be beneficial if there were some missions that had to be followed up on immediately or that would only allow you to accept side quests you find along the way.
All those minor gripes aside I absolutely adore this game. In a year where we got some astonishingly good titles this one really stood out to me as one of the best. The fact that it’s a tight, contained narrative really helps as well. It doesn’t turn into a multi-hundred-hour slog like Tears of the Kingdom or Starfield. The move to better hardware has really paid dividends for Insomniac and this game was more than worth the wait. I’m so excited for any potential DLC we may be getting or, if not, their upcoming Wolverine game. If you liked the first two games, or just love Spider-Man in general you really need to pick this game up. The story will have you on the edge of your seat, tearing up or open-mouthed slumped on your couch. The gameplay is as tight and as fluid as ever. Also, as I said, Spider-Man the bodega cat makes his glorious return. What’s not to love?