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Sunday, March 26, 2023

'Spider-Man' Loses Its Web-Swinging Joy in an Overstuffed City

Spider-Man videogames and the digital open world grew up together, the latchkey children of modern gaming. After the genre-defining 2001 release of Grand Theft Auto 3, Treyarch's Spider-Man 2 (2004) was one of the next epochal titles to emphasize free roaming; while it functioned as an adaptation of the film of the same name, though, its true ambition was to be a Spider-Man simulator. With a freeform web-swinging system as its backbone, it offered an entire digital New York City and invited the player to be a hero—a goal that nearly every Spider-Man game since has shared.

This hero, more than any other, is a barometer for the genre: how well a game captures the complexities and scale of swinging through Manhattan speaks to the shape and skeleton of open-world games as a whole. And Marvel's Spider-Man is no exception.

Developed by Insomniac Games exclusively for the PlayStation 4, it's the modern open-world game in micro. Undergirded by brilliant physics and a movement system just as inspired as Treyarch's classic, Spider-Man sells the fantasy of being a superhero, while also managing to be both a little bloated and a little empty. It's an incredible game, set in a world that's gamified just past the point of being truly compelling.


To get started, Peter Parker (wearing his trademark red-and-blue skivvies) starts running. His feet hit the concrete of the building's roof hard, and as he reaches the edge he leaps into a swimmer's dive. He falls, flipping and laughing, until just before terminal velocity—then, in mid-air, he reaches, a thick strand of web coming out of his right wrist and planting itself firmly on a nearby building. He grips it and swings, releasing at the low apex of the arc to gain as much momentum as possible before shooting another web and swinging again, looping wide around a building by way of turning, and then doing it all over again. His movements are wild and free and joyous, superheroics by way of extreme sports.

In Spider-Man, these movements-—the entire web swinging system—is handled with just a couple of buttons. This is de rigeur for open worlds in 2018. Since the advent of the Assassin's Creed franchise, games have embraced simplicity for traversal, using simple button commands to perform advanced acrobatics. Here, it absolutely works. Swinging around a digital version of New York City is the essential joy of this game, just as it was in 2004. It feels both scripted and improvisational, as if you're guiding an experienced hero and riding along with him.

That feeling, the ease and relaxed pleasure of it, permeates the rest of everything Spider-Man does right. Combat is an impressive blend of the rhythmic, simple button presses of the Batman: Arkham titles with abilities and ideas unique to Spider-Man's power set. Easy button presses use webbing to draw you closer to enemies and hurl them into the air, while others let you bind opponents and toss them around, suspend them like prey for…well, for a spider. Insomniac has created a hero who moves like he knows what he's doing, and his abilities bind together your journey through massive setpieces and a large, varied architectural space that is always compelling to move and fight and climb through.


If only the space itself had more depth to its variety. Strangely, New York City itself is the weakest part of this game. In 2004, Treyarch's New York was thinly detailed and sparsely populated; the side activities were largely repetitive, an effect of technical limitations as much as anything else. And yet the city had a personality, a compelling sense of scale and love to it. It was an interesting place to see, and the game moved at just the right speed to force you to see it and learn it. Spider-Man and his hometown were inseparable parts of the game's success. Later games wobbled on this, and while often their visions of New York were lush, larger and more varied than Treyarch's, their depiction of Spider-Man in them left a lot to be desired.

Insomniac's version has the precise opposite problem—a brilliant Spider-Man in a dull world—and it's entirely the fault of modern open-world game conventions. So many open worlds in the past few years have been built on lists. Lists of monuments to explore. Lists of towers to climb. Lists of side missions and collectibles and clutter, all strewn about with obvious map markers constantly drawing the player toward them like so many pointless smoke signals. It's a standard way to design an open world, now, but it's also a weaker one: It replaces a sense of place with a sense of busyness. And Spider-Man is a terrible offender here. Peter Parker's New York is full of filler objectives that reward experience points and little else. While they do offer an excuse to use the delightful movement and combat systems, they offer almost nothing in the way of making the world feel meaningful and full.

The narrative is similarly thin, though at least it's delightful, a straightforward Spider-Man romp that manages to impart charm. The world design simply lacks that same verve, which leaves Spider-Man as a messy but eminently playable game: incredible fun, especially if you're a fan of the character, but a few steps beneath superlative. Peter Parker is an innovator, constantly inventing, designing new suits and web shooters and a variety of gadgets that make his crime-fighting career easier and, for the player, more varied. And while Spider-Man is a blast, it's hard not to wish that Insomniac had a little bit more Peter Parker in them.

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