Quite a lot has changed in the fictional universe of Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man adaptations. There’s a new Spider-Man in town since the release of the spin-off Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Danger lurks behind every corner for heroes Peter and Miles with the introduction of some fresh-faced (but familiar, to fans of the character) villains. And hey – you can even unlock some ugly new suits for your characters to wear, which must be compelling to someone since Insomniac insists on including this in every game they’ve released in this series thus far.
Yet, Insomniac Games’ sequel to their highly acclaimed Spider-Man adaptations in 2019 and 2020 is an experience that both excites and exasperates me. It is a game that grapples with what I can only perceive to be the future of video games, while frustratingly clinging onto outdated ideas. Writing, mechanics, graphics: all features of the title that have a shell they desperately need to burst out of. I do not mean to say that I didn’t enjoy my time with the game – only that some serious conversations need to be had if Insomniac mean to make good on their allusions to a third mainline game.
I am hesitant to buy into the current zeitgeist of superhero fatigue. Like most people, I am susceptible to getting excited when I see Batman beat up some baddies or Spider-Man swing through the air at breakneck speed. And, like everyone else, I lost my mind when Across the Spider-Verse was released earlier this year. It did exactly what superhero media needed to do: break out of the prescriptive, formulaic shell enforced by whatever slop Marvel Studios has been putting out. After watching it, I was finally given the encouragement I needed to get excited for the release of Insomniac’s game later in the year.
After waiting a handful of months, the game was finally released – so what’s new? Well, let’s go through its highs and lows together.
Like its predecessors, the feeling of playing Spider-Man 2 is buttery-smooth. Insomniac have pretty much nailed the euphoric feeling of swinging through New York City, alongside providing you with a decent skill tree of unlockable abilities to add to the basic movement options. There is a very small learning curve to overcome when learning (or, for returning players, re-learning) the best options for smooth, efficient swinging, but that’s not to say that it won’t feel good regardless of how good you are at it.
I do, however, wish that the learning curve was just a bit steeper; you’ll inevitably spend a lot of time travelling from place to place, alongside some swinging-based missions across the game – so why not force the player to work for it? The newly introduced web-wings are fun and even they themselves have a learning curve – but why include the wind rings that require no input from the player at all to traverse New York?
Indeed, one of my largest complaints about 2019’s Spider-Man was how easy it was. The game supplies you with gadgets and abilities that I ultimately would just forget about because the basic mechanics of punching and dodging would get the job done. I am happy to state, however, that Spider-Man 2 makes some serious changes to this. I played the game front-to-back on the hardest difficulty and was delighted when the game presented an actual challenge to me. The introduction of parrying was a welcome inclusion, and the game’s subsequent inclusion of attacks that must solely be responded to by parrying or dodging, depending on the attack’s colour projection, added some actual difficulty à la FromSoftware. Gone are the days when the player can just forget about their abilities or gadgets.
Like the movement systems, the combat is also simply lovely to the touch. Attacks that move smoothly into one another, cooldown abilities that play into, rather than disrupt, the flow of combat. Unlike the first game, Spider-Man 2 never feels the need to remove your abilities in favour of a few simple controls during certain boss battles, instead granting you access to your stuff at all times.
The emphasis on boss fights was a nice contributor to this difficulty, but I definitely had my issues with them. I was often annoyed by how small the boss arenas were. In a game where combat necessarily moves around a lot, why restrict me to a small arena where my greatest enemy suddenly is the difficulty of managing the camera or otherwise having visibility on my foe? Additionally, many of the bosses vastly outstay their welcome, as the game piles on phase after phase for you to deal with. While Insomniac might be moving to imitate FromSoftware in their styles of gameplay, very few studios can actually get away with a whopping four lengthy phases in a boss battle.
While I complain about the boss battles, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy their technicality. The game’s opening set piece, featuring our heroes taking on a massive version of Sandman, really sets some high technical expectations for the rest of the title. And, for the most part, it really lives up to the expectations: there are some seriously crazy sequences that really use the full extent of what current-gen consoles should be able to achieve. A personal favourite mission of mine takes advantage of the game’s movement systems during a high-speed chase across the city involving some mind-bending transitions.
The game also looks pretty good. The lighting, reflections, and (my personal favourite) the spider-suit textures are all very pleasant to look at. Mask-off, well, some of the faces are a little uncanny valley, but mostly get away with it just fine.
It’s just so frustrating to know that Insomniac are trying to push forward graphically and gameplay-wise, but fail to do so in their writing and pacing.
Spider-Man 2 concerns itself with villainy being an outlet for repressed insecurity or other negative emotions within its characters. Everyone gets a chance to be the baddie either through the Venom symbiote or other means, and this can provide interesting ways of exploring them as characters, but I just wish the game had gone further with it. By far my favourite narrative moments of this game were the ones where the characters weren’t, for once, being saccharinely pleasant to one another. I want some genuine, natural drama between these characters!
There are (spoilers!) a number of exhaustingly dull hallucinatory scenarios for protagonist Miles in which his insecurities of having his friends and family give up on him are displayed – insecurities he otherwise never exhibits. His friends and family love and support him across the entire game, so why bother displaying this at all if it’s not going to impact the plot? In fact, Miles struggles to fit into this story at all. In spite of splitting the game’s attention pretty evenly between Miles and Peter, the overall conflict still belongs to Peter. Miles has pretty much no personal involvement with Harry Osborne, one of the game’s major characters, and otherwise feels like an outsider in later scenes where the other characters have real stakes in the conflict at hand.
It doesn’t help that I don’t feel like I have a good sense of his character. Sure, I know that he’s Spider-Man and that he wants to study music at university but, like, is that it? He has an uninteresting love interest, with whom he has no chemistry, I guess. Voice actor Nadji Jeter does an admirable job with the material he’s given – but, to be frank, it’s not much. Compared with his Across the Spider-Verse counterpart, Insomniac’s Miles Morales seems like a blank canvas.
The rest of the characters aren’t given much better. Peter’s perpetually-falling-apart life lacks the spark of endearment it had in the last game, and voice actor Yuri Lowenthal seems to be on autopilot with the character’s delivery at this point. His relationship with Mary Jane lacks any chemistry or emotional tension, to the point where I was thinking longingly of their ‘will they, won’t they’ scenes in the previous title. And, perhaps the worst sin a Spider-Man title can make: his quips just aren’t funny.
As mentioned with the hallucination scenes, there are other ’emotional’ scenes that grind the game’s momentum to a halt with decidedly outdated means of game pacing. Studios really need to stop including scenes where you have to walk slowly and listen to people to talk. Oh, a cute moment where three of our characters catch up at a theme park? Why not make it excruciatingly boring and remove most forms of player input? The characters aren’t even saying anything interesting or funny! There’s an equally boring sequence where (spoilers again) you can pretend to act as a DJ, during which – no joke – the gameplay is Guitar Hero, but worse. Riveting! Perhaps Insomniac need to start emulating FromSoftware in regard to player control, as well as combat.
From my last complaints, it sounds like I hate this game, but I really don’t – there are just so many parts that feel outdated or otherwise need a bit more thought. In spite of its flaws, it is still a fun experience I can recommend – just maybe wait to get a second-hand copy at CeX.
Spider-Man 2 is available now exclusively on PlayStation 5.