I loved Marvel’s Spider-Man, and based on its 88/87 OpenCritic/Metacritic rating, so are a lot of reviewer-types and fans. But I’m also seeing a Twitter mob bemused by the relentless praise, and for the most part I agree with them too. God of War is definitely the better game but I’m enjoying playing Spider-Man more. It makes for some interesting GOTY considerations.
Spider-Man doesn’t reinvent the wheel — it doesn’t even reinvent Spider-Man — but it still is a very fun and enjoyable game, following exactly the same blueprint as Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.
JJ’s first crack at Star Wars played it as safe as possible and essentially retooled what had come before it without taking any risks. It was a massive commercial and critical success, and received much the same accolades and criticism as Spider-Man — that it was fun and enjoyable, but we’d seen it all before and, perhaps, the biggest fans were purposefully ignoring those similarities. It didn’t stop the masses enjoying the return of Star Wars, and Marvel’s copycat formula hasn’t stopped most enjoying Spider-Man.
Now, Insomniac faces The Last Jedi conundrum, and it’s one I don’t think it can win, but it has to try.
Let’s not even contemplate the possibility that Insomniac’s next project isn’t Spider-Man 2 — and I don’t even need to mention the story, so don’t worry if you haven’t reached Spidey’s conclusion. Barring another The Amazing Spider-Man 3 fiasco, you probably expected a trilogy before installing this game. I know there was a viral hint that the studio could announce a new game soon, but that doesn’t look like it’s happening, and even if a secondary team is working on Ratchet & Clank or even a new Sunset Overdrive, Spider-Man 2 will be the focus moving forward. There is too much money involved and positive brand reinforcement for it not to happen.
So where does Spidey go from here? Insomniac could play it safe again and deliver more or less the same game with a new story delivered through the prettiest rendition of New York ever seen in a game — as a PlayStation 5 exclusive. You know what: if it’s out within the launch window of Sony’s next console, that’ll be enough to guarantee a similar standing on Metacritic. Super pretty graphics and safe gameplay win over critics during a console launch, and social influencers go even crazier (I think I may have just cracked the code — but I better flesh out a full article). However, if we eliminate the popularity bump gained by attaching itself to a console launch, Spider-Man 2 will endure the wrath of Twitter, and probably critics, if it’s a copy and paste job.
As with Star Wars, we don’t really know what we want, but we accept that safe Spider-Man was acceptable to re-establish it as a PlayStation exclusive blockbuster, but we need something more from the sequel. The advantage it has over Star Wars is it can afford to go full The Last Jedi without incurring Disney’s problems. There are some plot threads setup to be continued in a sequel, if not the already announced DLC, but if any of those are thrown out, nobody will care; it doesn’t really matter in the Marvel universe, where plots are retconned, forgotten, re-established and remade time, and time again. If any of the dangling threads are resolved or redirected unexpectedly, Spider-Man 2 be praised for a radical story with unforeseen twists, should Marvel allow it; the recurring problem comic-inspired games always encounter is not being able to surprise their loyalist fans, as they’ve known the characters for years and seen versions of these narratives before.
Aside from web-swinging, there’s also nothing in the gameplay fans are too attached too; again, a large departure in terms of combat or mission structure won’t worry anyone, but therein lies the big risk — and it would be pulling the The Last Jedi’s signature move if there is a radical and unexpected overhaul of gameplay and structure. Spider-Man borrows heavily from the lessons learnt before it and there is no pretending it isn’t super repetitive, especially for Platinum Trophy hunters for whom it bloats from a 10 hour adventure to a 30 hour slog of murdering goons, tying up goons, grabbing pigeons, recovering backpacks, and murdering a whole lot more goons — with a few eye-rolls to the story beats that casually mention Spidey hasn’t been killing anyone, after he’s clearly murdered thousands of goons straight out of the clone factory. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2: Attack of the Clones would be an accurate working title.
This is where the criticism of the repetition and basic gameplay is warranted. Combat looks super cool and gives the impression of being fluid, but you can’t go wrong with a pattern of Web Blossom, attack, attack, dodge, web/gadget attack, finisher move and repeat. Because there’s so much of it, if you decide to play beyond the story and collect the tokens, you soon wish there was something more. That’s what is next for this genre.
These superhero games, and action-adventure broadly, need to find something else to occupy our time that isn’t just murdering the same old goons, committing the same crimes. Assassin’s Creed: Origins is a good example of making side quests feel just as relevant as the main story and as if they are all different, even if it’s an illusion. But I would like Spider-Man 2 to set its sights higher and go beyond that; to establish something we haven’t seen in games before, as Arkham did for Batman almost a decade ago.
That would be a huge risk. For the most part, the story tagging in Miles and MJ, plus featuring a bunch of villains keeps it fresh. It’s primarily the players who need all 55 Kmart backpacks and to take a photo of every tourist attraction, while fighting the same four crimes every 200 metres, that will inevitably fall into a love-hate relationship with the friendly neighbour daily grind.
Sony Computer Entertainment may ultimately have a say in which direction to take. It’s built an enviable reputation rivalled only by Nintendo this generation. There’s something special about that splash screen, and a clear history of more hits than misses over the past five years, and smash hits at that. It’s done what Nintendo would never consider and what Microsoft wishes it had thought of: take an established character best known outside of games and turn him into an exclusive superstar. We don’t know the specifics of the publishing deal, but for now at least it’s a brilliant way to enhance an already stellar line-up of exclusives, without the risk associated with a new IP.
So then: this has been the risk-free Spider-Man, established as a PlayStation star, just as The Force Awakens was the safe introduction to Disney’s era. Will Spider-Man 2 follow The Last Jedi’s path, or does Sony think its strong reputation is best preserved by another safe entry?