Original blog post here.
You may be wondering what a Greatest Living Author plays when he’s not writing. Well, how about a game that does, well, most of the things a spider can — and with a reasonable level of competence?
Funny story: the oldest Spider-Man video game I can remember playing is Maximum Carnage, a Final Fight or Golden Axe-esque beat ’em up game. Now, if I’m aging myself with those references, something like Dragon’s Crown is a little more contemporary.
That, uh, that’s not the funny story.
The funny story is that my clearest memory about the game is my Mom going “Carnage? That sounds violent. You’re not allowed to play that.”, and then me protesting “No. ‘Carnage ‘is just the bad guy’s name! Isn’t not even that violent!”
The point I’m trying to make here is that Spider-Man has a long and storied history of starring in video games. Which is, perhaps, not surprising given that he is, according to Wikipedia, Marvel‘s best-selling hero and third overall (surpassed only by Superman and Batman, both of whom have also been in print for several decades longer).
Which brings me to 2018’s PlayStation-exclusive (originally for PS4, subsequently re-leased on PS5) Spider-Man game, the aptly-named Spider-Man — officially it’s “Spider-Man“, but in formal and promotional materials, it’s usually “Marvel’s Spider-Man.”
Which, in turn, brings me the fairly tangled… ahem, web (I apologise for nothing) that is the Spider-Man rights (which I’ve mentioned in passing).
As best as I can tell, Sony owns both the movie and game rights to Spider-Man.
The short version is that, despite being one of the two comic book publishers that the general public can actually name, Marvel‘s financial situation has actually been fairly tenuous at multiple points in its history. Not so much now that it’s owned by Disney, but my understanding is that the comics themselves don’t actually make that much money.
The company’s solution was to sell the film (and other adaptation rights) to various film studios. That’s how the X–Men ended up with Fox (to be ultimately reunited with most other Marvel properties when Disney bought Fox) and Spider-Man ended up with Sony, and why Sony seems to be putting out a Spider-Man-adjacent film every fifteen minutes or so…
Of course, to a certain degree, Sony would be stupid not to do that.
For one thing, their contract apparently stipulates that they lose the rights to Spider-Man if they don’t put out a new movie every five years. And losing the rights would be a Bad Thing for Sony’s bottom line. So, obviously, it’s in Sony’s interest to keep putting out Spider-Man stuff, because there’s clearly a market for it. And if they don’t, they apparently lose the opportunity to keep doing so.
It’s all rather circular, if you think about it…
Good news: Sony’s need to continuously putting up Spider-Man stuff actually led us to a pretty decent game.
To put it simply: the 2018 Spider-Man does at least most of the things a spider can, and with a reasonable level of competence.
Even without taking the gameplay into consideration (which I will a little later on), this is probably one of my favourite versions of both Spider-Man specifically and the wider Spider-Man mythos.
For one thing, it’s a welcome break from superhero origin stories — which, let’s be honest, are pretty superfluous at this point.
Like, seriously, who doesn’t know Spider-Man’s (or Batman’s, or Superman’s, or Hulk’s) origin story at this point?
Honestly, poor Batman’s parents have been murdered on-screen, like, fifteen times.
Instead, we start the game several years into Spider-Man’s career. He’s in his mid-twenties and an established hero, but still a youngish one, sort at the mid-point between how he’s been depicted in basically all the movie continuities so far (i.e. having just lived through his origin story — again), and where he’s typically depicted at with his personal and superhero life in the comics (i.e. older and established) — though, comics being what they are, that tends to fluctuate wildly, and not only because Marvel seems to reboot their entire universe every 5-10 years…
Still, I do kind of feel like skipping over Spidey’s origin does make it feel like Uncle Ben has been forgotten about. Sure, the game doesn’t need a “Feel Bad About Uncle Ben” button, but it feels like Uncle Ben isn’t being remember at all, which is going too far in the other direction.
Though, incidentally, the game does actually have a “Feel Bad About Uncle Ben” button. His grave is an unmarked location in the game world and visiting it gives you a prompt to pay your respects.
But, I think I understand the decision. Like I said, we all know Spidey’s origin story, because we’ve all seen it at least four or five times by now. I feel like there are only so many times we can watch Uncle Ben die and still feel the emotional impact.
Sorry, Uncle Ben…
In a lot of ways, this Spider-Man is a lover letter to the Spider… “Men”? …”Mans”? … adaptations of Spider-Man(!) that came before without being overly beholden to any one of them. All of the characters are still clearly, recognisably themselves while also allowing the writers of the game to put a unique, novel spin on them.
On the whole, though, I think not cleaving too close to the comics is a good idea:
As an aside, throughout the game, you unlock various alternate Spider-Man suits hearkening back not only to various well-known (if not well-liked) storylines from the comics, but also alternate universe versions of Spider-Man, in addition to a suit based on each of the film versions we’ve had so far.
Each suit comes with a unique ability and, in a masterstroke of god game design, any suit’s ability (once the suit itself is unlocked, of course) can be applied to any suit. Which I cannot praise highly enough because I’ve only found one suit ability that actually seems worth using…
Getting back on track: Spidey‘s a little more mature and a little more savvy than the common Spider-Man archetype is. Aunt May‘s is somewhere between the Saintly Old Lady stereotype of the comics and the Sam Raimi trilogy and the younger, hotter, cooler, more active, Marisa Tomei..er MCU version.
Mary Jane is basically an investigative journalist in this version and is portrayed as more independent and capable than in most well-known depictions. It’s a good approach to the character, allowing her to get more to do, while also giving her character and storylines reasonable limitations given that she is nevertheless a completely regular person in a world of superheroes and villains — including, as J. Jonah Jameson (an angry podcaster in this version, having retired from the Daily Bugle) points out: Nazis made of bees!
Full disclosure: there is indeed a Spider-Man villain who is in fact a Nazi made of bees. He does, however, never appear in-person in the game.
Mary Jane is never quite a damsel in distress. She does get into trouble, so she has to either talk her way out, or in the sections where she’s playable, make a stealthy exit. She uses the tools she has, but those don’t include wall-crawling, web-slinging, or, say, being made of bees.
Ultimately, she is depicted as savvy enough to save herself most of the time and comes across less as “Helpless, Hysterical Woman” and more “Regular Person (Who Happens to Be Female) Getting in Over Her Head but Able to Manage.”
There’s also Miles Morales, who, if you haven’t been keeping up with the state of Marvel’s current comics, has essentially taken over Peter Parker’s role as the teenage/young adult greenhorn Spider-Man while Peter Parker has graduated to being the established veteran. It’s a little more complicated than that (as comic books often are; multiple parallel universes are involved), but the above is the short version.
In-game, he has stealth sections like Mary Jane’s and his storyline shows how he gets his powers and goes from Neighborhood Kid to another Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man (basically, the same character arc as Into the Spider-Verse) — in fact, he’s the star of his own spinoff/expansion to this game.
There’s a nice bit of representation here. Instead of going all-in on the White Male Lead, the game also gives a woman and an Afro-Puerto Rican their own moments to shine and contribute to the story.
There are some big names in the voice cast and everyone does a pretty good job with the characters, and if you’ve spent any time around video games and/or anime, you’re going to recognise most of them. I guess there are only so many voice actors out there.
By dint of being the lead character, Yuri Lowenthal — having also appeared as Spider-Man’s fellow Marvel hero Iceman in various TV and game adaptations, Marth in Fire Emblem, and that edgy, hot dude in Naruto (I do apologise if I’m misrepresenting his character here; I’ve only ever casually watched Naruto) — as Spidey delivers a significantly different version of the character that he feels a little out of character as Spidey.
He did start to grow on me and I recognise that he’s got a pretty good grasp on the flippant-but-friendly aspect that is probably Spider-Man’s most fundamental character trait. You know, beyond doing whatever a spider can. The performance is solid in a vacuum, but still feels a little weird as a Spider-Man.
Overall, the rest of the voice cast is delivering solid performances. I think I have less to say about the other characters beyond “good”, since everyone else inevitably gets less screentime than the main character.
On the other hand, I’m kind of amazed how with how good graphics have gotten, games still can’t get faces right. At best, the characters look fine. At worst, Mary Jane looks like a small child’s face on an adult woman’s body. Not the worst I’ve ever seen (there are, to be fair, a lot of games with bad faces), but it’s noticeable enough to be distracting.
Also, there’s a photo mode that can be used to
absolutely rob the game of pathos and drama make some pretty silly screenshots.
As we see here:
Apparently, that’s the joke and was a deliberate choice on the developer’s part…
To a certain degree, I think the game is almost another Skyward Sword moment where the production aspects are more impressive than the gameplay and the story and storytelling are good enough that even just watching a playthrough is worthwhile — and depending on one’s patience and aptitude, maybe even the better approach.
Like I said, the story, the acting, and the novel approach to the source material are all great. In terms of gameplay, the main story doesn’t overstay its welcome, though the rest of the open world just might.
I’m not crazy about open world games and Spider-Man’s Manhattan does fall into a lot of the traps of modern open world game design, though does manage to avoid the worst excesses of the genre.
For one thing, New York manages to be a lot more interesting to most other open world, um, worlds that tend to feel pretty empty and lifeless — literally every mortal character in Immortals Fenyx Rising got turned to stone, Breath of the Wild was basically Fantasy Mad Max, Skyrim had about 31 flavours of mountains and thatched-roof hovels.
Because New York is one of the most densely built-up cities in the world, as opposed to, say, a sparsely-settled Fantasy world, even the in-game Manhattan at less than one-tenth the size of the real one manages to feel packed with things to see and do. Even Central Park, probably the game world’s largest open space is at least filled with people to remind you that you’re in one of the densest cities in the world.
In plenty of open-world games, traversing the game world turns into, honestly, kind of a pain, and you end up on the wrong end of some combination of “move too slow” and “world too big”. Spider-Man doesn’t have that problem. What with the whole web-slinging, you can essentially travel as the crow flies — though I will admit that I had way too much fun playing Spidey as a pedestrian and properly observing all traffic lights and crosswalks.
The travelling by web is a treat. When it works. Jumping off the Empire State Building, webbing to… whatever building is close to the Empire State Building (I, uh, I’ve never been to New York), jumping at the apex of your swing and launching another web is awesome.
Unfortunately, the web controls are maybe just a little too temperamental and context-sensitive and it’s too easy to end up doing the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. Which makes any of the missions or sidequests that require chasing after something a lot less fun than they should be.
I think the only open-world “Collect the Things” gimmick I actually enjoyed was photographing the New York City landmarks. It’s a good excuse to swing around the city and, unlike the game’s combat, stealth, or traversal challenges, very low-stakes, low pressure.
It is, at this point in my life, the closest I’ve ever been to seeing New York’s real life landmarks, and has the added bonus of letting you see various notable things from the comics (Dr. Strange‘s house, Avengers Tower, the Wakandan Embassy) in full 3D and living colour.
Similarly, unlike the other “Collect the Things” …things — with the possible exception of basically playing I Spy with Black Cat — they are few enough in number not to be tedious.
But not once did I think to myself “Man, this game lives or dies on the collecting pigeons sidequest” (which is an actual sidequest).
The combat is fairly typical of a 21st century action game. The buttons basically boil down to Attack, Other Attack (in this case, web), Dodge and Special Ability (in this case, also web) button. It reminds me of the Batman Arkham games, but Spidey feels less well-suited to fighting multiple opponents than Batman did.
Which is a shame, because the game’s method of compensating for the fact that any given enemy is significantly weaker than you is by throwing about fifteen dudes at you in every encounter. Notably, there isn’t even a way to lock-on to individual enemies. Which isn’t great.
Unless there is, and it’s just not ever clearly explained. Which still isn’t great.
Now, maybe I just suck at video games, but I’ve never felt like the game has given me the equipment to fight fifteen dudes at once. Also, it feels like some combination of you having too little health and enemies doing too much damage.
Also, I don’t remember Spider-Man ever punching this many dudes off buildings…
Honestly, the combat ends up feeling like a chore. Which is a shame, because as the game goes on and the bad guys end up gaining more and more control of New York, it becomes increasingly difficult to even just navigate the game world without being randomly jumped.
Similarly, none of the boss fights are necessary hard, but end up more difficult than they need to be for all the wrong reasons. They’re basically Zelda bosses, in that every boss has a specific gimmick and a specific countermeasure to beat them.
Again, maybe I just suck, but I feel like the game either sufficient explains or intuitively hints at what you’re supposed to be doing.
Seriously, I was, ahem, shocked when I managed to beat Shocker by what feels like complete accident and I’m still not sure what I actually did to beat him. But, hey, I guess “keep bludgeoning the problem until it goes away” is a perfectly cromulent strategy in itself…
There are also stealth-based sections, both as a function of Spider-Man’s own combat encounters and as the core gameplay of the sections where you’re controlling Mary Jane and Miles.
Spidey’s stealth takedowns feel like more trouble than they’re worth, given that combat never seems to not be an option, and Mary Jane and Miles’ sneaking sections go back and forth between an interesting change of pace and kind of a slog.
Since it’s not the main focus of the game, the stealth mechanic never quite gets as bad as half-baked, but still doesn’t feel like it got as much thought or effort as it perhaps should have. All the stealth sections felt tense and stressful, but I’m not exactly surprised if that’s supposed to be the point.
Basically, I feel like I’ve gotten into a 7/10 game with 12/10 storytelling. It’s an interesting approach to one of the most well-known franchises there is and manages to do good work at setting itself apart from other adaptations of that franchise while also demonstrating a clear love for what came before.
Unfortunately, there are some not-insubstantial issues with actually playing it. But maybe that’s on me. Maybe I just suck at video games…
And if you suck at video games, too, you should at least check out the story.
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman. Revised 2023.
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