Intimidation isn’t a feeling one usually gets when sitting down to review a game. Usually there is a fun little cocktail of excitement and curiosity, perhaps some butterflies as you jump into something new and unknown. But these butterflies had to share space with a spider – a pretty famous one at that.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 doesn’t really need much introduction – we are all already aware that it is the sequel to Marvel’s Spider-Man and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, both critically acclaimed games in their own right, casting a colossal shadow for a new title to escape and find its moment in the sun. The sheer expectations that have been attached to the release are born from equal parts comic book fans that know the subject matter, people who enjoyed the first two games, and those that exist in the perfect circle Venn diagram of both. This is where the intimidation begins to surface, an almost second-hand level of anxiety for the people that built this game. Can it possibly deliver as both a sequel to some spectacular Spidey games, and a modern depiction of one of the coolest comic book antiheroes of all time?
Hold on, I thought this was a sequel?
Firstly, the game could have easily been called Spider-Men – but it doesn’t take a marketing expert to understand why that name sucks. The wider world of crime fighting and bad guy bopping is properly expanded to account for both of our spandex-wearing webslingers (Peter Parker and Miles Morales), with every key facet of the game built around a shared world. While roaming the streets of New York, a dedicated button can be used to swap between your spidey flavours, a little like the multiple protagonist system in GTA V. It is worth noting that this particular swapsies feature does not extend to narrative moments, but in playing through the story you’ll come to understand why. Set out to stop a crime in progress, and you may be pleasantly surprised to see the other Spidey drop in to lend a hand, leading to duo takedowns and other sick visual fun. When the dust settles, you can even interact with your spider-mate for a post-bust celebration, with awkward high fives and hugs all round.
Don’t worry, I am not going to spoil any storyline here – it is absolutely something that should be experienced first-hand. Just take comfort in the fact that the game has been carefully marketed to ensure that the lion’s share of incredible story moments will be experienced with the controller in your hand, not via a preorder trailer. I was delighted to be surprised again and again – in ways that did not feel like a cheap subversion of expectations, rather posturing an outcome that wasn’t already mired in my comic book saturated brain. It’s good shit. Good, good shit.
Even a big grumpy boi can’t resist petting a kitty
Starting with the symbiote elephant in the room, the implied storytelling surrounding Pete’s attitude change is stellar. There is immediate concern that comes from his gruff tone of voice, and newfound viciousness in combat – but more subtle hints emerge. The game feels altogether alien when the usual chipper hero is far more curt and dour – with random gameplay banter shifting from jovial quips to short exclamations of frustration, or how ticked off he was at a criminal’s existence. It’s jarringly unnerving – in a fantastic kind of way. I even noticed that the gleeful occasion where Miles would stop by to assist with a crime seemingly no longer ended with a prompt to celebrate with him, robbing me of bro hugs. Missing this tiny, goofy action suddenly resonated with me; my classic Spidey was not well at all. Acting like a prick sucks, but leaving a spider-bro hanging felt like a hurtful line being crossed.
This harsh, tragic arc befalls our heroes in differing ways, revealing the real cornerstone of the tale is one of loss. Each of the pair has suffered greatly and need to banish their demons – some inner, some outer – with their separate methods to do so speaking volumes to personal strengths and strategy. We all cope with pain in unique ways, but the stark comparison between Miles’ and Peter’s plight could fill a tome regarding how we all need to know when to ask for support.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a comic book story of heroes and baddies playing out in every way you would expect, quite the opposite – it is every bit as bombastic and epic as you would imagine – but prying beneath the ink-soaked pages of inspiration starts to reveal a very human story that cuts to the core of our needs as people. Family, community and responsibility are central themes, and while they may be awash in a sea of sinister black goo, there is a very real heartfelt message for us all to take on board and grow at the end of it all. Hard questions get put to us, away from the rote ideal of superhero sacrifice, instead putting forth a thought on personal reflection, and how much baggage we should shoulder on our journey. But if you don’t care about any of that junk, you can still get by with explosions and punching the bad guys until the good guys win, huzzah.
This Spider-Man is about to go Spider-Ham
Each Spider-Guy has a bevy of unique abilities, costumes to unlock and progression paths to explore, with a few key shared options such as personal stats, gadgets and even a tree of shared spidey skills to keep things fair. Much like your prior Spider-Man experiences, player power is tied to progression that is balanced between skill points from levelling up and assorted resources gained from foiling crimes, participating in side activities and completing missions. Slap a skill point into your skill tree to gain a new ability, gobble up some Tech Parts to shoot more webs more often – you know the drill.
Tech Parts are an abundant currency, lurking on rooftops and handed to you for doing any old thing, and are the stock of which all your progression soup will stem from. You then sprinkle an assortment of more specialised currencies for specific things like suits and stat increases, and voila, an action RPG is born. This concept was already iterated upon within Miles’ own spidey game, and this feels like its logical endpoint. I never felt hungry for a particular currency goober, but if ever I hit a wall I would quickly realise it was because I had likely been neglecting the stuff that awards such goobers – and rather than groan or grow frustrated, I would instead be delighted to track down the nearest goober-rewarding crime or mission and knock it out. The game even offers advice for which activity types provide the goober you need; it’s a cinch.
Side activities that furnish these currencies are plentiful, but far more curated and carefully deployed than in Spider-Man games past. I initially baulked, and eventually stopped playing Spider-Man 1 due to the barrage of busy work that was thrown my way; it felt so transparently globbed on, like watery gravy on decent meat. This was intensely improved in the Miles title, where side activities leaned into quality over quantity. This clearly got circled on the whiteboard for the sequel, because the side activities are all carefully considered to be engaging and interesting each and every time. These offerings are very deliberately presented to the player, with opportunities to partake in bee drone shooting or treasure hunting or whatever else, distributed like palette cleansers between courses of the much larger narrative meal. This extends to the myriad of side plots within the game, each telling a sharp micro-tale that revels in the supporting cast, both returning and new.
“Sorry, Gary is all tied up at the moment – could I take a message?”
It helps that both the oddjobs and story take place in a city setting that has surpassed the amazing offering from the first two games. The landscape on offer in Spider-Man 2 is beyond robust, dripping with detail and life in every crevice and cavity. The landmass has been expanded beyond the core island of Manhattan, allowing you to swing through the ‘burbs, offering a wicked backdrop for missions beyond the usual city block, secret lab or sewer. This also means that the giant body of water present betwixt these areas poses a moisture hazard. While convenient bridges do exist to avoid the wetness, you are a Man-Spider and can do a great deal better than schlepping across one. Namely, you can take to the air with one of the game’s most outstanding additions – the web wings.
Effectively a wingsuit, the web wings can be deployed to enter a gliding state as part of your traversal toolbelt. Present right from the start of the game, this is clearly a flagship feature for the sequel – and rightly so, because they are <THWIP>ing bodacious. The feeling of momentum you gain from ascending and diving feels so fluid and natural, it is almost enough to make you consider trying wingsuiting in real life – before you remember you are in your late 30s and don’t even like jogging all that much. The world leans into these fun flippy flaps by adding rising air vents atop buildings to send you soaring back into the sky – but my favourite are the jetstream wind tunnels.
Serving as windy highways throughout the environment, these long laneways of air will display as a stiff breeze to the naked eye but actually function like a tunnel of movement. Drift into one, and the game will gently guide you along its zephyr at breakneck speeds to help you move from one place to another. They criss-cross the watery expanses, and slither through buildings between key locations, and with some clever movement you can traverse the entire game world in these fun little gale tubes. The breezy physics have such heft and bounce to them that taming them is a hoot.
No soar losers here
That isn’t to say that webswinging has been outclassed by gliding, because the tight control and speed offered by slanging the sticky white stuff still has plenty of utility. What ends up happening is this gorgeous ballet of THWIP and FLAP and DIVE, with point-boosts and tricks interspersing your stylish way to get around. There is a magnificent, simple joy to traversal that is so absent in other games, to the point that I very nearly missed the incredible fast travel system entirely. Getting somewhere never felt like a chore, so my hand was never hovering over the ‘get there quick’ button.
When you aren’t swangin’ or glidin’ you will likely be boppin’ – bad guys on the nose, that is. Combat has had the screws tightened, with new additions like a dedicated parry option to reward the quick-fingered button bashers among us. It does a lot to amend the dodge spamming of yesteryear, and turns into a rewarding counter once upgraded to do cool shit like disarm a goon’s weapon. There’s also a standout change to gadgets, with the radial wheels neatly deposited in the bin where they always belonged, opting instead for a simple quick-fire mechanic by way of a shoulder button/face button combo. Gone are the days of having the wrong gadget equipped and misfiring a critical shot at an inopportune time, instead any misfire now is purely due to your own dumb fingers doing the dumb thing at a dumb time, ya dummy. A little pruning and care has also been done to the gadget repertoire, distilling the web wizardry to a few impactful options with a range of killer upgrades. Things like the Impact Web have been lost to time, admittedly an overpowered gadget for how it would immediately remove a target from the fight, instead having its effect tied into other gadget combos to reward the same kind of effect, just with a little more player input.
These gadgets are shared across both Spideys, so you get a lot of bang for your buck when they are upgraded. Where the Webslingers vary is in their specific combat skills. Neatly lifted from Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, skills linked to face button options can be employed to devastating effect to perform a huge special attack, ranging from massive AoE blasts, to an onslaught of mechanical arms pummelling a baddie – and even a range of squishy symbiote options that pack a brutal punch. Your spider friends will lift these skills from their progression paths, equipping up to four at a time to suit whatever needs you may have. This mix ‘n’ match option feels pretty groovy when you assess a situation and set about dropping the best heavy-hitting option onto the battlefield.
Miles demonstrated the importance of personal space
Stealth is largely unchanged from the refinement it received in Miles’ most recent adventure, but the game changer here is the addition of the Web Line. Essentially it is a cooler version of Batman’s signature Line Launcher gizmo from the Arkham series, creating a walkable line of web to traverse and knock out unsuspecting nerds. Where the Spidey-crafted version takes the trophy is how you can create new web lines off an existing webline, literally spinning a web of walkways above the oblivious goons below. It was endlessly thrilling creating a catwalk of convenient paths above the myriad of Kraven’s multicultural henchmen, picking them off at my leisure and making their rafters look like a string of Christmas lights decorated with webs and struggling criminals.
With your arsenal established, the game is then happy to reintroduce the idea of boss fights. In games past, these were largely a cinematic affair – fun in their own right, but a little hollow when you really scrutinise how they worked. Beneath the stunning veneer of Insomniac’s graphical stylings, most fights boiled down to a Dr. Robotnik-esque game of dodging garbage until you could bop a villainous dork on the head three times, but in the sequel proper we are introduced to the saviour of this experience – health bars.
Hear me out – I know this is nothing new, but the inclusion of a health metric for the massive boss battles means that every gadget, goo-whip and punch has a measurable effect. Instead of masquerading as a fight, the giant boss events are now actual brawls where you punch the heck out of each other. The cadence of the fights still feels enormous and impressive (seriously, the roster of big bads is something else in this game), but with a progress meter communicating how you are doing, and what attacks and gadgets are doing work, you become immersed in this epic showdown. You’ll see breakpoints where new mechanics will come into play – phases that may impact the arena you are fighting in, or interference entering the field – it is a master stroke to get the one real lacking part of the franchise straightened up to fly right. Personal defeats were no longer a case of “Oh well, I dunno how well I was doing anyway” and instead migrated to “IF I HADN’T WASTED MY SPIDER-SHOCK I WOULD HAVE HAD HIM.”
Wow, I can’t believe they put me in the game
It should come as no surprise that the game is absurdly pretty to behold. The amount of polish and shine afforded to characters is exceptional, be they human or otherwise. The way the cast will emote and converse during cutscenes is nothing short of stunning, delivering a performance that captures you and refuses to let go. At one point I utilised the PS5’s record function for no other reason than to see a massive moment happen again, because the first viewing filled me with such awe that I was sure I hadn’t fully grasped the follow up scene. Every vocal performance is once again top notch, with even tertiary characters offering a commanding portrayal of well known comic book dorks that have somehow been refined into believable (and at times tragic) characters.
The soundtrack also ebbs and flows with the game, a dynamic backing track that grows and celebrates each of the characters. Horns and strings will evoke every bit of Pete’s cinematic Spider-Man style, whereas the urban beats that punctuate Miles’ existence return with even more attitude. Now with the Spider-Mans actually sharing the spotlight, these distinct styles will enter into their own state of symbiosis and produce new sounds to punctuate the narrative and action – tunes that positively slap.
At this point in a review I would usually air out a gripe or two, lamenting some missed opportunity or diabolical decision that had hampered my experience. But in the case of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, in the end I found only joy. Even the usual pitfalls of the settings screen had been avoided, shipping chock-full of options to customise your experience, both from an accessibility and approachability standpoint, ensuring nobody feels alienated when sitting down to swing with the spider men. Visual and audio options set a standard for what to expect moving forward, with a special mention of the hybrid Variable Refresh Rate mode to squeeze out a few more frames in the fidelity game mode. Digging deep, I could almost consider the lack of a launch-day New Game+ option to be a drag, but knowing full well that it will come as post-release content placates the concern and instead offers me a refractory period to rest my spidey-senses and anticipate it as a welcome excuse to revisit the title.
Dude! It’s the Paddle Pop Lion!
Insomniac games has long worn its heart on its sleeve when it comes to the passion it has for the Spider-Man universe. What has been delivered here is ultimately an elevation of the formula concocted back on the PlayStation 4 – a blisteringly brilliant piece of interactive media that fires on all cylinders from start to finish, with no compromise or cut corners. It is deeply steeped in a rich attention to detail that can only come from people who truly care about what they are making, resulting in an experience where you are actively sharing the joy and love put into this game. The only way that you would not enjoy this is if you have some deep dislike of Spider-Man (or Spider-Men?), but even then I feel you couldn’t help but admire what has been presented.
Reviewed on PS5 // Review code supplied by publisher
- Insomniac Games
- Sony Interactive Entertainment
- October 20, 2023