Spider-Man’s always been a busy guy. He’s got classes to attend – or in this slightly older Peter Parker’s case now, teach. He’s got a girlfriend to see, friends to check in on, past-due bills to pay, a job to fail to hold down, and in between it all an apparently limitless sense of duty to do the right thing. A large part of his charm – and Spidey, of all the superheroes, is nothing without charm – is in the fallibility that comes from his quest to balance an impossible schedule.
It’s also, by far, the deepest well of good material that any Spider-Man writer worth their salt knows to plunge. It’s the source of some of Sam Raimi’s best scenes in the noughties era movies: grumpy landlord Mr. Ditkovich, and his gangly daughter Ursula’s peace offering of chocolate cake; Willem Dafoe’s much-memed “I’m something of a scientist myself” on a campus tour; or in Miles Morales’ college essays or Rio Morales’ cooking; or back to the games, that wonderful golden hour moment where Peter texts MJ while hanging upside down above the city.
In Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, this stuff can get a little squashed. Bringing Peter Parker and Miles Morales together, both Spideys here are relentlessly busy, but these quieter moments, the deep breaths between the action, are occasionally swallowed up by the sheer volume of noise coming from everything else. With double the power comes double the responsibilities, which in Spider-Man 2’s case largely means double the phone calls, double the radio shows, double the side activities, emergent crimes, collectible resources and general interruptions.
There’s a good chance all this noise is actually the point. Spider-Man 2’s story is in many ways about trying and struggling to do it all, with some friends or family members spurned for others who come back into the spiders’ lives. The main culprit here is the ever-cursed Harry Osborne, son of mega-conglomerate Oscorp boss and all round overbearing father figure Norman. Reappearing into Parker’s life after years away battling a mysterious illness, Harry is all of a sudden full of vim, and somewhat desperate for his old friend’s attention. Pete, offered a dream job at Harry’s utopian research foundation and overwhelmed with Spider-Manning, is all too happy to give it – maybe a little too much of it – and throw in the added Symbiote factor and you can see where our very much by-the-books second act, breaking of the Fellowship low point happens and, without too much effort, how all this might come to a head.
At the same time as all this – I did say it was busy – the Spider-Men have to deal with Kraven the Hunter, a kind of Rainforest Café-themed meta-villain who amasses a comically gigantic force of grunts to hunt down the other bad guys of the Spider-world as trophies. That’s until he decides Parker’s Spider-Man, and eventually, the souped-up Symbiote-infused version of him, is the ultimate prey for his final hunt. Then there’s the return of Mr. Negative, Miles Morales’ nemesis, and cameos of various sizes from other enemies – including a great opening bout with Sandman – just to pack in a bit more action on top of the ultimate big bad of Venom. Comic nerds in particular do like to attach a particular importance to their own personal favourites getting a perceived fair shake, but in Spider-Man’s more human world, where every giant lizard or strange illusionist is tinged with melancholy, each mega-villain formed or motivated by some darkly tragic, traumatic past, that really is important, and swift as some of these appearances are they tone is, crucially, still spot on.
Spidey’s action also remains a treat. In the first couple of games in this series it’s been distinctly Arkham: a large gaggle of bad guys huddle around and line up for a biffing, taking turns to throw a punch and get instantly countered with a nice balletic dodge or a bit of web to the face, and all punctuated by some sumptuously animated finishers. Much of that stays the same here – you’ll be pleased to know that, crucially, you can still wing a manhole cover at someone’s head (with precisely-calculated non-lethal force) – but with the added sequel factor of this game having a 2 on it, that means a lot of other gubbins need to be piled on, too.
Beyond your ability to attack, dodge, counter, web up, throw, throw at, launch, and generally punt people off rooftops, you also have the four-slot gadget setup from the first games and four more slots of abilities – a branched skill tree for each hero and a tree for the two combined and an upgrade path for each gadget informing it all – and then the new stuff. Miles’ electrified “venom” abilities get a newly overdriven version, while Peter soon has the jiggling, glooping brute force of the symbiote. On top of all that, there’s also a new kind of rage meter where, yes, you can press L3+R3 to go Sony Super Saiyan and explode in an area or wail on street punks with extra force.
This is fine – getting mad and pummeling things is still generally quite fun – but it’s right on the edge of credibility for what is ultimately a tale of the nice-guy hero who apologises after too forcefully saving enemies from fires they started themselves, and is also something of a cliché in first-party Sony games now, after Ghost of Tsushima and God of War. The first-party teams are known to help each other out with development, very understandably, but the cross-pollination is also quite obvious, and personally I hope this mechanic doesn’t go the way of the ubiquitous grapple hook (present in some form across Uncharted, Horizon, Ghost of Tsushima, God of War, Ratchet and Clank, Returnal, and of course Spider-Man), much as I’d enjoy the sight of Sackboy clicking in the sticks to turn red and furiously headbutt some on-screen furniture.
At times, Spider-Man 2 can also feel as close to God of War as it does the previous Spidey games, with combat now including a range of big, spectacular area-of-effect abilities (necessary to deal with the truly vast number of enemies that come at you now – although it does sometimes limit my ability to do the manhole cover-throwing, which is still the best bit) as well as an all-new parry and, by my count, significantly more one-on-one boss fights. On standard difficulty the parry window is quite generous – this is no Sekiro – and also extremely well telegraphed, with a yellow circle warning you first, before a red one signalling it’s actually time to press the button, and again that works here: the Spider-Man games are breezy by design, and wonderfully playable, knockabout weekend things as a result of keeping only light-to-moderate tension to its battles.
There are some hiccups, namely with issues that the series has always had. MJ’s missions return, and while they’re nowhere near as bad as the instant-failure stealth sections of the first Spider-Man, now giving MJ one or two simple, Hobbit-like tools like rock-throwing for distractions, they’re still a little rudimentary. There’s an understandable intention to them: they’re a bit of slower pacing offered as a chance to catch your breath between the bigger action, the ballads sprinkled half-way into a hard rock set; and they offer MJ a chance for some more significant agency and character development around her journalistic ambitions. But these could have been narrative moments – quieter, humbler scenes like that texting cutscene from the first – that achieve the same thing while also tapping into the better parts of what this world’s all about. In one scene near the end it hits a frankly depressing low, where you’re playing a Spider-Man game and yet, somehow, also find yourself in another video game where you fight zombies and shoot exploding barrels with a gun.
It’s also fairly easy to argue that Spider-Man 2’s stealth overall is a little basic. There’s always the option to simply punch your way through the areas where you encounter them – normally in open world activities or side missions – but it’s a shame it doesn’t go much beyond pressing R3 to scan who you can press a button to safely pacify, or R1 to ping something for a simple distraction. This is one where comparisons with the Arkham games – which are hardly new at this point – don’t land too favourably, although Batman has always been a little more cloak-and-dagger than the spider equivalent.
Similarly old-school is Spider-Man 2’s open world, but here’s the thing: here it makes sense. In fact here it’s actually a good thing. Visual detail is slightly lacking on up-close objects in this game compared to some other next-gen blockbusters, but the city of New York is utterly gorgeous, gloriously lit at all times of day, and as wonderful as ever in motion. Web-slinging is added to with a web glider, perhaps justifiably since we now have to navigate the new, low-rise parts of Brooklyn and Queens, but I’d implore you to use that as little as often. The traversal of this game is as good as anything, stylish and characterful – watch the slightly imbalanced scrappiness and flair of Miles, and contrast it with the poise of Peter – and still as instinctive as it’s rapid. The retro effect comes from the objectives – collecting spider-bots, taking photos, helping grandmas, biffin’ more bad dudes and sniffing out smaller side mysteries and sub-bosses – as well as the true over-abundance of mini-games, of which there must be close to a dozen, including a section where for some reason I found myself DJing a trance set inside an illusion.
But, in retro trappings comes charm, of which there’s too little in the often self-serious and po-faced world of triple-A action games, and of which Insomniac’s team remain the absolute masters. There’s more than nostalgia informing this; sometimes the old ways really are just better, and Spider-Man doesn’t need lengthy side stories of tortured angst and guilt-ridden grimdark worlds. It needs quests where you get rid of a pest that’s bothering a blind and highly allergic grandma in Queens (which, wonderfully, turns out to be a rogue enemy dog-bot named F1DO with a cruel master, and a perfect solution for said blind grandma in need of a hypoallergenic service animal.) It’s these little skits and vignettes – photos of warring salt beef mascots, murals and markets with their own little stories – that give the New York of Spider-Man a specific kind of character, a wholesome, acceptably cheesy nature as one big community that picks itself back up after tragedy and cares for its own. The vibes here are ultimately just good, and simple side activities where you find basic collectibles and lob bin lids at disturbers of the peace are exactly the right accompaniment.
It’s a welcome relief from thinking about anything more serious, from anti-heroes and darker-than-dark tones. And it’s the perfect tone itself for Spider-Man. This is what his story’s always been about, the good-old-fashioned urge to do the right thing, to form communities and stay close to family and friends – and the relentless obstacles of modern life that make that seem so hard every day. Simple, familiar, and occasionally cluttered as it might all be, it’s still brilliant fun.
A copy of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 was provided for review by Sony.
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