For the record, I played through this game a total of four times back-to-back. I tried every difficulty level, and I’ve tried disabling some of the optional side elements like quicktime events and puzzles. I’ve fully cleared 100% of all objectives, obtained all the trophies, and I’ve spent endless hours swinging through the Manhattan playground that developer Insomniac Games has built for us. I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on the thing both mechanically and narratively, although I can’t claim I know this game as well as I know Batman: Arkham City.
Speaking of Batman: I’m going to spend a few words in this series contrasting Batman: Arkham Sequels and Spider-Man: No Subtitle. I anticipate the knee jerk reaction will be that they’re different games with a different focus and it’s not fair to expect Spider-Man’s game to simply copy Batman’s games. And just to be clear: I totally agree. Just because I compare the two doesn’t mean that I automatically think Batman did it better. On the other hand, it’s obvious Insomniac Games took a lot of cues from Rocksteady’s Batman formula when designing their Spider-Game. As the two standard bearers of the open world superhero brawler I think the occasional comparison is fair, as long as we remember that Batman: Arkham Whatever had six years and four mainline entries to refine the formula, while this is effectively the first outing for Insomniac’s version of Spider-Man.
The Weird Stuff
This story does some pretty deep cuts on Spider-lore while also rewriting or altering parts of the mythology. I’m not enough of a Spidey scholar to know if the writer was just trying to make a mixtape of the character’s iconic moments or if there’s some grand design behind these references and changes that I’m just not seeing. Some of the changes strike me as kind of peculiar. Maybe the writer is trying to break Spidey out of his 60-year rut, or maybe they’re just changing stuff to subvert our expectations.
Five people are credited with writing this game. Two of them are Christos Gage and Dan Slott, who are longtime contributors to the Spider-Man mythos. Gage wrote for The Amazing Spider-Man from 2011 to 2013. Slott wrote the final issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, which ended with issue #700 where a dying Doctor Octopus swaps bodies with Peter Parker, and then Peter (in the frail body of Doc Ock) dies, leaving a supervillain inside the body of a superhero. After that Marvel launched The Superior Spider-Man, which tells the story of this new Spider-Man with the mind of Doctor Octopus.
Having the hero die and get replaced by his arch nemesis via brain-swap is exactly the kind of “weird stuff” I was referring to last week when I talked about how I found long-running stories to be a little off-putting. Again, I want to stress that I get the reasoning here. Slott didn’t pen that story for detached fans like me, he wrote it for longtime fans that were looking for something freshAlthough predictably a lot of people really hated this idea. You have to expect some backlash when killing off a beloved hero and replacing him with his nemesis.. Over the previous half century a lot of the old plotlines had been thoroughly worn out and it’s perfectly reasonable to want to shake things up with a fresh status quo.
For the most part, I’m going to keep to my usual habit of referring to “the Writer” as a singular person. Although since this retrospective is a little more positive than my usual work I’m going to break that rule at a couple of points where we see huge shifts in style.
In any case, the spoilers begin now. I’m going to spoil the ending fairly early in this series, so be ready for that.
The game needs to introduce us to this particular iteration of Peter Parker. Is Peter in high school? Post-college? Married? Employed? The Spider-Man name is nearly 60 years old at this point. The character has gone through a lot of changes over the decades and everyone is likely to have a different idea about which one is the “true” version of the character.
For me, Spidey was hermetically sealed in a comic book sleeve back in 1979 and nothing noteworthy has happened to him since then. For other people, the Sam Rami version of the character is the only one they know. Other people are more familiar with the 1990 status quo where he was married to Mary Jane and Venom was his arch nemesis. Still others are hip to the modern incarnations of the character where the Spider name has been franchised similar to how Batman has a sprawling array of Bat-themed allies. Some tragic souls only know him through the lens of the misbegotten Amazing Spider-Man movies.
The opening shot pans through Peter’s one-room apartment to introduce us to his life. He’s living alone, which means he’s not in highschool and he’s not married. Newspapers on the wall show us he’s already faced off against some of his big-ticket foes like Scorpion and Rhino. A dead plant shows he’s a bit of a scatterbrain who doesn’t really have his life together. Disassembled gadgets show he’s a bit of a tinkerer and an inventor. This is a really compact introduction and I appreciate how dense Peter’s room is with details. Every time I see this cutscene I manage to spot something new.
Peter’s phone rings with a police scanner messageYeah, that’s a little weird. Get used to it. The game really blurs the line between phone calls, Skype, radio messages, Discord channels, and voicemail. that announces the police are mobilizing for a move on Fisk TowerFun fact: In this game, Fisk Tower is positioned roughly where you’d find Trump Tower in real-world Manhattan.. Peter jumps out of bed and pulls his Spidey costume out of the dirty laundry as he slams down some dry toast for breakfast.
I love details like this, and it’s one of the things that makes the character so “real” for me. Steve Rogers never has to worry about paying for repairs on mundane items around the house. Clark Kent isn’t constantly running late and letting people down because of his Superman duties. Wonder Woman doesn’t spend a lot of time agonizing about losing her job. Thor never has to resort to a junk food breakfast because he slept in. Batman doesn’t have to constantly placate Alfred to keep him from worrying like Peter does with Aunt May. Tony Stark doesn’t have to worry about hosing the sweat and body odor out of the Iron-Man suit.
Sure, partly this is due to the fact that most superheroes are generally wealthy. Or they’re royalty. Or gods. But Peter’s civilian life and his superhero life are constantly interfering with each other and I think it makes him incredibly relatable. I can’t climb walls or shoot webs, but I know how hard it is to maintain a proper work-life balance. I know what it’s like getting calls from the wife at the office and calls from the boss at home, and how both sides kind of blame you when it happens.
The scene ends with Peter pulling on the Spider-Man costume. He can grab the police scanner and head off to help the police, or he can check out the eviction notice that was just slid under his door. It’s not much of a contest. Spider-Man dives out the window and leaves Peter Parker’s problems behind.
The Swing of Things
This game starts off strong. It introduces us to this particular iteration of Peter Parker and then it launches us right into the web-swinging tutorial. The developers obviously knew they had a winning traversal system on their hands and they wanted to lead off with it. Compare this to Arkham City, where the combat system is the star of the show and you’ll spend about twenty minutes watching cutscenes and handing out Bat-naps before the game cuts you loose to glide over the city.
I actually got a little emotional the first time I swung through the city. Spider-Man jumped out of his apartment window and as the game seamlessly transitioned to gameplay I was overcome with just how perfect it was. It’s a videogame that feels like it was ripped from my childhood daydreams.
This is it. This is the best it’s ever been. This isn’t just the best web-swinging in a Spider-Man game, this is the best it’s ever felt to get around in a videogame, ever.
I admit I’m biased, but it really is stunning just how much they got right. Getting around in this game involves making constant snap decisions that result in an exhilarating roller-coaster ride through a sprawling and beautifully realized city.
You can let go of a web-line at the bottom of your swing, giving up some altitude in exchange for forward momentum. Alternatively you can hold on as long as possible, bleeding off speed but gaining height. You can throw a webline downwards to snap onto a convenient landing point below you. If you get the timing just right, you can launch yourself from that landing point and back into the air without losing speed. If you’re headed towards an opening like a window or the legs of a water tower, Spidey will do a little dive move as he passes through and the camera will give you a little flourish to make it feel like that was something you did on purpose. You can freefall to gain tons of speed and you can do little spins and flips in the air for no other reason than it looks cool.
This traversal system is a lot like the Batman fighting system. Casual button-mashing can look pretty cool on its own, but if you’re willing to put in the time you can improvise to make something fast and seamless that looks like it was meticulously choreographed.
But it’s Too Easy!
One of the main complaints about this system is that it’s “too simple”. It “lacks depth”. That’s technically true. Some people even go so far as to suggest the system should be made more “challenging”. I understand why people say this, but they’re wrong.
One example is this episode of Game Maker’s Toolkit: Does Spidey’s Web-Swinging ‘Make You Feel Like Spider-Man’?
The argument goes that it’s not really rewarding because you don’t have to “work” for it. You can effortlessly swing over the city without spending hours mastering timing windows and input patterns. You can flub a swing without Spider-Man stumbling, falling, or bouncing off a window like an idiot. There’s no fall damage and the game makes no effort to kill you for making mistakes. Wouldn’t it be better if you had to put more effort into it? Wouldn’t it be better if there was a huge learning curve that you had to climb up before you could enjoy an effortless swing across the city?
No. That’s a terrible idea. That would completely break the game in multiple ways.
Not every game needs to be a Dark Souls style crucible of tears and failure. Not everything needs to be “earned”. Not every action needs to be a challenge. It’s okay to have features that are “just for fun”.
Mass Effect wouldn’t be improved if we made dialog selections some sort of quicktime event that required the player to memorize button prompts to get the option they want. World of Warcraft wouldn’t be improved if flying on a gryphon involved a timing minigame that would make you crash if you messed up. Assassin’s Creed wouldn’t be improved if you had to use the stick to keep your balance so you don’t fall off your horse.
Spider-Man features a massive open world. If it was a lot of work to get around, then those long swings across the city would become a chore. Mario is a game about jumping so it makes sense for jumping to be challenging. But Spider-Man isn’t a game about figuring out how you can possibly get from Midtown to Harlem. This is a story-based game about getting into brawls with mooks and supervillains. The swinging is just our means of transportation. Imagine how tedious Grand Theft Auto would be if they made the game more “challenging” by having people constantly trying to murder you and ram you off the road Burnout style when you’re just trying to enjoy a drive through the countryside. Maybe there are moments when that sort of excitement sounds fun, but you wouldn’t want that sort of aggressive opposition to be a constant part of the experience.
If you made getting around difficult, then players would lean into Spider-Man‘s fast-travel system. If you change swinging so it’s a challenge instead of a reward, then the vast majority of players will minimize the time they spend doing it. It will make the entire open world a self-defeating design that punishes people for trying to get around.
Note how experienced Dark Souls players usually evade or avoid as many mook fights as they can. They don’t run back and forth over the level mopping up generic mooksI mean, I’m sure SOME do, but that’s not a common behavior and it’s not what fans get excited about., they save their effort and resources for the fights that really matter. Instead of enjoying a gratifying and sensory-stimulating swing, most players would minimize the time spent swinging through the open world. This gargantuan replica of Manhattan would go to waste.
But Does it Need to be Shallow?
I think one of the problems is that people have trouble separating depth from the idea of adversity. If they realize something feels a bit too shallow, then their first instinct is to add constant adversity and danger. But there are other ways to make something deep besides attacking the player or inflicting failure on them. Instead of making Spider-Man a clumsy oaf and forcing the player to master the systems just to get around gracefully, you can make graceful movement the default and allow the player to move more quickly if they get good at it.
Here are some suggesting for how to make swinging more interesting without turning it into a chore:
Right now there’s the point launch system. You can web something on the ground below you, and Spider-Man will pull himself towards it. If you hit the jump button just before you touch down, he’ll launch himself back into the air with additional speed. That’s a pretty good idea, but you don’t have to master the timing. If you flutter the jump button just before you land, then one of those button-presses will hit the mark and you’ll get your speed boost. If the game was a little more strict about these inputs and didn’t allow you to spam your way to victory, then it would be worth learning the timing.
Once you put a few points into Spidey’s skill tree, you’ll unlock an ability to let you do these little flips and spins in the air for trivial little bits of XP. That’s fine, but there’s no challenge to it. You just hold a button and it happens. It would be better if these flips would happen in response to well-timed movements.
As you level up, you occasionally get passive speed boosts to your swing speed. It would be better if these boosts were the result of graceful movement rather than leveling up. Maybe they kick in after X number of swings without “touching down”, so the longer you swing without running along the ground or the side of a building, the faster you go. You can give it an appropriate “wooshing” sound and momentary radial motion-blur like the Fast and the Furious does when someone steps on the gas. Nudge the field of view up a few degrees to make it feel even fasterA high field of view – like a wide-angle lens – tends to exaggerate forward motion. Conversely, peering at the world through a sniper scope makes it feel like you’re inching forward. The important thing is that more FOV = greater sensation of speed.. This will encourage the player to avoid bumping into buildings.
I’m all for making Spider-Man’s swinging deeper, but it should absolutely not be difficult to get around.
 Although predictably a lot of people really hated this idea. You have to expect some backlash when killing off a beloved hero and replacing him with his nemesis.
 Yeah, that’s a little weird. Get used to it. The game really blurs the line between phone calls, Skype, radio messages, Discord channels, and voicemail.
 Fun fact: In this game, Fisk Tower is positioned roughly where you’d find Trump Tower in real-world Manhattan.
 I mean, I’m sure SOME do, but that’s not a common behavior and it’s not what fans get excited about.
 A high field of view – like a wide-angle lens – tends to exaggerate forward motion. Conversely, peering at the world through a sniper scope makes it feel like you’re inching forward. The important thing is that more FOV = greater sensation of speed.
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Why Batman Can't Kill
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Quakecon 2011 Keynote Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
Quakecon Keynote 2013 Annotated
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The Truth About Piracy
What are publishers doing to fight piracy and why is it all wrong?