Our first swing through the city takes us towards Fisk tower as we accompany the police on their way to arrest Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin. Swinging over the police cars is this wonderful moment that really sells the idea that we’re immersed in a city where things are happening, and not just cruising over static scenery.
Fisk’s men are defending the tower with automatic weapons and rocket launchers, trying to prevent their boss from being arrested. Spidey defends the cops and we get our first handful of combat tutorials out of the way.
We learn that this version of Spider-Man is allied with the police. Unlike the unappreciated Spider-Man I remember from my youth, this guy has an established contact in the NYPD. He has a working relationship with Captain Yuriko WatanabePeter calls her “Yuri”. Fun fact: The voice actor for Peter Parker is also named Yuri. That’s not important or anything. I just thought it was a fun bit of trivia., who does for Spidey what Commissioner Gordon does for Batman. She guides him and slightly legitimizes his actions, while making sure his super-heroics don’t accidentally destroy evidence they’ll need once the bad guys are webbed up.
The Final Chapter
The Kingpin’s men are firing assault rifles at police officers. They ram a police blockade with a fuel truck, causing a massive explosion in Times Square. At Fisk Tower, it’s an all-out siege where the bad guys are bombing their own building in an effort to slaughter the police that are trying to serve Fisk with an arrest warrant.
Spidey has to work his way up the building from the inside, brawling with Fisk’s endless army of goons and saving civilians from the damage caused by the battle. At one point Spidey has to clear some rubble to free some trapped civilians and we get a reference to one of the most famous panels in Spider-Man’s history:
This is a callback to Amazing Spider-Man #33, The Final Chapter, first published in 1966. This moment was also referenced in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.
In Homecoming it was used in a similar way. It was the ultimate test of his strength at a moment when the stakes were at their highest. Here in the game, it’s mostly just a visual nod and not really a big deal for the character.
In the 1966 comic, Spider-Man is trying to reach a vial of serum to cure Aunt May. That entire concept also appears at the very end of this game.
This Means War
Spider-Man fights his way up Fisk tower, doing combat and traversal tutorials while our police buddy Yuri Watanabe fills us in on all the momentary exposition we need to make sense of the current situation. The whole thing is incredibly brisk.
About halfway up the tower, Yuri tells Spider-Man that Fisk’s men are in the computer room, deleting all the evidence. She seems to be worried that they won’t be able to prosecute him if that evidence is destroyed.
His entire workforce launched an open firefight against the police and staged multiple terrorist-style attacks around the city for the express purpose of killing police officers, and you’re worried you might no have enough evidence to put him away?!?
This is totally ridiculous.
Shamus, you seriously can’t be objecting to this on the grounds of “realism”. Weirder shit than this happens in comic books ALL THE TIME!
I agree. See, I’m not complaining about the story. I’m complaining about the art style.
The Presentation is Part of the Setting
I’m a big believer in the idea that the art style of a work is an important part of how we view that world. Directors like Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam, and Tim Burton all deliberately make their worlds look fantastical in order to signal that we’re not seeing the real world. They pull us in by showing us that their world is different and strange, so we aren’t surprised to discover it runs on different rules.
Dialog that works well in a cartoon will fall completely flat if delivered in a grounded clinical presentation like a David Fincher movie. If you took a dramatic scene from one of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies and shot it using the style and presentation of the campy 60s Batman television show, the intended mood would be completely lost. Likewise if you shot the campy 60s Batman show in a gritty realistic style it would lose all the charm and would come across as moronic and infantile. Tropes aimed at animated shows for kids will come off as offensively stupid if presented to adults in a world that’s meant to be taken literally. Animated worlds can crank up their more fantastical elements without needing to explore or explain them, while grounded worlds need to take more care to avoid destroying our suspension of disbelief.
My problem with Spider-Man is that this is a very comic book world with a very literalist presentation. You can see Peter Parker’s pores, for crying out loud. This game is crying out for some sort of stylized presentation. This is a wild comic-book world shot with graphical fidelity more in line with something like The Last of Us.
I had the same problem with Batman Arkham Knight. The producer aimed for photorealism in a world that wasn’t really intended to be presented that way. Arkham Knight had the ridiculous gag where running into a mook at 60 miles an hour with the Batmobile would “stun” them with electricity, rather than turning them into villainous tomato paste. That’s a very cartoony way of thinking, but the visuals were demanding that we take the scene literally so the whole thing came across as patronizing and juvenile.
With the green light from Marvel, Gavin and I got to work oncoming up with a design that fit what Marvel and Sony were looking for in a Spider-Suit.
— xavier (@XCK3D) April 12, 2018
For Marvel, that means faithfully representing Spider-Man in the best way possible. For Sony, it means making something with stunning visuals that could only be achieved with the power of the PS4.
— xavier (@XCK3D) April 12, 2018
The style of the game was chosen with an eye towards selling hardware for Sony, whether it suited the material or not. Sure, it’s possible that the team would have chosen this art style on their own. The thing is, this isn’t an isolated incident. There are several questionable decisions in this game, and most of them seem to be done in service of Sony’s branding / licensing / platform.
This particular scene isn’t all that bad. The player has to go through the stealth tutorial stop Fisk’s men from erasing all the data on Fisk’s computers. It might be a little silly to worry about evidence when a full-scale military battle is raging between Fisk’s men and the police, but if this was the silliest moment in the game I could roll with it. My problem is that there are a couple of moments later in the story where the dissonance is strong enough to undercut the drama.
The sad thing is, they had a better solution available. Check out the comic-styled suit you can unlock later in the game:
♫ Can he swing from a thread? Take a look overhead! ♫
♫ Hey, there! There goes the Spiderman! ♫
I’d love it if we could see the entire world rendered in that style. I think it would fit the story better, and it would also make the game really stand out. Spider-Man is a beautiful game, but its art and its world are at odds with each other. Given the choice, I’d prefer if they could go crazy with the art rather than restrain the storytelling.
At the top of the tower we finally meet…
Wilson Fisk is a longtime Spider-Man foe known as The Kingpin. He dates all the way back to 1967. I’ve never been a fan of the character.
I read my first Kingpin-based story in 1978. I remember it really bothered my 7 year old self that Spider-Man was fighting what seemed to be a regular dude in a business suit. How is this an even matchup? Spidey can throw cars, which is something normal people can’t do regardless of diet or training. Even if we imagine this is the strongest regular human in the world and he can somehow match Spider-Man’s raw physical strength, he’s still lacking the incredible dexterity, the superhuman reflexes, the acrobatic mobility, the ability to web people up from across the room, and an endless supply of one-liners. This fight should end before Spidey gets a chance to make his first bald joke.
Even ignoring pedantic arguments over power level, Kingpin just didn’t seem cool enough to be a recurring Spider-foe. The rest of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery is so much more outlandish. You’ve got a guy who can shoot electricity, a guy with four telescoping metal tentacles, a guy with a nasty poison-tipped scorpion tail, and an unstoppable guy that looks like a rhinoceros. Compared to those freaks, Kingpin is just a guy with an MBA who shops in the Big & Tall section.
Years later I found out that Kingpin had transitioned to being a Daredevil foe, and that made a lot more sense to me.
I like that they used the Kingpin as our introductory boss. This is supposed to be a bit of a cakewalk for Spidey, so Fisk makes for a good tutorial punching bag. This version of the character is less about the physical threat and more about the political machinations. On his way to Fisk Tower, Spider-Man talks about how he’s been waiting 8 years for this. Sure, he could have climbed the tower and punched Fisk’s lights out whenever he wanted, but if the goal is to see him serve jail time then Spidey needed to work with the police to overcome the layers of hired muscle and corruption that Kingpin has been using to protect himself.
I should make it clear that Kingpin is only a punching bag during gameplay. Sadly, only half of this fight takes place in gameplay.
Game vs. Movie
Like I said in my Escapist column a few months ago, there are good ways and bad ways to handle the transition from gameplay to cutscene at the end of a fight.
A good fight is where you beat Mr. Freeze entirely in gameplay. Once he’s down, the game has a cutscene where Batman talks to the now-defeated Freeze and the conflict is brought to a resolution.
A bad fight is one where the Kingpin activates a trap in a cutscene while Spider-Man does nothing, then the player breaks free and thrashes Kingpin in gameplay, then suddenly you have a cutscene where Kingpin tosses the now-helpless Spider-Man around the room for a bit, then you overcome him in gameplay again, then there’s another cutscene where once again the Kingpin has the upper hand and nearly wins but then Spider-Man defeats him at the last moment through the power of quicktime events.
Dear cutscene designer:
Yes, that big showy finale looks more “cinematic”, but it accomplishes this by negating the entire idea of a videogame. It might look impressive, but those looks come at the expense of making the game less fun to play. I’ve already got a stack of Marvel movies on my shelfOkay, they’re mostly digital, but you know what I mean.. If I want to watch a superhero fight, I’ve got lots of options to choose from. I’m here because I want to participate in a superhero fight, which is one thing that the movies can’t give me.
You handle the talky bits, I’ll do the punching. Stay in your own lane.
 Peter calls her “Yuri”. Fun fact: The voice actor for Peter Parker is also named Yuri. That’s not important or anything. I just thought it was a fun bit of trivia.
 Okay, they’re mostly digital, but you know what I mean.
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