New York city is now filled with escaped convicts terrorizing the populace. Sable agents have declared martial law and are using their unchecked power to imprison civilians, beat them, and seize their property. The Sinister Six are loose in the city and causing even more destruction. Doctor Octopus has released Devil’s Breath, which is causing a pandemic that will certainly claim thousands of lives, and might even kill millions if we don’t find a cure.
The city is now screwed so bad I kind of stop caring. As far as I’m concerned, Spider-Man lost. This is the kind of cataclysm he’s supposed to prevent. This reminds me of the destructive brawl Superman had in Man of Steel. The fantasy of thwarting evil is gone. Sure, Spider-Man saves the city later, but that doesn’t fix the fact that so many people died under his watch.
Maybe a disaster of this scale might work as a dark turn in the second entry of a trilogy, but as the introduction of a new franchise it’s incredibly off-putting to me. I know how producers think and I know they feel compelled to constantly go “bigger” and “more epic” and to continually raise the stakes. I’m really not looking forward to the “more epic” version of a citywide pandemic + prison escape + brutalist police state + Sinister Six rampage in the eventual sequel.
This compulsion to constantly go bigger is what turned the final Arkham game into such a bloated mess. At least Batman started small-scale and worked up to ridiculous over the course of four games. Spider-Man is starting with a massive doomsday threat that kills thousands, so there isn’t a lot of room for them to scale up from here without getting into problems that are too big for Spider-Man’s world.
I realize this is a matter of taste and I’m sure lots of people will enjoy this “darker” take on a Spider-Man story, but for me the game has refused to deliver on the central thing I look for in Spider-Man: I want the hero to save the day. If I wanted to see the hero fail I’d turn to Watchmen, and if I wanted to see the quasi-hero avenge the fallen I’d turn to PunisherOkay, I can’t actually do that because they aren’t making Punisher games. But they should!. To me Spider-Man is a guy who saves the day at great cost to himself and with little thanks from the public. If you take away the “saving the day” aspect of the story then it’s just wallowing in misery. No thanks.
The next section of the game is going to have a lot of punching. We need to fight strongholds of prisoners, Sable bases, and six supervillains. So I guess now is a good time to talk about…
The Combat System
I really don’t get the praise people gave the combat system in this game. At best I would say it’s “serviceable”. It’s not nearly as deep as the Batman system, it doesn’t really suit the character, and it’s not really deep enough to support the amount of time we spend with it.
One of the main criticisms of the Batman system is that it’s “just a quicktime event”. You see a telegraphed attack, so you hit the counter button. One stimulus, one correct response. Boring.
But as I pointed out in my Arkham City retrospective, that’s not actually the case. When you see a telegraphed attack you have a lot of options. Yes, you can hit the counter button. OR you can use a takedown. OR you can leap away from the attack. OR you can stun the assailant. OR you can attack the assailant directly. OR you can reposition by jumping over someone. You have a lot of options, and if you’re trying to complete a fight without taking a single hit or breaking your combo then mindlessly mashing that combo button is not going to get you there.
For contrast, Spider-Man’s system isn’t nearly as flexible. The telegraphed attack is a quicktime. Or at least, it’s much closer to being a “One stimulus, one correct response” type deal. If someone is about to shoot you then leaping away won’t help. Swinging through the air won’t help. You can try to shoot a web at the guy, but there’s no guarantee the web will go the right direction. The game tries to “help” you by picking what it thinks is the most important target, and I’ve had it aim at guys ninety degrees off from where I was pointing the stick because it disagreed with who I ought to be attacking.
If someone is about to shoot you, then the only way to avoid getting shot is to hit the evade buttonEh. You can sometimes attack them directly, but it works on some foes and not others. Web-pulling yourself towards a shooter doesn’t cancel their attack and you’ll get shot several times, which is worse than standing still.. In Batman it’s difficult to get through a fight without the counter button, but you can do it. Meanwhile trying to get through a Spider-Man fight without the evade button is basically suicide.
The Evade Button
You can jump around if you like, but it doesn’t matter because the bad guys can track you with superhuman accuracy. If you’re swinging through the city and pass within a city block of some snipers, their lasers will snap to you instantly and they’ll behave like perfect aimbots. You can swing around and do all the backflips you like, but the only way to avoid getting shot is to mash that evade button when you’re told to. That’s thematically appropriate for a character who uses spider-magic to anticipate incoming attacks, but the game pursues this idea with such fervor that it reduces your options and makes combat less interesting.
But fine. They put a huge emphasis on this evade button. That’s not automatically a bad thing. My problem is that the evade isn’t reliable, which means the combat isn’t perfectable, which is a big part of Arkham’s appeal for me. In Spider-Man, the evade doesn’t even give you enough distance to clear an AoE attack. You’ll see the warning flash and push evade like a good little monkey, only to find that Spider-Man landed right in range of the fireball / electrical attack he was supposed to evade. The same is true of grenades, although at least you can use webbing to grab grenades and throw them backAssuming they land in front of the camera, which they sometimes don’t..
Spider-Man doesn’t have an underlying rhythm to the fight and thus the effectiveness of evade is subject to randomness. Like I said in my Escapist column last year:
The foes in Batman follow a certain kind of “mook etiquette” similar to what you find in your typical martial arts movies. The fights have a rhythm imposed on them. If one guy begins attacking, then everyone else will bounce around in the background and patiently wait their turn. Nobody else can initiate an attack until the current attack is resolved. If two guys attack at the same time, they have to attack at exactly the same time. This means that all damage is avoidable once you’ve mastered the system.
Spider-Man has a dodge move similar to the counter button in Batman, except the designers didn’t give the system this underlying rhythm. Mooks can attack at any point, even when you’re in the middle of dodging some other attack. You’ll come out of the dodge animation to take an unavoidable hit from a third party.
On top of this, the window for dodge timing is all over the place. Sometimes the dodge warning will come way too soon. You’ll hit the button right away, and Spider-Man will complete his entire dodge move before the telegraphed attack has even begun. The bad guy will then slide into place and clock you, despite the fact that you “dodged” him. Other times the dodge window is so short that the warning and the attack are nearly simultaneous.
The evasion system is much more important to Spider-Man than counter is to Batman, while at the same time evade is a lot more random in its behavior and effectiveness.
FYI, Spiders Don’t Fly
In your very first fight of the game, the tutorial popups explain that it’s best to fight in the air. I really dislike this design decision.
For one, it looks ridiculous. Spider-Man basically “hovers” in the air, punching a foe over and over again without losing altitude. He can even pull guys or throwable objects off the ground and bring them into his hover-fight. I know he’s often off the ground in the comics, but in a still comic frame you can assume his mid-air pose means he’s either on his way up or on the way down. If this game had a cartoonish presentation we might accept a certain degree of cartoon physics, but this hovering fisticuffs looks absurd in this otherwise realistic world.
Another problem is with gameplay. When you’re on the ground you’ve got a lot of options. You can hop off of walls, slide under guys, web guys up and swing them around like a wrecking ball, and so on. When you’re in the air you have fewer options. You end up just punching guys over and over, because that’s the most expedient way of getting things done when you’re not on the ground. This reduces the number of interesting choices, which makes combat more repetitive.
Making matters worse is that the camera does not interact well with air combat in this game. You’ll uppercut a guy into the air, jump up after him, and spend several seconds pummeling him while gravity looks the other way. When you do this, the camera angle doesn’t automatically adjust to your new elevation. The camera comes with you, but it retains its flat angle. This means all your foes on the ground are now out of the bottom of the frame and it’s hard to see the battlefield. So you nudge the stick to point the camera down to make sure you’re not going to kill yourself by landing right in front of a brute.Then once you’re on the ground again, the camera retains the downward angle so you’re now looking at the pavement instead of the guys in front of you. So then you need to nudge the camera again so you can pick another guy to uppercut and start the whole process over again.
The game is serious when it says it’s better to fight in the air. On the ground, you’ll spend all your time mashing the dodge button without getting a chance to attack. Either that, or you’ll get pounded into hamburger. But fighting in the air makes the combat repetitive, it forces you to wrestle with the camera, it cuts you off from the most exciting animations and acrobatics, and it makes the whole fight look ridiculous.
Prolonged hovering aerial combat should not be a thing in this game. The whole system would be much improved if they took away Spider-Man’s ability to quasi-float and simply made ground combat more viable. The result would look better, play better, and feel better.
I know Peter Parker is a bit of an inventor in the comics. He built the web shooters and the remote Spidey-trackers, and sometimes he builds special one-off devices when he encounters a new foe. This game has run with that idea, and the result is a clumsy system that doesn’t fit the character.
The main problem is that there are no shortcuts for the different gadgets. If you’re using electrified webbing and you want to switch to the air blast(???) then you need to bring up an FPS shooter-style weapon wheel that slows time. You only get a couple of charges of each ability, which means you’ll need to change weapons often, which means you need to constantly break the flow of the fight to select a different gadget.
The other problem is that they’re too powerful and they easily overshadow Spider-Man’s regular moveset. Hop into a Sable outpost and try to clear it using normal fisticuffs and you’ll probably spend the whole time mashing evade. The moment you try to attack you’ll get shredded by the half dozen guys all shooting at you at once. On the other hand you can blast the group with a couple of gadgets and trivialize the entire fight.
Getting better at the combat system will certainly help in a fight, but it’s not as helpful as unlocking more gadgets and upgrading how often you can use them.
Making matters worse is that a couple of them strike me as being thematically wrong. The Suspension Matrix acts like one of the vigors in BioShock Infinite that cause a group of foes to float helplessly for several seconds. The Spider-Drone gives you a little flying drone that shoots bad guys with some sort of zap gun, and I kinda feel like this doesn’t fit for the same reason that having Spider-Man personally hold a zap gun and shoot people doesn’t fit. Electrical Webbing is a bit of a stretch, but I’m willing to go with it because it’s web-based and gets used in a lot of puzzles. Concussive Blast is basically what Iron Man does with his glowy hand thing, and that’s too much science gadgetry for a guy that runs around in skin-tight spandex with no visible gear. Again, if I’m supposed to think of this world like a cartoon then they should have made it look like a cartoon.
In Batman, you build up your combo meter and then use a special takedown move to quickly remove a troublesome foe from the fight. There’s a bit of strategy involved in choosing when to use a takedown and who to use it on.
At the end of a Batman encounter, the camera swoops in for a close-up view of the final hit. It gives the final hit a bit of “oomph” to punctuate the end of the brawl. It also allows the game to do a little musical transition so everything can wind down and return to the more low-key gameplay of exploration and puzzle-solving.
Spider-Man also has takedown animations, but it combines them with the big finale camera moves of Batman. This means that the camera swoops in for a closeup every single time you use a takedown move.
Paradoxically, by emphasizing every single takedown, the game loses the ability to emphasize anything. It’s not a special moment when the camera swoops in because it happens constantly. It’s like taking a game that plays a special sound for headshots and changing the game so that the sound plays for any old hit. This feedback should be a reward for skilled play, but now it’s just background noise.
Bringing the camera in close for a takedown sort of penalizes the player for using it. With the camera that close, you lose your situational awareness. Sometimes the camera even spins around, effectively scrambling my mental map of the battlefield. It also breaks the flow of combat, which is really something that should only happen when the player gets hit.
Zooming in for every takedown makes it more repetitive. I’ll admit that the animation budget in this game is lavish and there’s lots of variety in everything, but there’s not quite enough variety to justify zooming in for every single takedown. By the end of my first trip through the game, I was very sick of these animations and wishing there were a lot more of them.
I Don’t Hate It
I know I’ve been pretty negative in this entry, but I don’t want it to sound like Insomniac’s combat system is hot garbage. I’m being extra-nitpicky here because this combat system has been getting a lot of praise and I know lots of people are going to want to defend it in the comments. I figured the best way to handle that was to make all my objections clear up front. None of these problems are terrible sins and I enjoyed the game despite these problems.
The Arkham combat was a rough little prototype in the first game that really came together in the second. I’m hoping Insomniac is able to do the same here. This combat is okay, but it’s not really up to the standards of the rest of the experience and I wouldn’t advise building the entire franchise on what we have now.
 Okay, I can’t actually do that because they aren’t making Punisher games. But they should!
 Eh. You can sometimes attack them directly, but it works on some foes and not others. Web-pulling yourself towards a shooter doesn’t cancel their attack and you’ll get shot several times, which is worse than standing still.
 Assuming they land in front of the camera, which they sometimes don’t.
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