People are dying of disease, six different supervillains are tearing apart the city infrastructure, violent escaped prisoners roam the streets, and fascist Sable thugs are oppressing the populace rather than doing anything about the situation.
Again, I kinda feel like this is too big of a failure for Spider-Man, particularly for his first game in a new franchise. But whatever. We’re here now so we might as well see what we can accomplish by punching people. Let’s do some boss fights…
You arrive to confront Scorpion, perhaps hoping you’ll get a proper boss fight. But instead he stings you in a cutscene and runs off. Why? Because Doctor Octopus wants to “torture” Spider-Man first.
That’s in direct conflict with the previous scene where he explicitly tried to kill Spider-Man. Given how vicious Doctor Octopus is towards Spider-Man, it’s somewhat perplexing that he doesn’t attempt to torture Norman Osborn when he gets the chance later on. Why does he want to torture his best friend but give his nemesis a quick death?
I know I keep harping on this, and I don’t want to give the impression that this is some all-encompassing flaw that ruins the story. I realize it’s not a huge problem and it amounts more to a missed opportunity than a an outright flaw, but for me this was an annoyance that ran throughout the game.
But whatever. The point is, Spider-Man is poisoned in a cutscene.
Scorpion’s Bad Trip
Earlier in this series I said I wasn’t crazy about dream sequences in a videogame. They play well in print, but they’re annoying in movies if they drag on for too long and I find they’re insufferable in videogames. In a videogame, not only does this scene ultimately not matter, but I know ahead of time it doesn’t matter and I’m still obligated to exert effort to overcome a hallucinated threat before I can escape this situation and begin doing things that matter.
So it’s really disappointing that scorpion’s poison results in a long series of hallucinations. Not only is our encounter with Scorpion a hallucination, but it’s also a nested problem that goes several levels deep. The game plays “the princess is in another castle” with you three times in a row, and sometimes three levels deep.
Spidey begins hallucinating that the entire city is filled with poison. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that even though the poison is a hallucination, you still die if you fall into it.
Spider-Man concludes he needs to whip up a cure using Silly Science. He needs ingredients from three different places around the city. So you swing to a location and attempt to pick up the ingredient, but then the hallucination gets worse and Spidey is dropped into a dream-within-a-dream where he has to argue with Otto Octavius. Except, this isn’t really Octavius. This is Octavius as Peter imagines him, so we can’t learn anything insightful about the character. Then after a long chain of swinging while Otto talks your ear off and Peter apologizes to a figment of his imagination, you’re bumped back out to the first-level dream to continue swinging across the city. Sometimes it’ll swipe your goal away a few times before you’re allowed to move on.
When it’s over, nothing has changed. Scorpion is still loose. We haven’t learned anything new about him or Octavius since neither of them were present. We sat through several long minutes of exposition that amounts to Peter blaming himself for everything. That fits with his character, but the story has already hit that note several times already and I’m not sure it was worth sitting through ten minutes of hallucinated dialog to hit it again.
From the standpoint of gameplay and visuals, this is a nice change of pace. I’m focusing a lot on narrative elements in this write-up, so we’ve been plowing through story content pretty fast. But for people actually playing through the game, this entire chapter can feel really long. The game has opened up the last batch of open-world content, and at this point the player has probably spent a lot of hours swinging across the burning city and being ambushed by Sable aimbots. This section with scorpion can help alleviate the resulting fatigue. The green color and the novel gameplayCrossing the city without falling below a given altitude isn’t TOTALLY new. The silly science shack missions already played around with that gimmick, although this version is way better. keep things fresh, and it’s always nice to give screen time to Doc Ock.
It’s not that this section is horrible. I just wish it could have been constructed so it wasn’t entirely a chain of hallucinated conversations and repetitious Sisyphean scenarios for nothing. All we needed was a dose of real-world consequences. Maybe have it so Peter is talking to the real Doc Ock. Or have it so that the dream fight with Scorpion is a proxy for the real fight, so defeating him in the dream means you punched his lights out in the real world. It’s just annoying to spend ten minutes spinning our wheels and wind up right back where we started.
Okay, the punchlineOnce the toxin is cured, Peter snaps back to the real world to discover he’s wearing just his mask and his underpants. is pretty good. Maybe that redeems the whole thing. Still, I’d like it better if it wasn’t all a dream.
Miles vs. Rhino
Miles gets a sort of boss STEALTH challenge in this part of the game when he has to sneak by Rhino to get some medication for the people at FEAST. I don’t know if you’d want to classify it as a “boss” encounter. Dealing with Rhino feels like a big deal, but this section is just as shallow as the rest of the stealth in the game, and it has the exact same insta-death stakes for failure as the other ones. The only thing that makes this a “boss” encounter is the cosmetic detail that you’re being instantly killed by Rhino instead of Sable goons.
This entire sequence is a showcase of top-notch animation work and cinematography, while the gameplay is just as shallow and predictable as the last time we did one of these. Once again, I can’t help but notice that the storyteller is doing a good job, and the gameplay designer is doing a good job, but they’re never doing a good job at the same time. The game as a whole feels like an argument between a writer and a game designer.
Final Exam vs. New Challenge
There are two different schools of thought regarding boss fights. One is that a boss fight is essentially a final exam for the stuff you’ve been studying during the course of normal gameplay. If you’ve mastered the mechanics so far, then you ought to be able to defeat the boss. Half-Life 2 is often the go-to example of this sort of game design.
The other school of thought is that a boss fight should be a totally new challenge to overcome. Maybe it’ll have a move set you’ve never faced before, or a new kind of attack, or you’ll need to use a brand-new mechanic to beat the boss. You’re not expected to be able to beat the boss right away. You’ll need to die several times to learn what you need to know before you have a shot at winning. I guess Soulsborne is seen as the standard-bearer of this design philosophy.
I hate the latter type of boss, particularly in games designed to be empowering. Losing a fight six times and winning once does not make me feel empowered. Instead of feeling satisfaction that I won, I just feel annoyed that I had to restart so many times. In fact, the final win doesn’t even feel like a victory. I feel like I overcame it with brute force. With enough attempts, even random button-pressing can overcome a challenge. Making me learn to beat the boss by being defeated by the boss doesn’t just make me hate the fight itself, it steals the reward I’d feel if I was allowed to prepare for the test ahead of time and won through my preparation and study.
On top of that is the problem that doing a boss fight a few times completely kills the narrative momentum. It’s like watching a movie where some jackass keeps rewinding to the start of the scene just as things get going. Maybe those opening lines were clever at first. Maybe they got you pumped up for the coming showdown. But when you hear them for the fourth time they’ve lost their magic and the moment is gone.
I know this is very much a matter of taste, but that’s where I’m coming from. I’m sure Dark Souls fans would be disappointed if a new entry came out and most players were able to defeat bosses on the first try. The “try, try again” approach to boss encounters can be thematically appropriate in some situations and some people really enjoy it. But I generally dislike this sort of design and I really hate it in games that are otherwise designed to be “empowering”.
Spider-Man has an interesting way of handling this. I don’t know if it was deliberate or an emergent result of their mechanics, but I was able to enjoy the Spider-Man fights even when I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing.
To illustrate this, let me explain how I messed up the Scorpion and Rhino fight.
Scorpion and Rhino
Spider-Man eventually has a showdown with Scorpion and Rhino at a shipping yard. Rhino will occasionally charge you, and there are some obstacles you can throw in his way to injure him. It might take you a minute to figure this out and it might take you a few additional tries to get the timing down. In a normal boss fight, that would mean making a couple of trips to the Game Over screen.
At the start of the fight, the game hints that you should shoot webs at Scorpion. Normally I’d dislike it if a game gave me a tooltip like “try using your main weapon on the bad guy” in a fight near the end of the game. However, I think this one is warranted. This game has been very inconsistent about when webs work and when they don’t. Most bosses in this game are immune to your webbing. If the designer is going to keep changing the rules, then I appreciate them letting me know when that happens. I’d already assumed that Scorpion was immune to webs, and I would have needed to spend a lot of time trying other, less-obvious things before I gave webbing a try. Again, this would normally result in a couple of trips to Game Over land before I worked it out.
Halfway through the fight, I had some bad luck. Scorpion jumped just as I shot webbing at him. After playing tag with Rhino for another minute or so I managed to line Scorpion up for another shot. Again, he jumped just as I shot webs at him. The thing is, this was a fluke. Scorpion is scripted to jump around and shoot poison at you from different angles. It was just dumb luck that I shot just before he hit one of his pre-scripted moments to change position.
At the time, I assumed the rules had changed. I thought the game was telling me Scorpion was going to dodge my webs from now on and I needed another tactic. So I began experimenting to see what I could come up with.
A minute later, I managed to line things up so Rhino was between Scorpion and Spider-Man. Scorpion shot his poison, and it hit Rhino. Rhino even reacted to thisI THINK he did some sort of stun / pain animation?.
Scorpion shouted, “Get out of my way!”
“You’re in MY way!” Rhino shouted back.
And then I thought I’d figured it out. I was trying to out-guess the designer, and I was being too clever by half. I thought my goal was to get these two idiots to fight each other. Their dialog already made it clear this was an unstable alliance, and I assumed I just needed to get them to hurt each other a few times.
This was wrong. I spent several minutes leading Rhino in front of Scorpion’s attacks. I thought I was making progress, but I wasn’t. Again, a wrong assumption like this will probably get you killed a few times until you can work out what the game designer wants you to do.
The Unmitigated Joy of Not Dying
The key here is that dodging an attack fills your focus meter, and you can use your focus meter to heal yourself. In another game, I’d eventually succumb to attrition as I fumbled around trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. In Spider-Man, if my health got low I could just play defensively. I could dodge attacks and keep my distance until I’d recovered enough to go on the offensive again.
In practical terms, the player is experiencing the same thing: They’re having setbacks that force them to back off and try again. However, Spider-Man wasn’t booting me out of the fight and making me listen to the opening taunts again and again. The fight just dragged on. Maybe in another game I’d spend twenty minutes repeating the fight again and again before I won, and here I spent twenty minutes in one big fight. When it was over I felt like I’d won one really big fight and not overcome a single small fight using brute-force Groundhog Day tactics. I got to keep playing and keep trying different things without having the Game Over screen break the flow.
In the end, I didn’t mind when things were unclear because I felt like I was free to keep at it. I really appreciated this.
Like I said, it’s possible this wasn’t even deliberate. And maybe some players would rather they just die and restart right away rather than spending twenty seconds dodging attacks to recover their health. I don’t know. Other people confuse me. The point is, Spider-Man managed to give me fights that didn’t frustrate me even though I couldn’t win right away. This might not be an appropriate way to handle bosses in all games, but it seems to really suit the superhero genre.
 Crossing the city without falling below a given altitude isn’t TOTALLY new. The silly science shack missions already played around with that gimmick, although this version is way better.
 Once the toxin is cured, Peter snaps back to the real world to discover he’s wearing just his mask and his underpants.
 I THINK he did some sort of stun / pain animation?
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A long-form analysis on one of the greatest horror games ever made.
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Push the Button!
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