Spider-Man 2 is a game with big, heavy thoughts on its mind. It’s a game about death and illness, and letting go of certain constants in life in order to grow. It is a surprisingly sophisticated storytelling exercise, producing one of the best and most entertaining modern superhero yarns I’ve heard in a while.
But in terms of how it plays, well, it mostly plays it safe. Insomniac is plainly aware that Spider-Man was the best-selling game on the PlayStation 4 by a bit of a margin. There will be an expectation internally that any sequel should repeat this impressive feat or improve upon it. Creatively, that’s a proper ‘damned if you, damned if you don’t’ situation for any developer of any size and, in the hands of a lesser studio, an easy one to fumble.
Remarkably, Insomniac somehow spins all its plates and nails the landing. Hedging its bets, Insomniac sticks to what it knows – strong characters and story, subtle tweaks to the already strong gameplay of the previous games, and visuals that feel beyond what the box next to my TV should be capable of. In so doing, Insomniac has created a sequel that can do it all – sell like hotcakes and feel just different enough to warrant the ‘2’ on the box.
Heal the world
The segment following contains a discussion of Spider-Man 2’s campaign. Though I’ve endeavoured to talk about topline story beats from earlier in the first half of the campaign and avoid spoilers, if you’d prefer to go into the game 100% unspoiled, feel free to skip down to the next subheading. — David.
Spider-Man 2 begins sometime after the events of the Miles Morales spin-off. Sandman is on a Midtown rampage, and The Spideys are already en route to stop him. In the rush to quash Sandman’s attack, neither Spider-Man pays too much attention to what he’s saying – a distracted, directionless, broadly furious Flint Marko rants about a coming someone who wants to keep him from his daughter. By the time Peter and Miles realise what he was on about, it’s already too late. Kraven the Hunter has arrived in New York with approximately eight million hired goons and a desire to fight every super-powered soul in the city.
While Peter and Miles are trying to stop Kraven’s relentless quest to find someone, anyone, who would like to fight him, both of them have a bit on in their personal lives. Peter (played again by Yuri Lowenthal) is between jobs. He’s still mourning the loss of his Aunt May and isn’t sure what he wants to do with her house in Queens. MJ (played by Laura Bailey) is keeping their heads above water financially by working for J Jonah Jameson at the Daily Bugle, a job that has her questioning her own moral fibre. Miles (played by Nadji Jeter) is similarly torn between helping his friends and family, his deepening crush on deaf girl-next-door Hailey, and performing his superheroic duties.
Never addressed but conspicuous nonetheless: neither Spidey works in direct cooperation with the police anymore, and the one cop they did work with has become a cape too. Is it any wonder? Miles Morales was a game in production before the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 erupted into the mainstream. Insomniac suddenly found itself shipping a game about a young black superhero happily working with the cops while those tensions were still simmering. Though entirely unintentional and the product of unfortunate timing, it still wasn’t a great look. I’m not surprised to see this change.
Anyway, into this tangled personal web steps one Harry Osborn (played by Graham Phillips, The Good Wife, Riverdale), freed of his bacta tank at the end of Miles Morales and eager to bring Peter into a new eco science initiative. Named the Emily May Foundation in honour of his late mother and Peter’s late aunt, Harry’s vision to heal the world is the result of his failing health. As his body begins to fail him, his desperation to leave a mark before he dies begins to consume his every waking thought.
So, too, does that of his father, Norman (played by Mark Rolston), who is terrified of losing his son so soon after losing his wife. As the number of viable treatments that could save or prolong Harry’s life begins to dwindle, Norman turns to the one Hail Mary play he has left – a strange, oily black lifeform retrieved from a meteorite crash.
All the while, Kraven carves through Spider-Man’s rogues gallery like a hot knife through butter. He forces each challenger to face him and emerges victorious each time, growing more and more restless with every failure to defeat him. Played by Jim Pirri, Kraven is a great villain. It would have been easy to play him off as a maniac with a deathwish, but Insomniac have given him immense interiority. Though he presents as a barbarian, Kraven’s mind is a finely honed knife, one he can’t help but turn on himself as much as anyone else.
Without wanting to go much further into the story, which is good and I think you will enjoy, Spider-Man 2 is a game with the horror of terminal illness on its mind. It’s thinking about what it means when our health is compromised in ways we can neither understand nor control. How it feels when our bodies betray us in ways that hurt or bewilder us, and what living with the great cosmic unfairness of that suffering does to a person. It’s thinking about the right to die, to leave this world in a way that feels right and dignified, before your illness can claim you.
Yes To All
These extremely heavy thoughts are wrapped up in a lengthy roller-coaster single-player campaign that twists and turns, determined to both surprise and venerate comics heads, and show them something new. I really liked the story Insomniac has built for Spider-Man 2, even if, at times, it feels as though the studio has taken every single idea on a pre-production mindmap and said, “Put it all in.”
The result is that Spider-Man 2 is the kitchen sink of video games. It is a video game that encompasses all video games. Developer Insomniac has, for better or worse, created a superhero story better than any ever made for a video game, and surrounded it on all sides with pastiche.
So many of Spider-Man 2’s constituent particles come from somewhere else. Insomniac recycles its own heavily marketed portal tech from Rachet & Clank: Rift Apart in multiple sequences – the first involving Black Cat, and again for a series of challenge rooms created by Mysterio.
It riffs, segment-by-segment, on other games from the PlayStation stable. The combat has tweaked its cooldowns to feel like a springier, faster God of War. One extended sequence involving MJ creeping around a dilapidated zoo is pulled straight from The Last of Us. The game’s chaotic opening sequence is a thrill ride straight out of Uncharted. And then it starts riffing on games from other genres like walking sims, 3D puzzlers, and arcade shooters.
By revelling in the familiar this way, Spider-Man 2 ensures it is never anything less than a safe-as-houses crowd-pleaser. It has executed on its business case to the letter. Like the Marvel films that dominated the box office for 15 years, it knows exactly which levers to pull and when to put a smile on the player’s face.
None of this diminishes the game’s stature as a giant creative feat. Spider-Man 2’s closing credits are almost 40 minutes long, a testament to the fact that it is a massive, multinational effort that has taken the work of thousands to get it over the line. That effort shows in every frame.
I didn’t intend to write a whole breakout on the graphics in Spider-Man 2 but I seem to have gotten myself there anyway. The visuals Insomniac has packed into this game feel as though it is pushing the PS5’s hardware to the current, modern limit. I have taken screenshots throughout my playthrough that I can’t believe are in-engine, much less gameplay. The level of detail, no matter where you look, is extremely high at all times. When you get into cutscenes and start getting a good look at costumes and hair and skin, its even more striking. You’ll see what I mean once you get a good look at Insomniac’s Venom model, a triumphant work that both evokes McFarlane’s instantly iconic design and makes him just the right amount of gross and weird.
All this to say, I take my hat off to the various art teams at Insomniac, the veritable army of people it took to get the game looking this good and this detailed. The intricate patterns on Miles and Peter’s costumes, and the painstaking rigging and animation work on the Spider-Boys that allow them to look and move just the way their comic book counterparts do. The level designers set the challenge of taking the existing New York map, doing something new with it, and adding two entirely new suburbs with their own sense of character. It must have all been such painstaking work. A second shoutout to the equally sizeable army of engineers that got the game running as smoothly as it does without sacrificing its overall beauty. Truly remarkable stuff.
If you’ve been waiting for the showroom game, the one you pull out when friends who aren’t gamers come over and you want to blow them away with a demo of some red-hot visuals? This is it. This is the one.
Let’s talk about some of the ways Insomniac has iterated on the Spider-Man formula for this sequel.
As I said earlier, Insomniac has mostly played it safe, but they have added a few new things. The original game’s Manhattan map returns, with a couple of tweaks, particularly Upper Manhattan. It’s also been expanded to encompass Brooklyn and Queens, the home Boroughs of its two heroes, across the East River. The two remaining Boroughs, The Bronx and Staten Island, will no doubt be held over for the inevitable third sequel. (Boroughs are what New Yorkers call suburbs. American problem, don’t want to know).
This expansion of territory has led Insomniac to reassess traversal in Spider-Man 2, and I am thrilled about this. One of the points I made in my Spider-Man PS4 review was that its web-slinging traversal was fine, but it felt like the mechanic had been more or less untouched since Spider-man 2 in the Gamecube and PS2 era. Surely, in the modern age, there were ways to improve or update Spidey traversal. Finally, there are, and I’m very happy.
Spider-Man 2 adds a new wingsuit for gliding across New York that significantly expands your options for getting around. To help this wingsuit excel, the city has been populated with numerous rooftop airconditioning vents that lift Spidey high into the sky as he passes over them. As in the real New York City, the map’s grid-like layout creates wind tunnels that sweep through its deep concrete canyons. Spider-Man can use these wind tunnels to move through the city at pace and easily cross the East River when he needs to. Don’t be fooled by visual cues that might suggest the wind tunnel is running against you – just hop in. It’s always going your way.
On the other hand, there’s a lot that’s stayed the same. Much of the pre-release marketing has been about how players can now enjoy controlling two different Spiders-Men. Though both heroes have different powers on a cooldown – Peter deploys mechanical spider arms from his back, and Miles still has his lightning-fuelled Venom (not that Venom) powers – they don’t actually play any differently from one another. Their controls are the same. They move the same. They weigh the same. They have the same gadgets, and they punch with the same amount of force. You can switch between them, but the ability to do so is buried in a start menu option that (weirdly) opens an app on their spider-phones. I don’t know why Insomniac didn’t just put the ability to Spidey Swap on the map screen or something. It took me forever to work out how to switch between them.
Open-world activities return, though changed somewhat from the original game. Kraven’s hunters take up Blinds, cloaked segments of city that must be cleared of guards. Information gleaned from blinds lead to a fortress in a secondary location that needs clearing out. Peter spends quite a bit of time working with the Emily May Foundation to splice plant genes at sites across the city, hoping to find a solution to world hunger. He also shoots invasive wasps with a drone from time to time. Miles scours Batman-like hidden stashes his uncle Aaron Davis created while moonlighting as The Prowler.
There’s a bit to do if you want to clear the map fully, but it isn’t overwhelming. Post-campaign, it’s completely possible to knock over the remaining open-world activities in the space of a weekend. I know this because I did it myself.
Should you play Spider-Man 2? Yes. It’s a great game. It may not be as striking an upgrade on the previous two games as you might have hoped or expected, but the changes it does make are welcome ones that improve the existing experience immensely.
Spider-Man 2 isn’t just one of the most visually beautiful games of the year, it’s a ripper superhero yarn as well. It has internalised a lesson with its storytelling that many other AAA games could stand to learn from: a good story must always have something to say. Spider-Man 2 has plenty to say, for those who are willing to follow it into the grim, grey space beyond the flashy cape fights and quips.
With its third successful Spider-Man title on the hop, Insomniac has cemented itself as the industry’s eminent name in superhero games. Simply put, nobody is doing it like them.
Spider-Man 2 launches October 20th, 2023 for PlayStation 5.
Review conducted on PlayStation with an early access code provided by the publisher.
Image: Insomniac Games, PlayStation, Kotaku Australia
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