If you’ve looked at a gaming site in the last month, then you already know that the new Marvel’s Spider-Man game has been really well received. It’s the first great Spider-Man game in a decade and a half, and I’m sure it will wind up on a lot of “best of 2018” lists. It’s probably the best Spider-Man game ever made, though admittedly that’s not a high bar to clear. But what fascinates me isn’t that the game is good, but that the things the game gets right are typically really hard to pull off.
So here are five difficult things that Spider-Man does really well, that other games have struggled with.
1. The Traversal System
Yes, this has been praised by everyone already. But there’s a good reason for that. This is a really tough trick to pull off. It’s easy for a comic book artist to draw a picture of Spider-Man mid-cartwheel, surrounded by web lines, arcing through the air between two skyscrapers. The artist can just draw whatever looks awesome and allow the reader’s imagination to fill in the messy details of how it all works. But a game designer needs to show that scene in motion, and that’s a much harder problem to solve.
As you’re probably already aware, actually swinging around a city using tethered lines the way Spider-Man does is physically impossible regardless of strength or agility. Which means we need our video game to take this impossible action and make it look plausible.
Some of the old Spider-Man games gave up on the whole plausibility thing and had Spidey shoot his webs straight up in the air, where they presumably attached to rigid clouds or stationary birds. You could travel in a straight line like this without worrying if there was anything nearby to attach the web lines to. The 2002 Spider-Man game based on the first Sam Raimi movie took this approach. The result was less like swinging and more like flying in a bouncing arc. The swings were short and uniform, which made the whole thing look even more artificial. It wasn’t very fun.
You could imagine a developer going to the other extreme and trying to correctly simulate everything. The designer could require the player to aim all of their web lines to find suitable attachment points and then create the movement using physics. The result would be a game that was just as impossible as real-life web-swinging would be. Any attempt to swing around the city would end with you constantly losing altitude as you frantically struggle to avoid slamming face-first into the side of a building. That wouldn’t be any fun either.
As this new Spider-Man game shows, the proper way to do this is to pretend you’re running a proper simulation where webs must attach to buildings and everything is based on physics, but then use the off-screen space cheat like crazy and keep Spidey swinging in those beautiful long arcs that the comic books promised us. Cheating like this without getting caught is not easy, and it’s obvious the team spent a lot of time getting it just right. The game is constantly fudging your velocity to keep you going, tweaking the length of your web line so you don’t drag against the ground when you really should, and redirecting your momentum to allow you to steer between buildings. Despite the rampant violation of physics, the whole thing looks completely plausible in terms of Hollywood physics.
On top of this is a robust number of movement options that let you adapt to the landscape around you. You can dive to trade altitude for velocity, or you can go the other way and hang onto a really long swing to sacrifice speed for altitude. You can pull yourself towards rooftops if you need to stop in a hurry, you can land on or launch from classic Spidey fixtures like telephone poles and water towers. You can do short swings near ground level for the steady altitude you’ll need when following a car, or you can do huge swings near the rooftops if you’re looking to cross the city in a hurry. And to top it all off, you can do little show-off flips and spins in the air just for fun.
No other superhero game has been this fun to traverse. It’s not even close.
2. The Quips
In the comics, Peter Parker is an insecure and beleaguered young man suffering from perpetual guilt, and yet when he slips on the tights he becomes a quick-witted wisecracking jokester. The reasons for this vary depending on who the writer is. Maybe wearing the mask gives him confidence. Maybe he’s more confident in his ability to fight supervillains than in his ability to navigate mundane relationships. Maybe his civilian life sucks so bad that trading punches with the Lizard is actually a relief for him. Whatever the reason, Spider-Man likes to tell jokes while he’s hopping around and webbing bad guys.
This aspect of the character is something the Spider-Man adaptations have always struggled with. The Sam Raimi movies barely had any Spidey banter in them. The jokes were few and far between, and mostly lame. The Amazing Spider-Man movies had more joking around, but they messed up on the tone so Spider-Man came off like a jackass bully. The video game adaptation of Spider-Man 2 wasn’t bad in terms of Spider-quips, but most of the best jokes went to narrator Bruce Campbell.
This new Spider-Man game gets it exactly right. Spidey quips his way through waves of mooks. He’s got more villain-specific insults and jabs when he’s fighting his way through the classic lineup of Spider-foes. The jokes mostly land and a couple even got me to laugh. Even better, the writer didn’t make the character a one-note comedian. The jokes stop when things get dark, and we get a lot of solid characterization out of our lead during combat. Masterfully done.
3. The Collect-a-Thon Stuff
I steer clear of Ubisoft games these days because the busywork gameplay tends to exhaust me. You unlock a tower to reveal a dozen tchotchkes scattered around, which you dutifully gather up before moving on to the next tower and the next pile of stupid tchotchkes. But the objects in Spider-Man are interesting enough that I found myself gathering them up for their own sake, not because I was trying to finish all the chores the designer left for me.
Yes, it strains credulity to think that Peter Parker somehow lost 55 backpacks all over New York, and that each backpack just happens to have some memento from an important event in spider-lore. But this lore makes them fun to find, and the objects are interesting to look at in a way that most Ubisoft collectables are not.
There are other collectables tied to specific side-missions where you face off against some B-list villains and threats. Aside from jobs for the lame-ass edgelord Taskmaster, they’re all pretty good and don’t come off as excessive in terms of how many knickknacks you need to find.
4. The City
Open world city games are hard to make. It takes tens of thousands of hours to fill in the massive worlds we see in the likes of Grand Theft Auto V, Mafia III, or Batman: Arkham Knight. It’s harder still if you’re constrained by a real-world layout and need to make something that can visually pass for Manhattan, as is the case in Spider-Man. On top of that, it’s hard to make all of that expansive real estate feel interesting. In a lot of open city games, you’ve got a huge map but only a handful of meaningful activities to choose from. The rest of the map ends up feeling like empty filler. But Spider-Man puts the entire map to use, from the side missions to the randomly generated crimes.
Also, the game does some really interesting things with building windows. In the past, games have simply faked their building interiors by slapping a picture of curtains onto exterior windows. That was fine, although it began to stick out as we moved closer to photorealism. Spider-Man has a cool feature where it puts a randomly-generated room on the other side of a window. This really makes the buildings pop, particularly at night. It’s a wonderful feature that really sells the idea that these are buildings and not just giant cubes with windows painted on them. This means even the generic non-story buildings can feel vibrant and interesting, and not like filler content padding the space between major landmarks.
5. The Spider-Suits
As you level up, you unlock different outfits for Spider-Man. Some of them are references to old comics. Some of them are one-off joke outfits. Some are just novelty concepts the game designers came up with. Some are faithful recreations of the more famous outfits Spider-Man has worn over the last half-century. They’re hidden at the start of the game and it’s fun to see them revealed as you progress.
It is somewhat curious that in a game with 27 different costumes of varying levels of obscurity, they didn’t include the 1984 black symbiote suit, which is easily the most recognizable costume outside of his classic look. Perhaps the designers thought it would be inappropriate, since the black symbiote suit is technically alive and you’re supposedly crafting all the the suits we see in the game. (Then again, in 1985 Spidey wore a non-living cloth version of the symbiote suit.) Maybe Sony didn’t want any unintended cross-branding with the upcoming Venom movie? I have another guess as to why they didn’t include it, but it’s a spoiler. In any case, the omission does feel a little strange.
Even without the famous costume from Spider-Man’s edgy phase, it’s still really fun to collect the outfits. I normally find it hard to care about cosmetic unlocks in a game, but these have bits of Spider-Man’s long history woven into them. Most outfits also unlock a special ability, so they have utility as well.
This is a strong game, but not a perfect one. I actually have some gripes that I’d like to see fixed in the inevitable sequel. We’ll talk about those next week.