It’s been a few months since Spider-Man came out, and its follow-up DLC, The City That Never Sleeps, has ended its run. Sam Brooks looks back at the game, and how well the DLC fares compared to the original.
Spider-Man was the game I enjoyed most in 2018 and it wasn’t something that I was expecting. Rather than the disengaged grimdark of what the Arkham series ended up being, it was a joyful experience that didn’t just draw on nostalgia, but built on it. Even better, the game coupled that with the polish and production values that only a triple-A studio can bring. I fell completely head over heels in love with Spider-Man, in a way that the comics and movies had never convinced me.
The main reason is also the most obvious one: Spider-Man made you feel like you were Spider-Man. It made you feel the rush of swinging between the skyscrapers of New York, from web to web. It made you feel the painful awkwardness of the on-again, off-again with Mary Jane, it made you feel a genuine kinship with Miles Morales and it made you feel emotionally engaged with a world that could so easily be full of cartoons and cutouts. Even the open world, while still following the inevitable trend of collectible waypoints, felt more lived in and thoughtful than other open worlds I’ve planned.
In short: Where the Nintendo Switch has Breath of the Wild, the PS4 has Spider-Man.
All of this is why it’s worth looking back at Spider-Man, a scant four months later after its release. Especially to reflect on a game that, somewhat bravely, completely eschewed any online or multiplayer elements and therefore had to rely on the last bastion of one-player story driven games to keep the players engaged: the narrative DLC.
DLC has had a bad rap among gamers, and that’s fair. A lot of the DLC’s appeal is the way it taps into the completionist that lingers within each gamer’s heart – they need to experience all of a game, and if that involves paying $10 for another costume, then by god, they’ll spend it! See also: lootboxes, which are just gambling by a cooler name. I’m not immune to this – I’ve spent high double digits on an Assassin’s Creed season pass just so I can play every possible mission and get every part of that game, even if I might find it more fun playing another game.
But the best kind of DLC is when it gives players a little bit more of the game’s world, allowing them to spend more time in a universe that they’re already invested in. Mass Effect, pre-Andromeda, did this the best. A year or so after the initial release of the games they were followed up with a tight piece of narrative-driven content that not only expanded on the original game, but also tightened the gameplay and set up the next entry in the series.
Mass Effect 2′s DLC Lair of the Shadow Broker might be the highlight of the whole series, a fast-paced spy thriller that brought back Liara (a main character from the first game), complicated her motivations, and set up a brand new character arc that completed in the next game. It was tight, it was near-flawless and remains a highlight of this particular form.
Spider-Man’s DLC does the main thing right. If you add the three episodes that make up The City That Never Sleeps together, it’s about ten hours of gameplay that gives you more time in a world that Insomniac mastered so well the first time around. If you want more huge mobs to fight (but not kill) then it does that. If you want to swing around the city looking for more collectibles, it’s got that too. The original game is fun as hell, more of it is just going to be more fun. And if you’re lucky enough to come into the game at this point, rather than upon release, then it serves as a quick, short, burst of fun after the high emotional stakes at finishes off the main game proper.
Where it kind of falters is the story. There’s no way that these short episodes can feel as high stakes as the main game does – you can’t build the same kind of ride over 10 hours as you can over 60. Each of the three episodes seems split between building the story – a Mafia boss tries to take over New York – and showing off characters who didn’t get a huge amount of screentime in the original. The first episode focuses on super-thief Black Cat, the second episode follows police chief Yuri Watanabe and the third spotlights the indeterminately foreign Silver Sable.
The cool thing about The City That Never Sleeps is its unapologetic foregrounding of the female characters in the Marvel-slash-Spider-Man universe. One of the highlights of the base game was the care it took with writing Mary Jane; she was neither a nag nor a damsel in distress, but a fully fledged character with her own journey and desires. The care and attention to character detail that the game paid to Peter Parker was given equally to Mary Jane, and while this shouldn’t be an achievement – it should be a bare minimum of writing in any form – it’s still notable.
If nothing else, these DLC episodes show that Spider-Man‘s writing was no fluke. While there’s much less time to dive into the new characters, all three are portrayed vividly and with the same attention to detail. The playfulness of Black Cat is given depth, and then flipped around and reversed – she keeps the audience guessing in a way that satisfies rather than pulls the rug out from under you – while the workaholic nature of Yuri Watanabe in the main story is twisted entirely on its head, and we’re shown what happens when someone takes that too far. The portrayal of Silver Sable is less revelatory – that the hardened mercenary actually comes from a wartorn past is covered in more cobwebs than any corner of Peter Parker’s house – but Nichole Elise’s performance remains fun. It’s easy to forget, if you’re not paying attention, that gaming is an industry that still fails to do right by its women, and it’s encouraging to see the few bright lights in the darkness.
But the overall narrative of The City That Never Sleeps feels low stakes. Hammerhead, while a formidable foe in the gameplay, remains a superpowered Mafia boss which, compared to the Sinister Seven, can’t help but feel like a step down. Narrative DLC should feel like an escalation, it should feel like you’re stepping up to deal with a more formidable foe or sinister plot. A Mafia boss getting access to weapons, no matter how much the game tries to gussy it up with implied threats, feels so much less vital than the city-wide state of emergency the original game sets up.
Which is not to say that any of the episodes of the DLC are exactly bad, or even unsatisfying. Insomniac nailed this game the first time around, and nothing can take that experience away from a player (unless you’re one of those unfortunates who felt personally attacked when a DLC costume got delayed, in which case, y’all got other problems).
It’s more that Spider-Man: The City That Never Sleeps feels like drinking a glass of Lindauer after a bottle of Moet – you get the same buzz, but it’s not the same. But hey, it’s still sparkling wine, you guys!
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