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Pop CultureSeptember 5, 2018

Take notes or get left for dead: Spider-Man is a landmark triumph for gaming


Spider-Man is an unqualified triumph of a game – but the best thing about it is also the most surprising. Sam Brooks reviews.

This is a spoiler-free review.

It’s hard to participate in video game journalism without being very aware of the hype machine. That is, the machine which creates a deluge of pre-publicity for games – the barrage of trailers, images, quotes and interviews that lead up to the release of triple-A games. The machine tells us that a game is worth buying, that a game is important, and it tells us these things before assuring us it will be great. There’s a lot of hype – so you have to buy it, obviously.

It’s hype like this that leads to a game like Spider-Man going gold before it even comes out.

When the game is bad, the vultures descend like they haven’t had a meal in years – or at least since the last high profile game failed to deliver on promises given to the hype machine. For every God of War, there’s a dozen No Man’s Skys.

But when the game is good, it’s hard to talk about it without feeling like you’re adding to that machine. We’ve already published one interview with a creator of this game, hyping it up – and after playing Spider-Man for a good twenty hours, I feel I could write a few pieces after this about it.

So let’s get the hype out of the way: Spider-Man is great. It’s the best game I’ve played this year, and I truly believe that it represents a genuine shift in the way we make open world games, and how triple-A producers use narrative to structure these games. A lot of heart, care and manpower has gone into making this not just a significant game or a hype-worthy game, but a genuinely great game.

The graphics are gorgeous, the gameplay is engaging, and the narrative does new and bracing things within a familiar structure (both in terms of the world and the actual story) that is both surprising ad immensely gratifying to see in a game of this scale. It tackles the very established Spider-Man canon in a way that welcomes huge fans and newcomers alike, and breaks many of the conventions that have become hackneyed in both the genre of comic book games and open world games. It’s an absolute, unqualified triumph of a game. People will be talking about it and picking it apart for years, and I’m excited about being one of the people who does this.

It’s easy to get used to playing games for free – and playing them before everybody else does. The privilege and the novelty wears off fast. You stop being excited about playing the game, and start dreading having to write about it. It can be incredibly depressing that you spend so much time playing a game (that a group of someones has spent exponentially more time working on) only to feed chum into a machine that exists to churn out content – whether that content be the game itself, or all the media surrounding it.

With Spider-Man, I felt privileged to be a games reviewer again.

A demon getting punched by Spider-Man.

The obvious precursor to Spider-Man is the Arkham series, the Batman trilogy from Rocksteady that seemed to break the curse around Batman games. Finally, Batman was being taken seriously, and there was a game that made it feel fun to play Batman. All the things that people loved about Batman were in that game, and not only that, but the game itself represented a step forward for both open world games and brawlers. The world felt alive and designed for maximum impact and maximum fun, and the combat was about as visceral and engaging as we’d seen before.

Spider-Man builds on the successes of these games in a way that feels oddly conspicuous, as it comes from DC’s long-time competitor and equal in the graphic novel industry. Both balance a concerted narrative drive with a huge open world, and a baker’s dozen worth of collectibles within that world. Both prioritise dodge-heavy, gadget-reliant and button-pressy combat. And most importantly both aim to construct and deconstruct the popular image of their hero in a way that both respects the history of that hero while forging a new way forward.

Spider-Man comes with fewer cards stacked against it than the Arkham series. There’s already been a great Spider-Man game, albeit well over a decade ago, and the web-slinging, web-swinging antics of the Marvel superhero lends itself better to video games than Batman’s deeply serious and grimdark™ crime-fighting.

As a character, Spider-Man is also a hell of a lot easier to relate to and put yourself in the shoes of. He’s a normal guy who has suddenly ended up with super powers (although the game, and its makers, have taken pains to make sure this isn’t yet another origin story) rather than a traumatised rich boy who would rather punch somebody than crack a smile or a joke. You want to spend time with Spider-Man/Peter Parker. You’d cross the street to avoid making eye contact with Batman/Bruce Wayne.

The most crucial similarity that Spider-Man has to the Arkham series is that it gives you a sense of what it would feel like to actually be Spider-Man. You swing through the streets of New York, you fight (but don’t kill!) both thugs and super-villains, and you do science projects on the side. For people who have been following the character since they were kids, I can imagine this is a fulfillment of some very old dreams. For people like me, it makes for a hell of a fun game.

I should have expected Spider-Man to be a fun game. Insomniac doesn’t really mess up. They make solid, fun, taut games that hang around for the year they succeed in, and then fade from the memory. The dust settles on the once-revolutionary graphics, other studios pilfer the best parts of the gameplay like copper from an old PC, and these critically acclaimed games remain mere curios on the long path to whatever gaming nirvana is.

What I wasn’t expecting was that Spider-Man would be so emotionally involving.

Peter Parker being uncomfortably attractive.

It’s not that I’m a cynic or a hater when it comes to comic book adaptations – god knows I’ve cried at X-Men films more than I have at my own actual life. It’s more that the self-seriousness of some of these adaptations comes off like heterosexual camp. That is, something that is so straight, and so insistent on appealing to the wish-and-life fulfillment of its audience that it becomes a parody of itself. This is half because they take themselves so seriously – and half because the talents of the writers or creatives involved aren’t enough to justify the product taking itself this seriously.

Spider-Man wisely ditches the origin story in favour of delving into the philosophy behind Peter Parker and Spider-Man – largely, the cost of doing good, and whether it’s worth it. These are big ideas, though not necessarily new ones, but the game traces out this familiar arc with enough personality and specificity to make it feel fresh. The freshness mostly comes out of Peter’s relationship with those around him – his on-again-off-again girlfriend MJ is a particular highlight, and it manages to be one of the most convincing depictions of this kind of relationship that I’ve ever seen in a video game. Not that the bar is particularly high.

And hell, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it until this isn’t the case, but good writing in video games is something that isn’t anywhere near common enough. So when a game, especially a game on this scale, passes the incredibly low bar of ‘managing to depict humans in a way that remotely resembles the emotional reality of you or anybody you’ve ever met in your life’, it’s worth noting. Peter Parker feels like someone you might actually meet and, even better, like someone you would want to hang out with. He makes jokes, he fucks up and he tries to do his best. So when, unsurprisingly, shit hits the fan for him, you’re emotionally engaged.

This same level of quality, detailed writing is lavished on the rest of the supporting cast. Whether or not the developers were writing MJ with the aim of avoiding swathes of thinkpieces, or they genuinely wanted to do right by her (and let’s leave it to subreddits to squabble over which it is), she feels like a step forward for both the character and the genre. Neither a damsel in distress nor a conspicuously badass warrior woman, MJ is headstrong, human and brave in a way that we expect our heroes to be. She’s also flawed – and definitely way in over her head a lot of the time.

Amazingly, this kind of personality and detail permeates every aspect of the game. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Yuri Lowenthal as Parker, who manages to fill the hero’s constant quips with verve and genuine humour, even when they’re not meant to be funny. The animation also does a lot of heavy-lifting of the performances here. Parker’s awkwardness is made physical in the way he bumbles through the world, and his mask is remarkably expressive for both, well, a mask and a video game character.

Even the collectibles – like wandering around New York (also surprisingly detailed and lovingly rendered) finding old backpacks Spider-Man has left in his younger days or swinging around the town trying to stop Black Cat’s planned heist – feel more lived in and relevant than they do in most games. Gone are the four-hundred strong riddles of the Batman series, or the random assassin flags of the Creed series. Replacing them are collectibles and challenges that feel full of life, backstory and narrative, and I hope it sets an example for other open world game developers to follow.

Peter Parker kicks an escaped prisoner, as he is wont to do.

In a way, the most apt comparison for Spider-Man is probably not the Arkham series, but actually Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

For this comparison, you’ll have to join me on the walk that is me saying that the entire Arkham series is the equivalent of Grand Theft Auto III. It’s a long walk, but you’ll enjoy the exercise, I promise.

Arkham Asylum and the games that followed were groundbreaking in their own way. They pushed their genre forward, they introduced gaming elements that are now core elements of the industry (for better or worse) and were viewed as both highly anticipated and incredibly well-received games. They sold millions and were received well.

But they weren’t perfect, or anywhere close to it. Look back at those games, and you see the gaps. You see the hollowness of the open world, the cheap padding of the collectibles, and you see the false depth of the narrative. The mechanics that once felt revolutionary now feel janky as hell. You know – just like, Grand Theft Auto 3, the first 3D open world game that felt revolutionary but now, with its mute protagonist, false difficulty and tumbleweedy world is nigh-unplayable.

Which brings us to Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The game that took everything Grand Theft Auto 3 did, but filled it with more personality, gave it a narrative structure, gave it a theme, and beat both graphics and mechanics into shape until they sang the high note of the Queen of the Night aria. It’s a game that felt significant because it said to the world, “This is how it’s done now. Take notes, or get left behind.”

Spider-Man feels like that. Insomniac is saying, “This is how you write a game. This is how you do an open world game. Take notes, or die.”

To wit, once more: Spider-Man is an unqualified triumph. We won’t need to look back on it in a years time because we’ll still be playing it, but when we look back on it in a decade, it’ll hopefully because people played it, took notes and improved it. It’s that good.

Am I feeding the hype machine saying this? Sure, probably. But I believe it, and if I’m going to feed the hype machine, at least its not empty calories.

This game was played on a review copy supplied by Sony Entertainment. The game is available on PS4 from September 7.

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