The third instalment in a franchise is always hard. Just look at the way so many movie trilogies have stumbled as they approach the finish line: Return of the Jedi was good, but not as good as The Empire Strikes Back; The Dark Knight Rises was a mess compared to the pop-culture phenomenon that preceded it; and—most relevant to the game we’re here to tackle—Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 saw a drastic drop in quality from Spider-Man 2.
Even when it comes to games that deal with superhero power fantasy fulfilment, Rocksteady’s rock-solid Arkham series couldn’t quite stick the landing with Batman: Arkham Knight. Taking all of the above into account, it gives me great pleasure to report that Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 bucks this trend and absolutely knocks it out of the park.
Background: A Tale of Two Spiders
Before we get into the details of what makes this game such a strong entry into the Spider-Man canon, we need a quick history lesson. You may be confused as to why I’m talking about this being the third game in the franchise when there’s a big old ‘2’ in the title. Well, that’s because when the original Marvel’s Spider-Man was released on PlayStation 4 in 2018, it was such an enormous success that the developers at Insomniac Games quickly followed it up with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales in 2020; a launch title for the PlayStation 5 that was viewed as a potential system-seller. While this second game didn’t feel like a full instalment due its shorter playtime (and a correspondingly reduced RRP), it proved Morales was a compelling protagonist, while introducing some technical wizardry that upped the series’ polish and immersion.
So that leaves us with this being the franchise’s highly anticipated third game. But even if its predecessor’s modest length makes it feel closer to game 2.5 than a full-blown trilogy-closer, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is an irresistibly potent mix of stellar superhero action, high-speed combat, and clever mission design, all underlined by a plot revolving around second chances and redemption that you’ll feel right down to your soul.
Gameplay: Tag-Teaming Spider-Men
As for what the plot specifically entails, I’d rather keep spoilers to a minimum (although, consider yourself warned), so I’ll just say this: the game sees Peter Parker and Miles Morales go up against Kraven the Hunter as he fronts an occupying military force in New York City. The symbiote turns up, which can only mean one thing: Venom. And while all this is going on, Peter and Miles must navigate their personal lives as deftly as they do Manhattan’s skyscrapers. After all, what’s a Spider-Man story without a little personal turmoil and heartache?
With that out of the way, the biggest point of difference for Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is that the developers decided to take its title somewhat literally: that’s to say that this time around you’ll have an opportunity to control two Spider-Men (Spiders-Man?). Switching back and forth between Peter and Miles brings a freshness to the game via their distinct power sets, along with the way the characters feel and sound unique – more on that a little later.
You might ask how much variation there can be between two characters who both sport the Spider-Man moniker, but I actually found my play style would be massively affected by which of the two wall-crawlers I was in control of at any given moment. While Peter would see me laser-focused on completing the campaign missions via the sneaky approach, with Miles I was more of a brawler, diving headfirst into the fray and taking down baddies in the most theatrical (and brutal) way possible. Saying that, once Peter donned the symbiote suit, I wasn’t against delivering an alien-powered smackdown when the opportunity presented itself.
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Jumping back and forth between Peter and Miles is a breeze, vaguely recalling the same process of switching between Michael, Franklin, and Trevor from Grand Theft Auto V. By that I mean you’ll often find your chosen character in the middle of something amusing or charmingly mundane before you jump back into their skin. It’s an admittedly small touch, but it helps to make the characters endearing. I’m also happy to report that while the GTA V version of this process could take quite a while to load—looking back, it was downright agonising at times—jumping between Peter and Miles happens in the blink of any eye.
This is even more impressive when you consider that the map for Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is roughly twice the size of previous outings, now encompassing Brooklyn and Queens in addition to Manhattan. Despite this, you can still jump between characters (or across town via the handy fast-travel functionality) in a second or two. I should also say before moving on that while the Manhattan of this series has always been a visual marvel, the addition of these new areas provides some much-appreciated environmental variety for your superhero shenanigans as well.
Visuals and Sound: The Most Spectacular Spider-Man
Everything from the graphics and sound to the DualSense controller features receive a significant upgrade for Marvel’s Spider-Man 2. Never has the world of Spider-Man felt more immersive and I don’t think it’s too much to say that this is the PlayStation 5’s most technically impressive game to date. New York’s locations are just a pleasure to take in, from the way the city skyline glints in the sun to the realistic look of the streets as you swing by. Speaking of which, Peter and Miles’ movement has never looked better either. Whether you’re engaging in city traversal or the acrobatics of combat, their movements are always fluid and the textures of their suits look stunning.
The audio side of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is also nothing short of remarkable. While it can be easy to overlook just how much depth a game’s soundscape adds to the experience, along with what goes into creating it, I was fortunate enough to speak recently with Johannes Hammers, a senior sound designer at Insomniac Games, who provided some valuable insight around how much work went into the design and execution of the game’s sound. As one small example of this, let’s take a moment to look at the team’s approach to the symbiote and the game’s correspondingly unique incarnation of Venom…
“We didn’t want the symbiote to sound too wet, so that was a challenge up front because as soon as you see it you want to make it sound squishy,” Johannes explained. “Instead, we used sounds like dried leather and creaking ropes. Plus, I found that if you stack CD cases and start to bend them in the wrong way, they make this really great, stressed kind of sound. Some of the textures in the symbiote also came from rock slides, believe it or not. I found that manipulating the sound of rocks sliding down hills added to that sort of gooey, rumbly quality. Plus, there’s chamois sponges and lots of vegetables in there, like celery, cantaloupe, lychee fruit, and cracking walnuts.”
Rockslides, CD cases, and salad certainly weren’t what I expected to be behind the otherworldly sounds of Venom and the symbiote in motion.
According to Johannes, this in-depth approach was also applied to making sure Peter and Miles were distinct from one another, with their symbiote and bioelectric powers driving much of that difference: “We decided early on to give each of the heroes a completely different sound set. So Peter’s sounds were redesigned from the ground up; all-new kicks, punches, traversal, kinetics, and whips. For Miles we updated all of his kinetic movement sounds and actually got very granular with the details as far as the combat for both characters goes; making Miles sound a bit more stylised, while Pete has a more down-to-business audio palette.”
If that wasn’t impressive enough, Johannes also revealed that the wide variety of suits you can select for each character actually sound different from one another. It’s subtle, but you can actually hear the difference in suit material from one outfit to the next. I’m not sure I would have noticed that if it hadn’t been pointed out to me, but the difference is definitely there. That’s an insanely impressive amount of detail if you ask me.
Controls: Feel Whatever a Spider Can
With modern gaming, immersion goes beyond graphics and sound, and the DualSense Wireless Controller adds another dimension to the way the game draws you in. The tension present in the triggers and subtle nuances in the controller’s various rumbles made me feel like I knew what it was like to pull on a line of webbing, or to be pelted with grains of sand – damn you, Sandman!
Speaking with Doug Sheahan, senior programming director at Insomniac Games, I gained a new appreciation for this undervalued element of the gaming experience, and the way in which haptics (a technology that transmits tactile information using sensations such as vibration, touch, and force feedback) can be layered to enhance the way we interact with what’s on screen.
“There’s a motor in each of the DualSense grips driven by audio, and the lower the frequency of the sound, the heavier the rumble is,” revealed Doug. “What’s cool about working off those frequencies and audio files for the haptics is that you can layer different rumbles. For example, you can have the big heavy Sandman feel that cuts through with a solid rumble, while simultaneously having the little tinks and hits of the smaller sand particles. And so we don’t have to cut one off to play the next one. They can layer, fully immersing you in the experience.”
What all this boils down to is that an incomprehensible amount of care, dedication, time, and innovation went into crafting Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, and I have no hesitation in describing the final result as the greatest Spider-Man game ever made. And with that, let’s jump into our verdict…
Final Verdict: It’s Amazing, Spider-Man
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is the must-play single-player gaming experience of 2023, no ifs, ands, or buts. While I haven’t touched on the plot much for fear of spoilers, I should stress that Insomniac Games’ new Spidey adventure tells an incredibly affecting story, which is presented in one of the most beautiful open-world environments I’ve ever come across. The depth of the characters is only matched by the depth of the combat, which takes the polished experience of the last two games and builds on it further. For fans of Spider-Man, picking up this title was already a no-brainer, but for everyone else… well, it’s still a no-brainer. Can you feel your Spidey Sense tingling? That’s it telling you that Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is a must-play.
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