Remember that scene in the first Star Wars movie where the Stormtrooper knocks his head on the door as it raises? It’s a silly, fun thing to look back on, but it’s a reminder that you’re watching a movie, that it’s real, and something someone made. It might break the illusion for a quick second, but I think for most fans, little mistakes like these endear us to the experience. Watching a behind-closed-doors demo of Insomniac’s Spider-Man, an inconsequential mistake did the same thing for me. The on-stage demonstration at Sony’s show left me cooler than cool, and I was worried going into this meeting that it wouldn’t improve my outlook.
The problem with stage demos
Before we dive into what happened, let’s talk about that on-stage demonstration. Some games show off really well on-stage. Maybe they have a really simple concept, or a great story hook. Or maybe they just have enough cachet with fans that you can drop a name and get a response. Other games are a bit tougher to show off. After a string of okay movies and forgettable games, Spider-Man needed to show off his best side. Sony’s show, unfortunately, was not at all what I’d hoped for.
With an open-world game, there’s a lot to sell. You want to show off how exciting it is, but the most exciting parts of a game like Spider-Man are often not indicative of the minute-to-minute experience.
Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man is gorgeous. The game has been running on PlayStation 4 Pro each time they’ve shown it, and it looks better than we could’ve hoped for. When they showed the game during gameplay, it was sometimes difficult to tell when the player was actually in control and when we were watching a pre-built cutscene. The two times it was obvious were during the combat and during the timed-button-press events like stopping the helicopter from hitting the ground at the tail end of the demo.
The web-slinging segments, of Spidey chasing the helicopter as is tore through the city, were a bit less obvious. Insomniac is using some creative camera angles during these segments, and the game is lacking some menu elements we’re used to seeing. As a result, they looked more like cutscenes than gameplay.
I left the demo wondering if I’d actually seen Spider-Man, or if I just saw some canned animations and interactive cutscenes.
Tripping over Webs
The first few minutes of the demo I saw behind closed doors actually didn’t help – it was mostly the same demo. During the chase sequence, though, something happened.
The guy controlling the demo had intended to pull off a move where Spidey is running along a building and then does a sharp turn, but he missed his window to cut the corner and ended up flying past the gap.
And so suddenly, the web-slinging I was watching wasn’t a canned chase sequence anymore, but the player chasing the helicopter himself. Suddenly, I could tell when it was him playing and when it was a cutscene.
I’m still not pleased about those quicktime events. It seems like most of the epic moments of the game will be like that. But in an open-world game, that doesn’t make up the majority of the time spent, which creative director Bryan Intihar confirmed for us, so that’s not a problem – that’s just the trouble with demoing a huge game like this.
We learned during the interview section that those trip mines Spider-Man wields can be used in a number of ways, and it sounds like combat has plenty of room for improvisation. For example, you could attach that trip mine to an enemy instead of a wall. If that enemy turns around and finds one of his buddies, a wall, or some piece of the environment in range, the trip mine will go off, and he’ll find himself glued to that enemy, or that barrel flying toward him. You can pop them on the ceiling or high walls, too, and launch enemies up into the air. I love the idea of cops walking into a site after Spider-Man has been there and finding goons literally plastered to the walls, the ceilings, and each other. That sounds exactly like Spider-Man. I love it.
A whole new world
In years past, a Spider-Man film launching so close to a game would’ve meant they would need to be linked. We’d hear Tom Holland’s voice quipping as we jaunt around Manhattan. But it seems Sony and Marvel have gotten smarter since then, and are letting Insomniac do their own thing.
The Spider-Man we’re playing as is a bit older. This is not an origin story – that’s one thing it has in common with Spider-Man: Homecoming. While there are two Marvel writers involved with the project, this is an original story. Spidey has literally decades of stories behind him, so don’t be surprised if you see some similarities here and there, but Insomniac is trying to bring us something fresh. Intihar couldn’t say just yet who those writers are.
Peter Parker is 23 in this story. He’s a much more experienced hero, and has dealt with the highs and lows of it. Intihar said that Parker is crucial to the character of Spider-Man, though, and that his double-life will play into the story in some way.
The character he fought against in that demo is a villain called Mr. Negative. He’s not the villain in the story, but he’s definitely one of the villains. As hinted at in the trailer, Parker knows him as Martin Lee, a guy who runs some homeless shelters in the city. So we’re already starting to see how his two worlds are colliding, even if just a bit.
The end of the trailer shows us a glimpse of someone that modern Spidey fans will recognize as one of the current members of the Spider Family, Miles Morales. In the comics, Miles lives in an alternate version of the Marvel universe where Peter Parker has died, and Miles takes up the mantle. Intihar reiterated that this version of the Marvel universe is Insomniac’s own thing. Miles and Spidey live in the same world, and it sounds like Miles will be part of the story. This is Peter’s journey, but the team wants to develop Miles – he’ll be part of the story somehow.
Intihar wasn’t ready to talk about lots of the brass tacks of the game. Things like the way open-world missions will work, whether or not there’s a day/night cycle, and how the game’s health system works were among topics that he wasn’t ready to expand on. He was clear about one thing, however: those webs Spider-Man fires when moving about they city? They always attach to buildings – there’s no web-slinging above the city skyline.
When asked about the size of the city, Intihar noted that compared to the main character of their previous game, Sunset Overdrive, Spider-Man is much faster. The city has to feel big, as the game is definitely not a linear experience, Intihar said.
Mentioning Sunset Overdrive, gave me the chance to ask how that game informed Spider-Man. I won’t be the first one to point out that there are some similarities between the movement of the character in Sunset Overdrive and ol’ Web-Head. Both characters are acrobatic, airborne, and fast.
The team picked up three things, Intihar said, as important pillars for the character: style, accessibility, and mastery. Style, simply put, is Spidey quipping during the game, communicating and developing through humor. Sunset Overdrive‘s main character communicated through humor as well, and knowing how to pace those quips to make sure they don’t get old is part of that.
For accessibility and mastery, it’s about making anyone who plays feel like Spider-Man immediately, but allowing room to expand on that initial skillset. Intihar offered up the disparate of examples of his buddy who, apparently, has a Spider-Man themed bathroom, and his sister, who doesn’t read comics but has fallen in love with Marvel characters through the films. Both players need something to latch onto.
Despite my initial reservations following the big gameplay reveal, I think Spider-Man is in good hands. Insomniac thrilled me with Sunset Overdrive, and that seems like great preparation for a project like this. It’s clear Intihar adores the character and world of Spider-Man. When Spider-Man hits PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 4 Pro next year, I think it’s going to be a good one.