Spider-Man comics have been running for over half a century. They’ve been in Amazing, Spectacular, Sensational and even Superior varieties, telling multiple Spider-stories every month for years and years. And yet, the attraction to the character for many of us is pretty simple. What would it feel like to move like no human could ever dream of moving? That’s the fantasy of Spider-Man, and that’s at the absolute core of Insomniac’s new Spider-Man game for PlayStation 4.
Getting around in real life is boring. It’s miserable. We complain about traffic jams, airport lines, missing the bus, and trouble grabbing taxis. We make entire movies just about those events. We dream about flying like Superman and running like the Flash. But Spider-Man is doesn’t just take the misery out of getting around, he turns the whole world into an adventure. Sure, he can’t fly or run fast enough to interact with time the way those DC Comics guys can, but Superman flies so fast that “getting there” disappears from the conversation. With Spider-Man, getting there is not just half the fun, it’s most of it.
I’m not even talking about the game yet.
Insomniac Games started something back in 2014 when it unleashed the cartoony, punk-rock Sunset Overdrive on Xbox One gamers. It made simply getting around the world into a game of its own. I played nearly 70 hours of that game before eventually putting it down, and it wasn’t until after I’d completed the main game and the DLC that I ever bothered to use fast travel. Flipping, hopping, and rail-grinding my way around the colorful world of Sunset City became a modern-day equivalent of The Floor is Lava. Instead of having a living room or grid of tiles at the grocery store to act as a lava-filled playfield, though, Sunset Overdrive gave me a whole city of lava to try to avoid, with rails, rooftop edges, and rounded cart umbrellas as my only safe spaces. Sunset Overdrive even had an achievement for this, simply called – you guessed it – “The floor is lava.”
Spider-Man takes that to a whole new level. In Spidey’s latest outing, it feels like everything is, with the exception of a few plumbing vents and skylights, burning hot lava, and that’s because Insomniac has made it possible to truly get around the city without touching the ground for longer than the split second it takes to do a Spidey Handspring.
What makes movement in these games so special?
You’re always active, and never punished for making a mistake while swinging around. There’s no such thing as autopilot in Spider-Man. You always have something to do, and the short moments when you can take your fingers off the triggers and your thumbs off the thumbsticks are exactly the moments where you imagine Spidey himself letting go and floating for just a moment.
First, your webs always go somewhere. There’s one instance where I don’t think this happens, but it’s during combat. If you’re moving around, your webs stick to something, somewhere, whether it’s a treetop, a building, or a light post. This means you always have to be aware of your surroundings to some degree. As you’re getting ready to release your current rope, you’re looking around and deciding whether you’re going to swing, vault, or zip, and making that decision based on your surroundings. You can zip and vault all the way across Central Park if you like, without ever hitting grass or pavement. You can swing from Harlem down to Battery Park if you want, for that matter.
But let’s say you’re right in the middle of midtown, tall buildings on all sides of you. You can try to swing up high, getting up above the tallest buildings, or stay down close to street level. If you climb a bit higher, though, you can weave between the irregular shapes of buildings. When you’re going that fast, it sometimes seems like you’re trying to thread a needle, but it’s possible to do so. The game lets you make it happen without steering it for you.
If you do crash into a wall, you can start running up or across a building. If you stop in the middle of central park, you’re a vault and a zip away from getting moving at Spidey Speed again.
Contrast this with many of the biggest games out there, and it becomes quickly apparent where they falter. Grand Theft Auto V paints a believable version of Los Angeles, but with that comes traffic. In GTAV and also Watch Dogs, you’re constantly faced with obstacles to driving. If you hit a car, you come to a sudden stop. The car might even catch fire, forcing you to find a new ride. Even if it doesn’t, you’re driving a busted-up car that doesn’t look nearly as aerodynamic as what you were driving mere moments ago. You’ve also lost all your speed, forcing you to get back into your groove.
Assassin’s Creed gets a little closer by letting you parkour up and down buildings, but these games have you playing as strictly human characters who are beholden to gravity and obstacles. At their best moments, you can flow through an environment, but often the world gets in the way of you doing so, and I’m not sure if there’s a way around a horse carriage suddenly getting in your way or accidentally running into the sides of buildings when you meant to run between them.
Spider-Man’s abilities and Insomniac’s execution of them makes all of this moot. It turns the world into an amusement park-meets-obstacle-course.
The diverse landscape of NYC keeps things fresh, too. Down by the docs, you can zip and vault to avoid getting dunked in the harbor. You can stay on main thoroughfares and keep things simple, or you can start to wade into the denser areas and test your skills.
The little activities around the city do a good job of reinforcing this, too. Two of the early ones are Peter’s backpacks, littering the city from his high school and college years, and a list of landmarks you can take photos of. Both of these give you reasons to move around and hone your web-slinging abilities. Later on, other activities ask you to reach breakneck speeds and pass tougher tests. I’d say more of the pre-placed activities are about getting around than they are about fighting.
Spider-Man has a fast travel option. But when you’re the wacky wall-crawler, a long street packed with cars takes on a whole new look. In real life, it promises a frustrating 45-minute wait. In a driving game, you’re not going to wait so long, but there’s a 100% chance you’ll cause some serious damage to your vehicle or those of the AI cars around you, constantly breaking the illusion of the world you’re in. As Spider-Man, it’s hard to resist looking down at all that traffic and laughing at it. It’s only when I remember that I just spent an hour in traffic to get home to the game that I sigh and focus on the fantasy instead of flipping off the drivers down on the street.
There’s so much more to this game. Fighting, art design, characters, writing, voice-acting, music, story. The swinging doesn’t even begin to tap into what all makes Spider-Man a blast to play. But it’s so elemental to the experience, so core to the rest of it working that it’s worth calling out on its own.
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