This week, I was fortunate enough to play about two hours of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, and I have quite a few thoughts. It’s as big and gorgeous as you’d expect from a built-from-the-ground-up PS5 exclusive, switching between Peter Parker and Miles Morales‘ respective Spider-Men is a blast, and there’s already so much intrigue surrounding the developer Insomniac’s take on the classic symbiote story.
But what I’ve kept coming back to over the past few days is a simple, quieter scene between Miles and his mother, Rio. At this point in the game, roughly a few hours in, he feels swamped. He has to write a college entry essay, he’s still grieving the loss of his father, and he’s juggling his time as Spider-Man between everyday heroics and trying to find his dad’s killer, Martin Li/Mr. Negative. That’d be a lot for anyone to bear, especially a teen, so he makes a quick visit to his dad’s grave before swinging over to Rio’s workplace.
Here, he takes comfort in Rio’s reassuring presence while he vents, reminding me of all the times I’ve turned to my own single mother for comfort. And when Miles hears from Rio that there’s trouble back home in Harlem, he immediately volunteers to help as Spider-Man. After making sure he’s okay to take that on, her eyes well up with pride as he swings away. These sorts of deeply heartfelt and relatable scenes are essential to any good Spider-Man story, and Insomniac does them better than most. Despite the far more ambitious scope of the game, it’s clear Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 won’t lose sight of those critical human moments.
It’s also a good reminder that this is every bit Miles’ story as it is Peter’s, renewing my faith that Insomniac is going to successfully juggle the two Spider-Men and do right by them both. Because Peter’s symbiote arc is worthy of its own game, and thankfully, based on what I saw firsthand, Insomniac’s approach to that classic story is equally tantalizing. My hands-on time, which included a few missions both before and after the State of Play Lizard pursuit gameplay demo, explores how Peter, who at this point already has the mind-altering symbiote, is slowly succumbing to his darker impulses.
“…this demo was meant to emphasize how Insomniac is juggling the two leads from both a narrative and mechanical perspective and on that front, the developer is doing a stellar job so far.”
While it wasn’t shown during my portion of the game, we were told beforehand that Peter is currently living in his late Aunt May’s home while struggling to pay her mortgage. Those feelings, coupled with concern for his friend Harry’s health conditions, are clearly weighing on him. But what I appreciate already here is that Harry already knows about Peter’s alter ego, which is a refreshing change from the clichéd secret identity interpersonal drama, just as Insomniac did with Miles and Rio. Instead, the conflict comes from Peter and Harry’s efforts through their joint Emily-May Foundation — a touching nod to their respective late maternal figures — to cure the young Osborn and those with similar ailments. To do that, they need to track down Curt Connors, a doctor who Kraven the Hunter has turned into the Lizard for his own nefarious ends.
Already, it’s easy to see how taking these early hours to build up Peter and Harry’s relationship now should make their inevitable antagonistic confrontation — seemingly culminating in Harry becoming Venom — have more emotional weight, similar to what Insomniac did in the first game with Peter and Otto Octavius/Dr. Octopus. In my demo, this meant Peter and Harry working together in a lab, resulting in a fun science-based puzzle to solve, and then Spider-Man fighting off some of Kraven’s invading henchmen.
All of this serves to ground Peter’s motivations so that even when he does become more rageful and distant — especially in some saddening scenes in which he pushes Miles and MJ away — you can at least still understand that he is, deep down, trying to save his friend. That said, I’m rather iffy on the design of the symbiote — I love how it resembles the classic black suit from the comics on the whole, but up close it looks oddly rubbery and bug-like. I ended up swapping it for one of the game’s 65 suits — the awesome Tobey Maguire Black Suit from the criminally underrated Spider-Man 3.
Elsewhere, I wasn’t able to really get a bearing on Kraven himself. He bookended my demo with brief appearances, but they were mostly in a withdrawn, ‘predator-stalking-his-prey’ sort of way. What the Insomniac narrative team told me about the psychology and theatricality of the character is certainly intriguing, but I’ll definitely need to see more to form my own opinion. Venom, of course, was also nowhere to be seen this early on, and Insomniac is cryptically keeping mum about the specifics of his role outside of teasing a “crazy” ending with him.
It takes two to make a thing go right
It’s clear, then, that this demo was meant to emphasize how Insomniac is juggling the two leads from both a narrative and mechanical perspective and on that front, the developer is doing a stellar job so far. With respect to gameplay, Insomniac has added small but meaningful flourishes that make each Spider-Man feel appreciably distinct. These are most reflected in the new abilities system, which lets you map special moves to L1 + one of the four face buttons, and the utility of each is dramatically different.
With the symbiote, Peter’s basic ability lets him shoot a massive tendril arm to slam into a single enemy and send them flying, while other options have him turn into an eerily gooey pile to slide forward and launch groups of enemies for aerial combos or shoot out a bunch of tendrils out to grab and slam a few foes at once. Some of these are absolutely brutal, especially with the gritty edge that actor Yuri Lowenthal gives to his already fantastic Peter/Spidey performance, and I found myself cackling over the symbiote-enabled power fantasy.
Miles’ abilities, meanwhile, include shooting electricity out of his fingertips, Star Wars-style, and an electrically charged dash attack — all of which are handy and empowering in their own right. These all replenish by using regular melee attacks, creating a satisfying back-and-forth element to combat. Each character also has a flashy ‘super move;’ Peter can go into a ‘rage mode’ to pummel enemies with tendrils while Miles can cause a massive electric explosion.
But while these moves are a lot of fun in and of themselves, Insomniac wisely shakes up its already rock-solid combat system in other compelling ways. To start, there are now some attacks that you can’t dodge with the circle button, so you instead have to use a new parry mechanic. It can’t be understated just how much this seemingly small tweak causes you to rethink how you play Marvel’s Spider-Man, as you can no longer simply mash the dodge button to avoid any incoming attack. It took some getting used to, but I soon appreciated just how much more dynamic this made the combat.
The enemy variety also feels much more pronounced this time around. Even as I was primarily only fighting Kraven’s goons, I noticed everything from your standard brawlers and “heavy” types to robotic felines and crows that can lock your powers until you take them out and even a shaman that can throw concoctions to poison a certain area. What’s more, Insomniac has clearly taken a thoughtful approach to level design, with enemies perched on various levels — like lampposts and rooftops when outdoors — to encourage situational awareness and traversal.
But perhaps best of all: the setpieces. The previous games had some stunning cinematic action moments, but they could, at times, feel watered down by quick-time events. That’s not a problem in Marvel’s Spider-Man 2; you’re almost always given control over your characters during the bigger sequences. Besides the aforementioned Lizard chase in the demo, which lets you glide, dodge, and surf along the water in real-time, there’s an incredible earth-shattering sewer boss fight between Peter and his reptilian foe that feels like a true clash of the Titans.
It’s here that I really got the sense of what Insomniac was talking about in regards to making the Lizard feel like a “Kaiju.” If that wasn’t enough, there’s another extended chase through the city that has you dodging Kraven’s henchman while racing to keep up with Lizard, and at one point, both you and an enemy van are tethered to the beast as he runs up a building, and you’re dodging attacks and debris as you hang on for dear life. It’s exhilarating, and if the action is this good so early on, I can’t wait to see what Insomniac has in store, especially when Venom joins the fray.
A larger and denser friendly neighbourhood
For the purposes of our demo, Insomniac had stripped back some of the available side content. While I knew there was a lot to be found in the open-world thanks to a trailer that we were shown that was later released online, I didn’t get to experience it all firsthand.
What I can say, though, is how much more engaging Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 feels as a sandbox. While the New York of the first two games was indisputably large and dense, it was almost entirely filled with tall buildings. Now, though, Insomniac has added two new geographically diverse boroughs, Queens and Brooklyn, which also make the map nearly twice the size of its predecessor. Peter’s hometown of Queens, in particular, brings much-needed rurality to the world, ditching towering skyscrapers for houses, parks, and even our hero’s high school.
These smaller settings not only help evoke the “friendly neighbourhood” feeling of the character, but they also change up moment-to-moment web-swinging. Without tall buildings, you really need to lean on the new gliding mechanic, which is an absolute joyride. At first, it felt a bit chaotic to control, and I found myself plummeting quickly, but I quickly admired that it actually does take a bit of skill to steer. Because once you get a better handle on it, there’s an unmitigated thrill to shooting through the air, arcing around corners, and then breaking into a web swing at the last second. Well-placed wind currents between buildings and under bridges also ensure that you can maintain your momentum if you’re a good enough pilot.
“Rarely have I come out of a game demo feeling so confident about the final product.”
All the while, the side activities I did see in the world are certainly enticing. For one, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 continues the series trend of offering engaging, story-filled collectibles, this time through the likes of Spider-Bots and Kraven’s robotic drones. The former nods to Spider-Man’s larger universe (I found one from Into the Spider-Verse and another featuring the Fantastic Four’s Future Foundation, of which Spider-Man was a member) while the latter unpacks the deadly hunter’s backstory. Ganke, Miles’ best friend, even teased that someone else is looking for the Spider-Bots, so I’m particularly eager to see what Spidey character may end up being the culprit. Given these kinds of easter eggs and Insomniac’s Peter’s appearances in the likes of Across the Spider-Verse and Marvel comics, could this mystery person be some fun and unexpected multiversal cameo?
I also have a lot of confidence in the overall quality of the side content based on Miles Morales. One of the few issues with the original 2018 game was its collection of sometimes rote and uninteresting optional missions, but Miles Morales improved upon them significantly with Ganke’s ‘Friendly Neighborhood’ app that had you helping members of Miles’ community in Harlem.
That system returns here, and I’ve already seen the groundwork being laid for one of those kinds of missions. When Miles left Rio to go help Harlem, he was heading to a music museum to stop a robbery, and that begins a questline of him finding and returning the stolen property. Through this, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 looks to explore both Miles’ relationship with his mother and his growing passion for music, and that’s exactly the sort of narrative-driven side content I want from this game.
Rarely have I come out of a game demo feeling so confident about the final product. While I still have some questions regarding Kraven and the symbiote looks a little off at times, those are minor concerns, and everything else I’ve seen has easily won me over. From the equally compelling dual leads and the darker storyline to the new combat and traversal abilities, it’s clear that Insomniac has taken great care in building upon an already amazing foundation, and I have full faith this will be one of Spider-Man’s greatest adventures yet, games or otherwise.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 will be released exclusively on PS5 on October 20th.
Image credit: PlayStation