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Spider-Man 2 Shows What a Great Superhero Game Can Really Be

An objectively good game, the latest Spider-Man title expands on what made its predecessor great—wish fulfillment, emotion, and showing the human side of both Peter Parker and Miles Morales.
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Screenshot from the game Marvel's SpiderMan 2 featuring SpiderMan swinging through a city
Courtesy of Sony
Marvel's Spider-Man 2
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The game's New York City is big. Swapping between Miles and Peter as playable characters really works. The story is solid, with more character depth and cameos that comic fans will enjoy. Oh also, the game is beautiful.
A bit pricey, even for a AAA title, and it's a PS5 exclusive, so you're out of luck if you don't have one.

We are absolutely lousy with superheroes. For more than a decade, movie theaters have been dominated by them. Streaming services and TV channels are filled with them. And yet, in video games, superheroes are still pretty rare.

Excepting the many protagonists capable of shrugging off shotgun blasts to the face or climbing skyscrapers without breaking a sweat, worthwhile games starring actual comic book heroes don’t pop up all that often. When these characters do, they’ve historically starred in the kind of throwaway games where a pixelated Superman or Wolverine walks from the left side of the screen to the right, throwing jabs at enemies until they blink out of existence. (The Batman: Arkham series from Rocksteady Studios, whose last entry arrived in 2015, is an exception.)

Insomniac Games entered this mostly desolate landscape in 2018 with Spider-Man (and later Spider-Man: Miles Morales), a superhero game designed and written well enough to capture the attention of players who may have ignored a Marvel-licensed release. It was a frenetic brawler set in a detailed open world traversed by acrobatic web-swinging, and it told a story with ample heart and great performances. The title cut through decades of accumulated continuity to capture Spider-Man as a character, and it nodded to longtime fans without estranging newcomers.

In true sequel fashion, this month’s Spider-Man 2 is a continuation of—and elaboration on—that first game. There are new supervillains to punch the snot out of; new powers for the game’s protagonists, Peter Parker and Miles Morales’ Spider-Men; and new costumes to unlock. The digital New York City is bigger, the lineup has expanded to include more well-known characters from the comic books, and the narrative builds to lend greater depth to its story.

Rather than substantially reworking what came before, Spider-Man 2 leans further into the kind of wish fulfillment the first game offered: presenting audiences with a toy box bursting with branded action figures and giving them a guided lesson in playing pretend. If this sounds like a juvenile fantasy, it is. But it’s not much different from the vicarious thrills derived from watching superheroes do their thing on screen or page.

Without the lure of being Spider-Man, another two dozen hours spent with a character whose cinematic presence has become omnipresent wouldn’t be nearly as enticing. Fortunately, the latest Spider-Man delivers on the prior game’s promise to great effect. The simple pleasure of swinging between skyscrapers is enhanced by a glider that keeps the character speeding through the air longer and without losing momentum. Taking down hapless goons by silently wrapping them up in sticky cocoons from a hidden vantage point is made easier by the ability to create freeform web lines to travel across. We see more of Miles and Peter’s personal lives and control them through more dangerous scenarios. It all works to further the sense of inhabiting the characters.

Accomplishing this wasn’t simple. In an email interview with WIRED, Spider-Man 2’s senior game director, Ryan Smith, says that allowing players to feel as though they’re inhabiting Peter and Miles’ superhero roles is “a huge collaborative process,” and it takes a lot of hard work “to make sure that the game feels really responsive.” As elements required to accomplish this, he cites everything from controller feedback and character animations—like the inexhaustibly joyful sight of Spider-Man flinging himself upward at the top of a web swing’s arc and plummeting, loose-limbed, into another web shot—to audio and visual effects, including the in-game “camera.”

“Equally important is supporting the human side of our heroes,” Smith adds, citing Spider-Man 2’s emphasis on “personal relationships with friends and family” and its interest in music (Miles) and science (Peter). Smith says that leaning into these aspects of the characters makes “our heroes more real and relatable.” Along with supervillain showdowns, it also gives the characters room to grow and overcome challenges, rather than portraying them as godlike beings too far removed from the audience’s experiences to seem human.

Even more than in Insomniac’s first Spider-Man, the sequel leans into the emotional lives of its characters. Now that the player knows this version of Peter and Mary Jane, Insomniac introduces new wrinkles to both their relationship and their renewed friendship with corporate scion Harry Osborn, who rejoins the others after disappearing from their lives in the belief that he was terminally ill. Complications naturally follow his return, and their outcome, paired with the drama of Miles’ coming-of-age struggles, provides a rich backdrop for the game’s flashy action sequences.

Courtesy of Sony

Much of this material is drawn from existing Spider-Man stories. Senior creative director Bryan Intihar notes that “everything starts with the source material—the comics—and digging into what [it is] about these characters/worlds/storylines that fans love so much.” But Insomniac is quick to subvert character arcs and dramatic developments that those familiar with the game’s villains (principally Kraven, Lizard, and Venom) and frequently retold character arcs might expect. “While we want to be respectful of the DNA of [the] source material,” Intihar says, “we also want to look for opportunities to mix things up to make it feel unique and ‘Insomniac.’”

The take on the characters’ action sequences is also notably distinct and impressive. Spider-Man 2 turns the game’s numerous chase scenes into breathlessly interactive thrill rides that easily rival the best cinematic depictions of the character. (The driving pace and escalation of stakes in these sequences is the most skillful mainstream games have seen since Naughty Dog’s last entry to the Uncharted series back in 2017.) Audiences whose eyes have begun to glaze over while watching yet another superhero movie or TV show are likely to find the video game version far more engaging.

Unlike the CGI-laden live action films, everything in Spider-Man 2 is computer-generated, and the action scenes are directed by people who understand how to impart a sense of weight and danger into what could otherwise devolve into ineffectual light shows. The game’s decision to feature both Miles and Peter’s Spider-Men as playable characters, often swapping between them in the midst of a scene, goes a long way toward heightening the effect.

These perspective shifts required Insomniac to “find the right amount of consistency and the right amount of differentiation” between the characters. The studio had to make the two play like different superheroes—which mostly comes through via Miles’ electricity powers and Peter’s use of an inky alien “symbiote” suit to whip around globby tentacles for much of the game—while not making the pair control so differently that freely trading between them would be discouraged.

Courtesy of Sony

In both cases, the feeling of actually inhabiting these characters continues to make Insomniac’s work stand out from other superhero media. Smith describes the challenge of taking Spider-Man’s “web wings”—basically retractable gliders that allow him to fly through the sky between web swings—and translating them into a video game traversal tool as the kind of interactivity that’s “one of the aspects that makes games unique from other media.”

“Finding those moments that people have always wanted to be able to experience, making them possible, and then integrating them into our game systems,” Smith says, “is an awesome opportunity.”

Spider-Man 2 is a success as a sequel and as a further proof of concept for its genre of action game. It acknowledges that the real draw of superhero stories is the childlike fun of inhabiting extraordinary characters and smashing action figures together to see what happens when they collide.