With the award season right around the corner, Bonus Accessory will be taking a look at some of the top games of the past year, and examine why each game deserves the title of Game of the Year at the Game Awards 2018. This is part four of our five part series entitled ‘In Defense of’, and in this edition we check on why our Spidey Sense tingles so much for Marvel’s Spider-Man.
Great gaming experiences surrounding super heroes and comic-inspired characters have been popping up over the better part of the last decade. With the flag bearer in this revitalization of the genre being Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series, fans have been treated to worlds with deep lore, fluid combat and compelling storytelling that really started to be felt towards the end of last console generation. While those experiences left fans wanting to see more from the sect of pop culture, many of the characters faced uphill battles to find their return to form in the gaming landscape; one of which was the successful Spider-Man IP from Marvel. Marvel’s Spider-Man, from Insomniac Games for the PlayStation 4, rights the ship for the long time popular Marvel hero. Peter Parker and his wall crawling alter-ego have been portrayed in a multitude of media forms, ranging from his creation in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15 to his successful run of films including the upcoming animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse; and while the web head has had his fair share of video games, it’s the one form of media he has had the least consistency with. While various sects of his fanbase will argue otherwise for some titles, the overall consensus shows that Spidey has had a few rocky years in terms of his gaming representation.
Enter Insomniac Games. The studio, known for such series as Ratchet & Clank, the original Spyro trilogy and Sunset Overdrive. When first approached by Sony to adapt a Marvel franchise to a game format, the staff made it seem the decision was all but unanimous for what property they wanted to tackle: Spider-Man. Using a modified version of the engine found in 2014’s Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac had a good foundation for how they wanted to handle the game. The fluidity of Sunset Overdrive‘s traversal, combat and acrobatics seem almost isometric at times to what Marvel’s Spider-Man became by release. The buttery smoothness of hitting a perfectly timed reversal while in combat is only rivaled by the ability to capture enemies with a multitude of different gadgets and equipment. But crafting a game around a licensed idea isn’t always as easy as one would think it would be. It’s already established? How hard could it be? And while there may be some truth to that, the team at Insomniac Games, lead by creative director Brian Intihar, didn’t want to retread old ground. The Spider-Man IP is one that’s had is stories told for over 50 years, giving the studio much to play with when dissecting how they wanted to handle the game; but ultimately, what they decided on was something that both ended up complimenting past Spidey stories while also adding new twists to the wall crawler.
What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Spider-Man? A guess would be him swinging through the streets of New York City. For years, this has been one of the toughest nuts to crack when developing a Spider-Man game: traversal. Many fans point to the Spider-Man 2 licensed game of Playstation 2, Xbox, GameCube and PC as being the best example in terms of nailing the way the players moves throughout the city. While for its time, it truly was a revolutionary take on how you would expect the genetically mutated teen to move throughout the city as his alter-ego, using a pendulum based system for momentum. Insomniac, coming hot off the heels of its successful new IP Sunset Overdrive in 2014, saw this as a chance to take the successes they found with traversal throughout their newly crafted world and combined it with the web swing action of Marvel’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. To no surprise, it has become my new favorite way to get around in a game this generation. Adopting the same pendulum-based momentum system for swinging, the team focused on how something as crazy as swing from buildings in real life would work. First and foremost, every web has to attach to something. Whether it be a building, ledge, tree branch or pole, every swing has to be attached to something. Doing so gave players the ability to gain momentum to then push themselves forward and in various directions based on the architecture of the buildings around them. Plain and simple, it’s just so fun and rewarding to travel Manhattan by web swinging. Fast travel is available, but why bother (even though you are given a cool cut scene with Spider-Man on the subway)? any game that provides you with a mode of transportation that is greater than the easier option is something that should be held in the highest regard in terms of gam design.
While playing as Spider-Man is the main pull to the game for many, what you find is a multifold story that not only sees you become heavily invested in the narrative of Spidey himself, but of the man behind the mask: Peter Parker. Now, I’ll be quite honest, like most games found in the super hero genre, I was expecting the moments that players control Peter Parker to become pacing issues for the overarching narrative; going from 100 to 0, as the kids say these days. Yet, I didn’t expect myself to find a bond with Parker the way I did. A big part of that goes to the superb voice acting of Yuri Lowenthal. The delivery of expression through his voice is so spot on, it leaves you baffled at how Insomniac could’ve at one point chose to go another route with voice acting for Peter’s character. Lowenthal’s performance helps the player connect with the everyday Peter Parker that is behind the mask. Like him, I am a early to mid 20s young adult, just blossoming into the fully grown person I eventually will become. He faces everyday issues; from finding balance between his family of Aunt May, to his job as a research assistant with Dr. Otto Octavius, to trying to fight to restore his loving relationship with ex-girlfriend Mary Jane Watson, it gives the players a way to relate with and care for the man behind the mask. As someone who has grown through the “cell phone and dating” revolution, there is a particular scene that almost any 15 to 30 year old male can relate to when pursuing a love interest via text messaging. I vividly remember reassuring Peter out loud when playing, saying “Ah, I know that feel.” Presenting Peter as a sort of an “every man’s man”, gives the player a deeper connection to him, that when playing through the story beats while at the F.E.A.S.T. homeless shelter or in Dr. Octavius’s lab are still engaging and fun.
In a large open world narrative game such as Marvel’s Spider-Man, support characters need to be given a greater emphasis during the crafting phase of the game, and I think Insomniac Games’s writing staff has done that better than any game this year and even in quite some time. The craftsmanship writers Jon Paquette, Benjamin Arfmann, Kelsey Beachum, Christos Gage, and Dan Slott penned during the development of the characters surrounding Peter is something most development teams should take notes on. Every character that plays a role in the story is engaging and has a level of depth to them, from their expressions, to the approach they take to interacting with the player; especially with the dynamic they have with Peter. Many a time have I found myself chuckling at a witty, smart aleck remark Spider-Man/Peter would make towards his police contact, Yuri Watanabe, including the now famous ‘Spider-Cop’ persona (don’t worry, the cringe is on purpose and it’s played up just the perfect amount). You would find remorse and compassion from Peter’s loving Aunt May, even as she struggles to support herself at times, putting your needs first. You meet a young man by the name of Miles Morales, who is struggling to find his way in life in some of his most impressionable years and turns to the heroic Spider-Man for guidance. Yet, what might be the best example of the care put into the character dynamics, is the one between Peter and Mary Jane. The way they interact with each other is so authentic and grounded that you feel you’re experiencing the emotional rollercoaster between them through their own eyes. Instantly you can feel the chemistry the two have, gaining the sense that you’ve known each other for years and that there’s an extra layer of care and love for each other. Chemistry like this is a perfect example of how close the gaming world is becoming almost completely intertwined to the level of theatrical quality.
While the supporting cast may be the lights that sprinkle the metaphoric Christmas tree, the star that shines brightest on top of the tree is the breathing metropolis of Manhattan. When comparing the two comic publishing titans, DC’s characters were set in fictitious environment (Gotham City, Metropolis, etc), whereas Marvel’s characters have always been rooted in realism, living in the world around us for the most part; so when crafting the project, Insomniac had the issue of crafting a world that is already established, but also finding ways to make it unique. While the city isn’t completely to scale, it sure as hell feels to be the case. As someone who has been to New York City once in his 25 years of life, swinging through what looked almost never ending streets of Manhattan felt surreal at times. The level of detail taken into account when exploring the world is a marvel in itself. Little touches, like being able to looking various windows of the thousands of buildings that lined the street and having each of them have a unique look and style to them, adds a level of photo-realism to the concrete jungle surrounding the player. Plus, all of the small easter egg touches made me love digging through each brick and beam to find any Marvel reference I could possibly screenshot. The best part is, they don’t stick out. Everything feels connected, and purposeful, as if it naturally meant to be there. I don’t want to ruin any of the fun surprises hidden throughout the city, but trust me when I say as a long time fan of Marvel’s IPs, the smile on my face when I found some of the bigger nods was astronomical.
With many open world games using similar formulas for the way they are presented, Marvel’s Spider-Man find a way to completely stand head and shoulders above the crowd. Not many games drive me to completely tear apart every nook and cranny of its package, but the world that Insomniac Games developed is one that I can’t get enough of. Its the first game that made me want to go out of my way to get the platinum trophy. The best part? There’s more content available after launch, and it’s not just short filler DLC that you will find in most big budget games, it’s intriguing and narrative driven in a way I wasn’t expecting. Players will get to experience story beats that were presented at the end of the game that you may not have expected to see until the game’s inevitable sequel, which isn’t the norm for games of this budget and caliber; but everything about Marvel’s Spider-Man is felt as if it was made holding itself to a higher standard. The tagline for the project is ‘Be Greater’, and I’ll be quite honest, I don’t know how much greater you can get in terms of gaming experience this year. When it comes to the possibility of being names Game of the Year for 2018, there is no need to aim to ‘be greater’, when there is no greater experience available this year than the one Insomniac Games has crafted.