Marvel's Spider-Man 2 offers a familiar story and pristine gameplay
The Washington Post November 3, 2023
The challenge of adapting popular superhero stories is that you risk retreading familiar territory. Insomniac Games solved this in 2018's Marvel's Spider-Man by introducing a midcareer Peter Parker and remixing old characters with new motivations and narrative arcs.
It became a PlayStation smash hit, and the studio's depiction of Spider-Man is often cited by some fans and critics as even better than Hollywood's, including the Sam Raimi classics of the early aughts. Insomniac Games helped launch the PlayStation 5 in 2020 with a Miles Morales chapter that fleshed out his background and relationships.
Now with Marvel's Spider-Man 2, Insomniac Games fuses both Spider-Man stories in one while hoping to repeat the same trick from 2018. It's a success, and Insomniac Games no doubt has created a better game than the last two chapters. The gameplay now is so refined and dynamic, it renders the 2018 and 2020 games obsolete.
In games and film, Sony's creators, including Insomniac Games, have raised the bar on modern Spidey storytelling. So it's no real insult to say that this 2023 sequel doesn't quite clear the bar. Yes, the new spin on classic characters remains intriguing and surprising. Things happen to old characters that you don't quite expect. The problem arises when you may realize what I did: I've felt all this before.
The 2018 game set the stage: Parker's childhood best friend Harry Osborn was under cancer treatment for two years. He's now re-emerged, healthier than ever after mysterious circumstances. Legendary big game hunter Kraven invades New York City to hunt its heroes and villains. On top of that, the black alien goo that would eventually become Spidey's archnemesis Venom is finally introduced into the Insomniac storyline.
Harry, played by "Riverdale" actor Graham Phillips, is especially magnetic as the likable and spiritually fragile best friend. There are many scenes where he rekindles his old friendships, and Insomniac uses these moments to create a video game superhero experience that goes beyond punching bad guys. Some sequences evoke the whimsy of Wes Anderson films, complete with a strumming, alt-folk soundtrack with men singing in whisper.
The story of Peter and Harry's tense friendship is not nearly as well-worn as the deaths of Peter's Uncle Ben or Batman's parents. But it's still an old tale, familiar to even casual Spider-Man fans. Old characters may have new motivations, but the game's script hits familiar emotional beats. It's all written with depth and tenderness at a breezy pace. But when the big moments come, it's hard to shake the sense that we've been here before. Yes, being Spider-Man will strain relationships and defy normalcy. I'm not sure I walked away with a new understanding of the characters. It doesn't help that the alien black suit story was always pretty ridiculous, including the often-mocked edginess (see Raimi's "Spider-Man 3") that feels inevitable.
Despite its familiarity, seeing the tension of the Harry/Peter friendship stretch to its limits is satisfying to watch, like those videos of stretched slime. And in action, the alien's gooey movements are terrifying and startling as it changes from host to host. Main villain Venom, in his final iconic form, is a fright to behold. When the villain finally enters the fray, it's a showstopping event that will make you wish he featured throughout the entire game.
And at least Miles Morales offers a new lens to witness Parker's descent into snarling, try-hard mannerisms. While Parker's story parallels the classic comic book saga moments, Morales is charged with retaining the "friendly neighborhood" side of the hero. Despite the script ramping up to yet another New York City-wide catastrophe (with the endgame especially stretching credibility), side missions for Morales help the game feel like a snapshot in the day of a Spider-Man's life. It's a flyover, sanitized perspective of New York life, but it's still cozy in its sentimentality. The game makes excellent use of the city as a battle arena, drama stage and playground, as battles explode with speed and splash across the boroughs.
And yes, you still punch hundreds of bad guys here, and that part is better than ever. Insomniac continues to employ the industry's best animators. Rendering Spider-Man is a celebration of the human body's limits and possibility. There's only so many ways to punch a man, and Insomniac seems determined to animate them all. The phrase "feel like Spider-Man" became an oft-repeated line in reviews of the 2018 game, so much so that it became a meme, but it's rooted in truth. These games evoke feeling like the hero by matching animation with player control to create a sensation of performing superhuman feats as second nature.
Now on its third game, Insomniac is executing a formula that doesn't feel quite as fresh as 2018, but it's one that's still exciting as it is solid. Even if the story felt familiar, its threads point to more exciting ideas in the future. And because it supplants the first two games in play, Marvel's Spider-Man 2 is easily the most fun superhero game ever made. In this case, the familiar is most welcome.
Platform: PlayStation 5