Our review of Spider-Man 2, developed by Insomniac Games. Available October 20, 2023 for PS5.
WHAT IS IT?
Notwithstanding the title, it’s the third entry in the PlayStation-exclusive Arkham knockoff series.
IS IT GOOD?
It’s as good a comic book game as I have played in a very long time.
WHO SHOULD PLAY IT?
Tom Holland stans.
NEXT VERSE, SAME AS THE FIRST
As the recent Spider-Verse animated films have demonstrated, there is much to be gained by expanding beyond the traditional (read: white, male, heterosexual, cisgender) confines of comic book entertainment, embracing new perspectives and new audiences.
2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, easily the best superhero movie of the decade, introduced filmgoers to Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino teenager who inherited the Spider-Man mantle in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe back in 2011. Following that lead, the 2018 Spider-Man game – the first in a new, PlayStation-exclusive series – brought Miles Morales to the gaming world, only to spin him off into his own, self-titled game in 2020.
With Spider-Man 2, Insomniac expertly weaves the threads from those two titles together, featuring a full-blown Parker-Morales partnership that more or less lets players swap between the two Spiders-Man at the tap of a button.
It’s an idea that pays off in countless ways, from the character-specific missions that capture the essence of each Spider-Man, to the excellent combat that shows off their unique moves while (mercifully) relying on the same core move-set, to the way one Spider-Man (the one you’re not currently controlling) will sometimes show up to assist the other during random encounters. And then, of course, there are the epic, plot-propelling main missions which star both characters, and which see players seamlessly switching between Parker and Morales on the fly.
If Arkham City didn’t exist, there’s a good case to be made that Spider-Man 2 is the best superhero video game of all time.
But Arkham City does exist, and its long shadow hangs over this game like a billionaire playboy/philanthropist perched on a Gotham rooftop on a stormy night.
SOMETHING OF A SCIENTIST MYSELF
Spider-Man 2‘s helpful opening recap reminds us of the specifics of this particular Spider-verse (which, light spoilers, even made a cameo in the recent Spider-Verse movie). Here, Peter Parker (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal) is a twenty-something respected scientist, former protégé of Dr. Otto Octavius (that didn’t turn out well) and mentor to Miles Morales (Nadji Jeter), the teen genius bitten by a different radioactive spider at the tail end of the 2018 Spider-Man game. Morales is nursing a serious grudge against Martin “Mr. Negative” Li, who caused the death of Morales’s father in that first game. Also, Peter’s best friend Harry Osborn (you might remember him from the Spider-movies) is recovering from a mysterious “medical treatment”, courtesy his father Norman Osborn (who you definitely remember from the movies).
It’s no spoiler to say that Harry’s miraculous recovery and Norman’s endlessly convoluted corporate machinations play a central role in this game. Nor is it much of a spoiler – it’s been front and centre in the marketing – that the legendary Venom symbiote rears its gooey, brain-devouring head at a suitable point in the narrative. Though I will resist the urge to tell you who winds up “bonding” with it, the arrival of Venom is a major game-changer, shaking up the lives of the video game Spiders in exciting ways.
Indeed, one of the complaints I had about the previous two games – that they featured too few villains, or at least too few legendary villains – has been handily addressed here: at every twist and turn of the story, Spider-Man 2 offers up a delightfully familiar face for Parker/Morales to contend with, from the fabulously attired Kraven the Hunter to Dr. Curt “Lizard” Connors, to many, many more. Same goes for the wonderful supporting cast, from Morales’s best pal Ganke (Griffin Puatu) to Peter’s one-and-only MJ (Laura Bailey), among other well-developed side characters.
At its core, Spider-Man 2 is about friendship. The friendship between Spider-Men (Spider-Mans? Spiders-Man?) old and new. And the friendship between Peter and Harry Osborn and Mary-Jane Watson. And between Miles and Ganke Lee and street artist/potential love interest Hailey Cooper. And so on.
I love that this is how Insomniac built a Spider-Man game. While the first game inherited some of the dourness of the Arkham titles, Spider-Man 2 is an unabashed showcase for the earnest, good-natured vibes of Spider-Man and his amazing friends. That’s true even when it comes to its darker elements, where the question is not “how low can our beloved hero fall?”, but “how well can his friends pick him back up again?”
And this is an extremely inclusive group we get to spend time with. The cast – heroes, villains, and civilians alike – is very diverse, from an Afro-Latino Spider-Man to the deaf/ASL-speaking character Hailey Cooper to the many Non-Player-Characters populating New York’s lovingly recreated boroughs, from Queens to Brooklyn to Harlem and beyond. There are queer characters, BIPOC characters, young characters, old characters, characters with disabilities – all people who feel real and feel like they belong in this universe. (That said, it’s still ridiculous that they replaced Peter’s perfectly good face from the first game with a visage that just skirts having to pay Tom Holland for his likeness rights.)
Spider-Man 2‘s core gameplay and main story are excellent. Stakes are clear and escalate in a way that makes it hard to put the controller down. From the acrobatic combat, to the web-slinging, to the excellent Spider-Sense/Parry system, to the brand-new Web Wings – which are a lot of fun, even if it’s absurd that Spider-Man can basically fly now – this game is never less than a joy to play.
That said, more than a decade after Arkham City perfected the art of the side mission, Spider-Man 2 still hasn’t learned some basic lessons about keeping players engaged. In 2011, Arkham City‘s side missions demonstrated how to pair compelling gameplay with compelling storytelling, roping in members of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, a bevy of Easter Eggs, and interesting environments to explore. In Spider-Man 2, the side-missions are, in a word, bland. Even the ones tied to Marvel lore – seeking out Prowler’s hidden lairs, taking on Mysterio’s challenges – boil down to defeat X of this enemy, destroy Y of those objects. Yes, there are some fun narrative payoffs – there’s a cult subplot that’s absolutely worth pursuing – but the side missions are largely plagued by repetition and a lack of originality. I mean, when you have Mysterio, the master of illusion!, to work with, and all you come up with is a series of generic time trials, you’ve done a disservice to the license.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about Spider-Man 2′s mini-games. I haven’t played this many mini-games since the PlayStation 2 era, and while most are fun (if goofy), they definitely feel like content-padding, especially after you’ve spliced your tenth genetic sequence or zapped your twentieth digital hornet (yes, you read that right). The only reason, really, to plow through them is that they reward you with upgrades and, more importantly, a generous helping of fabulous costume variants for Peter and Miles to try out. (Yes, the best costume makes a return.)
All is forgiven, however, when the main story is just this good. Spider-Man 2 knows what makes these Spider-Men tick, spinning a tale that pays homage to sixty years of comic history while also veering off in exciting new directions, including a willingness to (light spoilers!) kill off long-running characters.
Speaking of legacy, Venom is handled particularly well, with winks and nods to the character’s comic origins, even as the symbiote isn’t quite like you’ve seen it before. Nor does Spider-Man 2 shy away from what Venom is capable of, delivering some surprisingly gruesome moments which may startle players, but which fit well with the story this game is trying to tell.
And what a spectacular, amazing, sensational, superior, astonishing, adjectiveless story it is.
Final score: 9/10 gross oozing tentacle things.
Visit the official website for Spider-Man 2 here.