Saturday, October 20, 2018

An Old Nerd Spends A Month Doing A Bunch Of Shit Spiders Can’t Do

Two of my favorite things - the fast travel scenes and the Vintage Suit.
It’s done. It took me a month, but it’s done. At least for a couple of weeks until the DLC drops.

Yes, I’ve done (nearly) everything there is to do in the biggest game of the fall, PS4 Spider-Man. I have gotten every trophy. This is important. Do you know what it takes for me to even finish a game these days? I can’t even remember the last time I’ve gotten every trophy. I’m not sure I ever have.

Which is to say, Spider-Man PS4 is good. It’s very good. It’s very good in that way that very polished, AAA game releases are very good. It breaks almost zero new ground from a gameplay standpoint, lifting heavily from literally dozens of open world and superhero games and open world superhero games before it. And it takes those things and polishes them until they’re irresistibly shiny.

It can be argued that Spider-Man is the absolute best superhero for video games. His power set and strength levels are already beautifully calibrated for the level of challenge a game needs. He’s tough, but not invulnerable. He’s strong, but not so strong you can’t challenge him with street level thugs. He can’t fly, but he doesn’t just walk around either, giving you a nice compromise when it comes to travel speed.

In those generations that have had a Spider-Man game, that Spider-Man game has been very well regarded. There was Activision’s Spider-Man on the PS1. The Spider-Man 2 movie tie in game the generation after that. Hell, even the 16-bit Spidey beat em ups and the Atari 2600 Spidey game are remembered fondly.

Spider-Man is basically two very different games seamlessly woven together. THe first is an open world exploration game where you travel around New York City, fighting dudes and infiltrating bases and completing a bunch of weird challenges. The second is an almost entirely story-driven game made up largely of cut-scenes, quick time events, and big action set pieces. While playing the first game, every once in a while you’ll decide to go to the big yellow marker on the map to take a break by playing the second game.

The first game is everything you love about open world games, from any recent LEGO game or Far Cry or Just Cause or whatever. Except you’re Spider-Man. Find collectibles, do timed challenges, fight random street crime.

The second game is heavily reminiscent of all the bits of Uncharted that aren’t shootouts or carefully managed platforming bits. You spend as much time as Peter Parker, Miles Morales, and Mary Jane Watson in these story missions as you do Spider-Man. More than half of them involve just walking around. Some of them are literally just story interludes. A few of them are big Spidey action set-pieces with carefully structured combat environments and boss fights and QTE’s.

One thing that makes this not just palatable, but enjoyable, is that the writing and acting is strong. REALLY strong, by game standards. It’s set in an alternate universe, so the writers are free to remix classic Spider-Man story elements and characters into new narrative arcs, and the results are shockingly nuanced, subtle, and effective. I can’t think of any other superhero anything that handles the hero/girlfriend thing as well as this game does, and we’re living in the Superhero Glut right now, so that’s saying something.

Ninety five percent of the game feels fantastic. Movement, combat, presentation, unlockables. It’s all a very carefully presented experience designed for maximum fun. The other five percent of the time you’re stuck to a wall or want to be.

Given the number of things you’re trying to do most of the time in this game, the game is very good at knowing what you’re trying to do with the controller and doing it. But there’s something about getting on to and off of walls that, despite 100%ing the game, I never got the hang of. Way too often I found myself on a wal and wanting to be off it and unable to, or off a wall and wanting to be on it and unable to. This is only critical in the various timed challenges, really, but the game does have a lot of timed challenges.

If you want to understand the design philosophy behind this game, let’s take a look at one particular side mission. You’re contacted by a guy about another guy who’s missing. Ll you have to go on is a photograph of the city from a certain angle representing missing guy’s last known location. If you’ve played open world games before, you’ve seen this mission.

Other games make you recognize the landmarks, remember where in the giant city that was, and painstakingly move from building to building trying to line up the in-game camera to match the photo. Not this game. This game gives Spidey voiceover narration telling you the general area where to go, triggers success in a huge, many-block radius around the key point, and then has you do a fun thing to finish the mission instead of a tedious stupid thing. Good for you, Insomniac.And the whole game is like this. Automates the bullshit in order to get you to the game meats.I almost never felt like it was wasting my fucking time, which is a rare thing indeed for a game this long.

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