The first hour of Spider-Man on the PS4 strains against the limits of open-world storytellingAugust 2, 2018
To get it out of the way before we dive in: after an extended demo of the first hour of Insomniac’s upcoming Spider-Man game for PS4, yes, the swinging is still that good. But the question I have is how will that action gel with the epic superhero story the developer is trying to tell?
From my brief time with the game, most of the various pieces of gameplay that make up Spider-Man are solid. Open-world exploration is, thanks to that swinging, a total joy. New York City has been lovingly re-created as a gorgeous, sun-drenched sandbox. The combat is quick, but it takes advantage of open spaces that allow players to make use of Spidey’s mobility to fly around, along with his unique web-slinging abilities. Players can pull off moves like launching an enemy into the air, juggling them for a few punches, then grabbing them with a web and flinging them at the next foe, all before zipping across the room to strike a third goon. It’s exactly the kind of creative and fluid combat you’d want from pretending to be Spider-Man.
Even the story, from what little I’ve seen, looks interesting. Insomniac is penning a wholly new Spider-Man tale that jumps past the origin story we’ve seen so many time before to put players in the shoes of a more experienced, established web-slinger who’s already been on the job for years. The game starts with all the baggage and relationships — with both allies and enemies alike — that this entails.
“We wanted this to be our own universe,” explains Jon Paquette, Spider-Man’s lead writer, on the subject of why Insomniac isn’t just adapting one of the myriad of Spider-Man stories out there. “And we did a couple of things at the start to hopefully make it feel like it’s different. We are not doing the 15-year-old Peter Parker in high school dealing with girl problems and working as a photographer … We wanted to start [with an older, 23-year-old Peter] because we wanted to tell the story of an experienced Spider-Man who gets to the point where his experience isn’t enough.”
And yet, it’s the pieces where those elements rub up against each other that Spider-Man can’t help but encounter some friction. Swinging across Manhattan to save some pinned-down police officers felt properly heroic, but shifting to a cutscene that loaded me from the open-world into the “real” mission area was a lot more restrictive. It’s almost like there are two games that happen to share a lot of elements: a strong, story-focused Spider-Man adventure and a separate, open-world web-slinging simulator.
The warring ideas of choice versus cinematics even impacts the game’s combat. Insomniac is giving players a lot of options when it comes to how they’d like to play Spider-Man, along with an RPG-style skill tree that will allow them to unlock and focus on different abilities. But for truly important moments, the game kicks players over to a controversial quick-time event mechanic that feels more at home in 2008 than it does in 2018. It forces players into “playable” cutscenes that require pressing on-screen button prompts in the proper sequence and timing instead of actually playing the game.
“We use the quick-time events for select moments across the game when it’s a cinematic experience that pushes the boundaries. You couldn’t play that naturally,” says Ryan Smith, the game director for Spider-Man. “But we still want to have that cinematic Spider-Man experience. We feel they make an impact.”
It’s not that Insomniac isn’t giving players plenty to do. After completing the opening mission, the entire city is yours to explore. You can ignore the blinking indicator light on your HUD and swing around to your heart’s content. (Like any good New Yorker, I immediately tried to see if my apartment building was re-created in the game.) “Generally, you can swing wherever and whenever you want,” says Smith. He adds that players won’t be forced to activate a story mission if they don’t want to.
Spider-Man is by no means the first open-world game to have this problem, either. But after titles like Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild took such big strides forward in giving players open worlds that felt alive, where a pair of warring robotic dinosaurs or a hidden temple guarded by a fierce mini-boss might be hiding just around the next corner, Spider-Man felt a little too old-school: go to the icon, activate the mission, repeat.
This is all based on a small, early slice of gameplay, however, so it’s entirely possible that Spider-Man expands as you progress through the game. Paquette and Smith alluded to the fact that the open world will change and grow over the course of the story, and new enemies and missions will pop up based on the events that occur.
But even if the pieces don’t end up coming together in a coherent whole in the final game, Spider-Man still looks like a blast to play. The web-slinging is that good.