REVIEW: Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) on PS4

[This review covers the main game only, not the recently released The City that Never Sleeps expansions.]

Late to the party.

Hello, dear reader. I hope your day is going well. Mine is. Why?

Because I just finished Marvel’s Spider-Man, the latest video game in the Spider-Man series, this time developed by Insomniac Games and published by Sony exclusively for the PlayStation 4.

And you know what? It’s good. Like, really good. I know, the game came out a few months ago and already has a slew of downloadable content available for purchase, so there isn’t much I can say that you haven’t already heard, but I’ll give it a shot.

Some mild spoilers for the campaign after the jump.

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Get it?

When I first heard that Insomniac Games was assigned to create the next Spider-Man game, I was worried. This is a development studio that has, for a while now, been hobbled by a series of lackluster releases. Their attempt to reboot Ratchet & Clank (a franchise nearly dormant since the PlayStation 2 era) failed miserably as a game and even more so as a film. Several years ago, before the PlayStation 4 usurped the Xbox brand as the king of the console-space, Insomniac had signed a bit of an exclusivity deal with Microsoft – the result of which was the fun-but-forgettable Sunset Overdrive.

The once prodigious creators of Spyro and Ratchet & Clank seemed on the opposite trajectory to sister Sony in-house studio, Naughty Dog – who followed their popular early PlayStation titles with the stellar Uncharted series and masterpiece The Last of Us.

Now, with the release of Marvel’s Spider-Man, Insomniac seems to have taken its step-backs in stride. By adhering to some old-school design principles, creating the most beautiful rendition of New York City’s Manhattan Island ever used in a video game, and by doubling down on narrative; Insomniac has created what is arguably the greatest Spider-Man game ever made, and probably one of the very best superhero games, as well.

The Spider’s in the details.

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It starts with the world. Simply put: it’s gorgeous. Though there’s no true day/night cycle, the lighting is off-the-charts beautiful. Sony and its contracted studios have continuously made the case that the best looking games, in terms of graphical fidelity, can only be found on PlayStation. Playing this on the PS4 Pro, I was treated to vivid colors, deep shadows, reflections, enhanced draw distance, and a solidly stable frame-rate. Web-zipping across rooftops hasn’t felt this good since Treyarch’s groundbreaking Spider-Man 2 (2004).

Central Park is expansive, the buildings are massive and nearly photo-realistic in their representation here. But the map isn’t just enjoyed from the air. Stick to the surface of any building and you’re likely to be surprised that you can actually see inside them. Each exterior window of each building has a fully modeled room on the other side. Granted, they’re low resolution and procedurally-generated, but swinging through Manhattan at night, with each of its skyscrapers suddenly given the added depth of interiors behind all that reflective glass? A marvelous experience. It’s a small detail with richly immersive rewards.

Fall down to street-level (there’s no fall-damage) and walk around the city for a bit. You’ll notice varying textures on the sidewalk, people chatting on benches, a few fans to high-five or take a selfie with, or maybe an emergent game of basketball on a court in Harlem – in the shadow of a dark-splotched brick apartment building.

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I’m not saying that the city feels as alive as, say, Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City, but this comes damn close. It’s leaps-and-bounds more lively, varied, and technically impressive (in a true-to-life sense) than Spider-Man 2 (2004).

There are also plenty of collectibles and Easter-eggs to be found, tucked away under bridges or offered as rewards from challenges. Not to mention the many famous buildings of the Marvel cinematic and television universes that appear. It’s a great map for scavenger hunting, and Insomniac has stuffed as much as they could between every expertly modeled building – though finding everything is, at times, a chore (looking at you, Taskmaster.)

This wonderful map would amount to nothing, however, if traversing it is a chore, and that’s where its abundantly clear Insomniac was the best choice to make this game.

A Spider about town.

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Though there’s a bit of a learning curve, especially to those of you used to Spider-Man 2′s hold-and-release web-slinging, getting around Manhattan is a breeze. It’s intuitive, both the button layout and heads-up display, which allows for muscle memory to dictate how you move within an environment. Very rarely was I stuck wondering which button did what. Speed is everything, something Sunset Overdrive couldn’t master, and Spidey’s agility is on full display here. The number one rule when making a game like this is to focus on the feeling of being the superhero. The player should never feel inhibited in a way that contradicts the character they are playing. Only very rarely, in the heat of some intense and (unfortunately) camera-locked scenarios does the web-swinging feel restricted in this game.

Insomniac was clearly influenced by two games. One, Spider-Man 2 (the previous standard-bearer in the franchise) and Batman: Arkham City. The web-swinging and radiant crime mini-quests carry over from Spider-Man 2, whereas the ability to scan environments, the arsenal of gadgets, and the combo-chain combat system are owed to the Arkham series. Combat scenarios and boss-battles don’t feel tremendously fresh, especially considering the amount of quick-time events (QTE’s) that appear, but – and this is important – the mechanics feel right for a Spider-Man game. Also, it’s standard operating procedure at this point to have your open-world game require the character to climb to a vantage point and unlock segments of the in-game map, so of course that’s in here, too.

The gameplay isn’t especially innovative, but that doesn’t damn the consumer to a lackluster experience. These mechanics have persisted for so long for a reason.

And the story?

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You often play as both MJ and Miles Morales – photo mode works for both!

This is what elevates and what occasionally ails this game. Insomniac’s brand of witty dialogue, tongue-in-cheek humor, and visual gags are all here. The story was obviously written and executed with a genuine love for Spider-Man as a character, and a total understanding of what makes him such a compelling character.

Spider-Man has superpowers, but they do not enrich him. His power is a burden on him and those he’s cares for, but he assumes his role as the city’s protector nevertheless. Insomniac was wise to focus their narrative on not only Spidey, but on Peter Parker and the responsibilities of both. That said, Peter is still a twenty-something, and this game may just be the greatest 21st Century adaptation of the character.

He has a Twitter-esque social media feed and 15.3 million fans. He rides the subway and flips through his phone as he does so. The texts he sends are sometimes misinterpreted. He can be incredibly anxious around Mary-Jane (who is thankfully given plenty to do in the story). He’s a sarcastic millennial with a heart of gold, and the bad-guys are just as well-written.

Every villain has a motive, every hero has a weakness. Every character, when given the appropriate screen-time, shines in this game. It’s easily the best narrative that Insomniac has ever produced, and is bookended by some of the most thoroughly entertaining stuff currently available on PS4.

Where it struggles, however, is during the second act. After a bombastic opener, and a quick introduction to Manhattan and the games’ gallery of characters, the player is essentially left to deal with petty crime and side quests until the narrative decides that it’s time for something explosive to happen. There are a few too many perspective changes, a few too many “stealth” missions, and a few too many narrative elements too obviously foreshadowed. That isn’t to say that the game’s story lacks surprise, because there are quite a few genuinely incredible moments in the game, they just happen far too late in the narrative. That big fuck-all prison break showcase at E3 over the summer? That’s nearer to the end of the game than it should be.

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When you fast travel, you take the subway.

I was asking myself at around hour twenty of my play-through, “where are the villains?”

This is an older Spider-Man, more so than the Tom Holland interpretation currently dusting around in the MCU. This is a Spider-Man game where the villains have been in jail for a bit, people have moved on, Peter has left the Bugle, everyone is working and behind on rent, and the High-School antics are a distant memory. The world is seemingly calm after the opening sequence of the game – Fisk was the last big fish to catch.

And that’s the only element that Spider-Man 2 can still lord over the rest of the Spider-Man games – it rolled out and handled its rogue’s gallery at a blissfully consistent pace. Here, due to the game’s focus on Peter Parker’s personal life and the aforementioned scavenger-hunting, the narrative is driven more by personal drama during the second act. Which is NOT a bad thing. This game has some of my favorite Peter / Mary-Jane moments, by far. However, it does feel a bit too often that you’re just waiting for the story to really kick into gear.

What that helps with, though, is underscore a point made by Fisk after his arrest early in the game – that with him out the picture, crime will slowly rise and reach a boiling point. It does do that, and the city transforms accordingly to stunning effect, but the fact remains – all those villains in the trailer? That’s just a small handful of boss fights and a frustrating dream-sequence in Act 3. There are other fights, such as with Tombstone and Taskmaster, but neither are related to the narrative in any significant way.

When the narrative is firing on all cylinders? It’s the best damn Spider-Man property, period. I mean that.

Oh, but there are the occasional bugs…

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There are two bugs in this screenshot

The Verdict

Marvel’s Spider-Man is a smart, surprising, deep, and graphically impressive title. It’s more than I was expecting, and as far as I’m concerned, has finally toppled Spider-Man 2 from its perch atop the franchise.

The combat is fun, traversal is fun, and the photo-mode is utterly addicting – it helps that the game looks so good. There are difficult challenges and heart-felt moments, some trademark Insomniac hilarity, and a startling level of detail everywhere you look. However, the game is far from groundbreaking. Consider this the perfection of the open-world third-person formula.

Don’t hesitate to pick this up, play it, and love it. You deserve to be happy, dear reader, and this game will do the trick.

4/5 – Must own.

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Until next time.

REVIEW: ‘Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 – Roads’

Life is Strange 2: Episode 1 – Roads

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Developed by DONTNOD Entertainment; Published by Square Enix; Rated Mature; Released September 26, 2018; Available on PS4, XB1, Windows PC; Reviewed on Xbox One X


Three long years and one prequel later, developer DONTNOD is back with the long-awaited sequel season to 2015’s award-winning Life is Strange. Back is the teenaged angst, the hand-painted textures, the American Pacific Northwest, and the feels – dear god, the feels.

The first season of Life is Strange pushed boundaries, strengthened the case for queer narratives in games, and chose to highlight issues unique to the teenaged experience – all while operating within the framework of a supernatural sci-fi murder-mystery. It had a lot going for it based on its premise alone. As that season progressed, however, the narrative shifted from the murder-mystery in order to better develop the central relationship between heroines Max Caulfield and Chloe Price. Develop it did, and I promise I’ll be reviewing that very, very special first season in due time.

For now, however, let’s see if DONTNOD have managed to follow-up on one of this generation’s most surprising hits.


Narrative

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Life is Strange 2 starts without much fanfare, or music in general. A soft Syd Matters melody plays-in our protagonist, Sean Diaz, and the differences between seasons one and two of this series begin immediately. It’s no secret that DONTNOD sought to leave Arcadia Bay, the setting of season one, behind in favor of a radically different approach.

Sean Diaz is no Max Caulfield. For starters, Sean is the son of a mexican immigrant, lives in Seattle, runs for the track team, has a job, plenty of friends, and a nine-year-old brother, Daniel.

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We don’t get to see his school, any of his teachers, and only get a vague idea of his classmates – aside from his best friend Lyla. And, like the first Life is Strange, the majority of the subtext within the game is found with selectable notes strewn about the many environments. Aside from those brief interactions, our narrative revolves almost entirely around Sean for the first half-hour to an hour (depending on how thoroughly you explore.)

No premonitions of deadly storms, or anything quite as iconic as Max walking through Blackwell Academy with “To All of You” by Syd Matters in her ears. All Sean has to do is prepare for a party at his friend’s cabin. Simple enough. Talk to your father, Estaban, talk to Daniel, cram some party-favors in your backback from around your house, and you’re good to go.

We are then thrust into our supernatural road-trip narrative. In an emotional scene, especially if you took the time to interact with your family before progressing, sixteen-year-old Sean and nine-year-old Daniel are thrust from their home and must flee south toward Mexico (from Seattle, Washington, no less.) Here, the politics of Life is Strange 2 rear their head, and do so occasionally to mixed results. At the onset, thankfully, the result is strikingly effective.

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One can commend DONTNOD for their willingness to approach issues such as immigration, racism, and police-violence so earnestly, but one hang-up I had – a carryover from the first season – is that the dialogue can at times suggest the reading of an informational pamphlet on the dangers of racism, and an adult-slanted understanding of how teenagers discuss the use of marijuana or alcohol. This isn’t much of a complaint, because where DONTNOD excels is in the writing of their characters.

And that’s an important strength to have considering the plot of episode 1, aptly titled “Roads.” This is Sean and Daniel’s story. They aren’t trying to save the world or find missing friends, or really even explain how Daniel has the ability to move objects with his mind – they’re in full self-preservation mode.

It’s a timely story, yes, one that I enjoyed immensely, but I need you, dear reader, to understand that the following statement may seem paradoxical. The narrative here in episode one is hours long if you decide to explore its every nook and cranny, find every hidden collectible or truly ponder the decisions you’re presented with. It’s an incredibly slow start, devoid of much lisenced music, an ecosystem of recurring characters, or the unwinding layers of complicated interpersonal relationships set against supernatural intrigue. No, this feels very long, frustratingly slow to develop, and damn it – it’s better because of it.

I’ll explain.

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This is clearly the start of something much larger, a road trip of epic proportions down to Mexico. If anything, episode one needed to present a state of normalcy before thrusting us into chaos and uncertainty. As well as adequately foreshadow the creator’s intended brand of politics. Oh yes, those politics. And, more importantly, to develop the bond between Sean and Daniel. And oh, buddy did they succeed there.

Sean is prideful, but sensitive to the needs of his younger brother – beyond Daniel’s nine-year-old impulsiveness. Sean can comprehend the racism he encounters, the otherness latched onto him by others – portrayed wonderfully in a scene where he is asked to justify his presence in a store, to prove his innocence in the face of assumed guilt.

And Daniel is, well, awesome possum. He’s everything he needs to be: an adorable foil to our playable character, but sympathetic and uniquely complex enough to sustain a compelling narrative. He has superpowers, an affinity for wolves and other animals, and loves chocolate bars. Love him already.

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Without taking time to truly display the bond between the brothers, and bond them to us, the audience, the beginning of this new season wouldn’t feel anywhere near as sturdy.

Considering that it ends in a motel, far away from where it starts, it’s obvious that DONTNOD has plenty more up their sleeve. We’re going to cover a lot of ground over these five episodes. Let’s get excited for it.


Gameplay

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As for the gameplay, it hasn’t changed much from the original. Meander through environments to find the answers to easily accomplished puzzles. Check your cell-phone to read texts from your friends and family. Find hidden notes and flesh out the back-story.

Narrative comes first here, and with it, plenty of complicated decisions.

Whereas the original Life is Strange had characters’ lives hanging in the balance with every decision, here it has more to do with how your actions reflect on your impressionable young brother, Daniel. He absorbs your behavior and reacts accordingly. The balance between immediate survival and the long-term consequences of your actions weigh heavily as you progress down the open road. What do you say to hide the fact you are wanted for questioning by police? How do you conceal the death of your father to Daniel? How do you gather adequate supplies with only a meager sum of money? These are the things you must consider while progressing through the narrative.

It’s an interesting, more immediate motivation when compared to season one.

One element missing in Life is Strange 2 is the ability to manipulate time. Your decisions here are permanent, unless you feel like loading a previous save or beginning a new playthrough. We won’t know how our decisions play out until the end. The flip-side to that is how it removes a sense of agency from the player. It’s an easy sin to forgive, as Sean doesn’t have much agency within the context of the narrative.

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There’s a bit too much walking, a bit too much sitting, a bit too much exposition, and a bit too little variation to the environments or the set-pieces – there’s one stand-out kidnapping sequence that’s worth not spoiling.

Honestly, seeing as the gameplay and narrative are so inherently linked, the greatest achievement of this first episode is placing the player in the shoes of an immigrant’s son. He doesn’t look like the predominantly white, rural northwesterners. It’s as overt as it comes, but I won’t be the white guy that argues to which degree racism is prevalent in the lives of minorities. It’s not my place, nor my inclination, but in Life is Strange 2 it’s difficult to look away from the systemic issues in the United States that would lead someone to accuse a young man of color of shoplifting, without proof; or for some of us to beg the necessity of a wall along the southern border.

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Life is Strange 2 doesn’t touch lightly on these subjects, as I’ve stated, but demanding that it should is insulting to the type of injustices on display. This isn’t a carbon-print of reality, here. Only a response to it.

And it works as well as it can.


Presentation

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Perhaps the most noticeable change between Life is Strange and its sequel are the graphics. It isn’t as striking at first, while you’re walking around the Diaz household or stepping off the school bus, but once the environment opens up into the forest of the Pacific Northwest? Holy shit. The assets on display is fantastic. The environments are lush with foliage and moving parts. Lighting is equally impressive, with god-rays flitting through swaying branches and glistening off of slow-moving water. It’s wonderfully serene.

Also, and I can’t overstate this, the character models look like actual people. Remember, all the textures in-game are hand-painted before being scanned in to the game-engine, so the fact that Daniel has a slight coloration under his eyes, in-keeping with his age and complexion, represents an astonishing attention to detail. Light plays off the angles of our characters’ faces and, holy crap, the lips are synced to the dialogue. What a time to be alive.

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If you have the opportunity to play this on a 4k screen, using either the PS4 Pro or the Xbox One X, you’ll enjoy a sharp presentation and near-consistent 60fps performance through and through. Truly the way it was meant to be played.

Sound is also phenomenal. Wind pushes through creaking trees, water babbles along a rocky shore, and voice-work is full of all the “uh’s” and “um’s” for increased verisimilitude. Everything here is convincingly realised. Whether it be papers strewn across a desk, trash spilling from a dumpster, or markings on trees and bathroom walls, it’s all in service of creating a world that feels lived in, real, and worth exploring.


Verdict

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Considering the lethargic, but cathartic pacing, sleeve-worn ideology, the bewildering attention to environmental detail, the beautiful presentation, and rock-solid character work, it’s hard not to consider this a flawed, but wonderful introduction to the next story in the Life is Strange universe.

I’m excited, optimistic, and totally invested. Just like the first time around. I will not, however, allow my enthusiasm to overlook what I perceive as flaws: some rough dialogue, pacing, and a lack of licensed music characteristic to the series.

Bonus points for the Arcadia Bay cameo, though.

3.75/5 – Well above average, but not without flaws. Fully recommend buying.

You can purchase Life is Strange 2 as a bundle on the Playstation Store, Microsoft Store, or from the Square Enix store for $39.99 USD.

Stay tuned for the review of every episode, and follow along on social media here and here.

Until next time.