At the beginning of Spider-Man 2, we are greeted by a familiar sight.
A breathless Peter Parker, arriving late for class, bursts through the door, glances around the room, and sheepishly takes his place. Only, there’s a twist. His place is at the front, teaching. It’s a good visual gag: the clothes that a dork like Peter would wear (burgundy jumper, blue check shirt, brown sports jacket) make a seamless swing from shy kid to anxious tutor. Fortunately for Mr Parker, one of his students is a good friend, Miles, who signals for him to do his top button up – thus concealing the glimpse of scarlet just below his collar. For Pete, the doubling up of identities is all part of a day’s work, but when it comes to his inner nerd he can only double down. “This is physics class,” he says, “and physics is awesome.”
Before long, this lesson is interrupted by a scratchy gust. Sandman is on the loose, and his crumbling mind and billowing bad moods are the city’s to bear. Peter and Miles, a pair of Spider-Men, make their excuses, depart the school, don their costumes, and loop into battle against the dunes. Still to come we have the Lizard, who leaves a trail of half-chewed fish and ploughs through the East River like a mini-Godzilla. Then there is Kraven the Hunter, who sports a furry vest, a necklace of tusks, and an expression of permanent discontent. He puts half of New York’s supervillains on the endangered species list, hunting them for sport. Then there is Venom – who resembles a cross between Spider-Man and an oil spill, refers to himself as “us,” and attempts to turn the world into a hive of slimy black tendrils.
This over-egging of baddies may prompt you to recall the caved-in soufflé of Spider-Man 3, the movie, which also boasted the clumped and gunky mixture of Sandman and Venom. The developer here, Insomniac Games, doesn’t suffer the sagging that blighted that film. It’s working with an elasticated run time, for one thing, and the web of the plot has been wrangled by not only a narrative director (Walt Williams) but a story manager (Meghan Thornton) and a senior writer. The latter is Sam Maggs, who wrote Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, in which the universe began to shatter and ramify. This surely qualifies her as an expert in narrative crack-up.
As in that game, there is a sense here, as our heroes are yanked through multiple plots by the tether of mounting threat, that it’s the very force of that pull that keeps the fragments together. Peter’s relationship to Mary Jane Watson, while certainly not on the rocks, is dangling just above them. She, in turn, is struggling with her career at the Daily Bugle, and the brassy rebukes of her editor, J. Jonah Jameson. Miles has yet to draft his college application letter, putting it off in favour of fighting crime. And Harry Osborn, Peter’s high school chum, has returned, after a long and life-sapping patch of illness, in curiously potent health. All of these threads coalesce when, at around the half-way point, Peter gets daubed in some dark gloop and succumbs to a moody makeover.
It is this gloop (an extra-terrestrial organism, we learn) that will later swell into Venom, but for now it binds to poor old Pete. This is the best part of the adventure. We get a chic new suit, in glistening black; a selection of tentacular abilities, which add a welcome writhe and punch to the combat; and Yuri Lowenthal, who voices Peter, gets to sound really pissed off. He does a better job of this than Tobey Maguire did, strutting about with a greasy fringe and moping atop churches in the rain. Lowenthal has been here before. In 2004, he voiced the star of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, who had, since the previous entry, grown murky and mean, sanded down by time. Here we get a neighbourhood Spider-Man whose friendliness has worn thin – frosted over by the irritations of life, and the creeping chill of power.
One problem with Spider-Man 2, of course, is Spider-Man 2. I don’t mean the movie, nor that the game struggles with a Venomous case of personality fracture. I mean the game Spider-Man 2, made by Treyarch, which scuttled out the spout of licensed movie tie-ins in 2004. It gave us a web-swinging mechanic that everyone has stuck to ever since, and a sprawling open-world – a departure that made the preceding game, with its linear levels, feel practically cobwebbed by comparison. In other words, it had what very few sequels, by definition, can have: surprise.
Insomniac, working within the cladding of a Sony blockbuster, cannot boast the same breezy indifference to expectation. Not that the new game is without its share of improvements and flourishes. In similar fashion to Grand Theft Auto V, you can now switch between Peter and Miles whenever you wish. Miles doesn’t have an alien suckered onto his suit, but he still wields jolts of electricity to juice up his moves, and he can now hurl the stuff in crackling arcs. The map has swelled to include the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, which, with their leafy flatness, are perfect spots to try out the new Web Wings. These gizmos sprout under the armpits and spirit the boys along on the wind – as if they were both bitten by radioactive squirrels. Traversal in these games was always a trapeze-like joy, and Insomniac has heeded the curriculum of not just Batman: Arkham but Just Cause, too; nothing beats diving earthwards, springing your wings, and swerving away from the ground on a pocket of pure air. Physics is awesome.
As befits the developer of Ratchet & Clank and the Resistance series, the action is littered with gadgets. We get the Upshot, a flying drone that zaps opponents into the air; the Ricochet Web, which bounces between them like a rubber ball; and the Web Grabber, a nifty little trap that fetters several foes and tugs them all together. Insomniac’s greatest coup with these games is to cast Peter as a real garage tinkerer, stuffing his armoury with sticky thwipperies.
The combat is the same silken blend of combos and twanging counters, and, as in the prior outings, what astounds you is how easy it all feels: not that it lacks challenge, rather that it lacks friction. You ping between missions, collectibles, and moods with an effortless motion. Insomniac is offering a bright reminder that Triple-A behemoths don’t have to shunt and heave; all that cash (a leak, earlier this year, revealed that the budget for projects such as this will zip merrily over the two-hundred-million-dollar mark) can have a lightening effect.
And yet, there’s no mistaking the incy wincy itch that tickles Sony’s titans. It’s there in things like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and God of War – games that swaddle you in cinematic spectacle, closing off any avenue that may rupture its cohesion. If you have shimmied through a narrow pass of rock, as the camera scrapes in after you; or torn off a troll’s jaw, before tracking, without a hitch, into a father-son squabble, you will have noticed the restrained smoothness in these games. It’s as if they were bound in spandex, and every now and then you yearn to tear it off. This feeling was less prevalent in Insomniac’s first Spider-Man and its follow-up, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, where the thrill of movement was still urgent. Now, as wondrous as it is, as assured and poised as the story and the mechanics still are, there is a restlessness to this sequel.
The best set piece arrives as Peter, Mary Jane, and Harry enjoy an evening on Coney Island, at the funfair. You play a selection of minigames, knocking over bottles, squirting water at targets, and smacking a giant hammer the better to ding a little bell. All the while, the trio talk like old friends, scraps of banter tinged with adult worries. The entire scene can be traced back to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, in which the hero joined in, briefly, with a group of children playing football. That lull, amid the endless crump of gunfire, kicked off a trend in blockbusters to take time out – to let us recoup. Back on Coney Island, calamity breaks out, as it must, and Peter has to rescue a carful of New Yorkers, at the peak of a burning roller coaster. This is the lasting image of Spider-Man 2, our hero gripped by the fear of losing lives, and below the surface a deeper dread: that the ride may clatter off the rails.
Game: Marvel’s Spider-Man 2
Platform: Playstation 5
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: October 20, 2023