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The Wordcast: Thumbsticks discusses Insomniac’s Spider-Man

The Wordcast. It’s like a podcast, but it’s written down, and you read it with your eyes. This week, Tom and Dan preview Insomniac’s Spider-Man.

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Marvel's Spider-Man - Insomniac Games

The Wordcast. It’s like a podcast, but it’s written down, and you read it with your eyes. This week, Tom and Dan preview Insomniac’s Spider-Man.

Tom: So, we watched the Spider-Man trailer – the one with the Sinister Six tease in it – together at E3 this year, and I think it’s fair to say we were both a little underwhelmed.

Dan: It’s true. The game’s previous trailers seemed a little cut-scene heavy, but they did tease a bright, wide-open Manhattan. This one felt a little warehousey, with a goon fight that could have been stolen from any of the Batman Arkham games.

Tom: Not that there’s anything wrong with the Arkham games, of course – if you need a blueprint for the successful, modern superhero video game, then you need look no further than Rocksteady’s version of the Dark Knight. But for a game that had hitherto been selling itself on open-world web slinging, for the first time, it felt both restrictive and derivative. The corridors, the moves, the crowd control; all it really needed was a bunch of gargoyles to sit on, and a bit of an angsty, gothic makeover for the lead.

Dan: My thoughts on the game improved considerably once we had the chance to pick up a controller and play it for ourselves. Sony wisely gave us a demo that featured sizeable section of Manhattan to explore, and the difference was immediate and liberating. It’s all about the swinging of course, and I think Insomniac deserves plaudits for how quickly it becomes second nature to jump into the air and fling Spider-Man around.

Tom: And credit to Sony, their press area was a bastion of calm in a sea of chaos. I got into the hall at basically 11.05 on the first day – all press and exhibitors, no punters – and the queue for Spider-Man was already spilling out of its cordoned area. The fact we both got time to chill out on some comfy sofas, and play simultaneously and in our own time, was a much better way to preview the game.

Dan: Sony certainly did their best to make the demo experience as impressive as possible. I assume the game was was also running on a PlayStation 4 Pro. As you launch into the sky, the subtle, magic-hour lighting really pops, making it a pleasure to just perch Spider-Man on a building, swing the camera around, and take it all in.

Tom: Yeah, I looked over at one point, and apropos of nothing, we were both trying to do the exact same thing: perch on top of satellite dish towers on the top of skyscrapers, with Spidey in the iconic hands down/knees out frog pose, and just swing the camera round to take it all in.

Dan: You were pretty obsessed with trying to capture that iconic pose. If only that damned dialog box telling you to press R2 would have disappeared, you would have got the perfect shot.

Tom: What can I say? That was a bit of a childhood dream realised, and if ever a game were crying out for a photo mode with no UI, it’s Spider-Man.

Marvel's Spider-Man - Insomniac Games

Dan: The game’s use of the camera is interesting actually, because it can be a slight hindrance when Spidey is in motion. Forgive another Batman comparison, but it reminds me of the feeling I had with Arkham Knight’s fully upgraded Grapnel Boost.

Tom: You’re right about the camera. A lot of the chatter we’d heard about the game from other members of the press, before we went hands-on ourselves, was that the camera was wild and uncontrollable. Giving people motion sickness, even. That’s the last thing you want from a fluid traversal system like Spider-Man’s web slinging.

But another benefit of us playing side by side was that you could point out where I – and all the other journos – were going wrong: leave the right stick alone! Once you start letting the game control the camera, it’s silky smooth and without issues.

Dan: It’s funny how we’ve become so accustomed to playing director – and baby-sitting game cameras – that when a studio does a top-notch job of taking care of it, it takes a while to notice and trust in what they’ve done.

Tom: Stems from years of very bad cameras, I suppose. Manipulating the right-stick in PS1-era 3D platformers (and, er, 2017’s Yooka-Laylee, because it’s painfully retro to a fault) became a skill borne out of necessity.

Dan: Another slight niggle for me was the pathfinding. The demo was certainly trying to nudge us towards a particular point to trigger a stealth combat sequence, but I think we both had a little trouble trying to work out exactly where we were supposed to get to.

Tom: And yet another instance of me needing a second pair of eyes! I was having so much fun swinging among the skyscrapers that I didn’t even realise we had an objective until you pointed it out. It was difficult to get to, though, and I found myself going out of bounds of the demo a few times. A GTA-style minimap isn’t as easy to use when you’re pinging between buildings and not on the road.

At one point I got so jumbled I just dropped to the ground and jogged, which was kind of nice in its own right, listening to the public chatter to Spidey as he mingled among them. Most of them loved him, some of them hated him; wouldn’t it be really cool if Spidey’s reputation – and the public’s reaction to him – changed with how you play the game?

Marvel's Spider-Man - Insomniac Games

Dan: The verticality is wonderful but perhaps a reason for the mini-map problems. That said, I appreciate that when you drop to street level the game feels just as polished, and just as much part of the game-playing environment as its rooftops. It’s something that the Arkham series never quote managed to pull off (last mention, I promise!).

But yeah, I like that idea. Spider-Man’s neighbourly character lends itself to that kind of interaction with New York’s citizens. It would also be cool for headlines in the Daily Bugle to reflect what you’ve been doing, a la Red Dead Redemption, but also provide feedback on your approach to the game.

Tom: I guess that’s the last real unknown with Spider-Man, this close to release. We know how the open world traversal works (very well, if you leave the camera alone) and we know how the combat works (just like Rocksteady used to make). What we don’t know for certain is how it’s all going to tie together.

It’s an open world superhero game with rapid traversal, so we can make a few educated guesses – somewhere between the Infamous and Arkham games, and Insomniac’s own Sunset Overdrive – but the success of Spider-Man will likely hinge on how players swing between the linear story and open world busywork, not the skyscrapers.


Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man launches for PS4 on September 7th, 2018.

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