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It feels like a game that wasn't mean to be played, a game that is exists in the space between levels, making use of glitches and weird broken difficult to maneuver exploits to progress through it. An anti-game design game, but weirdly still engaging and playable, if also frustrating, confusing, and unnerving. It's rules are arcane and confusing and work in weird ways that don't make sense to a person, making it much more similar to the real world than most video games.
While this is certainly among the best video games I’ve ever played just from a mechanics perspective, what I really love about this game is that it is perhaps my favorite Spider-Man story I’ve ever experienced.
Of course, it’s easy to be biased, because the story seemed tailor-made for my life experience. I’m the same age as the game’s Peter, no longer the wide eyed irresponsible teenagers we once were. This Spiderman has been a hero for eight years. He’s a professional who’s settled into a comfortable relationship with the NYPD and has his patrols of the city down to a professional clip. It’s like playing returning to the Spiderman I remember from my youth, catching up, seeing how things have changed and where he’s at in life. Of course, since this is our first interaction with this version of Spider-Man, the story can still save his most iconic villains, spending them at just the right moments.
They’ve clearly done their research, and they nail Spiderman: all the right ingredients that make him iconic and distinct, but remixed in a way that makes them feel fresh and unexpected. I’ve never spent so much time with an older Spiderman, a version very present in the comic book mythologies but that I’ve never seen onscreen before. It’s a great world to explore, a Spiderman who’s active on Twitter and gets in awkward conversations with his ex-girlfriend as he swings around New York.
The map is fantastic: a miniature Manhattan that you are able to glide through easier than anyone trapped in the traffic and inconsistent subways below you. You can explore every corner of it from the first moment of the game. After all, you are Spiderman: Manhattan is your home. The entire island. You patrol it, like a cat guarding its territory, driving out unwanted intruders and helping the civilians under your protection. As the game progresses, the map changes, growing more dangerous, filled with more different types of criminals, populated by more homeless people, trash fires, and accidents. It’s some of the best environmental storytelling I’ve seen. It gets you familiar with a location, then changes the feeling of the location. You don’t have to travel to see movement - the world moves through time, and you experience the heartbreak of seeing familiar locations crumble.
Of course, this is made all the more fun because I am living in Manhattan right now! As spiderman, I can go to the neighborhood where I live, webswing along the route I take to campus, and even fight goons in a faithful recreation of the school I spend so much of my time in! I can look at the Alma Mater statue in person and remember standing on top of it as Spiderman, or of leaping off the roof of Dodge Hall as I fight Demons. Once, while on a run through Central Park, I discovered a ruined fort, just four walls and flag. The next day, I discovered the same landmark while web slinging around the park as Spiderman. It’s not the same Manhattan at all, since most of the map is randomly generated buildings, but it’s similar enough to give me an odd double sense of being able to inhabit the real world of my experience, something I’ve never had before.
The web singing is easy and incredibly fun. My favorite part was aimlessly swinging from building to building, flinging myself into the air, whipping myself around corners, and barely avoiding slamming into the sides of buildings. My one tiny quibble: I wish they made you fall toward the center pivot of your swing, just to feel a little more realistic and a little more tactical. But it’s a minor criticism for one of the best mechanics I’ve found in any game.
The other part of the game is Arkham Asylum style combat: you drop into a group of enemies and automatically punch those closest to you, leaping away with the dodge button whenever your spider sense tingles. It’s very very very smooth, exhilarating and satisfies some violent urge in my bones. My favorite movie is when I slide under someone, then continue chaining attacks on them up from the other side, using their body as cover form the bullets or punches coming at me that I would have had to dodge otherwise. Spiderman has the coolest style of fighting, and it’s a joy to do it.
But it’s the way the two come together to really make the game, and really make you feel like Spiderman. You webswing exhilaratingly through the city, then drop down to the street to beat up some thugs threatening your neighborhood. Once they’re webbed up, you swing away, continuing your patrol. It’s what spiderman does in his day to day. The comics depict the more narrative things that happen, but when the story isn’t happening, all he does is patrol Manhattan and fight people. This is the superfun experience the game allows you to have, effortlessly moving, fighting, and transversing again, feeling like you are living the day-to-day of Peter Parker. You long to be out there on the web whenever you are out-of-costume, making you realize the element of selfish fun that must be part of what draws Peter to his life as Spiderman, no matter how much the narrative paints his double life as terrible.
But the narrative does successfully convey the struggle of his life, the pressures he must feel, in a way no other spiderman story has for me. Seeing his relationships jeopardized time and time again, understanding the duty he has, seeing his best friends turn on him — it’s a great distillation of the best elements of the comics. Spending so much time with the character really allows you to understand what kind of icon they are.
A more troubling aspect I realized while playing is the way that Spiderman is an extension of the police state. He is all about squashing unrest, maintaining order, policing the streets and enacting violence in the name of preserving day to day social structures because he has the force to do so. This game makes it more explicit: he works with a police officer, Yuri, who tells him what to do and where to go, and so he works alongside and for the NYPD. The villains are all criminals. Many of them are escaped prisoners from Ryker’s island, who are portrayed as pure menaces, which no place to belong but in the criminal justice system. Spiderman defends the prison industrial complex, unquestioningly fighting, beating up, and capturing people the state deems as criminal wherever he sees them. He throws people off roofs and beats them senseless, just because they are dealing drugs or wearing jumpsuits.
Perhaps to offset these questionable politics, the game also adds super-militarized mercenaries who work for the CEO/mayor, Normal Osborn. They arrest protestors and harass people, and beating up the authoritarian fascists feels a lot more heroic then when Spiderman drops down to beat the shit out of drug dealers. Norman Osborn’s character is interesting - a clear statement about the corporate-government ties in America, placing Spider-man’s greatest villain at the head of the government. But Spider-man supports and protects him throughout the whole game: the villains are those trying to punish Osborn. Osborn never even turns to villainy in this game, although the hints and suggestions are there, of course. We’ll have to wait until part 2 to see Spiderman fight the corporate police state, I guess.
Although this is essentially a high budget Her Story -- multiple characters, big name actors, full sets and a more beautiful interface -- I miss the simplicity of the original, and don't feel the budget, length, and additional complications elevate it above the brilliance of the original.