Spider-Man 2 - title

I'm not going to hold back on spoilers in this review, so read on at your own risk. If you want my non-spoiler opinion of the game (and didn't already get it from the grade above): it's good. It's not the watershed, lightning-in-a-bottle experience like the first game was though. It makes some smart changes, including some that seem to be based directly on feedback from the first game. But it also undercuts some of those smart changes with other changes and additions that aren't so smart. Bottom line though: if you liked the first game (and who didn't?), then you'll almost certainly also like this sequel.

I always get a little bit worried whenever an adaptation of Spider-Man decides to adapt the Venom storyline. It is usually where an adaptation goes off the rails. And even if it manages to stay on the rails, it's usually one of (if not the) weakest storyline of the adaptation. Whether it's Sam Raimi being forced by Sony to write the black suit and Venom into his 3rd Spider-Man movie, Spectacular Spider-Man depicting Peter and Eddie Brock as childhood friends, or Web of Shadows just being completely bonkers from start to finish, the appearance of the black suit always makes me nervous. Honestly, I think the 90's Animated Series is the only adaptation of Spider-Man that has ever hit the black suit and Venom storyline out of the park. It's Saturday morning cartoon nature means it completely fumbled the ball when it came time for Carnage though...

The black suit and Venom storylines is where a lot of Spider-Man adaptations go off the rails.

Surprisingly, Insomniac's take on the symbiote storyline takes a lot of inspiration from other Spider-Man adaptations, almost as if they think they can take poorly-received Venom storylines and improve on them. It starts off with the Sandman as a prologue villain before setting Harry Osborne up for a turn towards villainy, which closely mirrors Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 3. Then it turns Harry Osborne into Venom, as in the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon, before basically turning into Web Of Shadows in the final act. The black suit itself also changes over time to reflect how close it is to taking over Peter's mind, which is an idea introduced in Spectacular Spider-Man. Also, the symbiote is a cure for cancer, and Venom's host being a childhood friend of Peter's are both borrowed from the Ultimate Spider-Man comics (and the Ultimate video game).

So yeah, a lot of Marvel's Spider-Man 2 resembles other adaptations of the Venom storyline, but yet it's still all put together in a way that feels original and works fairly well. It's still nowhere near as good as the Animated Series' Venom arc though, because Spider-Man 2's story and plotting is far from perfect.

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Elden Ring

Elden Ring is winning "Game of the Year" awards left and right. Critics and players are almost unanimously praising From Software for successfully adapting its Dark Souls design into an open world in its latest release. And I have to say, it is, indeed, one of the better open worlds that I've seen.

But you know what? I always kind of considered Dark Souls to be an "open world" game in all the ways that matter. I even brought it up as an example in previous video essays about open worlds. So as far as I'm concerned, Elden Ring isn't really doing a whole lot that the original Dark Souls wasn't already doing. Elden Ring just does more of it and is less subtle in its approach.

This entire essay is available in video format on YouTube.

Why do I consider Dark Souls to be a practical open world? Well, first and foremost, most of the world of Dark Souls is seamlessly connected. Almost every landmark that you can see in the distance is a place that you can (and probably will) actually go. This is also largely true of FromSoft's other games, including Bloodborne and Sekiro. The first 2 Dark Souls games, as well as Demon's Souls are also open to a lot of significant sequence-breaking, allowing players the option to handle levels out of order, or to skip entire levels altogether.

Dark Souls most dramatically diverges from a more traditional open world (like Skyrim) by wrapping its world in a vertical helix, rather than stretching it out over a flat plane. From Firelinek Shrine to the depths of Lost Izalith and Ash Lake, to the heights of Anor Londo and the Duke's Archives, Lordran is an almost completely contiguous place. But despite the narrower confines of the game's levels, there is still a sense of awe and wonder to exploring the depths of a level, only to eventually circle back to someplace familiar and slowly realize that everything in the world fits in place. It's all functional, and the relative arrangements of game levels helps to tell the story of how Lordran's world worked, and how it eventually collapsed. And now that Elden Ring has come along with a more traditional open world, it kind of proves something that I subconsciously knew all along: From Software's particular approach to story-telling is actually perfectly suited to an open world design.

Oh, and before I go on, I want to provide a minor spoiler warning for Elden Ring, and pretty much all of From Software's catalogue back to and including Demon's Souls. I will be talking about how these games deliver their narratives, which will involve talking a bit about the overall narrative structure and some thematic elements that these games all have in common. I will provide a warning for any explicit story spoilers, so that you can skip those. But if you want to go into any of these games completely fresh, then I recommend you play them first, then come back to this video.

Dark Souls's world is wrapped around a vertical helix, instead of spread across a flat plane.
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Elden Ring - title

I always considered the first Dark Souls to be an "open world" game in all the ways that matter. The world is interconnected, coherent, and surprisingly functional. Almost every location in the game is walkable from almost any other location, and every distant landmark is an actual place that you can go, which usually has a big, scary monster waiting to show you the "YOU DIED" screen for the thousandth time.

As such, I didn't really expect that a transition to an actual open world would in Elden Ring would really make all that much difference -- either positive or negative. Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro already felt open and exploratory despite being a series of linear corridor crawls cleverly interconnected into a tight helix. So I didn't expect Elden Ring to really feel all that much more open or exploratory. Further, all of From Software's games are also designed from the ground-up with a play-at-your-own pace paradigm of story delivery -- in that From's games are more about doling out "lore" in piecemeal rather than about a linear narrative with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end. So I wasn't terribly worried that a transition to an open world structure would break any narrative flow or the sense of stakes for the character, as it does in so many other open world games.

From Soft's brand of player-driven lore discovery is well-suited to an open world format.

What I didn't expect though, is how the open world would dramatically improve both the accessibility and the challenge of the game.

Elevating the genre

Having transitioned to a more traditional open world design, Elden Ring does suffer from some of the same problems that plague the sub-genre. Assets, enemies, bosses, traps, and so forth are all re-used throughout the map, and many of the dungeons look like they were pulled straight out of Bloodborne's Chalice Dungeon generator. Each region of the map will assuredly have at least one mine tunnel full of upgrade stones. It will have at least one crypt dungeon (usually with a Burial Tree Watchdog boss that looks like a cat statue). It will have at least one set of ruins with a boss waiting in the basement. And they'll all have a minor Erdtree with an Erdtree Avatar (or similar) boss.

That being said, I haven't come across any of these dungeons that feels to me like it was just haphazardly thrown together. Each dungeon has its enemies, traps, and setpieces thoughtfully arranged to test various gameplay skills and the player's power of observation and thoroughness of exploration. Each one also has a unique piece of loot offered as a reward for defeating it -- usually a weapon, talisman, or spirit ash. Unlike, say, Skyrim, which just rewards all of its dungeons with disposable weapon or piece of armor that is level-scaled and arbitrarily magical, each dungeon in Elden Ring rewards a unique item that conveys a piece of lore. Early in the game, almost all of this loot is something that will be useful to most builds, which really helps to encourage the player to continue exploring these mini-dungeons. And later, even if the item isn't useful for a build, it might still reveal valuable lore.

Bosses are frequently re-used, but none of the dungeons feels haphazardly thrown together.

The sheer volume of places to go and things to do might seem overwhelming, but it's also a huge boon to new or struggling players. They have plenty of options for alternative challenges to try, which vary in difficulty. Getting stuck on the main quest path, or in a particularly nasty optional dungeon is easily alleviated by simply wandering off in another direction -- any other direction -- and trying something new that might be a bit easier to conquer, or which might provide loot that is useful in the places where you are struggling. Or you can just wander around the overworld and grind.

A lot of these dungeons can also start to feel tedious and unnecessary. I can go through entire dungeons, beat a boss, and still not have acquired enough runes to gain a single character level. On the one hand, this is frustrating, and some of these dungeons feel like a waste of time for a mid-to-high-level character. On the other hand, the increased desire to hold onto these runes means I'm more inclined to run away from a fight that I'm not equipped to handle, which forces me to engage more with that open world by trying to find another boss or another dungeon that is more my level, rather than continuously bash my head against the same boss wall over and over again.

If you get stuck on a boss, explore somewhere else.

Players are much more free to follow your own path through the game. In fact, From included plenty of opportunities for sequence-breaking for particularly inquisitive and observant players. Dungeons and bosses that seem like a mandatory bottleneck for progress can sometimes be skipped entirely. And honestly, it's not even all that hard to find these bypasses, since they are often out in plain view for anybody who bothers to deviate off the main path at all.

And this process of exploration really does provide a sense of genuine discovery in ways that most other open world games fail to deliver. The full scope of the map is hidden to the player at the start, so reaching the crest of a hill and finding an entire continent that wasn't on your map a moment ago is genuinely surprising and awe-inspiring. The fact that every notable point of interest is not immediately marked by climbing a tower or finding a checkpoint really facilitates a sense of exploration and adventure. It really feels like there's always going to be something new and interesting over every hill, around every corner, and within every dungeon.

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Marvel's Miles Morales: Spider-Man - title

I could've played Miles Morales on the PS4 back when it was released in November of 2020, but I really wanted to wait until I got a PS5. So I waited. And waited. Eventually, my number on Sony's waiting list came up, and I got a PS5 just in time for Christmas. Miles Morales, Demon's Souls, and Returnal were the first games I bought for it.

Early set pieces put a large emphasis on protecting civilians and reducing collateral damage.

If you liked Marvel's Spider-Man for the PS4 -- and who didn't? It was great! -- then Miles Morales is largely more of the same, but with the distinct urban flavor that comes with the Miles Morales story, and a story about corporations using "not in my backyard" politics to exploit under-privileged communities. Combat is virtually unchanged, aside from a few new gadgets and powers, and the locomotion is even more identical. So pretty much everything positive that I had to say about that game also applies to this game, and I'll try to keep this review short by not retreading the same praise and critiques.

There is a greater emphasis early in the game on trying to protect civilians. This is a welcome change, and I wish Miles Morales would have gone a bit further with it. Protecting civilians is a large component of early setpieces, but it is largely dropped once the story gets started proper. It's a shame that this isn't carried through into the rest of the game, since a major theme of the story is Miles serving as a protector for the under-privileged, mostly ethnic minority, population of Harlem.

Spider-Man has always been a hero for the common folk,
but this Spider-Man is also a hero for the under-privileged and down-trodden.

Christmas vacation

The campaign itself is also considerably shorter than the first game, taking place entirely during the Christmas season. I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, it's nice to have a more focused, 20 or 30 hour campaign. I have other shit to do, and it's nice to be able to finish a game's story without feeling like I have to play it every waking moment of my free time for weeks or months on end. And that 20-30 hours isn't just the story; I actually completed 100% of the side activities in that time as well.

On the other hand, playing as a younger Spider-Man just learning the tricks of the trade would seem like it would be well-suited to a longer, multi-faceted campaign with a series of escalating challenges and threats. It would have been nice to see Miles start out by focusing more on fighting petty crime in the Harlem area and adjacent districts, before moving onto more widespread organized crime, and then finally the super villain threats. There's no such escalation in Miles Morales' story. It jumps straight into the big super villain story and relegates all the "friendly neighborhood" stuff to simple side quests.

Insomniac wastes no time getting to the supervillain plot.

This does also mean that it gets its super villain surprise twist out of the way early, since it's a twist that is almost as obvious as the appearance of Doctor Octopus in the previous game. On the topic of the super villain "twist", I did find it annoying that a large part of the conflict depends on the Tinkerer making such a big deal about Miles' perceived dishonesty, but the Tinkerer wasn't exactly forthcoming either. Yet Miles never points this out.

Considering how polished Marvel's Spider-Man felt, despite also having a much bigger story and more side content, I was surprised to find a number of side quests in Miles Morales that were broken. This was doubly-surprising considering that I'm playing the game well over a year after its release. That's plenty of time for Insomniac to have fixed these bugs, even if they only have a handful of people doing maintenance on the game, while the rest of the team works on Marvel's Spider-Man 2 and Marvel's Wolverine. Even more concerning is that the specific side quests that broke for me were all related to the F.E.A.S.T. storyline, which is the most narratively and thematically important line of side quests in the game. I would think these would be the most stable and polished side quests in the game.

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Elden Ring

From Software has released its newest, brutally-difficult game, Elden Ring, and it does quite a few things differently from the previous game's in From Software's "Souls-Borne" series. Most notably, Elden Ring has a full open world. That is, an "open world" by the definition that most players would use. Personally, I always thought that Dark Souls and Bloodborne counted as "open worlds" in all the ways that matter, but that's using a very generous personal definition. In any case, this legit open world in Elden Ring does dramatically change the way that Elden Ring is designed, balanced, and paced, and it should also change the way that players approach the game compared to previous titles.

I want to do the same thing that I did with Bloodborne and Sekiro, and provide my own personal tips and tricks for Elden Ring, from the perspective of an experienced, but not elite, player. These tips are geared towards new players coming into Elden Ring fresh, and for other experienced Souls-Borne players who may be having a hard time coming to grips with the new design of the game.

The open world dramatically changes how players should approach the early hours of Elden Ring.

In any case, I hope the following tips help you to get a leg up against the trademark challenge of From Software's Elden Ring.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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