I don't know if I'm going to be buying a PS5 anytime soon (or ever), so I may not have an opportunity to play Miles Morales, which is Insomniac's follow-up to its smash hit 2018 game Marvel's Spider-Man. Instead, I decided to go back and play the DLC for the 2018 game, "The City That Never Sleeps", which I had bought, but never got around to playing. This got me thinking more about how Insomniac implemented the web-swinging mechanics, and what I hope they'll do to iterate and improve the mechanic in future games.

This blog post is a transcript of the video essay above.

I had previously mentioned Marvel's Spider-Man essay about open world gaming's possible recent inflection point, but I didn't go into much detail. Basically, I just threw it in as an example of a recent open world game in which the traversal of the map had a large mechanical focus, turning the map into more of a play space and less of a convoluted, time-wasting mission-select screen. I didn't spend more time talking about Spider-Man, however, because as much as I like Insomniac's game, and as fun as the web-swinging is, I still felt like the web-swinging traversal in that game was pretty simple, and the environment did not act as much of an obstacle to the level of the other games in those videos.

Besides, Insomniac's Spider-Man didn't stray very far from the boring checklist-inspired open world design that my earlier videos were railing against. Traversal doesn't consume resources other than the player's time, and the player isn't responsible for balancing Peter's heroic and personal lives (the tension between the two has always been a big part of the Spider-Man story), nor are there any other mechanics that try to pull the player towards one set of content to the exclusion of another, and so where you are on the map, where you're going, and how you chose to get there is largely meaningless. It's any other open world game you've played in the last 10 years. The web-swinging is just a much more stylish and spectacular method of moving from filler content to filler content.

Spider-Man games make for an interesting case study in open world game design.

Spider-Man games in total do represent their own interesting microcosm of the virtues of open world, sandbox game design, and also of the ways in which open world games can fall flat on their faces and fail miserably. Spider-Man could make for an interesting case study to go along with Death Stranding.

Since the landmark Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in game, mainstream Spider-Man games have mostly been open world games. The most notable exceptions being Beenox's Shattered Dimensions (which was pretty good) and Edge of Time (which was awful). All the other Spidey games that I've played have been open world games in which you web swing around a virtual Manhattan to reach story missions or to thwart ambient crimes. The quality of these games has been very hit-or-miss, but (as we'll discuss soon) many of them still have their unique merits.

Beenox's Shattered Dimensions and Edge of Time are notable Spider-Man games that are not open world games.

Web of Shadows, for instance, had lots of problems with its writing, pacing, and animation, but its novel aerial and wall-crawling combat mechanics made excellent use of the map's verticality in ways that other Spidey games (and open world games in general) rarely even approach. I won't be talking much about this game because I traded in my copy a long time ago, and I don't feel like blowing $45 of Patreon contributions on a game that I'll likely play for 10 minutes just to capture footage and refresh my memory of how the game played. So my apologies if you're a big Web of Shadows fan.

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Marvel Spider-Man - title

I'm a pretty big Spider-Man fan in general. I watched the cartoons and the movies, and I play the video games as they come along, but I've only actually read a few dozen individual comics. I did, however, play the shit out of all my Spider-Man action figures as a kid! I do, however consider myself to be a Spider-Man game aficionado.

When I'm out in public, I often imagine myself web-swinging to get around. What would I swing from? Are those lampposts close enough that I could swing from one without face-planting on the pavement? I also often wish that I could hang upside down from the ceiling when I'm bored or waiting for something. As such, I pay very close attention to the way that Spider-Man moves in video games, and the quality of a given game is usually predominantly determined by how elegantly it handles movement.

Like a streak of light, he arrives just in time

The traversal mechanics and physics of Insomniac's Marvel's Spider-Man are fluid and work solidly. They just aren't particularly interesting or challenging, and they aren't really as expressive as I would like. It basically boils down to "hold R2 to go somewhere". It's pulled straight from Assassin's Creed's parkour system, except that holding the same button allows you to transition from rooftop parkour to web-swinging without any effort or thought. There's a few modifiers and variations that you can perform, which add a little bit of freedom and expressiveness, but it's not much. You can web-zip to perch points, hold circle to move around the corners of buildings while wall-running, and you can jump and dive to gain speed. These things help you get where you're going faster, but you could just rubber-band the R2 button and left stick, set the controller down, and you'd get to where you were going eventually anyway.

Insomniac was inspired by Assassin's Creed's "hold R2 to parkour" traversal system.

To Insomniac's credit, however, the web-swinging physics seems much more accurate than any Spidey game since the landmark Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in on the PS2 / XBox. Webs do seem to genuinely connect to objects in the environment (whether they be buildings, lampposts, trees, or so on). The only exception that I'm aware of is when you double-tap X to zip forward. I never use this move, however, because of how it cheats the physics so blatantly.

The environment is also much more detailed and populated. Buildings have more varied geometry with lots of ledges and poles and towers for you to zip to, you can parkour over cars when running in the densely-packed streets, and the map is dotted with construction sites and road work that gives you additional locomotion options and helps make the world look and feel lived-in. Spider-Man also has a lot of contextual movements in the environment that helps keep movement fluid. He'll web-zip from fire-escape platform to fire-escape platform when ascending buildings, he'll pirouette through narrow gaps, he'll swing around poles, and so forth. In general, the animations are all exceptional, and the traversal mechanics feel really good.

Spidey transitions seamlessly from web-swinging to wall-running to contextual "spider-parkour".

Spinning webs, any size

Despite the physics being generally solid, I do feel like the game occasionally cheats to make it work. Webs sometimes seem to grow in length when attached to certain objects, and the player (and therefore Spidey) can overcome the force of gravity through sheer force of will. This allows Spider-Man to swing greater distances than he should when swinging from buildings or trees that aren't considerably higher than Spider-Man is, and for him to avoid falling into the side of a building when he continuously swings from the same side of the street. All Spider-Man games have struggled with finding ways to allow him to move around in Central Park and along the coastline. These little cheats are common ones for developers to implement, and Insomniac is no exception.

Webs seem to reliably connect to something in the environment.

To that end, I'm going to say something that might get me flamed by the internet: I think I maybe actually prefer the web-swinging concept of Beenox's Amazing Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in game.

...

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My past two blog posts have been focused on open world gaming. These posts have been continuations of an earlier post about the narrative "limbo" that many open world games create via their quest structures. In the first post in this second series, I pointed out what I perceive to be a problem with open world games that insist on turning their sandbox worlds into little more than convoluted mission-select screens and collectible checklists. In the following post, I described some games that I think managed to make successful open worlds by including features or mechanics that made traveling through the space (or knowledge of the space) into a meaningful mechanic. This time, I want to go back to some of the games that I singled-out in the first post in this series, and brainstorm some ways that they could have made better use of the large spaces that their maps offered so that traveling around the world wouldn't become so boring later in the game.

But before I do that, I want to re-emphasize that I don't hate these games. They're just not very good at using their space, and that's what I'm criticizing. Well, the newer Assassin's Creed games have been pretty terrible. Anyway, I pick on games like Skyrim and The Witcher III a lot, but I like them just fine - I bought the DLC for both. I pick on them, not because I hate them, but because I do like them and I want them to get better (or for their sequels to get better). Rather, my objective here is to find ways for these games to make better use of the large, open spaces that they provide the player, so that exploring the map feels more mechanically relevant, more interesting, or more rewarding; and to feel less like a time-sink.

Games like Skyrim and The Witcher III have massive worlds, but do a poor job of utilizing the space.

Bethesda's Skyrim and Fallout titles, as well as CD Projeckt Red's Witcher III and Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto V, already have open worlds that transcend being simple, convoluted mission-select screens like games like Assassin's Creed and Metal Gear Solid V. They populate their worlds with little narrative world-building details that make their worlds feel alive and lived-in (even though they may feel stagnant). So what could a game like Skyrim or The Witcher III have done to improve its open world?

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I wrote a lengthy blog late last year about the stagnant, "limbo"-like feel of most open world games' narratives. I had written that blog mostly before I played Metal Gear Solid V, and so I wasn't able to incorporate my thoughts regarding that game into the blog. But I did come to a new realization about open world gaming while I was playing MGSV. In my review of that game, I noted that:

"Even the open world itself feels constrained, as sheer cliffs prevent you from travelling too far off of the roads and serve to functionally railroad the player towards the small set-piece outposts and villages."
    - from my Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain review

I realized while playing MGSV that the game had built this large, open world (well, two large, open worlds really, but I hadn't gotten that far yet), but it didn't really care to let the player actually traverse that space or use it in any meaningful way other than scavenger hunting for collectibles. At least those collectibles felt relevant to gameplay though! Roughly half the map is dead space that the player can't even access. There was also this strange focus on using the helicopter to drop in and drop out of missions, rather than actually living in the game world, as the character had to do in Snake Eater. The map started to feel less and less like a place, and more like a convoluted mission-select screen. At first, this seemed like a strange, isolated example of an open world game that really doesn't want the player actually exploring its world. But as I thought about it, I realized that this isn't really a new phenomenon; it's actually just a very extreme example of what has become a sort of defacto state in most open world games.

Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain - restricted world map
The Afghanistan map of Metal Gear Solid V feels heavily constrained by sheer cliffs.

Think about it this way: in a linear game with rooms and corridors, every hallway and room should serve some purpose or function. In most games, this function will be some kind of skill or system mastery test. An action game like Devil May Cry will throw enemies at you to fight; a puzzle game like Portal will have a puzzle (or a piece of a puzzle) in the room to solve; a stealth game like Metal Gear Solid 3 will have a sneaking challenge or obstacle to pass; and so on. In the best games, each of these challenges will also provide a unique or novel test of skill or system mastery: unique combinations of enemies, unique puzzles, or novel arrangements of enemies and obstacles. Other games can use those rooms for thematic or narrative purposes. A survival horror game like Resident Evil or Silent Hill will usually put enemies, puzzle items, or supplies in a room, but some rooms might instead contain a scripted scare. In some cases, a room might even be left completely empty in order to build some kind of tension or anticipation, or to delay the release of already-built tension or anticipation.

So what is the gameplay purpose of an open world map? ...

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Amazing Spider-Man 2 game - title

After 2012's Amazing Spider-Man tie-in game presented some interesting ideas, I was really hoping that Beenox would have an opportunity to take the things they'd learned and apply them to a new, stand-alone Spider-Man game that would not be constrained to the plot and release schedule of a film tie-in. Sadly, that hasn't happened yet, and we have a new movie tie-in game that suffers from almost all of the problems associated with a movie tie-in.

Once again, Beenox was smart enough to know better than to follow along with the movie's asinine plot and opted to write their own side-story. Unfortunately, this one isn't as well written or as well presented as the previous game. It could have been a good story, but plot is clumsily-executed, and the associations to the movie only drag it down further.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 game - oversized Kingpin
The Kingpin is comically (and ridiculously) oversized.

The bulk of the story is based around Wilson Fisk (the Kingpin) using rising crime rates as an excuse to deploy his private anti-crime task force in New York city. His company partners with Oscorp (who supplies the task force with its tech), and sells the task force to the public as a way of stopping crime and ending the vigilante justice that has plagued the city. But secretly, the task force is really out to destroy rival crime bosses and give Kingpin a monopoly on New York's organized crime underworld.

There's another secondary plot about hunting down the serial killer Cletus Kasady, who is killing criminals. This plot is only barely tied to the Kingpin thread, but it takes center stage during a large chunk of the second act of the game, and almost seems to become the main story - almost as if the writers couldn't decide if they wanted the game to be about Kingpin or about Carnage.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 game - web-swinging
Web-swinging uses pseudo-physics that requires more active involvement from the player.
It's more rewarding than the prevoius game, but still not up to the level of earlier Spider-Man games.

Aside form a couple obligatory super villain boss fights with Electro and Green Goblin (Harry Osborn), the game has very little relation with the movie on which it is supposedly based...

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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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