After our tantalisingly brief hands-on during E3, we took a trip to Berlin to get a closer look at the latest adventures of the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man. During our time with the game we got to play the first two hours of the PS4 exclusive, but in preparation for that we dug out the old Nintendo GameCube and fired up Spider-Man 2 once again - still one of the best licensed games ever made. Nowadays players can only laugh at many of the old peculiarities, but the game still remains a reference point for many when it comes to Peter Parker.
According to creative director Bryan Intihar, the plot is loosely inspired by the TV series The Ultimate Spider-Man, and so here we get to deal with an experienced character; Parker in his early to mid-20s. This approach will be reflected in Spidey's development, because our hero must learn to trust others and ask his friends for help, but on the other side stands the character Peter, who can no longer put up with his alter ego. This inner conflict should determine large parts of the story, because the young man will be given just as much space as the superhero in the red-blue suit, at least according to the studio manager.
Peter is looking for role models to look up to and learn from, and in his missions we take care of people and deal with normal problems. In a playable lab sequence we have to solve super simple mini-games, for example, while later on we visited our Aunt May, who serves food at a homeless centre. Of course, the relationship with Mary Jane is also important, because she'll be another playable character. In one of their early scenes we experienced a short flashback through MJ's eyes, with the action taking place in a confined area, for instance, providing us with some stealth gameplay and detective work to explore.
Spider-Man still plays similarly to what we remember from our days on the GameCube, as we beat up bad guys, avoid danger with our spider sense, and help the NYPD with our special abilities in the fight against crime. The combat is strongly reminiscent of the Arkham games, for better and for worse, as the combos are wonderfully fluid and build in complexity with growing power and new gadgets. An early boss fight was charming and beautifully staged even without an exaggerated interface.
Different classes of opponents challenge us to use the environment creatively, and carefully-considered action is rewarded in the missions planned for it. In one museum we had to be entirely stealthy as we took out guards, for example, and although this mission was very linear, Insomniac's vision and inspiration is very clear and - at least so far - cleanly implemented.
When you swing through Manhattan you'll see colourful scenery too. Insomniac's New York is divided into eight districts, which are supposed to be visually and playfully different from each other, however, the session was far too short to be able to examine this in detail. Marvel fans will find some nice surprises, however, because among New York's landmarks fans will also find peculiarities from the comic world, such as Stark Tower (from Iron Man).
Using R2 Spidey swings through the city on his own, with the player basically only specifying the direction of movement. Since this method of locomotion is much too slow and doesn't do justice to the acrobatic hero, however, there are several options to help the game literally take off. When we plunge down into the gaps between skyscrapers, we take the speed through the free fall with us into the next swing and thereby gain altitude. We can also cover long distances using pulling power or by Spider-Man using moving objects. The animations at the start are very nice to look at too, as when Spider-Man takes off, he pulls himself up several times on the initial thread before the height is enough and then he starts the next swing. Fans will appreciate these little touches, because it makes the movement look incredibly good.
Many activities will be unlocked as the story progresses, which may remind players of Ubisoft's open worlds. After a few missions, Spider-Man is asked to re-synchronise special high-tech surveillance towers to uncover active crimes and the associated map areas nearby, and with a click on the right stick all missions and collectibles can be displayed on the HUD. Also linked to your progress are new inventions which increase efficiency in various areas. For example, there's a powerful attack that uses threads to completely tangle up enemies and thus eliminate them. The use of these projectiles is limited, but those who aren't afraid of hard work and collecting items will quickly find the necessary upgrades.
Customisation and character development are two important pillars of the game. Solved quests and achieved milestones provide us with experience points, which in turn flow into a three-part talent tree and expand Spider-Man's skills We're also encouraged to change Spidey's suits, because the skin-tight armour has different powers. The standard suit, for example, automatically charges our focus bar for a short period of time as soon as it's activated. This is usually built up as the combo counter grows and it's needed for skills such as healing or finisher moves. Up to three modifiers can be added to the armour, and everything can be upgraded, so there's plenty of tweaks to make.
Even without the comparisons with the aforementioned GameCube title from 2004, it's clear what kind of visual spectacle Insomniac Games is aiming to conjure up on screen. This is going to be a showy action blockbuster with superheroes and supervillains, with strong actors to boot. Although the version we played still had a touch of lag and minor sound problems, PS4 players can still expect a big show, even if the developer doesn't manage to cover up all of the small technical limitations of the NY sandbox. During free movement, for example, it's noticeable that a large proportion of passers-by are only backdrops. People on a park bench don't grimace when we cause a scene nearby, in contrast to the people on the streets, who jump aside in shock when we hit them with great force.
It's a similar story when considering Spidey's aversion to water. In 2004, developer Treyarch didn't allow us to sink the human spider into the East River. As soon as he fell into the water he spawned ashore once again, and 14 years later Spidey still doesn't seem to be comfortable with the water. He doesn't move at all in the water and boats sail right through us. They also can't be used as an anchor point for spider threads, so all you can do is retreat to dry land. However, these are little blunders.
At the beginning of the first chapter there's a wonderfully liberating, complacent tone that the young Parker has acquired over the years. It'll take us a while to internalise the new swing mechanics and get used to all the collectibles, but it's a promising start. There are some things that could be more refined, but with the top-class Sinister Six line-up and Insomniac's signature style, these worries will likely fade into the background rather quickly.