Marvel's Spider-Man 2 Review
Video game adaptations of comic book material may seem like an easy win, compared to books or movies, with plenty of inspiration to draw from. But it still takes skill from the developers, understanding and respect for the original material, and good design to create a fun game. Spider-man has been one of the most adapted properties in video games, and many attempts have actually been at least decent. Capturing the well-worn story beats of the webhead along with his signature swinging mechanics has been done a few times, with the most recent and best known modern entry being Marvel's Spider-Man from Insomniac Games. It was a big budget production that brought the hero back into the gaming spotlight, along with a successful Miles Morales spinoff that followed. Unsurprisingly, Marvel's Spider-Man 2 follows in its predecessor's footsteps, offering more of the same action, high production values, and more ways to help New York.
The story picks up a short while after the previous games concluded; there is a very brief recap video included which is always appreciated. Peter Parker and Miles Morales are now a duo of super heroes defending New York from threats, and the sequel opens with another bombastic sequence to draw players in. Since both Spider-men are now comfortable with their powers, the initial narrative focuses more on how they can manage their responsibilities as everyday people. Peter is trying to hold down a job, and is still in a relationship with MJ, who is begrudgingly working for the Daily Bugle and J. Jonah Jameson. The pair has a strong relationship, but are undecided on moving in together. As for Miles, as a younger hero he is trying to write and keeps putting off his college application, and prefers to instead help out his community and learn from Peter at every opportunity.
The trio's everyday problems become less relevant when a new villain named Kraven arrives in the city. His goal is apparently to track down and capture other villains for a personal hunt, some of whom are either still in prison (Mister Negative and Scorpion), while others are trying to live a new life as reformed citizens (The Lizard and Tombstone). The Spider-men obviously try to stop Kraven's goons, who may dress like they come from a prehistoric era, but have modern weapons and even small robots such as hawks and dogs at their disposal. These capture attempts lead to much destruction across New York and plenty of bystanders that need saving, and the heroes are not always able to stop the abductions.
In the meantime, Peter's best friend Harry Osborn has seemingly finally recovered. After spending a long time in a special tank created by his father Norman, his sickness seems to be in remission – but as we come to learn, it's thanks to his infusion with an alien symbiote that was captured by his father's company, Oscorp. Both Harry and Peter are happy to finally reunite, and plan to work together at a foundation for the benefit of humanity. One night though, when Spider-man is forced into action and needs help, it's Harry who jumps in; it turns out the symbiote is providing him with special powers, and the two quickly learn of each other's identities. But as fans know, the story of Venom is not one that always ends well.
Marvel's Spider-Man 2 weaves a pretty good tale, though it has many of the same beats and even shortfalls as the original. The game builds towards some climaxes in the first third, and then stays in that high gear for the rest of the game, which makes the pacing a little weary. Things start off quite interesting, and even threatening, but the Kraven storyline ends up a bit of a dud, mostly because his actions do not make a lot of sense. The supposed goal is to have a grand hunt that would challenge his elite skills – so he sends his goons and tech to track down the targets, instead of going after them himself? Stalking prey in NYC would have made for an excellent and original approach; instead we have an army of faceless enemies causing property damage all over. It's also unclear why he captures the targets - only to put them into a cage and have them fight each other in an arena. Why does he never consider Spider-men as targets, despite them foiling his plans all the time? It's not until Venom gets involved that Kraven becomes interested in finally having a 1v1 encounter, which still never really resembles a hunt that involves stalking your prey.
Thankfully, the Venom narrative that takes up the second half is much stronger and more engaging. It goes through the familiar motions, but there are occasional twists and unexpected elements that prove entertaining. Peter definitely has the strongest narrative, and goes through a lot of ups and downs, not to mention having to prop up his partner in crime-fighting. Miles, meanwhile, has a much weaker storyline and less to worry about – such as trying to ask Hailey on a date, or meeting his mom's new boyfriend; problems that seem absurd in the context of what's going on in the city. MJ continues to do okay as the emotional support and occasional stealthy infiltrator, and Harry puts in a strong and engaging character arc. The dialogue is fairly well written, and carefully captures the humorous quips of both heroes, without going overboard like so many other games these days (even non-superhero ones). It's not surprising that the ending, while conclusive, also sets up the next chapter.
There are occasional typical comic book contrivances in the writing. Some of the character actions and motivations are a bit flimsy at best. During some moments you wonder why the two superheroes are separated or not showing up to help; the game often doesn't even bother to create reasons for either hero not to call upon the other when things are dire. There are also plenty of situations where our heroes get conveniently weak or knocked out against enemies that they were just handily defeating. The city itself lacks urgency; at no point do the heroes encounter or get any help from police or Oscorp. There is a disconnect compared to the previous games, where it felt like you were part of the city that's trying to survive under a siege. The sequel mostly uses its citizens as clueless folk who don't see the dangers coming and are in constant need of rescuing. You get some annoying Danika podcast clips, a few amusing clips from JJJ, but otherwise nobody seems concerned or is putting the city into lockdown, like Miles' mom who is a city councilor.
Having two protagonists allows the story to explore a few different angles, but the implementation is quite safe and straightforward. The main missions progress linearly, so you'll simply swap between the two characters to continue; they don't run in parallel and you control whoever the mission dictates. Main missions usually involve some quiet downtime in the early stages, as you explore small detailed indoor environments and interact with optional objects. One mission that sees our group of friends visit Coney Island amusement park at night is a standout, from character development, atmosphere, and technical visual perspectives. There are also occasional minigames and one-off mechanics, which we won't spoil here. As mentioned, things kick into motion for most of the second half, as you are constantly in fights, scrambling between locations, and engaging in frequent boss battles.
Combat continues to be a strong focus in Marvel's Spider-Man 2. More so than in the original, almost every mission, many quests, and side activities puts you into a fight. At a base level, you still only have a single punch button, plus a dodge, a parry, and a web-zip to get to the next enemy. These come together for a straightforward combo system that is enjoyable to use and is quite maneuverable. The abilities also return, letting you use one of four equipped moves to deal large scale damage and help with crowd control. Abilities take time to recharge, as both heroes get their own types of powers, with two versions of each ability that players can swap between. This time around, Peter gets new symbiote abilities and Miles has bio-electric venom powers – but functionally they remain quite similar. You will also be able to unlock and upgrade four gadgets, such as the Upshot that throws enemies into the air, and a sonic burst grenade that stuns – similar to abilities, just at a lower scale and focused on stun rather than outright damage. Both the abilities and gadgets are bound to the controller face buttons and activated with either R1 or L1 as the modifier. It's a typical system that carries on from the previous games, and is still fun to engage with.
The enemy variety and AI hasn't changed much, however. Spider-man will have some basic melee goons to beat on, some tougher foes that can block or have shields that require you to parry or get them airborne, and ranged enemies with guns. With robot-type dogs and flying hawks - who can emit signals that block your attack abilities - the overall enemy design of the hunters is reminiscent of the Horizon Zero Dawn franchise. While new enemies are introduced later (again, following the first game's campaign formula), they are not much different in terms of combat mechanics. You could certainly make an argument that the combat continues to lack a bit of variety.
Despite familiar enemies and mechanics, things do get tougher this time around. The sequel definitely ups the ante, and on Normal (3rd out of 4 difficulties), some combat encounters can be quite tough. Spider-man is always outnumbered and frequently overwhelmed, which forces the gameplay into button mashing territory as you attack, endlessly dodge/parry, use all your abilities, and often may need to just swing away to escape the mayhem for a moment. Enemies require quite a few hits to be taken out, especially later in the game, despite upgrading your health and damage. Also, you can only heal manually using a gauge that builds in combat, and this gauge is shared with the "instant takedown" ability (which gets much less usage as you're trying to save it for healing). So if you're low on health and all your gadgets and abilities are recharging, you can't really do much, as even escaping or staying out of the fight won't refill a sliver of health. It's telling that the boss fights are more enjoyable; you can focus on a single or fewer enemies, and any time you perish you know where it went wrong and how to improve. They also often have fun setpieces and locations, with great choreography.
With combat being prominent, stealth takes a backseat. There are still the occasional missions and encounters where you are able to remain high up, use distractions, and clear the room one enemy at a time. But these stealth missions are fewer in number in the main story, and while still satisfying, are made trivial thanks to a new web line ability. Spider-man can now shoot a web line from almost anywhere in the room, to any destination, which means you've created your own perch. With this new perch, you essentially don't need to even explore the level or swing from one spot to another, as you simply grab the enemies from above right down the middle of the room. It's a bit of an oversimplification that makes stealth trivial. Elsewhere, there are a couple of covert missions with MJ again, though the controls for these have been tightened up and the arsenal of the character expanded, so they prove to be a more fun time than before, and a nice change of pace.
In-between missions, players are free to explore the city as either Miles or Peter. You can swap between them at any time, but this isn't a GTA 5 style character system – it's a basic swap like you'd see in a fighting game, as the replacement character appears nearby, so the switch is near instant. There are infrequent neat moments, where you may drop by an optional crime report to fight some bad guys, and the other Spider-man is also there to help. But the two don't really interact or meet in the open world, except during scripted mission sequences where you may be swinging to the same destination. Whenever both are involved in a fight, you remain in control of the same single hero, but both will appear in special animations when performing enemy takedowns together, for example.
The map is filled with activities, from basic ones such as photography and collectibles, to slightly more involved, such as quick puzzles, or combat scenarios where you either have to defeat enough enemies or protect an object for a certain time, or simply clear out enemy outposts. You can also get a lot more optional stealth done in these open world missions. There are lengthier sidequests that have story elements to them; the ones for Peter are usually better. Some activities are story-relevant to one of the two Spider-men, so you may have to swap characters on the spot. The sequel certainly improves on the variety of optional open world content.
Completing activities and missions grants experience, which unlock points to use in three skill trees – one is shared between Miles and Peter that mostly focuses on combat basics and traversal, and two standalone trees for each hero, which have improvements to their respective unique abilities. You'll also be earning tokens and general materials that are used for crafting upgrades for the gadgets, which are also shared. Materials are also used to upgrade the suit tech – again, shared – which improve general health, damage, focus, and traversal categories. All of these are straightforward RPG style mechanics that were also present in the last game. Doing enough activities in a borough unlocks extra rewards and the ability to fast travel. Last but not least, you can spend resources to unlock new visual suits for both heroes, and now with the added ability to craft more color options within a specific style, hardcore Spidey fans are sure to be pleased.
The game world has been expanded for the sequel, allowing you to venture past the East River into the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. It continues to be an impressively detailed recreation of the city, with plenty of landmarks from both the real world and the comics. Traversing the map is still highly fun thanks to the excellent web swinging mechanics that return from the previous games, letting you zip around with grace and satisfying precision. But as all sequels go, the developers wanted to take it up a notch, and so both superheroes gain access to web wings. These glider-like wings can be deployed at any time and let you swoop around unconcerned about swinging mechanics. The city now features wind tunnels and updrafts, letting you rapidly move about and soar quite high, as well as giant slingshot platforms to give you a huge boost to make it over the rivers. It's certainly a fun way to traverse, but it also makes the hero less grounded. Swinging and using the environment is such a core aspect of Spider-man's identity, that letting him simply fly around just doesn't feel the same – as fun as it is in its own right. It's a similar feeling to inFamous: Second Son, where you are able to become a blob of energy and just blast across any surface, no longer concerned about using the environment like its predecessors.
The city is once again beautifully rendered. From the street level crowds to the skies above Central Park, it's a wonderful setting that has only got more detailed and larger in scope for the sequel. Observing the skyscrapers during different hours of the day (time progression is tied to story once again), and simply flying or swinging around still produces a wonderful feeling of freedom and an engaging atmosphere. Fast travel is almost instant, but that's par for the course for most current-gen games. As mentioned earlier, the Coney Island story mission is a great showcase of the immersive visuals possible. All of the cutscenes are of course rendered using high quality assets, excellent animations and good facial capture. The water effects are still rather basic, however.
It helps that the title is no longer bound to also run on PS4, which means fewer compromises had to be made. There are two display modes - Fidelity targets 30fps and cranks detail and ray-tracing to maximum, while Performance aims for 60fps at the cost of some details and traffic density. Both modes look good, and maintain their promised framerate target. As a PlayStation exclusive, there are also some controller specific elements such as adaptive triggers, using the touchpad, and haptic feedback.
Just like most PlayStation exclusive sequels, from God of War to Uncharted, Marvel's Spider-Man 2 is a high quality second chapter that takes most of the elements that worked in the first game and slightly improves on them. The narrative is a bit uneven in terms of pacing and character motivations, but still has some very fun and slightly surprising moments, likeable cast, and great presentation. The two-protagonist approach is quite safe and by-the-numbers in both story and gameplay, and Peter definitely gets the bigger and much more interesting role. There is a bit more focus on combat over stealth this time around, but the new ability types and three skill trees allow for plenty of options. It's a great looking game, of course, and swinging around New York City continues to be fun all on its own, now with more varied optional content. Marvel's Spider-Man 2 soars higher and farther, producing a crowd-pleasing blockbuster sequel that's worth playing for any superhero fan.