Spider-Man is easily one of the most recognizable fictional characters of the last 50-plus years, appearing in countless iterations across comics, movies, cartoons, video games and other media I am surely forgetting. Fans will argue about the best iteration — but for my money, the Spider-universe Insomniac Games introduced in 2018 on the PS4 with Marvel’s Spider-Man is an all-time great. It spent no time rehashing Peter Parker’s origins, throwing the player into a vibrant and massive rendering of Manhattan. The city felt alive, with tons to do investigate and a horde of Spider-Man’s most famous villains to contend with. It also skillfully introduced a world in which Parker would eventually fight side-by-side with a second Spider-Man, Miles Morales.
But, most importantly, Marvel’s Spider-Man was an absolute delight to play. Insomniac nailed the mechanics of swinging around the city and fighting bad guys to such a degree that I think web-slinging around Manhattan is up there with my all-time favorite game mechanics.
As I’ve contemplated with other single-player, story-drive masterpieces from Sony like The Last of Us, Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War: What the hell do you do for an encore? I played about two hours of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 at a press event earlier this week, and it seems the answer is “go bigger.” That’s the same tactic used for the sequels to those three games I mentioned earlier, and the results were always impressive, if not a bit overstuffed. Of course, it’s too early to say whether Insomniac got the balance right, because we’ve seen plenty of open-world games that simply try and do too much. But based on Insomniac’s history and the excellent ingredients it has to work with, I have high hopes for the latest spider-adventure.
My demo started well into the game’s narrative — which I won’t spend too much time on, as I didn’t get the whole picture of what was going on. I do know that classic villain Kraven is hunting another iconic Spider-Man bad guy, Dr. Curt Connors (better known as the Lizard), and Peter and Miles are both trying to defend the city from Kraven’s hunters while also finding a cure to turn the Lizard back into his mild-mannered human form.
In a demo like this, getting a feel for the gameplay is a lot more important than digging into story beats, and Spider-Man 2 had plenty to show me. Because the world in this game is almost twice as big as the original, with the addition of Brooklyn and Queens, finding new ways for players to get around was a major focus for Insomniac. Enter the web wings, a tool that allows you to glide around the city, catching wind tunnels and updrafts that sling you around at high speed. It’s not meant to replace the core web-slinging mechanic, but augment it. Given how amazing swinging around Manhattan felt in the original games (and still feels here), that’s a tall order. But it didn’t take me long to get the hang of gliding through long stretches of the city, and mixing in web-swings to regain height.
The web wings are also particularly useful in places like Central Park or Queens, where there aren’t nearly as many tall buildings to swing from. Getting around Central Park always felt a little awkward in the first game, so this is a welcome addition that makes traversing different terrain much easier. It’s also great for getting across rivers — or doing battle on them. Gameplay footage revealed earlier this year showed both Spider-Men chasing the Lizard down a river while also being chased by Kraven’s hunters (both on the river and in the sky), and the web wings were crucial for catching up and dispatching the massive crew of baddies.
Another side mission saw me controlling Miles as he chased down one of Kraven’s drones — to keep up with it, you had to use the web wings to draft behind it while downloading data from it. Once you got all the data downloaded, you could take it down, but getting all that data takes a while. So you need to stay right on its tail, twisting and turning throughout the city. There’s definitely a learning curve to making tight turns and quick ascensions with the web wings, and I bounced off numerous buildings that slowed me down enough that the drone made its escape.
I got the hang of it after a few tries, but even then I was on the edge of my seat trying to keep pace – it almost had the feeling of a racing game. Challenges like this are a smart way of introducing these new mechanics and schooling players on how to best use them, though.
Unsurprisingly, combat has also gotten a few tweaks, though anyone who played the previous Insomniac games can jump right in here and start beating up the countless goons roaming New York City. Both Parker and Morales have four special moves that correspond to the four face buttons on the controller – holding L1 and pressing one of those buttons activates a special attack. When I was playing as Peter, they all involved the symbiote suit going wild, while Miles had variations on the electrical attacks introduced in his game. They charge up as you fight, and you have to wait for them to replenish; I assume you can also learn and slot new ones as the game progresses.
In the first games, mashing the circle button to dodge was a big part of combat, but Insomniac mixed things up here. Now, there are some enemies whose attacks you have to parry by pressing the block button at just the right moment – dodging won’t keep you safe. Other attacks require a dodge, as they can break through any parry or block you try. These different attacks are represented by a color flash above the enemy, indicating when it’s the right time to throw up a block or dodge away. Dealing with these attacks threw a wrench into the familiar gameplay, as it took me a while to remember that my old habits from prior games weren’t going to be enough to keep me alive here.
The gadgets both Spider-Men carry got a big improvement over the older games, too. Before, you could hold down R1 and switch from your standard web-shooters to various other hardware to help you in battle. But now, R1 defaults to web-shooters, always, a change I appreciated. From there, you can hold R1 and select a face button to activate a specific gadget.
This gives you immediate access to as many as four gadgets at once, plus your web shooter. Truth be told, I didn’t dive into the menus to find out much about the tools at my disposal, but they’re things like web bombs that wrap up multiple enemies or shock traps that zap everyone around you. Naturally, all these abilities can be leveled up with skill points you accumulate through the game, and there are the expected skill trees here as well.
It’s going to take more than just a few hours of playing to see just how well these new additions fit into the core game, but one thing was undeniable from the start: Spider-Man 2 is a visual feast. It’s the first game of the series developed exclusively for the PS5, and it shows in everything from the sunsets and water on the river to the details of the different spider-suits I tried on. Character models also look impressive, perhaps none more so than the Lizard himself, with glistening fangs and incredibly textured green skin. The amount of detail in that model was stunning, but Peter’s symbiote suit is a close second. When it gets hurt, it writhes in pain and truly feels like a living creature. Even when it’s just serving as a Spider-Man suit, the variety of textures and details is impressive – it’s a lot more than just a black outfit.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about this sequel, though, is the fact that you can control both Peter Parker and Miles Morales. When you’re in the open world and not directly in a main story quest, you can swap between the two Spider-Men at will by going to your communicator and holding down a button, GTA V style. Each character has their own main quests, and the game will move you back and forth between the two depending on what’s next on the docket, but there’s plenty of freedom to pick your character and explore NYC.
There are also parts of the story that’ll bounce you between both characters as things progress. We saw a look at this in the aforementioned gameplay preview a few months ago, but I got to play it out this time. The battle started with me playing as Peter, beating up some thugs in a Queens neighborhood, but then it switches to Miles across the city so you can get the jump on more hunters before they track the Lizard down. Peter eventually joins you, all hell breaks loose, and then you’re flying down the river taking out hunters on jet skis as Miles and bringing down a massive chopper as Peter.
All these changes were fluid and natural (but also very scripted) and the basic experience of controlling both Spiders-Man is similar enough that it didn’t throw me off. I am hoping that there are missions where you can decide which character you want to use, or flip between both depending on what play style you’re feeling at the moment. Regardless, having missions where you play as both significantly expanded the scope of this epic set piece.
The preview ended with Peter uncharacteristically going off on his own to track the Lizard down after he escapes into the sewers — he’s clearly showing some symbiote-inspired darkness that Miles says is totally out of character for him. But the demo didn’t stop, and I instead was treated to the only true “boss battle” of the demo, with Peter squaring off against Connors. This was a positively huge, multi-stage showdown that required me to use all the skills I picked up over the prior two hours, including a lot of well-timed dodging and all the special attacks I had at my disposal.
As with the big battles in prior Spider-Man games, there were multiple tricks I needed to figure out to make the Lizard vulnerable – just trying my standard set of attacks wasn’t going to be enough. I died a handful of times trying to get the hang of it, but fortunately these deaths didn’t feel cheap. Usually, it was a case of me not recognizing the need to dodge rather than block, or some other variation on me not executing a skill the game had taught me. Once I got the hang of things, I made semi-quick work of the Lizard. At least, I thought I did, until the demo ended on a big old cliffhanger that made me think Peter might pay a bit of a price for going rogue.
Fortunately, I won’t have to wait long to find out how things turn out – Spider-Man 2 will be out on the PS5 on October 20. We’ll have to wait to do a full review before we can give it a full recommendation, but I think anyone who enjoyed the first games will want to check this one out. And if you haven’t tried them before, you should be able to jump right into this new one without much trouble. While I enjoy the stories Insomniac has crafted for the two Spider-Men, the delight of swinging and fighting around NYC is still one of my favorite gaming experiences out there, and it’s one that doesn’t require an encyclopedic knowledge of Spider-Man’s history.