Marvel’s Spider-Man, first impressions.


Antiheroes are often complex. Tormented. Conflicted. They don’t always play by the rules (or never play by the rules) and they often take the extreme route to a goal. And, let’s face it — watching them do their thing is usually waaaaay more fun than watching some hero swoop in, snatch up a bad guy, shake a finger in his face, and then turn him over to the cops.

That’s why so many people watched The Sopranos or Sons of Anarchy, or hell, even Veronica Mars. It’s why so many people love Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane. We may approve of Jon Snow when he refuses to lie to Cersei (of all people), or root for him when he takes on Ramsey Bolton, but we cheer for Arya when she murderates a whole bunch of Freys. I mean, yeah, she just killed a whole bunch of people, but she did it with style. And hell, they deserved it.

That’s how the antihero usually stays on the right side of the hero/villain line. They may be murderating people, but those people deserve it.

Like many (many many many) people, I’m an antihero kind of person. I never liked Superman or Captain America much because they’re just too clean. Too upright. Too nice. Antiheroes are imperfect, and I think that’s why they’re more relatable. To me, anyway. If I suddenly gained a superhero power, there’s no way in hell I’d instantly become an upright, squeaky-clean, always-does-the-right-thing type, because I’m not perfect. I guarantee I’d screw it up badly at the beginning. Unintentionally, of course. I mean, yeah, I’d try to use my powers for good, I just don’t think I’d figure out how to actually do that without a lot of practice. And a lot of mistakes. And maybe a lobotomy.

Also, I can’t really relate to anyone who hasn’t mastered sarcasm. Your squeaky-clean types? Not usually big with the sarcasm.

Spider-Man was never a big draw for me. I wasn’t particularly interested, but I never had an outright aversion to him. Probably because Spider-Man does know sarcasm. When I heard that they were giving him a new game, I barely even paid attention.

Games that try to make us actually feel like superheroes have been a mixed bag. Some are awful. Some hardly even try. Some actually succeed, on some level, to some degree. Ever since City of Heroes was murderated by those shitbags over at NCsoft, I’ve been a hard sell. Lots of them have decent stories, but they bog down in the actual, you know… game play stuff. The Arkham games have some good bits; I never get tired of stringing bad guys upside-down from vantage points. Champions Online isn’t too terrible, but it never held my attention for long. The now-defunct Marvel Heroes was ok, but the whole top-down thing really makes it difficult to be the character (and I couldn’t stop thinking, “Hey, I’m playing ‘Diablo Does Marvel’.”) Deadpool was a must-play because it’s Deadpool, but man… it could have been so much better. Infamous Second Son was the best thing to come along in a while.

The problem with a Spider-Man game is that it’s essentially crap if you can’t feel like you’re actually playing as Spider-Man. That means web swinging and wall crawling. Period. Full stop. Non-negotiable.  The Arkham games did a decent job of making you feel like Batman, but let’s face it — gliding from one building to the next or zipping up a line to a designated point is one thing; web swinging is a whole ‘nother degree of difficulty. And that doesn’t even begin to address the rest of the web problem. If I can’t use a web to grab one bad guy and toss him into another bad guy… or into a wall, or a car, or any-other-damn-thing I please… or stick him to a wall, or hang him from an awning… at will… then it’s only going to feel like half the experience. Free-flowing combat is what I want, not a limited number of scripted attacks.

There was a moment in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate when this point really hit home. I was Evie, driving a carriage. I was chasing a guy, who was fleeing in a carriage. I needed to hijack his carriage. I caught up to him, went to the roof of my carriage, jumped over to his, tossed the driver over the side, and took control. And just after it happened, it suddenly hit me: once upon a time, the only way you’d see something like that in a video game would be in a cut scene. Hell, once upon a time, you wouldn’t see something like that at all. Once upon a time, Keef the Thief was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

So, there’s your bar. I want every game to be the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s a moving target, and it’s not easy to hit.

The new Spider-Man game was destined to get a hard pass from me, because I assumed — unfairly, perhaps, but there it is — that it would suck. Or at least not be as cool as I needed it to be. You’re talking about a superhero that I’m not particularly invested in*, who has abilities and a crime-fighting style that I can’t imagine are easy to successfully bake into a game.

But then.

But then I read an early review, based on the first hour or so of game play, and this clearly batshit-insane critic claimed that they got the web swinging stuff right. He had some quibbles, and the words “quick-time event” were used, which is cringeworthy, but… but still.

So I caved. I pre-ordered the game, and last night, I watched it count down and hit play the moment it was unlocked.

The opening bits are partially scripted, but you almost immediately get to swing around the city, and holy CRAP is that a lot of fun. Almost too much fun. I played through the opening mission, plus the next one, but I never got any farther than that because I was having too much fun just seeing what I could do.

During the early bits (you’re still basically in tutorial land), you end up in a boss fight against the Kingpin, and I came close to having a throw-the-controller moment. I kept dying, over and over again, and I started having flashbacks to Batman and that @&^#&@^!# fight against Deathstroke in Arkham Origins. I thought it had happened again: irritating devs put an annoyingly difficult boss battle right at the beginning of a game. SONOFA…

And then it occurred to me that I’m freaking Spider-Man. Unlike Batman, who’s stuck on the ground during the Deathstroke battle and basically has to fight largely on Slade’s terms, Spidey has options. Spidey has webs. My brain was stuck in ground-fight mode, when I should have been playing to Spidey’s strengths. I took to the web, swinging around the room and setting up attacks, and the fight was over in moments. The fight wasn’t that hard, I was just being an idiot.

And that’s a good thing. Because a Spider-Man game should be about Spider-Man doing Spider-Man things to take down the bad guys. If you could play through the whole game just running around on the ground and beating up thugs, then it would be just like every other damn game.

Later, I was exploring the city when a couple of the Kingpin’s thugs suddenly attacked me. I wasn’t expecting it; they looked just like every other citizen out strolling the sidewalks, right up until the moment they pulled out some weapons. For a few moments, I actually thought I’d accidentally attacked an innocent person. The thug in question just looked so normal — and they’d so thoroughly surprised me — that I genuinely wasn’t certain that he was a bad guy even after I’d hit him a couple of times. I mean, holy crap, isn’t that against the rules? Aren’t bad guys supposed to look like bad guys from a mile away?

So far, there’s nothing to hate about this game. You get a ton of combat options, and yes, you do get to do fun stuff like web up an object, swing it around, and smash it into bad guys. Or knock a guy up into the air, web him, and yank him back down to smash into the ground. You can dodge onto walls and then launch an attack. You can yank guns out of the bad guys’ hands. And you can swing around the city to your heart’s content, pulling off spectacular aerial maneuvers that often look utterly impossible. It takes virtually no time at all to figure out how to swing across the city like a pro.

You can even just walk around the city, high-fiving fans and listening to the peeps talking about you, from people begging for an autograph or photo op to people who think you’re some poser in a cheap suit just pretending to be Spider-Man.

Yes, there were some quick-time elements, but they were relatively infrequent and not much of an irritant, so it kind of looks like (knock on wood) they at least kept them to a minimum.

I haven’t delved into the story much yet, but I can already tell where we’re headed (at least, to some extent) and so far, there’s nothing to hate there, either.

I hate pre-ordering a game and regretting it. I don’t think that’s going to be a problem with this one.

*I’m going to take a moment to admit that Tom Holland has gone a long way toward reforming my attitudes about Spider-Man. That was another in a long line of spectacular casting decisions. I just wish they’d found Mark Ruffalo a bit earlier.

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