Before anyone goes screaming in the comments, yes, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is a fantastic game. Heck, I have even said to myself, “THIS is why you buy a PS5!” The way Insomniac’s latest game truly pushes the hardware’s limits in the way it seamlessly renders Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens at blazing-fast speed is truly impressive. It’s why I’ve often referred to Insomniac as “the tech wizards of the gaming industry”.
Unfortunately, I have had a really bad ache with the game’s story. It isn’t that it’s poorly written or the voice acting is awful. Personally, I’d argue it’s the best story Sony has put out since Ghost of Tsushima. No, the real problem is what I’ve been seeing in Sony’s first-party for a long time now, and it’s this “story first” approach.
We’ve Been Having a Bit of a Problem with Games and Stories. Especially in Spider-Man 2
I promise I’m not going to spoil any significant story details here, especially not on the same level as that story trailer. But there are a couple of moments I believe will help drive the point I’m trying to make here.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 quickly reveals its theme within the first hour of the game: balance. There are many times when MJ or Mama Morales remark to Peter or Miles respectively on how busy and stressful being Spider-Man is. There is a constant reminder of how much the Spider-Men need to relax, learn to de-stress, and enjoy life (something our own Lord Cognito has long been banging the drum on). The game further emphasizes this by throwing in some missions that focus on small minigames. One mission sees you biking to Pete’s old school. Another sees you messing with science molecules for some clever puzzles, and another tasks you with doing all the carney games at Coney Island. It is all fun and chill stuff.
So, what’s the problem? Well, when these types of missions show up, they really, really overstay their welcome. There are times when I felt things were going on for way too long or wondered what the point was in even having some of these in the first place. Do I really want to watch Peter go on carnival rides? Do I really want to hear a scientist talk about drones protecting bees? Not really.
And I do get that Insomniac is trying to hammer home the theme of “balance”. They are doing so not just in character dialogue, but in narrative design as well. They want the player in the shoes of Spider-Man both in superhero form and Peter Parker form.
But When Should that Matter When it is Getting in the Way of the Gameplay?
As these moments continue to crop up, I think back to God of War (2005) and how it incorporated its theme of anger. The gameplay and the story work hand-in-hand without stepping on each other’s toes. Your disregard for the Athenians adds to Kratos’s character without forcing the whole game to stop so he can plead for mercy thanks to several minutes of unnecessary dialogue. Kratos didn’t need a museum tour of the Chamber of the Gods to understand how the Gods screwed him over. You got enough of how enraged Kratos was through his animations and movement, and cutscenes served as a reward after arduous combat encounters.
It Takes Two (2021) was the inverse in how it tied the problems of its protagonists, Cody and May, into game mechanics. One scene, in particular, sees the two bickering about how May never gives Cody and their daughter time to be together. And so, May is given the ability to control time for that chapter of the story. Whereas God of War kept the narrative and gameplay focused but separated, It Takes Two lets the two work closely together.
Even more impressive is how it still manages to incorporate minigames that emphasize their relationship. The game introduces several competitive minigames early on like a Whack-A-Mole minigame before bringing in more lighthearted, sometimes cooperative ones.
Where’s the Gameplay and Story Balance in Spider-Man 2?
So, for a game about balance, why doesn’t it feel like Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 can nail that? Between the biking, Coney Island, and missions that are more cutscene than gameplay, I have to wonder how much of this 30+ hour game could have been cut down. Some areas of this game really come off as if it was needed only for the story. I like a good story in my games, but when they abruptly halt things as frequently and as long as Spider-Man 2 is, I worry about Sony.
I have been a PlayStation fan ever since I was a kid with Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon. No doubt, I still am a fan of the platform today and have been working on long plays of PS3 games. But in the last several years, I’ve noticed how few of their first-party titles lack much replay value. Sure, New Game Plus begs to differ in some cases. But is it worth it when the story is constantly taking priority over gameplay?
It doesn’t help that I’m seeing this problem in a time where video game budgets are a crucial talking about in the industry. We hear so much about how video games are expensive to make. Well, yeah, they are. But when I see fluff like having Peter play a water-shooting game, well, it raises the question, “How much did the Coney Island mission cost?”
Don’t get me wrong – Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is fantastic and worth every penny. The story is incredible. The gameplay is beyond fantastic with all the new mechanics and powers you can work with. If you have a PlayStation 5, this should absolutely be one of the first games you play alongside Astro’s Playroom (2020).
I only wish I wasn’t getting stopped every other mission for a bike ride in the neighborhood.