Op-Ed: What Makes Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2… Amazing

For the past week, webheads around the world have been swinging themselves across a virtual New York City backdrop as both Peter Parker and Miles Morales‘ Spider-Men in the latest instalment of the highly acclaimed series.

Insomniac have once again hit the ball out of the park with Spider-Man 2 – which continues the storyline of their epic video game series, intertwining both the 2018 Spider-Man release, and it’s 2020 spin-off Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which introduced us to our friendly neighbourhood arachnid blokes and the struggles they face internally, and in reality as they suit up to defend their city.

Our resident gaming experts nerds Alex Sievers and Paul ‘Browny’ Brown have relentlessly been fixated on the story – which at times has been nothing short of addictive – and the time has come to dive into the latest entry for a discussion about what works, what didn’t and why you should be spending your hard earned money shooting webs at criminals and villains alike.

*** Warning: Spoilers Ahead***

How does Spider-Man 2 rank for you in terms of games this year and when compared to Spider-Man 2018 and Miles Morales?

Browny: This was the first game I finished in two days. In my entire life. That goes to show how addictive the gameplay and story were for me to follow, an ADHD-riddled passive gamer at the best of times. Yes, God of War: Ragnarok was a Nov 2022 release, but I did most of my gameplay this year between work and life. However, with that game, I was forcing myself to play it in order to finish it and consequently, just gave up. Blasphemy I know. But that goes to show the success Insomniac has with the Spider-Man gaming franchise – which uses the simple ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mantra. It seriously felt like I was jumping back on the 2018 version or continuing more missions from Miles Morales. Oh and being able to play as Venom was a much-needed surprise I didn’t expect to see. We knew he was going to be part of the game’s integral story, but that little feature made the climax of the first half so much more enjoyable.

Alex: While it doesn’t crack my top picks for 2023 – Armored Core VI, Dead Space, Lies Of P, Alan Wake 2 and Resident Evil 4 – it’s so close. However, it definitely sits behind the other two recent Spider-Man games. There’s a certain charm that Spider-Man and Miles Morales had in their stories that this is somewhat missing. It looks way better, the combat’s further expanded upon, the city’s much bigger, and there’s even more side-content stuff to take care of. There are some real nice moments between key characters (really liking this game’s take on Norman and Harry Osborn), and there’s numerous highly chaotic action set-pieces (like the awesome Sandman opener or that kickass gameplay trailer mission). Yet it’s not as emotionally gripping as it maybe could’ve been regarding story, sometimes trying too hard to be funny or just having some painful writing. (A key moment with a previous villain in one of Miles’ missions had me rolling my eyes out of my damn sockets it was that corny and forced about his theme of self-doubt.) Some story moments of which seem contrived and at multiple instances, rip control away from you or suddenly nerfs the player-character for plot’s sake during a cut-scene so villains can escape. Frustrating! Spider-Man 2 is massive in terms of technical achievement, pure scale and new additions but doesn’t quite match the astronomical leap forward in impact seen with something like Batman: Arkham Asylum transitioning to Arkham City, a sequel that was superior in every conceivable over its already-solid predecessor. Still, Insomniac has once again struck gold with Spider-Man 2 and you can’t deny its many strengths and fun factor.

What did you make of the story this time around?

Alex: While I’m nonetheless enjoying it and will of course finish it, the story hasn’t fully wowed me yet and it’s taken a while to truly hook me in. (The second half of the plot does seem a lot stronger). Something the other two games succeeded quicker at. The game seems to have a habit of “tell, don’t show” in some moments, which seems ass backwards. Things are too predictable, which isn’t inherently bad, but the plot could’ve gone further with certain arcs and reveals. Love the voice actor work across the board (Laura Bailey as MJ is always great  and Darin De Paul as J. Jonah Jameson is always doing a stellar J.K. Simmons impersonation), and the character chemistry – everything between Peter, Harry and Miles is real good. One thing I will say is that the stakes don’t feel overly high for Peter or Miles. Which is a given, so therefore it should be raised for their friends and family – the people they want to protect. But I don’t feel that yet either. The game’s central theme around emotional and personal balance is okay, if a little on the nose and old-hat. But I do quite like the game’s message around rehabilitation. Similar to No Way Home, circumstances push villains into what we know them as, whereas others are now looking for a second chance and a normal life. So we step in to help them course correct at pivotal moments. That’s a big thing for Spidey stories and I love how it’s being handled here.

Browny: The big thing about any Spider-Man venture is making sure the villains in the story are justified in being there and not just thrown in as an IP dick-swinging contest. I was concerned Kraven wouldn’t be strong enough to hold his own but as time went by, the villain’s story arc and presence were truly solidified. Not only did we get great character development with him, but also with Pete’s relationships with his former enemies. He shows empathy (despite them once trying to kill him) and a conflicting internal issue which is also addressed almost perfectly later on later in the game. A great example of the struggles of someone trying to see the good in everyone. Meanwhile, Miles Morales battles his own internal demons of imposter syndrome and stepping up to the plate of being the new Spider-Man. This mirrors real-life fan backlash with many people not thinking Miles would make a great Spidey, but not only does he prove the naysayers wrong, he sets up the future of the Spider-Man franchise, with hopefully more people discovering Miles so that the Sony/MCU can introduce him in future films, thus creating a new hero for children of colour to look up to, alongside Black Panther. I found the way they weaved the storyline of two Spideys in one game great. It wasn’t too one-sided favouring one over the other and the way in which their own paths crossed made for exceptional storytelling and sharing the spotlight. If you haven’t played any of the previous entries, you can pick up Spider-Man 2 and get the best of both heroes.

How did you find the open-world and the gameplay?

Browny: One of the must-do things in any Spider-Man game is to climb to the top of the tallest building and dive off right? There are plenty of options to do this with and the city is massive. With so much going on at once you don’t get much time to roam around (unless you like being a dick and not helping New Yorkers in trouble) and that reflects on the ideology of ‘Spider-Man is always on the job. He doesn’t get much time to enjoy himself,’ which I think was a nice personal touch. You really felt like you were Spider-Man when picking up the controller. While some parts of the gameplay were a little cheesy (e.g. skiing on water being towed by a gunship), it all fit into the story which I feel was created hand in hand with the gameplay. Even with side-quests such as taking photos around the city, you really felt like you were immersed in New York City, capturing different sides of it you’d never come across unless you were swinging through the streets. The added web-wing was an exceptional addition too, and I found myself using the wind tunnels to zoom from one end of the city to the other, while learning how to master the flight controls. Spider-Man 2 takes the best features of the first two gaming entries and makes them smoother and more reliable. However, I did find the concept of enemies in groups e.g. local criminals and Kraven’s team // the Sandmen leftovers // Corrupted Symbiote Humans a bit too similar to previous games (the underground sword enemies in MM). While I understand that’s part of the experience, the repetitive nature of going up against these groups time and time again had me a little bored at times, avoiding them where possible.

Alex: One of the main characters for any sandbox game is the open-world itself. Here it’s New York City, showcasing Manhattan again and now including Queens and Brooklyn. It’s all bustling and alive, foot and car traffic density is now increased, the draw distance is stunning, and the sounds of this digitally recreated city are immersive. However, I’ve definitely found myself playing on auto-pilot when completing the side-content collectibles, time trials, citizen aid, and Hunter bases. It’s entirely fine but a little tiring as it’s all busy-work. Technically, this is the third time around I’ve done this stuff in a Spidey game within the last five years. More so when you consider similar open-worlds in the likes of Sleeping Dogs, various Assassin’s Creed titles, and the aforementioned Batman: Arkham games. Gameplay-wise, this superhero combat works well, handles better than ever, the traversal and swinging is improved, and it’s all much busier than the prior games. Everything’s noticeably easier now, too. For instance, I’ve found bosses are a little too easy on the default difficulty (I’ve bumped it  back up), and these fights, while looking cool with multiple stages, are heavily checkpointed so there’s zero tension around failing. This is definitely the kind of sequel that’s aiming for refinement over reinvention. And refined it absolutely is, but maybe some actual reinvention wouldn’t have gone astray. I was also bummed out that the player-directed character transitions between Peter and Miles in-game were nowhere near as varied as in GTA V, a now decade-old game that did something similar and had one extra character to contend with.

Any comments to make about the game’s graphics and visual look?

Alex: It seriously blows my mind that this game runs as well as it does AND has Ray-Tracing enabled all of the damn time, in both the 60FPS Performance and the 4K/30FPS Fidelity modes. That’s crazy! The animations are incredible, and thanks to improved muscle mass work, our Spider-Men look even more natural when they move, swing and fight. As is the extensive character model detail, meaning that the main cast of heroes and villains all look fantastic. The little texture details on the many different Spidey suits for both Peter and Miles is beautiful stuff. And the hair is a step up too, on par with character models from recent Resident Evil and Final Fantasy entries. Finally, the lighting as well is stellar. All the more realistic shadows and how light casts globally (or rather, how it doesn’t) through trees and foliage makes for such an impressive look. This thing is a technical marvel!

Browny: The graphics were almost impeccable, especially when it came to the rain while swinging. Seeing water dripping off protagonists’ faces and bodies still blows my mind in 2023, but the real MVP moment of the game was the battle damage during fight scenes. Looking reminiscent of the aftermath following film fights, it was a nice attention to detail that really made you feel like you were in the game and interacting with almost real-looking people. In saying that though, certain characters lacked visual emotion in their cut-scene delivery and I found myself staring blankly at the likes of Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osbourne during several scenes where I should have been clenching at my heart. However, the introduction of Miles’ love interest Hailey showcased a new inclusive side with players being able to take control of her for her own graffiti-styled mission (featuring real-life hearing impairments associated with her disability) and the chemistry between the pair was wholesome. A huge leap forward for inclusion in the gaming world.

What did you think of the villains present? As Spider-Man is often not much without the variety of his rogue’s gallery he must face and contrast with!

Browny: Kraven was brutal in his mission for one final big game hunt before he died (following a cancer diagnosis). So what happens when you’re one of the most badass brutes with a death wish? Nothing gets in your way. He not only lived up to his name but won me over to the point I’m excited to see his standalone movie when it gets released. The emotional anguish felt when confronting characters like Sandman, Tombstone and Lizard had me favouring the villains for the first time in a while. None wanted to be there but were unfortunately dragged into Kraven‘s deadly game because of their super-human abilities. As time went by, we learned more about their own battles and how not every villain sets out to take over the world, many just want to get on with their lives but are forced back into the game against their wishes. The Doctor Connors/Lizard story arc (both character development and those graphics – DAMNNNN) was without a doubt the scene-stealer moment of the entire game. When Mary Jane was taken over by the Scream symbiote, I legit gasped for joy at the screen. I have been waiting for her addition to ANY form of Venom/Spider-Man canon for years and feel that her costume and character alone were well worth the wait. Venom was as you’d expect, not venturing too far from the Tom Hardy film series, but reminding us in the second half of the story exactly what the symbiote’s true intentions of world domination look like and why that’s a scary concept to even fathom.

Alex: This sequel is obviously taking cues from Kraven’s Last Hunt, one of the more notable Spider-Man comics. His appearance here is similar to that, killing off lower and mid-tier villains as he goes on said hunt. While he’s never a poor villain, he’s only ever fine. He’s intimidating, sure, but never too interesting. Kraven’s inclusion also feels forced because Sony has a Kraven movie arriving next year starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson and directed by the guy who did A Most Violent Year and Triple Frontier. I liked the change about who’s initially inside the Symbiote suit (but the game didn’t need to telegraph it so blatantly.) The Symbiote suit itself looks sick and really sells you on how it affects Peter; making him so much more powerful in-game with its ultimate finisher but also in how it alters his personality, corrupting him into being much more violent and callous. (Pete’s voice actor, Yuri Lowenthal, does a solid job at showcasing those subtle and later on not-so-subtle shifts in tone. As for Venom, I haven’t seen the big guy just yet, but have heard his sinister voice through Peter, and I’ve been told good things, namely that it’s one of the character’s more terrifying depictions to date. I’m keen; hopefully this game can make Venom cool again after those abysmal Tom Hardy films. Wraith is also a cool new anti-hero addition that’s interesting to contrast with Peter given who it is – if you know, you know.

Which suits did you spend the most time with?

Alex: For Peter, I mostly went with the first Amazing Spider-Man suit; gotta pay respect to Garfield! The Spider-Punk suit is sweet; my partner made me change it to the Tom Holland MCU suits for a while; and you can also unlock the Sam Rami black-webbed Venom suit from Spider-Man 3, which looks so dope. I loved using the Into The Spider-Verse sportswear option for Miles. Because A) it’s such a cool look and B) that’s an incredible film, one of the best for Spidey and animated films in general. I changed it out after a while with The End suit and eventually Miles’ Forever suit, a Black Panther-inspired black-and-purple design that’s all kinds of rad.

Browny: I’m a sucker for the movies so I alternated between the Andrew Garfield suits from TASM, and the old faithful Tobey Maguire Black Suit from SM3. Honourable mention needs to go to Secret Wars: Civil Wars suit, and Pete’s Anti-Venom suit which looked like a combination of fresh milk and egg whites. Smooth and shiny. As for Miles, I found myself hilariously finishing a lot of his missions in the Bodega Cat Suit (with the Cat-Sporting-Spidey Mask hanging out of the backpack). Other than that I didn’t steer too far from the original black and red combo, his new Evolved Suit and favouring several of his Spider-verse variants (which alongside the new addition of the comic book swinging graphics made it feel like a video game version of the movies). More on that soon…

What are your thoughts on where the franchise could go next?

Alex: Having not finished the story just yet, I’d safely guess that they’d expand to the other New York City boroughs next time. As the sequel would more or less arrive around the start of the next console generation circa 2028, I could easily see Bronx and Staten Island being included in the open-world design and having it look and flow just as good. Now that we’ve seen Venom, the obvious next step would be Carnage and the remaining Symbiote hierarchy, no? At the very least, I would expect Green Goblin next time around based on where I think the story may be heading in the final act. But of course, what we all really want is the most famous Spidey villain of ‘em all: THE WALL! (But seriously, I’m very keen on Insomniac’s upcoming take on Wolverine! Surely a team up is on the cards?)

Browny: As seen in the end credits, Dr Otto Octavius is currently writing the finale in his jail cell so one can only assume he’ll be back to seek revenge on the now-retired Peter Parker. Given that the Sinister Six is such a fundamental aspect of the ongoing lore of Spider-Man, will we finally see this scenario played out with some of the Spider-Men’s deadliest? Upon completing the side-missions with Wraith, it’s revealed that a symbiote still exists following the story’s climax and alludes to the inclusion of Carnage, so bring that the fuck on. There’s also a secondary end credit scene that teases the introduction of a new character named Cindy, the daughter of Miles’ mother Rio’s new boyfriend. Geeks would know the significant inclusion of her to the franchise but for those who don’t, get googling Cindy Moon (aka Silk) to get ahead. I not only foresee Miles stepping up to the plate of the Spider-Man protagonist role but also teaching Silk the ways of the web, creating a new female lead for young girls to see themselves in. Much like young boys did Peter Parker growing up and now Miles for the next generation, this will keep the storyline growing and consequently lead to both Miles and Cindy’s inclusion in the New Avengers – both film and gaming franchises. But, given the simplicity of playing as antagonist Venom briefly during key parts of the story, I really hope that Insomniac will listen to the fans and give us what we really want – an adult-themed Lethal Protector story with the ability to eat the heads of criminals he faces throughout the city. Venom’s controls were very similar to that of the 2003 video game release of Hulk, where you could pick up people and throw them about. With the added elements of controls from Spider-Man 1, 2 and MM, it could really give fans the anti-hero game we so rightfully deserve, especially if it’s directed towards the mature fanbase more so than the kids.

What are some of your favourite smaller details in the game?

Browny: After only briefly hearing about the web wings days prior to downloading the game, I didn’t think I’d enjoy them as much as I did. I found myself soaring about the city, utilising the speed portals to take a break from swinging and looking for various hidden treasures and easter eggs with ease. Also, when unlocking suits familiar to the Into The Spider-Verse/Across The Spider-Verse films (eg Spider-Man Noir and Miles’ Spider-Boy), a new feature you can turn on in settings allows the user the web sling, dive and fight during free-roam mode while making the game look and feel exactly like the animated entries to the franchise. It was a simple touch that gave the game an extra level of awesomeness unlike anything else.

Alex: I loved how Yuri and Nadji Jeter (Miles, also Sam from The Last Of Us) voice certain lines differently depending on what’s happening. So if Peter is swinging and walking around, he’ll talk at a normal volume to MJ or someone else over the phone, but if he’s in combat he’ll yell those same lines instead. Seeing that every single building has visible interiors that you can see through the windows that include actual reflections and accurate lighting was just nutty. Loved how after pivotal missions that caused major public destruction, you can come back to those same locations and find emergency crews cleaning up the mess. Makes NYC feel genuinely lived in. MJ getting a stun-gun upgrade that shoots webs like Peter just makes so much sense. High-fiving the other Spider-Boy that you’re not controlling when encountering them during a fight is pretty cute. Another detail I dug was the lighting-quick fast-travel, where the game zooms in on the map, transitioning from menu to gameplay so smoothly in a second flat. (I do miss those public train loading screens from the last two games, though.) Lastly, the addition of comic-book action-words during combat when you take out enemies is an awesome touch! Once I unlocked that, I turned it on and never looked back.

Closing Statements

Browny: Insomniac‘s Spider-Man series has been nothing short of addictive. If you live and breathe the Spider-Man universe, you’ll have a field day with Spider-Man 2 as the gameplay continues to improve with each entry. Storyline-wise, nothing will come close to the gut-wrenching climax of the first outing’s emotional finale, but the character development since that 2018 version has been better than anything the Sony Universe has spat out in recent years. There’s not a lot of games that will have me shutting myself off from the rest of the world and immersing myself in, as much as this Spider-Man franchise, but it genuinely feels like you’re living out your own Spidey dreams with close-to-perfect graphics and thought-provoking story-telling that’s mature for the older fans and educational for the freshies (e.g. addressing and understanding depression through sinking deeper into Peter’s subconscious with Mr Negative), and reflecting on the after-effects of trauma and loss, alongside taking on a world of responsibilities as witnessed when taking the reigns as Miles Morales. This is more than just a game – it’s an experience that is best shared with friends and little families.

Alex: Finished the story and achieved 100% with the Platinum Trophy a few days after this piece initially went live, so will now offer some quick final thoughts. (SPOILERS!) MJ’s missions are much better and there was a fight with Scream, one of the bigger surprise moments for me. Getting to play as Venom, and the animalistic power of controlling this alien monster was a highlight. Kraven’s inevitable death (via Venom instead of himself like in the comic) means we didn’t have to deal with the game’s weakest link anymore for the final act. I was right about Carnage coming, as revealed at the end of The Flame side-quest line. The most emotional I ever felt in the game was the Howard side-mission, which was sad but in a touching manner. The G-Serum must be an eventual Green Goblin setup, and if Peter is stepping back from being the Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man for a time, then the next game must be a direct Miles Morales sequel. (Likely with Silk and also maybe connecting to Wolverine as Insomniac’s Marvel games are set in the same 1048 universe). Norman Osborn’s change at the end seems a little rushed to set up a new villain but I’m willing to waive this complaint depending how the sequels handle it. However, all the villain reform stuff, with Mysterio, Tombstone and Martin Li was really nice.

The game is much better in its second half. Still predictable but that’s not inherently a bad thing, as I mentioned in The Creator review, as it’s more so about what kind of story is being told. Expected or not. For Spider-Man 2, it’s not a great story being weaved. It’s bogged down by some forced moments and at times, amateur writing that makes me feel like I could’ve written it. Again, the voice acting is great but the material these talented folks had to work with rarely was. In a year that’s given us an incredible piece of Spidey content in terms of characters, drama, story, and writing with Across The Spider-Verse, this doesn’t at all compete. Even at its best moments, nothing here hit me the way the first game’s ending did. But why after all my criticisms and bitching did I still finish the story and 100% it? Why did I pick it up day one? Why has it become Sony’s fastest-selling first-party title in a 24 hour period? Because it’s bloody good! At the end of the day, at the end of this massive web, is nonetheless a solid video game. Insomniac’s onto something here and they’re rolling with it well. This journey with Peter and Miles has been grand and, hopefully, it’ll improve moving forward. Sony: here’s how you swing through a coherent franchise, someone tell Avi Arad!

Written by Paul ‘Browny’ Brown and Alex Sievers

Keep your eyes peeled for the latest gaming feature in our upcoming December issue of our Digi-Mag.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2 is out now on PS5
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About Paul 'Browny' Brown (3811 Articles)
Dad, Wall of Sound Boss Man/Editorial Manager, Moshpit Enthusiast & Professional Beard Grower!