Insomniac's Spider-Man appearing at Sony’s conference wasn’t exactly a surprise, but no one expected just how, well, cinematic it was. Everyone’s favourite webhead swung through Manhattan, chased helicopters, stopped falling cranes from hitting the ground and parkoured through burning buildings. It made a fitting and explosive finale to PlayStation’s Showcase.
If there were any complaints it was that things look just a little scripted - oh, hello hammering L2 and R2 to stop a falling helicopter - but, watching the same demo played again behind closed doors at E3, it’s far clearer that Spidey’s helicopter chase through New York isn’t quite as linear as it first appears.
Watching the action again is just as exhilarating. Spidey grabs goons with his webs, swings them over his head or merrily ties them in knots from metal scaffolding. What’s clearer this time is the environmental possibility. While you can of course happily use your arachnid fists like a more acrobatic version of Rocksteady’s Dark Knight, you can also drag in a slew of props to aid in destruction. Sandbags and grates are just waiting to be tools in Parker’s webby arsenal.
“Combat’s really, really important in a Spider-Man game,” explains Insomniac community director James Stevenson. “It’s got to feel very acrobatic, very improvisational. We took a lot of time and effort on that. There’s a lot of different takedowns. You have a combo meter. Peter’s a genius. He builds all of his own technology. He builds his own suit so you’ll see more of his gadgets. That trip wire is just one of the things you’ll be able to use as well to take on enemies.”
While I see a stack of the same combat moves as Insomniac proudly show off the punny action, it’s clear that you can actually play however you want. Spidey can swing around the building, staying out of sight before stealthily taking down foes, or go in all webs blazing and battle everyone at once. “We want to encourage players who want to play tactically and stealthy that they can,” adds Stevenson. “They can use gadgets and play that way. If you want to play it more acrobatic, you can swing in there and fight. Every player is different.”
It’s only when the helicopter chase begins that it’s clear that you’ve actually got plenty of ways to play that too. Swinging is all you - this isn’t on rails. Plus, every single time you fire your web into the sky, it needs to connect to something. “There is always a web anchor point,” confirms Stevenson “It’s completely momentum and physics-based. We focussed a lot on traversal, wall running, leaping off of things, swinging.”
And you can see Insomniac’s focus in action. Spidey bounces off walls, running where he can, jumping back up when he hits solid ground for mere seconds and swinging 90 degrees around buildings. It finally reminds me of Spider-Man 2 back on PS2, with the same exhilarating speed before that rush of vertigo and firing a life saving web at the last moment.
QTEs are of course a big factor in the action as Spidey leaps out of the way of swinging cranes, but Stevenson wants to make it clear that Spider-Man is all about you, not just the speed you can press X. “It’s a free roaming New York open world, so this is a set piece in the game,” he says. “Even then, if you clock that nine minute demo there’s only about 20 seconds of QTEs, whereas the rest of it you’re in control of the combat, you’re in control of the traversal, you’re running through that building on fire. I wouldn’t even classify the helicopter because you’re climbing up the outside. And certain buttons do certain things. A lot of the time we try and match those button inputs to what they actually do. Certain sequences will have those moments.”
There’s no reason to worry about this being all the game is either. Spider-Man wants you to explore new York. “The game is a combat, traversal, free-roaming game in Manhattan so it’s not necessarily going to always be cinematic set pieces,” Stevenson reassures.
It’s worth noting too that this version of the superhero is a veteran. This is no origins story and Insomniac wants to deliver a narrative that’s authentic to a traditional Spider-Man story. “This is 23 year old Peter Parker. He is kind of in his prime at being Spider-Man,” Stevenson explains. “He is masterful at it. He’s been fighting crime for a while. Early in the game, he’s taken down Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, and put him behind bars finally and Peter Parker is feeling really good about things being Spider-Man. He’s taken down his adversary but his personal life is still a mess. He’s still Peter Parker, the bills still aren’t being paid, he’s juggling his personal relationships and his work life and trying to be Spider-Man. One of the big things for us is that it’s really critical that in a good Spider-Man story you see those two worlds collide.”
Hopefully we see more collisions and, importantly, more open world sequences very soon but Spider-Man is looking fittingly spectacular so far. The only problem is having to wait until 2018 to finally play it.