At the end of Sony’s press conference this week the public was finally given a glimpse of Spider-Man, Insomniac’s latest game for the PlayStation 4. It was no doubt a treat for fans of the fabled hero, but as a fan of Insomniac’s previous work, I was ecstatic. As a studio, Insomniac has produced some of the most well-animated work in video game history; there’s a reason why they made a movie based on their most popular franchise Ratchet and Clank (I would recommend skipping that particular box office bomb, however). It is their attention to detail that has made their games stand out over the years. Spider-Man seems poised to keep that tradition alive.
During a hands-off presentation at E3, we were given an extended look at the sequence shown to the public just a day prior. Because Sony doesn’t just make video game consoles, the developers were quick to point out that the demo we were about to watch was running on a PlayStation 4 Pro with HDR and 4k enabled. Not that a pixel count was needed; every swing and sling showcased a beautiful ballet of animation. The use of subtle button prompts onscreen allow for Spider-Man to move like he should: a comic book character. A single click of the L1 button grabs a nearby plank and sends it flying toward an enemy. Successfully dodging enemy attacks enables a slow-motion effect that serves to highlight the kind of grace Spider-Man has always possessed on page and screen. The developers talked about wanting to focus on the core mechanics first (sorry, folks, no talk of plot points at this juncture) and how they serve to define the way they see Spider-Man.
As Spider-Man pursued the fleeing helicopter, swinging between New York skyscrapers and slingshotting over billboards, I was reminded of the Spider-Man 2 game. Forgettable in every other way except in how it moved, Spider-Man 2 was a lesson in nailing the fundamentals. That game, at least when you weren’t on the ground, made you feel like the revered web-slinger himself. Insomniac was quick to say yes, we’ve played it, and it is important to us too. That sense of momentum is an important part of what makes Spider-Man such an enjoyable video game character.
There is another small detail that almost went unnoticed during our presentation. As Spider-Man quickly dispatches a group of thugs on a rooftop, the last enemy gets kicked off of the roof. At the very last second, Spider-Man shoots a web, grabbing and swinging the enemy back to the solid ground safely (though with a little extra oomph for bad behavior). This is shown again toward the end of our presentation when Spider-Man dispatches a thug on the helicopter. Spider-Man may have kicked him out of the helicopter in the first place, but he also makes sure he doesn’t fall to his presumed death.
Spider-Man is a heroic character who cares for the citizens of New York City. Showcasing this aspect of his character was important to the developers, and that meant accounting for common video game tropes that usually go unnoticed. That meant including a special animation if you happen to kick an enemy off a rooftop. That is also why they showed a clip of fan-favorite Miles Morales at the end. Spider-Man is heavy on action and spectacle, but all of it is done with a deliberate care and attention to detail that truly shows the love everyone at Insomniac has for the character and his history.
While the presentation shown was linear in nature, we were reassured that the full game would be an open world love letter to Peter Parker, Spider-Man, and the New York City that could only exist in a comic book. And for those at home worried the game would feature too many QTEs and scripted sequences, rest assured that those moments are only a fraction of the whole game. If anything, they serve as just another reminder of Insomniac’s should-be-patented attention to detail.