From the opening seconds of Spider-Man PS4, you are Spider-Man. You’re treated to a quick opening cutscene in which Peter Parker juggles his daily life and that of being everyone’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and then away you go, swinging around the Big Apple.
No hand-holding, no three-hour tutorial sections designed to ease you into to a slowburn experience, and no laborious setup to “set the mood” or some such developer hand-waving filled with stale soundbites to disguise terrible pacing issues.
No, there’s none of that. In a year that saw the likes of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Red Dead Redemption 2 take gaming’s excesses to its absolute limit with the sheer amount of Things to Do on offer, Spider-Man prides itself on its economy of content; Insomniac has presented a game that isn’t scared to say its piece and knows when to make its final bow. It’s something developers should hopefully learn from as the flabby, superfluous spectre of the majority of 2018’s grand adventures fade into the rear-view mirror. It’s Spidey that soars highest thanks to its relatively clipped runtime.
How does Spider-Man PS4 effortlessly accomplish such a feat? Predominantly, it’s thanks to the use of in media res, a dramatic technique that puts you, the consumer of a text/video game/whatever immediately in the midst of a scene.
In this case, you’re Spider-Man nearly a decade into his tenure as the web-slinger. It’s a world so inherently and completely lived-in that you’re immediately attached to the likes of Peter’s on again/off again/ok, now we’re at the stealth stage relationship, and (spoilers) Doctor Otto Octavius’ impending downfall into villainy.
Best of 2018 – It’s a Small Spider-World
That’s all because the rest of the world around it has, as far as the player is aware, been going on for all this time. Spidey quips about previous battles with the likes of Rhino and Scorpion, Norman Osborn is the mayor, and there’s even space for Miles Morales to grow up and act as a surrogate Peter Parker. It’s a pitch-perfect case of showing not telling and it speaks volumes of the world that Insomniac has built and the studio should be roundly applauded for its efforts in lore, Easter eggs, and other memorabilia hinting at years past.
Because there is no Year Zero, the game can begin with a bang and, frankly, doesn’t let up until its final story beats. Compare Spidey’s siege on Kingpin to Red Dead Redemption 2 and its tedious trek through the snowy mountains of the Old West. Where one thrills and captivates with an immediate goal in mind, the other requires, ironically, time to thaw before a game (remember, one about cowboys shooting each other and backstabbing in one of the most lawless times in recorded recent history) gets anywhere near anything even approaching fun and entertaining.
Spider-Man glides and weaves through the air, the joy of movement fantastically intertwining with the game’s straightforwardness in terms of what to do and where to go. This linearity, meanwhile, is ham-fistedly applied to the opening hours of RDR 2 and it trudges its way through it before letting you loose on a world which is then too big and too unwieldy to ever have any impact on you outside of being a place to mess around with and admire bulging horse testicles. Or something to that effect.
Both games have been lifted up as an essential part of any gamer’s collection in 2018 – but only one knows that less is more. Spider-Man PS4, perhaps mindful of an imminent sequel, doesn’t stuff everything into one game.
Yes, the story is typical comic-book fare and the side-activities rarely slide into all-time great territory, but it’s weirdly refreshing (and it shouldn’t be so, but it is this year) that Insomniac sets up the game to not take up every waking moment of your day.
It may be 20 hours long – but I’ll bet you remember more of those 20 hours than any other game in 2018. If only other AAA games would follow that lead, refusing to pump millions of dollars into things and stuff and people that ultimately don’t matter as much as a single Captain Watanabe interaction or when J. Jonah Jameson foams at the mouth during a well-produced podcast. The industry would immediately become more exciting. But there’s no real hope…
…because then there’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
Best of 2018 – A Game Web-olution
This game (and I use that term loosely, because I sure as hell had no fun with it) is being placed on a pedestal as one of the best of 2018. It’s not. It’s a game so completely lacking in respect for the player’s time, so utterly devoid of what it means to be an Assassin’s Creed game, and so hopeless at fumbling about in search for a semblance of an identity that it should go down as one of the generation’s worst. It’s the anti-Spider-Man.
60 hours of fluff – in which every major activity is exhausted within the first half-dozen hours – constitutes a game that wants you to prioritize coughing up some coin to skip over mind-numbing grinding over doing anything else. It’s symptomatic of 2018’s ills: one where Content and Lots of It reigns supreme over nuance, direction, and pacing.
It, and to a lesser extent Red Dead Redemption 2, was so intent on stuffing as much into the game as humanly possible that it, to butcher Jeff Goldblum, didn’t stop to ask itself if it should. Spider-Man, meanwhile, only asks one thing: how can I make this game enjoyable? And it answers it emphatically and, crucially, left us wanting more. Let’s hope 2019’s batch of games takes its cue from Spidey and the likes of Arthur Morgan and Kassandra’s efforts can be seen as unfortunate missteps.