For reasons that go unexplained by the plot, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sees our hero struggling to wake from a sadistically engineered nightmare. Has he been hypnotized by Mysterio? Knocked out by the Green Goblin's hallucinogenic gas? Maybe he's been poisoned by the Marvel equivalent of Scarecrow, which is ... oh, also Scarecrow.
We recognize the urban dreamscape as Manhattan, but it's a taunting, badly constructed recollection of the real thing, paved with unsettling oddities, cartoonish British accents, meaningless tasks and Spider-Man's own insecurities turned corporeal. It may look like just another sloppy licensed game, but beneath the surface squirms a dissonant yet introspective deconstruction of the genre (probably).Take, for instance, the appearance of Spider-Man creator Stan Lee. Spider-Man rescues him from one of the many burning buildings in the city, just before returning him to his spot behind the counter in a comic book store. Not only does Spider-Man stand inside a business dedicated to selling stories about himself, but he does so in the presence of his maker – the god of this twisted dream. And Lee's a cruel god too, telling Spider-Man he's so sorry to hear about what happened to Uncle Ben. C'mon, Stan, who really killed Uncle Ben here?
I get the sense you're not buying any of this, so let's go over some more examples:
Spider-Man sometimes asks – usually in the movie trailers – "Who am I?" It's not a grandstanding rhetorical question here. His mind withering, Spider-Man relies on a tragic video game interface to reaffirm his purpose in life. "Reminder," it'll flash, "DEFEAT the bad guys." Or, "Reminder: FIGHT crime in Manhattan." And then there are more pressing matters, like "Bomb: FIND the bomb."
There is an insane number of bombs in Manhattan, but usually no explanation for their presence or proliferation. Are they even real, or do they represent Spider-Man's incessant fear of failure and/or being incinerated suddenly? There are bombs on the street, where a pedestrian will scream and scream without running away. If the bomb is on a rooftop, you'll know it by the single, lost police officer waving his hands and eternally yelling, "WE GOT A BOMB OVER HERE!!!" Yup, we sure do.
Meanwhile, Peter Parker is also available as an avatar in this devilish mind-prison, and he's desperately trying to exist alongside an exciting figure like Spider-Man. Okay, what can Peter Parker do that Spider-Man can't? What scenarios can a delusional man invent?
How about waltzing into Kraven the Hunter's loft (super villains have New York lofts now) to conduct an "interview." Peter pries some answers out of Kraven, thanks to the introduction of dialogue choices for whatever reason, and learns that hunting is an honorable activity – something that should only be done for survival. Kraven is proud of his animalistic technique and stern belief that rare species should be protected and preserved at all costs, which explains the entire family of rhino heads mounted on his wall.
Peter Parker can take more than stylish Spider-Man selfies for the Daily Bugle, but it doesn't really matter how his serious photographs are framed or lit or shot. In one instance, I take a skewed, cut-off picture of a stuffed snake in Kraven's loft. It's so amateurish that no newspaper would ever pay for it. "Great shot!" Peter exclaims anyway, unable to discern even basic photography skills. What's the point?
Since none of this sounds exciting, Spider-Man conjures up some villains to pass the time in his hellish limbo. Electro, the easily excisable electric villain from the new Spider-Man film, shows up halfway through the game with absolutely no explanation whatsoever. We've got Green Goblin, Shocker, Carnage, Black Cat and the bulky businessman Kingpin, who charges at you after doing a left-foot, right-foot sumo stomp. Spider-Man punches him in the back while telling fat jokes.
Ah, but what of the swinging mechanics, you wonder. How do they compare to Spider-Man 2: The Game, which came out ten years ago? The swinging requires more skill and input now, with the left and right triggers firing webs into those respective directions, hoping to snag a building. There's a satisfying build-up of speed and momentum, usually, but the system can also be difficult to read. The webs often fail to connect to buildings when they shouldn't, and gauging how far a single strand can reach tends to be a nebulous art.
But Spider-Man is more than swinging mechanics. If you agree, you might see the appeal in playing The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as a surreal, hilarious and half-remembered mash-up of every minor crime he's ever stopped. Think of it as as opportunity to save Spider-Man from his own demons, to shake him free from a repetitive nightmare that has morphed into licensed game parody. And if not, you'll find completing this game is a heroic feat anyway.
This review is based on a PSN download of the PlayStation 4 version of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, provided by Activision. Images: Activision.
Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.