For my money, web-swinging around New York City in Marvel’s Spider-Man is perhaps the singular best game mechanic I’ve come across in the last decade or so. It feels so incredibly right, and almost everything else in that game is built off it. I never really wanted to use fast-travel features, because swinging around was much more fun, and finding hidden missions and helping citizens in trouble as you traverse NYC is almost as rewarding as following the game’s main story. Of course, a great mechanic isn’t enough to make a great game, but Spider-Man is one of the most successful open-world style games I can think of, because it felt packed without being overwhelming.
My first impressions of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 was that developer Insomniac Games turned everything up to 11, packing in more. The map is about twice as big as the original, adding in a chunk of the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens to go along with Manhattan, and the web wings offer a new way of traversing the huge map. There are more playable characters, as you spend nearly equal time jumping between OG Spider-Man Peter Parker and his protégé Miles Morales. Peter and Miles have more special moves than ever before to turn the tides in combat, and there are more skills for them to learn. Conversely, enemies have a lot more ways to mess you up, if you’re not careful.
As such, my main concern for Spider-Man 2 was that Insomniac tried to pack in too much — take what happened to the Assassin’s Creed series with AC: Valhalla as a cautionary tale. However, now that I’ve finished the game, and completed about 75 percent of all the activities and quests available, I can confidently say that Insomniac has built a tight, compelling game with a storyline that ends up with serious momentum, making it all but impossible to put down through the second half. It’s just as satisfying as ever to play as the two Spider-Men, whether you’re flying around NYC or taking on hordes of bad guys. And while the story sucked me in, there are hosts of other things for a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to do for the city’s citizens, including substantial side quests and smaller activities that enhance the story and your capabilities.
Just like the first game, Spider-Man 2 wastes no time hitting you with a bombastic action sequence that kicks off the game’s main plot. This time, Pete and Miles take on classic villain Sandman, who escapes transport to the city’s prison for super-villains and rampages throughout the streets, getting larger and more difficult to manage. As with the intro of most games, this is meant to teach you the capabilities of the two playable characters, and it does so without feeling too heavy-handed or disconnected from the main meat of the game.
It’s not long before we learn of a new threat to the city: Kraven and his band of hunters are tracking down super-villains for sport and causing plenty of distress while they do so. Perhaps most significantly, they’re trying to return Dr. Curt Connors to his menacing alter-ego, The Lizard, a move that has serious implications for Peter, Miles, Pete’s girlfriend MJ Parker and their friend Harry Osborne. Harry was mentioned but not seen in the first game, as he was ill and in recovery through some very experimental treatment that has returned him to his friends in this episode.
In the first third of the game, the traditional action sequences are augmented by a few flashbacks as well as sections of the game that are more about atmosphere and character-building – like one where teenaged Pete and Harry sneak through their high school, or a sequence where Pete, MJ and Harry enjoy a night at a lovingly-rendered version of the Coney Island boardwalk before things inevitably go awry. Those sequences were a little hit or miss, as they did steal away a bit of momentum – but they also provided a break from the pattern of “travel across the city, investigate, beat up bad guys.”
I won’t spoil how it happens, but the unofficial first act ends with Peter coming into possession of the fabled black symbiote suit, which greatly enhances his powers in combat in a way that’s both fun and also a little distressing. If you know anything about Spider-Man lore, you probably know where the story is going. But without going too deep, I can say that Insomniac created a familiar take on the tale of Spider-Man and Venom that nonetheless has a number of unexpected twists. Like I said earlier, I was positively glued to the game, particularly in the second half. The combination of the compelling story and outstanding gameplay elements simply made it hard to stop playing.
Let’s get into that gameplay. Sony and Insomniac have made a big deal about the fact that you can quickly swap between Peter and Miles to have different Spidey-experiences, and it’s as simple as holding a button down when you’re in the open-world part of the game. But the structure of the story dictates that you’re usually either Peter or Miles as the “lead” character for the main quests. The same goes for some of the side quests and activities you’ll find around NYC; there are plenty that you can achieve as either Pete or Miles, but some require you to switch to a specific character.
There are a number of major set-pieces throughout the game, including the Sandman intro, that blend action between the two Spider-Men. You’ll shift seamlessly between the two characters depending on what the action calls for, but you can’t just switch on the fly. It’s all pretty scripted, which makes sense but is still a little bit of a bummer. And while Miles and his crew of friends that were introduced in 2020’s mini-sequel Spider-Man: Miles Morales get plenty of screen time, the story and action lean slightly more towards Peter. If I had to guess, I’d say you control him for 60 percent of the main story. Miles fans shouldn’t be too disappointed, though, because you get to control him through a few of the game’s most intense and thrilling moments.
Insomniac did a great job of both streamlining and expanding combat. Peter and Miles each have four special attacks you can slot that regenerate through combat, giving you some options for discovering and picking your favorite moves. A lot of the gadgets from the first game return, but they’re easier than ever to access. Previously, if you wanted to use a gadget you’d have to hold R1 and switch from your web-shooters to another option. Now, web-shooters are always triggered by mashing R1, but you can hold R1 and hit one of the four face buttons to activate your slotted gadgets. It’s a great quality of life improvement that makes it a lot easier to deploy everything in your arsenal when you’re in a big battle.
The special attacks are likewise triggered by holding L1 and pressing a face button, and these are the main ways to differentiate between Peter and Miles. Otherwise, their combat skills and abilities are pretty similar, and there are lots of upgrades you can make to increase your health bar or the amount of damage you deal that apply to both characters. There’s a shared Peter and Miles skill tree as well as individual ones for each character that focus on their particular special moves. I was worried managing all this was going to get old and overly complicated, but I never felt overburdened by the variety of choices I could make, thanks partially to the fact that the game is generous about dolling out skill points to redeem.
Some of those skill upgrades relate to traversal — how far you travel when swinging from a web line or how fast you boost off an object. There’s a new skill you can use to web-slingshot yourself into motion, which is great to use when you’re on the ground and want to get moving quickly. But the web wings are the biggest change to how you get around NYC, and they’re a delight to use. Tapping X deploys the wings, and you can search for wind tunnels and updrafts to keep you moving quickly and well above street level.
Web-swinging is still my favorite move, but the wings come in extremely handy for some specific missions, including the wild on-the-river chase that Sony showed off a few months ago. Using the wings almost makes piloting the Spider-Men feel like you’re driving a race car, as you can turn corners a lot quicker and with more precision than I anticipated. It’s a totally different experience than web-swinging, and eventually I found myself switching between both techniques to build up speed or tackle certain geographical challenges as I explored the map.
Probably my biggest complaint with the gameplay is something I remember noticing in the first game: There are more than a few moments where the big climax of an action sequence takes place only in a cutscene, where the player has no control or input into what’s on the screen. I get that there are some sequences that are so far outside of the move set players have that they need to be cutscenes, but the game is otherwise so good at immersing you in large-scale conflicts that it’s jarring to be completely pulled out of the action.
Unlike the previous two games, Spider-Man 2 is exclusive to the PS5;the original was built for the PS4 while Miles Morales had a simultaneous release on both consoles. Insomniac didn’t waste any of the horsepower it had to play with here: the game looks incredible. As with many AAA games, you can pick a “fidelity” mode that runs at 30 fps with full 4K graphics and effects like ray tracing, or scale things down a bit for a higher frame rate (up to 120 fps, if your TV supports it) in “performance” mode. As usual, I went for high frame rates, but spent time in both. Rest assured that, whatever your preference, this game is a graphical stunner, with intricately detailed character models — massive bad guys like the Lizard are particularly stunning.
The city, meanwhile, looks gorgeous whether it’s at sunset or in the train, whether the streets are filled with tourists and pedestrians or deserted from the latest calamity. Local landmarks like Radio City Music Hall, Madison Square Garden and Avengers Tower are rendered lovingly, and the new boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn have their own distinct identities in the game just as they do in real life. I’m looking forward to spending more time just exploring the cities and taking in all the detail Insomniac included, probably while using the expansive Photo Mode for some virtual photography.
Insomniac also took advantage of the DualSense controller’s features like adaptive triggers and impressive haptic feedback. There’s a pleasing amount of tension when using the triggers to swing around the city, as well as a number of times when you’ll need to perfectly balance the amount of pressure you’re putting on the triggers to execute a move. As with most games, the DualSense features don’t radically change the experience, but they enhance it in ways that you might not immediately realize but would notice if they went away.
In the last few years, I’ve had an increasingly hard time coming up with original ways to describe Sony’s first-party games. In the PS4 generation, games like Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War and Spider-Man all combined excellent storytelling with huge worlds and outstanding gameplay. As such, the recent sequels have all felt like they had to up the stakes and make longer, more complicated games. While I love God of War Ragnarok and Horizon Forbidden West, I also occasionally felt they were just trying to do too much.
That’s not the case with Spider-Man 2. It’s a perfectly balanced game with gorgeous graphics, delightful combat and traversal systems, a compelling storyline and characters, plenty of challenge and a huge map to explore. Perhaps most importantly, though, it’s just fun. In a year where I’ve struggled to connect with games that I expected I’d love, it was a relief to play Spider-Man 2 and immediately get sucked into the world. Whether or not you’ve played Insomniac’s earlier Spider-Man games, anyone should be able to jump into Spider-Man 2 and immediately feel like a superhero.