The best thing I can say about Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, launching exclusively on PlayStation 5 on Oct. 20, is that there isn’t that much of it.
In some key ways, Insomniac’s latest web-slinging adventure feels like the antithesis of Starfield, another recently released open-world epic from PlayStation’s market rival. They’re both full of vibrant vistas and lots to do, but where Starfield wants you to play forever, Spider-Man 2 is perfectly content to have you play for, like, two weeks at most.
To go along with that, Insomniac pushed a generous helping of actual heart into Spider-Man 2, respectfully engaging with New York City and its people better than a lot of other modern games. If your PS5 has been collecting dust since you finished Final Fantasy XVI, this is easily worth your time.
A couple of Spider-Men, cuttin’ it up
Warning: This section will contain story spoilers for the 2018 Spider-Man game
If you played the 2018 original and its quasi-sequel Miles Morales in 2020, you already know that the basic gist of Spider-Man 2 is that there are multiple Spider-Mans to play. If you didn’t play either of those games, I don’t really know why you’re reading this. Go play them!
Moving on, we’ve got Peter Parker and Miles Morales doing their thing together and separately throughout the course of this game’s story. Pete has inherited Aunt May’s house after her untimely death in the last game, and like any 20-something with grim job prospects, he doesn’t know what to do about the mortgage. He’s also worried about potentially convincing Mary Jane to move in with him, and more broadly, whether he can keep up with this whole superhero schtick in the long run.
Miles, on the other hand, is finishing up high school and is increasingly stressed about getting into college while living a double life as NYC’s younger spidey savior. Meanwhile, he has to continue grappling with the tragic loss of his father and the lofty ideals he left behind for Miles.
One reason Spider-Man has always worked for me is his place as a regular dude who had great responsibility thrust upon him as a teenager. Both of these web slingers have suffered tremendous personal loss, but it’s the kind of loss (and the shockwaves that follow such immense grief) that everyone can relate to.
I’m not inclined to spoil the main story of Spider-Man 2 here, but adding a year or two to each of these dudes’ ages makes their problems more adult, and consequently, more compelling. Pete’s love for his best friend Harry Osborn (who makes a grand return after a bout with illness in the last game) is particularly resonant. These are two guys with an incredible amount of fondness for one another and lifelong dreams that can’t be accomplished unless done together. It’s very sweet.
Meanwhile, Miles is in the middle of learning how to be a person, the same as anyone approaching their high school graduation. He’s got both a crush and a single mother he wants to be there for, but his Spider-Manly duties pull him away from them time and time again. He also feels increasingly alienated from Peter, who has some Symbiote problems to deal with as the game goes on. And yes, when the Symbiote is involved, that can only mean one thing. You can probably guess where that goes.
I don’t know if it’s as strong as the 2018 game’s surprisingly heartfelt story, but the events that unfold in Spider-Man 2 continue to impress relative to the bloated MCU movies that are too concerned with being quippy and trying to hold up a giant multiverse project for their own good. This isn’t a story about a Spider-Man who has to depend on Iron Man and Dr. Strange for cinematic universe reasons. It’s about two Spider-Men who have to depend on each other, and it worked for me.
No sleep ‘til Brooklyn
I could spend the next several paragraphs going into the various gameplay systems of Spider-Man 2, but truthfully, there isn’t much here that wasn’t present in the other two games. The combat, built around Batman: Arkham Asylum-style dodges, counters and flashy-finishing moves, is as fun as ever. The same goes for the traversal, which is actually improved by the addition of a wingsuit that makes horizontal movement much easier than before.
Rather than talk about that stuff, though, I’d like to touch on what actually impacted me the most while playing Spider-Man 2: Good New York vibes. Feel free to skip ahead if you’re one of those people who reflexively gets mad at anyone who says good things about New York City.
Insomniac added condensed versions of Queens and Brooklyn to this game, adding to the already-present Manhattan that’s been explorable in a bunch of Spider-Man games over the last 20 years or so. I’ll say up front that these are imperfect renditions of the outer boroughs. The eastern border of the game world stops at Astoria and Williamsburg, leaving out iconic locales like Bed-Stuy and Flushing.
Still, Spider-Man 2 manages to be a better New York game than almost anything else in recent memory. Part of this has to do with a bevy of excellent narrative-driven side missions. In one, Peter sits on a bench in Prospect Park and listens to a sweet old man talk about his late wife. In another, Miles has to help save (and later gets to visit) a museum dedicated to musicians of color from Harlem.
There's even a charming Coney Island sequence with like a dozen interactive rides and mini-games. Spider-Man 2 just gets it.
It’s all part of a grander goal of making Peter and Miles servants and saviors of New York’s people rather than its police force, the prominence of which drew a lot of criticism in the last game. For a game about fantastic freedom of movement, Spider-Man 2 is ironically at its best when your feet are on the ground helping out the fine people of the Big Apple.
That said, wingsuiting above Astoria’s suburbs at golden hour is also one of the more gorgeous video game experiences of 2023.
In and out
Going back to the Starfield comparison, that game traded all of the sweetness and heart you see in something like Spider-Man 2 for a vastness of scope that left me wanting. One thousand lifeless, desolate planets just don’t compare to three lively boroughs.
The best way I can illustrate this point is through numbers. I left Spider-Man 2 with an 85 percent completion rate, meaning I played through the main story and did a majority of the side content. That took me a grand total of 20 hours. It’s really an ideal length for a modern, big-budget open-world game, also making it an interesting companion with the recent and similarly brief Assassin’s Creed: Mirage.
As video game budgets and team sizes balloon to comical (and frankly unsustainable) proportions, the approach Insomniac took might be the way forward for this kind of game. If my two choices are “unbelievably large and lifeless game you can play for 1,000 hours” or “extremely polished 20-hour adventure with real emotional resonance,” I’m always taking the latter.
In other words, Spider-Man 2 could represent a better future for open-world games, while Starfield distinctly feels like it belongs in the past.