"Marvel's Spider-Man 2" Review
Back in the fall of 2018, Insomniac Games released what many consider one of (if not THE) best comic book games ever made in “Marvel’s Spider-Man”. Taking the expertise they learned with open world traversal with the criminally underrated “Sunset Overdrive”, it turns out there was no developer more perfectly suited to tackle the beloved webslinger. But it wasn’t just nailing the fundamentals that made the successful 2018 game so good. Insomniac Games also crafted a tale that honored and respected the long tenured history of the character and his world, while still making the story their own. While not without its problems, the game came together to provide both one of the best adaptations of Spider-Man in any medium, one of the best exclusives available on the PlayStation 4, and the PlayStation brand’s most financially successful game ever.
So much has changed for Insomniac Games since the release of “Marvel’s Spider-Man”. Not only were they fully acquired by Sony after close to 20 years of being in a second party relationship, but they have also become the platform’s most reliable studio in their portfolio. From immediately following up their successful first game with the smaller scaled PlayStation 5 launch title “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” (with a “top of the line” native remaster of the first game also launching simultaneously), to then providing one of the earliest PlayStation 5 tech showcase games with “Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart” in 2021, Insomniac Games is now back for a proper follow up with this year’s “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2.” And with “Spider-Man: Miles Morales” showing the studio responding to feedback for the first game to show a quality upward trajectory, is the full fledged sequel the studio proving that lightning can strike not twice, but thrice and deliver their best entry yet?
22 hours and one Platinum Trophy later, while it could be easy to say the answer is a loud emphatic “YES!”, the real answer is a tad more interesting than that.
For the most part, “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” delivers the proper evolution to everything Insomniac Games has been building up from both the 2018 game and “Spider-Man: Miles Morales”. The combat and movement is better than ever, the visuals are a great showcase for the PlayStation 5, and some of its story moments and setpieces will go down as some of the most memorable gaming moments from 2023. On the other hand, in the pursuit of a grander and broader scale, the game loses a bit of the clean elegance of its prior two entries, resulting in more bloat and languish pacing in its early moments with a story that takes longer to get to its really spectacular parts, an open world structure that is showing signs of wear and in need of more proper evolution, and a surprisingly less technically stable game from a studio that has delivered pristinely polished games over the past half decade.
In its highest of highs, “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” delivers my favorite entry in Insomniac’s Spider-Man journey yet, and I couldn’t stop playing when the foot hit the pedal to the metal. But some of those issues at present holds it back from being the “slam dunk” best entry of this trio, even if some of the things it does are better than those first two games.
Picking up roughly 10 months after 2020’s “Spider-Man: Miles Morales”, “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” continues the journey of Peter Parker and Miles Morales as they fully embrace being the dynamic Spider duo of New York City in the wake of the Devil’s Breath incident of the first game, and the Roxxon Corporation incident from Harlem from the last game. Peter and Miles continue the traditional struggle seen in most Spider-Man tales where the life work balance of being a human with responsibilities clashes heavily with their responsibilities as New York City’s protectors. Peter tries to maintain his relationship with Mary Jane Watson while struggling to find and keep a job in the wake of Aunt May’s unfortunate passing, all while Miles continues his high school escapades as he’s trying to plan for his college future. Along the way, after brief teases in the first two games, Peter and MJ’s old best friend Harry Osborn returns to their lives after a surprising medical recovery with the goal to heal the world. Not to mention a certain hunter named Kraven making his presence known in New York City as he pursues a worthy opponent for what he deems his “Last Hunt”.
There is even more to the story beyond that long synopsis, but needless to say, “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” does weave a larger narrative than the relative simplicity of the past two games. For the most part, everything that made the story work in those earlier games still works here. How Insomniac portrays these characters remains my favorite "Spider-Man mythos" interpretation in any medium, and they keep wringing some great pathos from characters that in other versions are sometimes fairly one dimensional. However, it does feel like Insomniac decided to take the more “character driven” approach to storytelling a little too far in this installment, resulting in many moments in the early hours where the pacing does languish a bit when we have to see some earlier “flashback” moments that don’t necessarily flesh out our knowledge for these characters like these scenes pretend they do. Now don’t get me wrong, these scenes are still pretty great, and provide some great emotion in specific moments that underline the great handle Insomniac has of their characters. But because a lot of information in these flashbacks is just mostly traditional backstory we have already heard before (as hard as Insomniac tries to make this version their own), these flashbacks do come off slightly more self indulgent than revelatory, specially with the abundance of walking and talking sequences outside said flashbacks in the early hours.
I wouldn’t have a problem with the more character driven approach they took with “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” if the majority of the plot had a little bit more of a drive to it. For the majority of the game’s run time, the story centers around Kraven the Hunter hunting down some of the villains from the last game looking for his worthy opponent. The problem is, other than the imposing figure of Kraven himself as this grander than life hunter and the motivation they have given him to do his hunts, there really is not much to him as a character for the majority of the story to be centered around him. Compared to the way the 2018 game centered a huge chunk of its story around Martin Li AKA “Mister Negative”, Kraven falls short because in Li’s case, he was a fairly new character and had more of story intrigue as a relatively fresher villain in the Spider-Man mythos outside the comics. The Kraven we get in this game is fairly similar to other portrayals we have seen without much of Insomniac’s own spin of things, which is why he falls flat from a story perspective despite the rather spectacular gameplay moments that happen around this point in the game.
It doesn’t help that Kraven as a big story driver has to clash with the fact Insomniac heavily promoted the fact Venom is in “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2”. No matter how you slice it, Venom really is a fan favorite villain and any inclusion of him in any Spider-Man story will just overshadow any other villain included. And unlike the first game where the real villain of the story, Doctor Octopus, was hidden really well from the marketing and only until you played the game you realized who the main villain is, how forthcoming they were that Venom was part of this game also added to the notion that Kraven at the end of the day was just a stalling tactic to the real meat of the story. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself many times during the game saying “yeah Kraven is cool and all, but where is Venom?”, especially when Spider-Man gets the black suit and the familiar symbiote story starts playing out.
Thankfully, the inclusion of Venom and his appearance late in the story is absolutely worth the wait. While I still feel putting Kraven and Venom in the same game and how it plays out seems like we got two games worth of story crammed into one (specially with the visual and tonal shift when we move to the Venom side of things), it’s just no contest: Venom injects a level of energy and intensity to the game’s story that feels like really well earned payoff from the Kraven valley. While I don’t think the long Kraven section is necessarily bad, it just absolutely pales in comparison to how this game portrays Venom. And unlike Kraven, Insomniac absolutely puts a fun spin on the character that adds extra emotional heft to his appearance. While elements of this story will be familiar to anyone with some semblance of how the symbiote story goes, the spin Insomniac gives it makes it the best stretch of story from any of these games. I didn’t want to stop playing when Venom entered the picture, and the twists and turns that keep being thrown at you makes me wish he had shown up much earlier now that in hindsight the Kraven of it all feels so small potatoes in comparison.
While I may have harped on the story a little too much, I still liked it a lot overall and I feel when seen in its entirety, it’s a story worthy of the original which shined strongly in that regard. While I still feel the main story overall is better in the 2018 game, some of the twists and turns of this game’s peaks are definitely gonna linger in my mind, and I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here based on teases in the side content and the post credit scenes.
The story and pacing may have had its topsy turvy moments, but when it comes to the gameplay, it is clear “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” is absolutely the best game from the three. The 2018 game and “Miles Morales” really perfectly honed in the act of traversal in New York City, so “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” takes the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, let’s just make it more awesome” ethos. Both Spider-Men feel great to fly around in, especially with the newest addition of the wingsuit, which may seem odd for heroes known for their web slinging traversal mechanics. Insomniac found the perfect medium for the wingsuit to complement web swinging, as it doesn’t feel like you could play the entire game just with the wingsuit alone. When you couple it with the upgrades that make your characters feel more nimble and faster, it truly is a sight to behold how cool it feels to travel around these environments at extreme speeds. It feels so good with the controller in hand, going back to the first two games will feel weird. Traversal is just that much better in this sequel.
The combat for “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” has also taken some strides forward with smart additions and subtractions. While functionally the same as the previous two games, the combat definitely takes more cues from the systems employed in “Miles Morales” than they did in the 2018 game. For one, remember the 8 gadgets you had at your disposal with a weapon wheel in the first game? The weapon wheel is gone in favor of four gadgets that are always available at once when pressing the R1 + Face Buttons. Some may decry it takes away some of the gadget variety of the first game, but as someone that always defaulted to like 3 gadgets because I didn’t enjoy having to pause in the middle of the combat to switch to another one (on top of the game never feeling balanced to push you to use all of them anyway), I’ll take 4 less gadgets that I can always have available without ever having to pause the game in the middle of combat. Specially since with the loss of four gadgets, we get the four ability attacks introduced in “Miles Morales” through the L1 + Face Buttons.
When I played “Miles Morales” in 2020 and got a taste of the Electric Venom abilities at my disposal, I personally noted just how hard it would be to go back to play as Peter Parker who doesn’t have the same types of abilities, and was wondering if they’d find a way to give some of that to him to feel more inline with Miles in his combat kit. Insomniac for sure tried to give that to Peter with his robot spider legs trying to simulate the functionality of Miles’ abilities. Unfortunately, they feel slower and not as immediately functional as Miles’ electric abilities, to the point where when the game gives you the option to swap between Peter and Miles for open world activities that could be completed with both, I would default to Miles because he just feels that much better to play as. Of course, why Peter initially felt intentionally nerfed was because once the Venom black suit enters the fray halfway through the game, his L1 attacks level up considerably, which levels the playing field between both characters and pairs well with the gadgets in use. When mixing and matching all four abilities and four gadgets, the game enters a flow state where the combat is continuously satisfying. And with the axing of the suits special abilities from the 2018 game where most were basically worthless compared to the literal win button that was the “Web Blossom”, pairing the combat down traded large but unnecessary variety for fewer but more important tools that made combat way more fun in this game compared to the last one. Not to mention mechanical additions like a parry button adds extra levels of strategy for certain foes.
Just like the last two games, “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” features a fully explorable section of New York City with its different boroughs and city sections with collectibles, side missions and activities to complete. The structure is fairly similar to what came before, just on a bigger city with two extra large boroughs added with some smart additions and improvements. For one, there is no need to unlock different sections of the map via a tower unlock, and some activities you’ll come by just by exploring yourself, which helps mitigate the “checklist” feeling usually plaguing this type of open world game. The “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man” app introduced in “Miles Morales” also makes a return, which houses the game’s side missions and is the one area where I’ve seen continued improvements from game to game in both story importance and execution. Two side missions in particular surprised me with the potency of their quiet subtlety, hitting hard emotionally and being perfectly emblematic of the power of Spider-Man as a hero of the people.
But even with the side content improvement over time, there are still a lot of side activities that still play out in very repetitive form and are just a checklist to be checked. You get your versions of the science experiments in the EMF, combat challenges in the form of Kraven’s army having hidden bases around, some bronze/silver/gold challenges courtesy of Mysterio (and being this game’s version of the Task Master/Screwball challenges) and a few others that unlock later in the story. While the completion of some of these activities does deliver some great narrative payoff, there is a sense that the open world nature of Spider-Man at this point needs a little bit more of a rethink outside the quality of life improvements. Swinging around as the Spider-Men is still so much fun that I still was able to enjoy getting 100% completion on the entire map, but I hope their next game rethinks its activities a little bit more, and that they see the evolution seen in the sidequests.
As their second full-fledged exclusive title made only for the PlayStation 5 (remember, “Miles Morales” may have launched on the system but was also available for the PlayStation 4), “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” is an absolute stunner, and probably in my eyes the current benchmark of what the system is currently capable off when making a game tailormade for the console. From the level of scale to the improved level of detail in the city and characters themselves, to the lightning/particle effects in display and color palette employed, you can feel the money on the screen in almost every iota of the screen. While the last two games were certainly one of the better looking games when they launched, there is an argument that “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” could be the top of the line for what’s currently available in a more “photorealistic” sense as a PS5-only title. It is certainly worthy of being experienced on the biggest screen possible, especially when paired with its great sound design and voice performances, which definitely are some of the best that Insomniac has made.
While the technical mastery on display is a sight to behold, I don’t think the overall presentation for “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” is perfect. It takes a bit to get used to, but the different character models employed early on while rendered in very highly lit environments look really weird and crossing the uncanny valley a little too much for my tastes, and you feel it more if you run the game in its 60 fps Performance mode. Unlike the last two games, raytracing light reflections is by default baked into both the Performance mode and the Fidelity mode, where the last two games did have a non raytraced performance mode that had higher resolution for those who wanted it. The ray tracing in this game's performance mode gives it a lower resolution look that doesn’t quite employ the same image reconstruction quality of the last two games, which can make hair detail seem really weird and jaggy and can be distracting in a way it wasn’t in the last two games. Fidelity mode serves character models much better, and its 30 fps frame rate is super smooth to make it a worthy mode to play on. I stuck with Performance mode because it really is super smooth and the game still looked incredibly pretty overall that my nitpicks about face details eventually subsided, but keep in mind what the solution is if character faces bother you for some reason. And if you really have the equipment for it, the game does employ 120fps modes, with the Fidelity mode’s 40fps option seeming like the perfect middle ground for faster, smoother frame rate and high image quality.
Some slightly off looking faces are not my only issues with the presentation. “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” is shockingly one of the more unstable/glitchy experiences I’ve had with not only a game from Insomniac Games but from Sony’s exclusive catalog so far. For a game that pushes the quality of its presentation so high, I shouldn’t be surprised that some things had to give as a tradeoff, but it happens with more consistency than they did in the last two Spider-Man games. While the last few games could have characters clip into the environment in specific instances, it happens way more frequently in this game than I would like, to the point you could be soft locked from an activity or main missions and would require a checkpoint reload. The game crashed twice in my playthrough when the previous games never did, some hilarious visual glitches would happen where two cars got stuck together like dogs in the middle of intercourse, or Miles would start glowing like he had the power of the sun emanating from him for no reason whatsoever, amongst other glitches that hilariously kept popping up in my playthrough (my favorite glitch certainly was one where the XP meter bugged out in a random crime and gave me insurmountable amounts of XP gains that boosted me to the max level with more skill points earned than I had any need for).
The most distressing part is hearing none of these problems were present in the pre-release environment when the game got its early embargoed reviews, and may be the result of the day one patch gone awry for many. I know I have a friend who said he got no issues whatsoever, and I had another friend who had the same amount of glitches I had plus then some. Thankfully, Insomniac Games’ community manager already announced they are working on finding out what happened with the patch and should be fixing it soon. If you are planning to play this right now and have the game physically, I would recommend playing it with the day zero patch as what’s on the disc is as solid as you expect an Insomniac Game to be from all accounts. If you are a digital buyer, you have to play the current version of the game which may or may not give you these problems. They weren’t enough to say they ruined my experience, but it certainly kept me agitated worrying the game could break at an unforeseen time which is less than ideal. With the quality in display everywhere else, the glitches were really unfortunate in my playthrough, and below the standard I usually expect from an Insomniac game or a Sony first party game in general.
I think it's worth mentioning all the issues I had with “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” to emphasize how, despite their presence, I still walked away from this game really satisfied despite some stumbles. When I said that when this game sings it feels like the best these games have felt, I do mean it. Yes, I wish the story hit what makes it special much sooner than it did and was a little less self indulgent. Yes, I wish the game’s open world structure could find more ways to innovate in its entirety. Yes, I wish the game wasn’t as unstable as it was for me. And yet, I walk away from it still feeling like I played one of the best games of an already insane year for games. That’s how much the good parts of this game transcends the nitpicks and issues I may have of it.
While it may not have the novelty of “finally we got a Spider-Man game with this level of love and care” from the 2018 game, or the surprise vibe and tightness of 2020’s “Miles Morales”, “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” solidifies to me that Insomniac Games is still the right developer to treat this property with care, and when those high points hit, I feel extra confident in them as the continued steward of the Spider-Man license in gaming. And with the seeds they have planted for the future and the places where I saw legitimate improvement continuing an upward trajectory, at a time where I’m so burned out by Marvel content in the movie/TV landscape, this is one lane I’ll gladly stay on for this brand. Even though some elements of the previous games I thought were slightly better, I still think “Marvel’s Spider-Man 2” still stands tall amongst its brothers as one of the best Spider-Man games available, even though you see how it could have easily been the best.
Written by Alejandro Segovia
Reviewed on PlayStation 5
★ : 1 point ☆ : 0.5 points
★★★★★: Essential. Basically excellent. Close to flawless. Transcends any minor flaws it may have.
★★★★: Great/Highly recommended. Basically close to greatness. Some flaws worth mentioning, but nothing to worry about.
★★★: Okay/Recommended. Basically in the range of good. Contains things worth watching & experiencing, but flaws can hinder the experience.
★★: Caution/Questionable. Basically Mediocre. The flaws start to significantly hinder anything good about it.
★: Avoid/Awful. Basically bad territory (some enjoyment as "so bad its good"). Preferably don't waste your time.