It’s perhaps difficult to grasp — especially for younger fans — how vibrant the legacy of Spider-Man, the world’s favourite web-crawler, is in video games. Over the years, we know Spider-Man from his many incarnations in animated TV shows, films, and comic books. Sam Raimi’s take on the character propelled it to new heights of popularity. More recently, Spider-Man films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Sony Pictures’ Miles Morales animated features have established their own identity. But the web-swinging, quippy superhero has a long and illustrious history in video games, too. Before Rocksteady’s Arkham games rewrote the superhero games playbook, an iconic lineup of Spider-Man games from Activision were some of the best that the genre had to offer.
The Spider-Man mantle now resides with Insomniac Games, a studio that has proven its merit with beloved PlayStation icons like Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank. Its two Spider-Man games — 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man and 2020’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales — reworked and refined elements from previous Spider-Man titles to deliver highly polished Spider-Man stories that were a blast to play through. The seamless web-swinging mechanics, flowy combat, and the vast New York City playground made the two games a worthy and rewarding return for the friendly neighbourhood superhero in video games. Now, Insomniac is getting ready to bring Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 on PlayStation 5, promising everything that was good in the preceding games and a lot more that’s supposed to surpass what came before.
For starters, this time, it’s Spider-Men. Spider-Man 2 lets you play as both Peter Parker and Miles Morales, charting their interweaving personal journeys as they take on new threats together. The world is bigger, too, with an expanded New York city, almost double the size of the map we saw in the previous two games. There are new additions to combat and traversal, bringing fresh and distinct ideas that try and push this sequel beyond what we expect from an Insomniac Spider-Man game. Of course, there are technical advancements that elevate the experience — this is the first Spider-Man game that is releasing only on the PS5, taking full advantage of Sony’s current-gen console. All of these come together to tell a complex and personal Spider-Man story, building upon the narratives we saw in Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, set to release October 20, comes with a burden of expectations. It’s perhaps PlayStation’s biggest exclusive title of 2023 and it has to live up to the standards set by its acclaimed predecessors. Last week, we got a chance to play a sizable early section of the game in a hands-on preview that included some heavy-hitting narrative moments, bombastic action set-pieces, and plenty of free-roaming exploration in the game’s new map. The demo allowed me to play as both Peter and Miles and take on main story missions and engage with side activities with the Spider-Men.
Some caveats first: The demo I played was based on a build created six weeks ago (roughly mid to late July, 2023) for the hands-on preview, as senior creative director Bryan Intihar informed us. So, there could be small changes in the final build. And I played the game in ‘quality mode,’ with 4K output, ray tracing and HDR enabled, at 30fps. As I mentioned before, the demo focussed on an early section, about two hours into the main story.
After over two hours with Spider-Man 2, it is clear that Insomniac’s latest represents a considerable step up from previous games in the series. This holds true not just on a technical aspect — the game makes demonstrable visual leaps, bringing a ridiculous amount of detail to its environments, and improving facial animations for characters, but also in the way the game choses to tell its story. There are distinct flavours to playing as both Peter and Miles and the game carefully chooses to drop you in the shoes of one in the middle of story moments.
In addition to the two Spider-Men, each side character — at least in the cross section of the game I got to play — feels fleshed out, with special attention given to the villains of the story. And New York is brimming with impossible detail, somehow adding meaningfully to the already stellar rendition of the city in Spider-Man and Miles Morales. Navigating the city has improved, too, with the addition of new Web Wings which let you glide around skyscrapers like a kite. The already excellent web-swinging is here, of course, but feels ever so slightly refined than its previous iterations. The combat, while retaining its DNA from the two previous games, adds new symbiote abilities to Peter’s repertoire, while Miles gets explosive new bio-electric powers. Both bring new special skills and abilities that can be mapped to a wheel on the HUD and used in tandem with regular combos.
Visually, Spider-Man 2 represents Insomniac at the peak of their powers. While both previous Spider-Man games were stunning themselves, and 2021’s Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart upped the ante on a technical level, Insomniac’s third Spider-Man title — based on the demo I played — further takes things up a notch. The improved lighting lends almost a real-life warmth to everything in the game. Facial animations and character models are much more naturalistic and emotive. And Spider-Man 2’s New York City is one of the most impressive open-world playgrounds I’ve experienced in a long time. There’s minute and obsessive detail dripping from every grimy street corner and every shiny skyscraper. You can see airplanes and helicopters flying about in the sky, their engines and rotors echoing through the New York skyline. The ambient sounds of traffic, the distant siren of police cars, the noticeable lull of Central Park make the city come alive. What Insomniac has accomplished here is nothing short of immersive virtual tourism.
The demo began with a cutscene — a brooding encounter between Spider-Man (Peter) and Kraven the Hunter, one of the game’s primary antagonists. By this point, Peter has already found his symbiote abilities and is wearing the black symbiote suit. After a bit of fiddling around and playing with the new Web Wings to glide around the city, I proceeded to a main story mission that involved Harry Osbourne, Peter’s best friend. The mission offered the first detailed glimpse of symbiote Spider-Man combat, letting us take on Kraven’s hunters.
Symbiote abilities are mapped to a wheel on the bottom-left side of the HUD, accessed by pressing L1 (on the Dualsense controller), while your gadgets are mapped to R1 on the right-sided wheel. The regular fighting controls for combos and moves are borrowed over from the previous Spider-Man games, so it doesn’t take long to get in the groove. The new symbiote abilities work intuitively together with Peter’s regular move-sets, and even when things get chaotic on the screen, you never lose sight of the action. Peter also gets an overpowered mode, called Symbiote Surge, where — with the press of L3 and R3 together — each attack acts like a devastative finisher, taking care of foes in a single hit.
The demo then switched to Miles’ perspective, which begins with a detailed showcase of the new Web Wings during a drone chase sequence. In addition to the web shooters that lets both Spider-Man web-swing across the high-rises of New York, Spider-Man 2 adds glider-like Web Wings to the Spidey suits in the game. This lets you take to the skies and almost fly around like a bird, gliding long distances in quick time. This new mechanic feels familiar — we’ve seen similar iterations of the same in Arkham games, with Batman’s cape acting as a glider, and Far Cry titles, where players can explore the map using a hand glider.
What’s different here, though, is the synergy between gliding and web-swinging. The two ways to traverse work together like Siamese twins and you naturally understand when to swing and find momentum and then quickly switch — with the press of the triangle button — to your wings and start gliding. While gliding around skyscrapers, you can use the left stick to change directions and tilt, and when you run out of airspace, you can seamlessly go back to swinging around tight corners. The Web Wings especially come in handy when you’re navigating large flat areas like water bodies, Central Park, and residential neighbourhoods, where you don’t have an abundance of tall buildings to facilitate web-swinging.
The environments in Spider-Man 2 are designed to encourage gliding, too. There are channels of wind flowing between the city’s tall buildings, marked by glowing rings laid across their paths. Gliding inside these wind tunnels gives Spider-Man a considerable boost, allowing him to zoom through multiple city blocks in a blink. Many of the city’s low-lying buildings also feature updrafts that push Spider-Man up in the air to help him gain altitude for gliding. I also got a taste for Miles’ combat abilities. Subsequent encounters showcased he’s newly acquired bio-electric powers, also mapped to the L1 wheel on the left side of the HUD. These are far more devastating than any special moves we saw in Miles Morales. I also got to experience stealth gameplay with Miles, on the trail of Lizard (Dr. Curt Connors) inside a dingy warehouse. The new ability to quickly lay across a web line between gaps (another Arkham inspiration) works like a charm, allowing you to stalk your prey from above.
After the story mission with Miles, I indulged in some wayward exploration and checked out a portion of the new areas of the map — Brooklyn and Queens. These residential boroughs establish a distinct identity from the rest of the Manhattan skyline and feature landmark locations like Peter’s high school and Miles’ Brooklyn Visions Academy. When not involved in a story mission, you can swipe left on the Dualsense touchpad to bring up the Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man app and press and hold the square button to switch between Peter or Miles. This happens at a lightening-speed — a quick fadeaway and you’re back in the shoes of the other Spider-Man in a different location halfway across the map.
The demo’s final section funnelled me into an epic boss fight with Lizard as Peter tries to reason with Dr. Connors and deliver him an antidote for his worsening condition. The boss fight, which perhaps was the highlight of the preview, took place deep inside the sewers and was very much in line with the big battles we saw in the two games that came before (Spider-Man and Miles Morales). Here, I got a chance to utilise Peter’s newfound symbiote skills and the immediate interactive environment to overpower Lizard. As we’ve come to expect from Insomniac, the encounter was thrillingly cinematic, while rarely taking away control from the player. It’s moments like these that landed so well in the first Spider-Man, and the sequel seems to have doubled down on the same. The boss fight is followed by a long-winding chase through the city, with Spider-Man on Lizard’s tail and Kraven’s minions joining the hunt as well. The demo ends at a key cliffhanger moment, when Kraven himself shows up to spoil the party.
The demo provided an extended look at Lizard, but it understandably kept details on Kraven and especially Venom tightly under the wraps. While the former showed up at a couple instances, Venom was completely absent from the preview, adding the intrigue surrounding the character in the game. Insomniac have promised their own take on the iconic villain and much of Spider-Man 2’s narrative success will depend on how well they’re able to pull it off. One thing is clear: Insomniac has given each major side character and the villains of Spider-Man 2 their due. Mike Fitzgerald, the studio’s core tech director, reiterated as much in my chat with him after the hands-on preview. Pete and Miles’ personal stories are informed and altered by those around him, be it their friends — Harry, Hailey, Ganke, and MJ, or their nemeses — Martin Li, Lizard, Kraven, and Venom.
From the two and a half hours got to spend in Spider-Man 2, it is looking like an improvement on its predecessors in every department. Insomniac Games seem to have taken everything they did right in the first two Marvel games, added fresh ingredients to further build upon that solid basement, and delivered yet another Spider-Man experience that cares about the men behind the mask. Throughout their work on the beloved web-crawler, their commitment to crafting authentic Spider-Man tales stands out. This preview demo of Spider-Man 2 puts that same commitment front and centre. During our conversation, Mike Fitzgerald said that the demo was just a small part of the game, and that the rest of it carries on at the same thrilling pace, too. “It’s not like we picked the good chunk,” he said. If he’s right, Spider-Man 2 could comfortably sit on top of the long and iconic list of its peers.
Disclosure: Sony sponsored the correspondent’s flights and accommodation for the preview event in London, UK.