Thinking Like Spider-Man
Insomniac Games’ combat system perfectly suits the hero
The key difference between Spider-Man 2 (the game) and the new Spider-Man game is the same as the difference between Sam Raimi’s version of the character and the modern MCU one: Spidey’s use of gadgets. Incidentally, ingenious contraptions are also a specialty of Insomniac Games. From their debut first-person shooter, Disruptor, through Ratchet & Clank, Resistance, and Sunset Overdrive, unconventional weapons and unique ways in which they could be used in battle are the most distinctive aspect of their style. Seeing how Spider-Man’s brand of combat is defined by his gizmos, then, Insomniac seems like a natural fit from a development perspective.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is designed to coerce the players into efficient use of gadgets so they don’t get overwhelmed in battle. Like any good combat system, the harder difficulties are where it really shines, meticulously adding up all the player’s small decisions in item use and placement to determine if our hero emerges from an encounter dead or victorious. It’s the nature of that victory that shows the true strokes of genius in design. Whether it’s a random street crime or a story mission, all combat in Spider-Man ends with at least as many enemies wrapped up in webs as there are thugs simply beaten unconscious; it’s the spitting image of the aftermath seen in the overwhelming majority of Spidey’s comic books and movies. This result, as well as how the player arrives at it, fit Spider-Man’s modus operandi to a tee. The designers at Insomniac have succeeded in a very rare feat: created a combat system that is completely in line with the superhero fantasy it supports.
Ignore at your own peril
With all the web-slinging tricks and air combos at your disposal, you’d be forgiven for thinking that artful dodging and launching enemies off the ground is all that fighting is about in Spider-Man. However, swarms of goons populating the game’s criminal compounds and warehouses are very quick to prove this notion wrong. Spider-Man is a fragile hero and his enemies are ruthless, seemingly all trying to be the one to take him down. If you ignore the items in Spidey’s arsenal, it won’t be long before you’re forced to retreat and lick your wounds in a manner that feels anything but heroic.
Spidey’s enemies are often armed, don’t patiently await their turn to attack, and come in groups. The player has no way of knowing exactly how many thugs are trying to hit them at any specific moment, let alone which ones those are. Spider-sense, the only danger indicator the player sees, shows up on the protagonist instead of assaulting enemies, thus making it a ‘get the hell out of Dodge’ warning sign instead of a means to draw a perfectly transparent battle map. The ostensible solution, even acknowledged in the thugs’ barks, is air combat: it allows the player a moment of respite as they isolate themselves from the crowd, up where only few specific attacks can reach them. However, since gun control is as absent in Insomniac’s rendition of New York (as it is in real-life USA), at any given moment there’s enough armed criminals gunning for Spider-Man to render air combat ineffective. Using gadgets for crowd control in Spider-Man is not just fun, it’s also a necessity: the player needs to thin out the crowd before they can combo Fisk’s thugs into oblivion Arkham May Cry-style.
The spider is in the details
In keeping with standards of the superhero they’re meant to assist, the gadgets designed by Insomniac are inventive, indirect and never really brutal. After all, the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man shouldn’t use explosives, even if they’re supposedly non-lethal, same as he’s not about to start breaking arms and torturing people. Instead, we’ve got high-tech wonders such as Suspension Matrix, that lifts them up for a huge air combo, paralyzing Electric Web, and probably the most fun to use, Trip Mine. Web Bomb might be the most straightforward of the lot, temporarily immobilizing enemies in a radius from the blast, but even that has a little twist to it in the form of a short time delay. There’s few things in games more satisfying than an enemy trying to attack the player not knowing that they’ve already been set up to fail. Omae wa mou shindeiru, I think to myself with each particularly deviously placed bomb or mine. Mines are the only gadget that can provide an instant KO, they’re also appropriately scarce, but placing it so that it takes out two thugs instead of one, smashing them against each other, is very rewarding, not to mention funny.
True to Insomniac tradition, the Spider-doodads are comboable and their effects have quite a few environmental interactions. For instance, using a Concussive Blast to forcefully push a group of enemies with at least one of them either charged with Electric Web or equipped with a charged stun baton, there’s a chance they’ll all land in a puddle, spreading the electric love. Blast a group of enemies into a wall right after sticking one of them with a Web Bomb, though, and they’ll form a progressive-looking tapestry almost worthy of Jackson Pollock. Coming up with new ideas for gadget combos had me diving back into the game and clearing out enemy bases for quite a while after getting the Platinum trophy.
Key to that system working so well is its accessibility. After all, Spider-Man has superhuman reflexes that allow him to web a criminal while simultaneously kicking two of his pals in the face. Marvel’s Spider-Man solves this by slowing down time to a crawl when the player opens the gadget selection wheel or enters manual aiming mode. This enables us to strategize how to use the items most efficiently and then execute the plan with style, respectively. The result is combat that at its best looks and feels just as stylish as Spidey’s heroic feats on the big screen or the pages of a comic book.
Gadgets are of limited use, which can feel restrictive especially in the early game before they’re upgraded, but they refill during fights rather quickly. This forces the player to keep switching between them, demanding resourcefulness and encouraging variety in plays. The goal, it seems, is to use items to thin out the crowd enough so you can then safely air combo thugs one by one. There’s a bonus, though, that makes the entire combat system suddenly revolve around the fact that you play as Spider-Man: webbed up enemies that touch the ground, walls or stationary objects become stuck to them for good.
As the players learn the game and face more challenging foes, that mechanic elevates gadgets from supplementary tools to an elementary component of combat. Nearly all of them are indirect and only inflict status effects: all but the Spider-drone don’t do any damage on their own. On the other hand, the one-hit KO potential of most of them becomes extremely valuable late-game. When faced with a choice of either gracefully webbing up a heavy to a truck or brutally pounding him till his legs give out, the player starts actively looking for opportunities to do the former. Creating those opportunities, even: combining Web Bomb with Suspension Matrix to stick enemies to the ground as they fall, using Concussive Blast to push thugs close enough to a wall to stick them with Impact Web. It’s quicker, more satisfying and just plain more fun. What might not be that apparent from the start, is that it’s also the most nonviolent solution possible. This is in fact the mindset of minimizing harm that the red and blue hero approaches fights with as well. After all, with great power comes great responsibility.
The game’s combat system definitely has its flaws: some end-game enemies are inexplicably impervious to webbing; the gadgets recharge in a completely opaque way that is never explained to the player; upgrading and unlocking them uses the same currency that also unlocks the more appealing (and required for a trophy) costumes. Nevertheless, Insomniac has achieved, in their very first superhero game, what is arguably the holy grail of combat system design: they’ve created one that actually makes the player think like Spider-Man.
Be the Spider-Man
Fighting as Spider-Man should be fun. Spinning an electrified thug around before sticking him to a car is definitely fun. It should be fast and a bit stressful. Keeping a combo up in a large group of armed goons sure feels fast and stressful. Spider-Man is resourceful, and learning to efficiently use his contraptions, the player starts to play resourcefully. He also dislikes violence, and though the players might not realize it while beating the living daylights out of yet another criminal, Marvel’s Spider-Man, with its ingenious gadgets, makes them adopt that mindset, too. If you attempt to prove me wrong by, say, mercilessly kicking people off a skyscraper in an act of defiance, try to see where they land. When you weren’t looking, Spidey’s stuck a spare Trip Mine on them.
Spider-Man’s got your back.