For better or worse, we live in a kind of golden age for power fantasy games. Numerous modern titles across various genres exist to fulfill certain wishes and desires. They typically want the player to feel like a god, and they often want them to feel that way without having to overcome too many actual obstacles. Titles like the Soulsborne games practically exist to counter such concepts, but such games are still closer to the exceptions that prove the norm.
Whether you consider that to be a good thing or a bad thing depends on your personal preferences and how well individual games execute what they’re trying to do. However, the popularity of those games has presented problems for many modern superhero titles. The apparent novelty of playing as a DC or Marvel superhero is often a little less novel at a time when so many other games let you play as one kind of walking god or another. Only the greatest superhero games have been able to successfully argue why you should play as their superhero rather than your superhero.
That’s the biggest reason why Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is as special as it is. At a time when so many games want you to feel like Superman, Spider-Man 2 wants you to feel like Spider-Man. It’s a seemingly minor distinction that ends up making all the difference.
Narratively, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 picks up right where 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man and 2020’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales left off. Peter Parker is trying to piece together some kind of personal life while also mentoring young Miles Morales in the ways of being a hero (a task he feels increasingly unqualified for). Miles, meanwhile, is starting to appreciate the many ways that being Spider-Man can negatively impact every other aspect of your life. As the two navigate the burdens, responsibilities, and opportunities that come with their positions, the arrival of new villains and old friends throws a series of wrenches into a machine that wasn’t really operating at full capacity in the first place.
If you’re looking for story spoilers, you won’t find them here (at least not yet). For as incredible as some of those story moments are, and for as much as they will be discussed, they’re ultimately less important than the feelings they inspire.
Every single element of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is designed to make you feel like Spider-Man. If you played Insomniac’s previous Spider-Man games, that statement will not come as a shock. Those games achieved widespread critical and commercial success due to the quality of their web-slinging mechanics, animations, callbacks, and every other element that was designed to replicate the sensation of being Spider-Man while offering a new scripted adventure and the chance to make your own fun.
Given what they were building off of, few expected the Spider-Man 2 team to completely drop the ball and simply fail to pick up where they left off. There was a baseline expectation that Spider-Man 2 would offer more of the same greatness. In all of the ways you probably wanted more of what Marvel’s Spider-Man and Miles Morales offered, it most certainly does.
What I wasn’t expecting was all of the ways this game’s narrative and other storytelling devices not only improve upon the previous games’ stories but end up solidifying this sequel’s status as one of the best superhero games ever.
If I was sharing spoilers, I’d certainly tell you about those big narrative setpiece moments that are significantly more impressive than what we saw in the previous Insomniac Spider-Man titles. The same goes for those major plot revelations. The ones that make you say “Did you see that?” Can you believe?” etc, etc. Those attention grabbers steal the headlines for every other piece of superhero media, and they probably will eventually do the same for Spider-Man 2 as well.
But Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 really is all about that special feeling that other pieces of superhero media (and other power fantasy games) either can not offer or simply do not offer quite as well.
The feeling I’m referring to is the feeling of being not just Spider-Man but Miles and Peter as well. Those may seem like separate feelings but they are crucially not. The same feeling will strike you just as powerfully when you’re looking over a mortgage bill that Peter and MJ obviously can’t afford as when we’re punching an enemy clear across Queens with Miles’ Venom Punch. It’s the same feeling that comes when you’re watching Miles find ways to be happy for the people in his life who are moving on while he struggles to do the same as when you’re controlling Peter as he effortlessly glides between NYC skyscrapers while a magic hour sunset accentuates the moment.
That balance has always been the biggest part of what makes Spider-Man special as a superhero. While that dichotomy was present in earlier Spider-Man games, the quality of Spider-Man 2’s story, characters, and a seemingly infinite supply of little moments and world details simply make it better than otherwise good (or even great) gaming experiences have offered.
Spider-Man 2 never allows us to forget the burdens of being Spider-Man. That’s because the burdens and the thrills of that experience so often go hand in hand. Every time you swing across the city and experience the adrenaline rush that comes from that perfectly executed gaming experience, you are somehow always reminded that you are either running from one problem, heading towards another, or simply allowing yourself to rise above it all if only for a moment.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that this game deals heavily with that relationship between power and responsibility that should be a burden to anyone with a heart. That is kind of Spider-Man’s whole thing. Well, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 not only constantly returns to that mission statement through its scripted narrative moments but its gameplay as well. Just try existing in this game’s world for more than a few minutes without someone needing your help with something.
Yet, there is an addictive quality to the sensation of being Spider-Man that soon becomes an even bigger part of the game’s written story and meta-narrative. After all, the vast majority of people do not buy a Spider-Man game hoping that they’ll get to clean Peter’s house or have dinner with Miles’ mom’s new boyfriend. They buy a Spider-Man game so that they can swing around the city and maybe punch one of those all-time great villains in the face. Well, Spider-Man 2 really leans into the idea that Miles and Peter often feel that same way. Even if they could give the Spider-Man lifestyle up, why would they want to when faced with the comparatively dull burdens of modern life?
Many of us have dreamed of being Spider-Man ever since we hopped between pieces of furniture while uttering vague “Thwip” noises. None of us dreamed of being an adult who struggles to find a job, make money, and keep the people in our lives who give us the most joy in our lives all the while. In Spider-Man, many of us found a character that perfectly represents the struggles and joys of managing limitless possibilities with infinite responsibilities. At its best, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 lets you play as that character like no other Spider-Man game has. Yes, that means swinging across NYC, but it also means feeling the necessary pains of failure and the conflicts that arise when you try to have it all without losing a fundamental part of yourself in the process.
Again, though, I’m probably not telling Spider-Man fans anything that they don’t know. The burden of being Spider-Man has always been part of what makes that character so special, and the very best Spider-Man stories have always tapped into that aspect of the character.
Yet, that’s very much the point. So many Spider-Man games, even the best ones, have ultimately offered that same basic power fantasy that so many other modern games offer. You are more powerful than the game, and there is nothing you can’t overcome in the spectacular fashion that often draws you to games as an escape in the first place. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 offers all of those same highs without ever forgetting that the responsibilities and human moments those other games would treat as lows are actually the things that truly make a Spider-Man adventure a Spider-Man adventure in the first place.
Superhero games shouldn’t just let you play as another powerful video game protagonist; they should truly capture a character and all that goes with them. It’s the quality that has elevated the very best superhero stories over the years, and it’s the quality that elevates the truly great superhero games. For years, I felt like the Batman: Arkham titles were really the only superhero games to tap into that sensation in a profound way. Now, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 not only does the same but may do it better than any other game has.
Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 is scheduled to be released on October 20 for PlayStation 5.