Spider-Man is a tricky character to master. In the comics and movies, he uses his agility and web-slinging to keep foes off-balance, flitting from wall to wall at speeds that are almost too fast to follow. This presents a challenge for the team at Insomniac, who are doing its best to capture that feeling while keeping the action coherent.
Combat in Spider-Man is fast too. Almost too fast. You use your webs to leap from walls and crash down on foes, blinding them with webs and hooking them down. It moves so quickly that the camera often struggles to keep up, making encounters feel confused and frenetic rather than thoughtful and tactical. It makes it hard to get a feel for where you are in the encounter space and to track your enemies as they come at you with electrified batons or shoot from a distance.
Spider-Man's action has drawn multiple comparisons to the Arkham series, and as with Batman in those games, Spider-Man will be punished if he tries to go toe-to-toe with enemies. It demands a considered approach in which you plan your attack from above, isolate enemies, and swoop in with rapid-fire web attacks. But Arkham is slower and more intuitive than Spider-Man, and the grappling hook is easier to immediately grasp than bouncing and swinging around walls.
On top of all that, Spider-Man will periodically slow down to give you time to react something, which has the effect of making it hard to get into a proper flow. It makes it hard to get your bearings during the battle, especially with the camera spinning and straining to keep up while swinging around trying to avoid attacks. It feels authentic to Spider-Man, but I suspect I will need a fair amount of practice before I really feel comfortable with the pace of the action.
It all comes to a head with one of the initial villain battles, which is against B-tier Spider-Man baddie Shocker. Shocker is protected by a shield, so you have to use your web to break it with a piece of terrain, get in close for a few hits, then zip away and dodge the counterattack. It's the "dodging the counterattack" bit that's hard, because it comes out while you're still mentally resetting your location after retreating. It's at that point where Spider-Man begins to demand a bit of mastery of its mechanics, and while it's certainly not impossible, it feels harder than it should be.
The good thing is that the actual swinging through the city feels magnificent. It feels slightly floatier than it should in places, but since Spider-Man is moving in one direction rather than dodging around, it feels much less chaotic. It also makes sense in the open-world context, as it sets up a natural loop of perching on a building to look for quests and encounters, then sets you swinging toward your destination.
It was the momentum-based swinging that sold me on Spider-Man more than anything else. It's the one thing Insomniac had to nail, and they have. It only begins to break down in confined spaces when you're moving rapidly to avoid enemy attacks. The struggle to balance this element is one reason I suspect Spider-Man is releasing later than many originally expected.
Spider-Man was first announced back at E3 2016, where it promised a different take on the one from the recent movies. Last night's PlayStation E3 press conference introduced a new trailer in which Spider-Man battles many of his major foes in a prison, including Scorpion and Rhino. You can watch it above.
Spider-Man is set for a September 7 release, so there's still time for a final polish. Happily, Spider-Man gets the fundamentals of the comics right—from Spidey's rapid-fire quips to the excitement of swinging through the city—and that sets a solid foundation. Hopefully the combat and the camera will be more manageable with practice.
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