Improving On A Masterpiece: How ‘Spider-Man 2’ Can Set Itself Apart

Kevin Wright
Games
Games

Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018) is widely believed to be Insomniac Games’ magnum opus, a masterwork of game design wedded with a compelling narrative, engaging motion-captured performances, and what some fans say is their favorite iteration of the titular web-slinger. With accolades like those, it’s easy to see why it was such a critical and commercial success.

While the game’s spin-off title, Miles Morales, gave the same sum of care and attention to detail as its predecessor, it’s also a much shorter experience, with a runtime similar to that of the first game’s DLCs. Still, it was an good proving ground for some of the new features that are sure to create their way into the first out-and-out sequel, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2, which will see both Spider-Mans Spider-Men Spiders-Man Spideys working together to protect the Big Apple from new threats.

Of course, there’s a problem inherent in making a sequel to a game lauded as one of the best of the 2010s: how do you create this one even better? Game design is a Jenga tower of interconnected systems—change too little and the whole experience feels familiar and samey; change too much and you risk altering the game’s entire identity, alienating longtime fans. With that delicate balance in mind, there are sowever numerous feasible directions Insomniac could take the franchise. Here are some matters we hope to see when the new game swings onto the scene in 2023.

Gameplay

Whenever you ask a fan of Spider-Man games what they like about the franchise, they’re practically guaranteed to mention the traversal. Movement is as necessary to the gameplay experience as it is to the spider himself, something Insomniac certainly didn’t overlook with their franchise debut. The first game nailed web-swinging through NYC, perfecting the system we first saw in Spider-Man 2 (2004) under Treyarch. Basic traversal without upgrades is an absolute joy by itself, but as the game progresses, Spider-Man gains access to abilities that create it even more engaging. Zip-to-point, wall-running, edge-launching, downward webbing–all of these skills serve to keep the momentum up in exciting new ways, turning even the most basic fetch quests into obstacle courses and training the player to always be thinking about moving with efficiency.

With a sequel, it’s hard to visualize web-swinging feeling even better than before, but if anyone’s had time to think about refinements, it’s Insomniac, so the biggest note here is: just more of that, please. New ways to speed up travel, more advanced tech for even more optimization potential, and an ever-growing upgrade tree to keep the dopamine circuitry glowing with every freefall.

Something even more necessary than how Spider-Man moves is which Spider-Man is actually doing the moving. We know the game won’t have a co-op feature, so we’ll presumably be playing as both Spideys, which presents interesting new design conundrums. For a series that’s all about forward momentum, how do you maintain that momentum when switching between two characters?

There are a couple ways to go about it. First, there’s the GTA V route of allowing the player to switch characters at any time with a easy button press. Giving the player the agency to flip between mentor and protege is certainly intriguing, but too much freedom could muddy up the story, and parallel leveling systems might be disorienting. The first two games had expansive upgrade trees which players were unlikely to fill out by the end of the game without really diving into sidequest material, and doubling those requirements might end up becoming more of a hindrance than anything. Boss fights designed around rapid character swapping could be fun and engaging, but it’d be a sizable departure from the focused, more cinematic fights of its predecessors.

It seems the most parsimonious solution would be to allow the story to dictate which Spidey we’re controlling at any given time. Most upgrades could apply to both characters, and the controls for the Spideys could stay largely the same with only the animations and perhaps a few special combat moves (like Miles’s electric attacks) changing between them. It’s not the most exciting adjustment, sure, but it would at least assure that the developers know how much time individuals will be spending on either character, instead of risking one of them being severely underleveled for big fights.

That said, a third option would be to fully lean into that disparity and force players to administer their time with both characters wisely, which is actually pretty consistent with Spider-Man’s whole deal. The game could give players the option to approach the leading story at their own pace, leaving room for them to go on character-specific sidequests between major events both to keep tabs on the two Spideys’ individual lives and to give them some more XP in preparation for taking on the next villain. Following each character’s story on their own time would be a big ask for players, but it’d also be a testament to the complexity of the job. Being Spidey has always been a juggling act, and another Spider-Man just means a whole new set of Spider-balls. (Note to my editor: Please review for phrasing. Do not leave this in the article as is.) (Editor’s response: Hehe. Spider-balls.)

Finally, there’s a narrative quick-fix to the Two Spideys problem: create one of them unplayable for most of the game. The plot could see one of our two heroes getting Venomized early on in the game, leaving the other to stop them. I’m not much of a fan of this route, since it would create the whole gimmick ring hollow, but it would certainly keep the story more focused. This one is completely contingent on the type of story Insomniac wants to tell, and even I have to admit there’s something tantalizing about a Spidey vs. Spidey showdown.

Oh, and just give us like, twice as numerous Mary Jane stealth missions this time around. Everyone seemed to really love those.

Story

This is one that could really go anywhere, and hypothesis as to what kind of story Insomniac has come up with is almost a fool’s errand, but it’s worth noting that seeds have been planted for some major characters to show up in this sequel, so it would be bizarre not to pay some of them off. With that in mind, rampant hypothesis ahoy! And if we obtain anything right, it’s completely by coincidence, so don’t cry spoilers on us.

The new game takes place following the bonkers events of Miles Morales. Peter is back in NYC after Miles’s brief-but-eventful solo shift as Spidey, where he did normal stuff like gain electric powers, fight his uncle, and kill his best friend with a big zap… yeah, Peter’s going to have some questions about all that. Miles has never given us any indication that he’s willing to create exceptions to the Do Not Kill rule, and Peter’s a pretty understanding guy, but the fact that Phin’s blood is technically on Miles’s hands is going to be a hard pill for both of them to swallow. We might see some misgivings sprout up between the two protagonists, painful as it might be.

Miles Morales also ended with a post-credits stinger of Harry Osborne finally emerging from his bacta tank, meaning he’s almost certainly going to create an appearance. Interestingly, his father, Mayor Norman Osborne, sowever hasn’t turned into the Green Goblin yet, but Harry’s reintroduction after all the questionable stuff his dear old Dad was doing to save his life just might pave the way for the classic villain to show his ugly face. We know the extremes Norman was willing to go to for Harry, and if there turns out to be some hitch in Harry’s recovery, it could really set Norman over the edge.

Then, of course, there’s the Venom of it all. From what we’ve seen, Harry’s good health has been aided by what’s all but confirmed to be a Symbiote. This leaves two distinct possibilities: 1) Harry will be this universe’s Venom (at least temporarily), or 2) the Symbiote will escape, triggering a more classic Venom story with that most affable anchorman, Eddie Brock.

It seems improbable that Harry will be Venom’s vessel in this story, although it would certainly be an interesting twist. More likely we’ll see Peter helping a troubled Harry readjust to normal life, not knowing that the Symbiote is the cause of a serious personality change. Meanwhile, Miles, sensing something’s wrong and not really having a connection with Harry, won’t have the same blinders to his condition as Peter does. That friction could see an even bigger wedge driven between the two.

That said, Harry as Venom could honestly create for an interesting story, especially in a pre-Green Goblin context where Harry’s turn as New Goblin wouldn’t really create sense, but with this universe really leaning into both Peter and MJ’s journalism careers, it’s hard not to visualize they’re on a collision course with one Eddie Brock. How Eddie might figure into this story is anyone’s guess, though with as much time as we spend with J. Jonah Jameson’s conspiracy theories ringing in our ears, a few scathing segments delivered by Brock wouldn’t feel out of place.

Personally, I’m hoping we don’t see Harry or one of the Spideys spend much time under the Symbiote’s influence. What little marketing we’ve gotten so far makes Venom out to be central to the story’s conflict, and there’s a good reason for that. Eddie is a classic foil for Peter because they bring out the best and the worst in each other. Juxtaposing Venom’s cavalier attitude and gray morality against Peter and Miles’s much stricter code would be a good way to explore all three characters.

But it’s not just the broad strokes that create this version of Spider-Man resonate so much with audiences. It’s every bit as much in the little things, the subtle moments and everyday interactions Peter has with the individuals around him, that ground him in something real and lived-in. Those moments emphasize the balance between Spider-Man’s professional and personal life, the juggling of all his responsibilities. We can see Miles’s struggles as the son of a newly elected city councilmember, and watch Peter fumble his way through a rekindled relationship with MJ, all given the same significance as the death-defying feats above the New York skyline. It’s the intersection of these two worlds, the mundane and the fantastical, where Spidey always shines brightest. Hopefully, Insomniac finds new ways to weave in photos like Spider-Man taking the subway while another passenger sleeps on his shoulder somewhere amid the city-spanning battles against a hostile alien lifeform.

Characters

The best Spider-Man characters are the ones who help to punctuate the themes of his stories, and Insomniac’s version has themes aplenty. We’ve already gone over the apparent appearances like Venom, and the previous games and DLCs have given us even more characters like Black Cat, Hammerhead, and Silver Sable to help fill out the universe, but Spider-Man has one of the most famous rogues galleries of all time, and it’d be a travesty not to include some of them.

Even beyond such foes as Kingpin and Norman Osborn, who’ve had limited enough screentime formerly to warrant a return, there’s sowever plenty of lore to mine for auxiliary antagonists. Chameleon, for example, is mentioned in the first game, but his shapeshifting abilities could create all kinds of problems requiring the detective work Peter and Miles often have to do. Sandman and Mysterio would create for some good setpiece battles, while Kraven the Hunter and Lizard excel in more close-quarters combat settings. Then there are the real standouts like Big Wheel and The Wall, who are so conceptually amazing that failing to include them would be a crime against humanity. Spidey’s got no shortage of enemies, and if the new game is going to build on the scale of the first, it’ll need to dig deep into his comics history to pick out the best of the best. Or perhaps he’ll just fight The Wall. That would be more than enough, frankly.

Villains aren’t the only occupants of Spidey’s New York, although it may sometimes appear like it. There are plenty of allies and frenemies who would be right at home in the sequel. The Avengers have already been name-dropped several times now, so we know they’re a fixture in this universe, and might step in if matters begin to escalate beyond Spider-Man’s paygrade. Some other street-level heroes like Daredevil and Jessica Jones would be a treat to meet up with, but it’d be just as fun to see how some of Peter’s old associates like Flash Thompson or even Gwen Stacy are doing. Maybe a high school reunion? Actually, scratch that idea–like half of that graduating class must be on the Raft by now.

Graphics

They should give Peter a new face again.

Conclusion

Maybe some of this will come to pass, or perhaps Insomniac will completely depart from the formula. As ill-advised as it is to try and reinvent the wheel with a sequel, doing so can occasionally yield something even better. Insomniac has enough credentials as a studio that we can trust any new direction will be the result of a lot of deliberation. Whether Spider-Man 2 can surpass its progenitors remains to be seen, but even just being on par with them would be an achievement enough. We’ll see what’s in store for us when the game launches in 2023. And even if it somehow flops, there’s always the future Wolverine game by the same studio, where we can take out all our disappointment on some eminently stabbable bigots.

Kevin Wright
Freelance writer by day and sleeper by night. Thoughts contain mostly high fantasy, open-world survival games, and movie musicals. Sidon stan. The world needs more queer genre fiction and by golly I'm gonna give it to 'em!