You Only Win When You're Swinging

Hey there folks. Just to clarify, this blog was originally posted on a different site in February 2020. In the interest of keeping all my games-focused writing in one place, I've decided to copy it over to my Giant Bomb blog.

I've spent the last few weeks playing through Marvel's Spider-Man on the PlayStation 4. As far as open-world action games go, it's up there as one of the very best I've played this generation. It may not boast the sweeping grandeur and epic scale of something like Horizon Zero Dawn; nor is it a sandbox of interwoven emergent gameplay systems akin to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Instead, what makes Marvel's Spider-Man so successful in my opinion is a quality that open-world video games have been lacking for the best part of a decade; a razor-sharp sense of focus. It's that quality that has inspired me to devote three weeks of game time to pursuing 100% completion across the base game and all three of its DLC packs, even shooting for the Platinum Trophy.

To anyone who's arrived here in the hope that I might dissect Marvel's Spider-Man from a story perspective, I'm sorry to disappoint you but that won't be the focus of this blog post. I simply don't have the necessary investment in Spider-Man's extensive mythos to judge the plot points of this game in the context of an average Spidey story, and I feel any attempt to analyse it on its own merits, isolated from the rest of Marvel's Spider-verse, would be a missed opportunity. For what it's worth, I enjoyed Spider-Man's story in the same way I might enjoy a big-budget popcorn flick. I was completely engrossed in the midst of the experience, but found it easy to detach from the story and its events when not playing. Instead of focusing on narrative, I want to dive deep on two very specific pieces of Spider-Man's game design, and how I believe they transform it into something far greater than just another bloated open-world action game full of towers to climb and map icons to investigate.

Friendly Neighbourhood

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It goes without saying that an open-world game is usually only as good as its open world, with the best examples of the genre taking place in some truly memorable game-spaces. Games like Grand Theft Auto III and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind feature some of the most iconic open worlds the medium has to offer. Hours of gameplay spent in places like Liberty City and Vvardenfell has given me a knowledge of their geography comparable to that of my own hometown. Even now, almost two full decades since the release of those games, I feel confident that I could comfortably navigate my way around their respective game-worlds without needing to refer to a map.

Over the last decade or so, the number of open-world games being released has increased exponentially. That market saturation comes at a price, though, and that price is usually individuality. In a phenomenon that other critics have dubbed 'Ubification', after the publishers most associated with the template, almost every open-world game released in the last ten years is built on an identical foundation; enormous maps populated with nondescript cookie-cutter locations, separated by countless square miles of wilderness, connected by a network of roads and pathways, and punctuated by towers to climb, enemy outposts to clear, and almost infinite collectibles to pick up. This game design philosophy has reduced much of the open-world genre to homogeneous checklists of busywork, to the point where even distinct franchises start to feel identical to one another.

So what exactly makes GTA III's Liberty City and Morrowind's Vvardenfell so memorable compared to current-generation open worlds like Far Cry 4's Kyrat and Just Cause 3's Medici? My personal opinion is that their strength lies in their relatively small size. Smaller open worlds lend themselves better to memorisation in large part because there is less for the player to memorise, but I don't believe that's the only reason. It logically follows that in a smaller environment, with a limited number of routes between a smaller number of locations, the journeys the player makes in these games are going to repeat, and that repetition in turn breeds familiarity within the player's mind. Smaller open worlds also tend to be constructed in a much more bespoke manner, with unique landmarks and idiosyncratic road layouts that stick in the player's memory far more readily than the copy-paste towns and identical connecting highways of their larger counterparts.

Marvel's Spider-Man bucks the Ubification trend, instead opting for an open world much more akin to those from the turn of the millennium in terms of its size and construction. It confines the action to a scaled-down approximation of the island of Manhattan, providing the player with a relatively small game-world by modern open-world standards. It's also an environment packed with recognisable landmarks in the form of uniquely-shaped skyscrapers and other famous buildings, that serve to orientate the player within the game world. It's not perfect; given that almost all the gameplay happens above street-level, there's never really an opportunity to get to know the road layout of Spidey's Manhattan intimately. But after a few dozen hours in this digital recreation of the Big Apple, I feel like I have a good understanding of the city's geography and could comfortably navigate to any of the map's nine districts using only the skyline for reference.

Another advantage of smaller open worlds that I neglected to mention earlier is that their more compact size better lends them to objective-based scavenger hunts and scattered collectibles, usually because those objectives and collectibles are either fewer in number or their distribution is more concentrated (or, indeed, a combination of both). Spider-Man subscribes to this school of thought as well, keeping its backpack and landmark photo collectibles to respectable quantities of fifty-five and fifty respectively and packing them pretty densely into the map. It also keeps the quantity of side quests at a very modest level by contemporary open-world standards, introducing new objectives gradually and rarely exceeding a dozen unique instances of any given extra-curricular activity. Keeping the numbers low stops these distractions from feeling like boxes on an endless checklist, and in turn helps prevent the player from burning out.

Can He Swing From A Thread?

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But having a smaller, more concentrated open world is only half the battle. Developers have to give the player incentives to explore, and they have to make the act of traversing their world enjoyable in itself. This is something that I feel open-world developers really lost sight of for a while, with the problem being compounded by the trend of open-world games becoming increasingly vast. The larger a game-world is, the longer it's going to take to traverse, and the more time players are going to spend travelling between objectives. A lot of games try to mitigate this problem by introducing fast-travel options, allowing the player to bypass the down-time between missions by teleporting to their next objective, but personally I feel this amounts to developers cutting off their nose to spite their face. What is the point in building these huge open game-worlds and then actively encouraging players to avoid engaging with them in the most fundamental way?

​Marvel's Spider-Man navigates these potential pitfalls with aplomb, primarily because it features some of the most enjoyable moment-to-moment traversal ever seen in an open-world game. Spider-Man's web-swinging mechanic is consistently satisfying thanks to the pitch-perfect control scheme and the ease and speed with which it enables the player to move unimpeded through the game-world. Every minute I spent navigating Spider-Man's open world was an enjoyable experience simply by virtue of the fun I found in the basic act of swinging from a thread. By traversing the map in this way, I was able to deal with side missions and other distractions organically as and when I found them, rather than referring to lists of objectives and ticking them off one by one.

While the game does feature a fast-travel mechanic in the form of New York's famous subway, it's telling that I never once felt compelled to use it outside of one mandatory instance during a story mission and the four further times required to unlock one of the game's Trophies. Incidentally, I think it's worth recognising when a game is able to justify the existence of fast-travel within the context of its world as Spider-Man does, since it helps preserve a sense of immersion that would otherwise be shattered by teleporting halfway across the game-world for no good reason besides player convenience.

The way that Insomniac have incorporated "spider-sense" into exploration also deserves mention here. While mainly featured in the game's stealth sections to highlight enemy positions and other objectives, spider-sense can also be triggered at any time during traversal. Doing so will cause a sonar-like wave to emit from Spider-Man's current location, revealing the whereabouts of any nearby points of interest as icons on an overlay over the gameplay. This feature allows for seamless exploratory gameplay, eliminating the need for the player to check either the mini-map or the map menu to identify collectibles or side missions within their vicinity. This also plays into preserving the player's sense of immersion and encouraging them to encounter objectives organically rather than viewing them as a checklist in a pause menu.

Daniel

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Currently playing - Final Fantasy VII Remake (PS4)

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