Marvel's Spider-Man Design Analysis
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
The following is a Design-specific excerpt from my Marvel's Spider-Man YouTube video, which I thought would be the sections of most interest for discussion on this site. If you want to listen more about Context, Aesthetics, Cohesion and Emotions feel free to watch the full video.
"--Let’s start with the corest of the core gameplays. What makes Spider-Man special in the superhero pantheon. The web swinging. It is incredibly thrilling in this game, and really, just a joy to swing around. And there are so many little mechanical and aesthetical elements that make it really work, so let’s try to deconstruct them.
Swinging in general as a mechanic in a Spider-Man game has an interesting conundrum. On one hand, you want the swinging to be a skill check. On another one, it’s also the main traversal mechanism in an open-world game and you don’t really want that to be frustrating. And Insomniac has done a very right thing by making the basics of the swinging easy to use, but adding in mechanics on top that players could master.
And even though the swinging is physics-based, and webs attach to buildings and the traversal is about gaining and keeping momentum, Spider-Man cheats physics A LOT, and that’s why it works so well.
For starters, if you just swing without holding any direction, the game will adjust the arc of your swing to keep moving you as straight as possible. So if you just jump and start holding and releasing R2, you will move in a straight line, as opposed to keep moving you from side to side which is what a truer to physics game would do. Of course, even in Spider-Man there’s some edge cases where this is not possible, but it’s a general rule of thumb the game follows.
Then, if you do move with the analog stick, you can do so in any direction. Of course, trying to go directly the opposite way of where you were swinging to will make you lose momentum, but in general Spider-Man is like a floating drone that is attached to a swinging rope, you know. This lets the swinging still feel very physics-based, but also allow a great degree of control precision.
And the last important physics cheat that Spider-Man utilizes, and the most well known probably, is that Spider-Man shortens the web if you get very close to the ground, allowing to avoid breaking the flow.
In addition to those physics cheats, what makes Spider-Man swinging work so well as a main basic traversal mechanism in the game is the fact that you don’t crash into walls, but automatically start wall-running on collision.
So all this provides a very easy to use and not frustrating base for traversal around the city. What Insomniac adds on top is additional mastery moves that include web zipping, point launching, corner turning during wall running, and stuff like that which if mastered allows you to get to really high speeds, and also to self-express yourself.
If there’s one criticism I have about Insomniac’s swinging system is that even with those elements, the skill ceiling is pretty low. I think in sequel more additional mastery mechanics have to be added. Also, it’s kinda disappointing that a lot of moves that you see Spider-Man doing in cutscenes, like sliding on the road between cars, is not possible within the game. But still, it’s a great swinging system, and the parkour mechanics while not used much, are nice too.
The combat is the second most important part of Spider-Man’s core gameplay. And it can look really similar to Arkham’s system, but it’s actually much closer to the console Spider-Man 2 from 2004 combat in terms of spirit and principles. It’s based a lot on dodging, jumping around, and launching enemies in the air to do air combos. The combat feels very fast-paced and sloppy, in a good way, you feel more improvisational like Spider-Man and not a perfectionist martial arts master like Batman.
Absolutely every standard combat animation can be cancelled into a dodge, which is great. Finishers can’t be cancelled, but enemies don’t try to hit you during those and the camera changes zoom and focus to hide that fact. And also to show off the finishing animation of course.
What is cool is that combos end only when you’re hit or when a lot of time passes without you hitting anybody, but it stays if you make a failed hit that doesn’t do any damage. Again, this is more in line with the feeling of Spider-Man. Another neat trick the game uses is related to grenade timers. If you pick up a grenade to throw it at an enemy, the timer stops working, so even if you start throwing it at the last moment, you’re good. Also, the grenade explosion doesn’t affect you if you have thrown it, which prevents unlucky accidents of getting hit by something you wanted to throw away. All these are nice touches.
One big caveat I would like to mention regarding combat though, is how gadgets are utilized. Insomniac wanted to promote gadget use and improvisation, but the weapon wheel is so clunky that usually you just use the gadget that you had equipped when combat started. Also, changing gadgets midcombat can be very risky because the weapon wheel doesn’t actually stop time, but just slows it down a bit, opening you up for attacks. If there’s one thing that Spider-Man should’ve taken from Arkham, then it’s the gadget shortcuts, it would make the combat feel even better.
Spider-Man’s stealth… is there. It’s functional, it’s nothing special, but it’s also nothing bad. I do appreciate the fact that you can see when it’s safe to takedown enemies.
At any rate, overall the core gameplay is… great, really. The swinging is fantastic even with a low skill ceiling, combat though has a higher skill ceiling and is pretty fun too, and stealth is… there. But how this core gameplay is utilized within the open world and all the content and systems of the game? And the answer is… it varies.
The main campaign is very well designed, mostly. It’s got a great variety of well-done missions, ranging from chases to fights on top of moving trucks to more calm or investigational scenarios. The puzzles that you have to solve as Peter, created with a goal of showing his scientific side, are cute, though I will get back to them in a bit when will talk about the side-content. Boss battles might not be amazing or a reference to go by, but they’re great fun so I can’t complain really.
However, every now and then, the main Spider-Man campaign puts you in the shoes of somebody else than Spider-Man, in mandatory stealth sections that instantly fail if you get noticed. And in theory, I really like the idea of juxtaposing the Spider-Man gameplay with the gameplay of somebody who doesn’t have any powers, especially during some very dramatic moments like a terror attack that happened in the city. But… they’re not really well executed. Maybe instant failing on detection would not be an issue if the stealth levels were more open-ended and not as linear, the enemy detection wasn’t as fast and there were more tools. Admittedly, the very last Mary Jane stealth section was the most enjoyable one because the area was actually more open-ended and we had access to a huge number of TWO tools. So there’s that.
When it comes to side-content though… Here’s the thing. The side content in the game is not bad. But there’s a LOT of it, TONS, and it’s very repetitive. I do appreciate how everything opens up gradually as you progress through the game, but there’s just… so much stuff.
The most enjoyable side content for me was, honestly, the simple things like finding backpacks and catching pigeons, because it’s pretty much based on swinging and swinging is always fun and fantastic, I never minded doing slight detours for a backpack because, hey, more swinging around!
All the other stuff though, they’re totally fine the first one or two times you do them, but then start feeling like a chore. Like, you can go in to work in the science lab to do some side-research, and you know, the puzzles are cute but Spider-Man does not have a well designed puzzle progression, so they become boring and honestly I turned on the accessibility option that allows you to autocomplete those just because it wasn’t engaging.
Fights with random crimes are fine, but some scenarios with reinforcements and stuff make those really drawn out. And speaking of drawn out, I stopped doing the hideout-type side-missions because they just take too much time with all that 6-wave gameplay. What is especially weird about those is that they start you in a stealth state, and will make you instantly detected if you’re being too good at taking out enemies stealthily. Which to me doesn’t make much sense. I think it would be better that if you removed all enemies undetected, then there would be no reinforcements and you would be able to complete the mission without the wave attack stuff.
And all this side-content is tied into the token economy - different types of missions give you different tokens that you can use for crafting suits, mods and gadgets and I think that system is a little bit overcomplicated for its own good. And not in a sense of it being hard to understand, but in a sense of it feeling very menial and redundant.
Of course, there are also some properly constructed side missions in the game, in the vein of the main campaign, and those are pretty nice.
And the last thing I would like to talk about in terms of design, is the skill progression system. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, for various reasons.
First things first - the separation into three skill trees is incredibly arbitrary here. It doesn’t really define a style and I think some other kind of skill categorization would work better.
Second, a lot of things that make the combat really enjoyable and experimental are locked behind the skill tree. Like throws and swing kicks and some other things. I really don’t think it would’ve been an issue to have them available from the start so players could experiment more with the combat from the get go.
And third, and this is less of a design thing and more of a cohesion thing, but still, a lot of skills that you have to unlock, Spider-Man does in cutscenes long before the availability. Yanking weapons, doing tricks, and it just brings some dissonance, you know.
At any rate, even though the progression system is kinda arbitrary, it also is not offensive. I would like to see it changed and improved of course, but it didn’t lead to an actual negative experience.
So, overall in terms of design I can’t call Spider-Man an exemplary game of its genre. Don’t get me wrong, its core gameplay is exceptional, and the main campaign is great. It is, however, bogged down by lots of repetitive side content and some weird designed choices. Overall though, Spider-Man is still a very well designed game,--"
Thank you all for reading. A special thank you goes to my Patreon supporters. If you'd like, feel free to support my campaign at www.patreon.com/farlands
Farlands has a Discord server focused on gathering people interesting in talking about games and game design. Feel free to join!