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Spider-Man Does Whatever a Spider Can

Bo

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Over the long decades of Spider-Man games that have come and gone, the quality has varied wildly. Some have been really good games for their time. Some had a great idea carrying poor gameplay. More often they were plain bad. No matter the quality, though, one thing they all struggled with was the fundamental issue of capturing the feeling of Spider-Man.

The first Spider-Man on the Playstation was an excellent game. It was also limited in how much it could put Spidey’s real power in the hands of gamers. Maximum Carnage has many nostalgic fans, but it was just a side-scrolling beat-em up. The Spider-Man 2 movie game had terrific web-swinging, but was average or bad at everything else. Often the problems were technological. Other times they were an issue with developer skill or budget. Whatever the case no game really made you feel like the guy you read in comics.

And even more than the actual mechanics of being Spider-Man, games struggled to craft stories of the type that made Peter Parker and his crime-fighting alter-ego so iconic. Ultimately it is the relationships between Peter and his friends and foes that make him so popular. You feel an earnest connection to the conflicts driving his stories. Again, some of the failure here for his gaming adventures involves technology. Spider-Man gaming fell off significantly early in the Playstation 2 lifecycle, and gaming storytelling made significant leaps in that time. More often, though, those games just didn’t try particularly hard.

So how fares Insomniac’s attempt to finally give games a true Spider-Man game? How did they approach these problems? Were they ultimately successful? As an Insomniac Games fan since Spyro the Dragon some 20 years ago, I’m happy to say they made the best attempt yet.

Does Whatever a Spider Can

I’ll start with a pretty definitive statement here; no game has ever, ever had Spidey gameplay coming close to what Insomniac managed with this game. Not only that (and I admit this is purely opinion), Spider-Man has taken the Batman: Arkham formula and completely outdone it.

I won’t pretend the game doesn’t blatantly take the Batman formula. The combat certainly does. It’s the same directional, combo-focused, dodge-and-counter style I enjoyed across four Batman games. Thing is, it also addresses many of the problems in those games. Spider-Man’s enemies do not patiently wait as he beats down their friends. They jump in to stop you. They don’t point their guns forever like they forgot how to fire them. Those suckers get unloaded constantly. Spidey doesn’t gravitate from enemy to enemy like his fists have Bat-magnets pulled towards baddie faces. If you’re caught out of position, you’ll flail stupidly and someone will probably smack you for it.

While certainly inspired by Arkham, Spider-Man has a much more aggressive feel that perfectly suits the more agile, frantic, and plain capable nature of its superhero. Spider-Man isn’t a normal human being with crazy ninja training like Batman. He’s a true superhuman. You dodge bullets and rockets flying all over the place. You web people up, throw stuff at them, or even throw them if they’re properly restrained. Spidey flies around combat zones taking advantage of huge amounts of gadgets and suit abilities. His enemies have armor, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, whips, swords, shock gloves, and sometimes even support vehicles.

It makes for a very fast game with more challenge than I expected. The random baddies you find on patrol are perfectly capable of stomping Spidey into the ground. While nothing close to unforgiving, the game does demand the player get a handle on the combat and understand it. Even when you have your trusty standby style and gadgets, optional challenges encourage you to try the many options in ground and aerial combat. You’ll need to in order to acquire the combat tokens used to upgrade the suits and gadgets you like.

Thankfully, this challenge has nothing to do with poor controls. Spider-Man plays like a dream. The controls are smooth, responsive, intuitive, and quickly become second-nature. This allows the player to effortlessly transition between all the tactics needed for late-game encounters. It’s no problem at all to unleash a combo, dodge someone, counter, duck through a shielded opponent’s legs, web up to an aerial enemy, and unleash a special suit move restraining them all with your web.

In fact, the random baddies can be so surprisingly tough that the boss fights feel almost disappointing. Don’t get me wrong; they play well and usually have properly sizable scope. After hours of beating on upwards of like 50 thugs at a time, though, focusing on only one or two supervillains feels almost tame. Especially when few of them try anything particularly innovative in the combat system.

(The highlights are definitely the 2 fights involving Spidey going solo against 2 supervillains. One keeps the Spidey in the air at all times, while the other involves extensive use of the environment.)

But what about the method of traveling between all these fights? How exactly did Spider-Man manage the always important web-swinging mechanic? We all remember Spider-Man 2 and want something matching it, I know. And I won’t say the physics behind Insomniac’s Spider-Man matches its PS2 predecessor.

You know what? I don’t care. Rather than go for something “realistic,” Insomniac went for fun. Give me this any day.

The most important part of the web-swinging, in my humble opinion, is to make you feel like Spider-Man as he zips around New York City. This game manages that and then some. Besides the obvious swinging from building to building, Spidey can zip to ledges and points, vault off them, dive-bomb to pick up speed, and shoot quick webs to propel him forward and maintain speed around corners. He can run up and along buildings with ease. Transitioning from one move to another really lets players keep the speed up with ease.

Insomniac definitely went for accessibility over depth. The right-trigger button puts the player in something of an automatic parkour mode, and you can basically hold it down as you go and pull off what looks like complicated web-swinging and city traversal. However, this won’t make the most of the web-swinging. There’s a learning curve before you find the groove making the most of the speed and flow the web-swinging is capable of.

While the physics may not match what Spider-Man 2 did, don’t listen to anyone who says physics play no role. You can’t swing if there’s nothing your webs can attach to. Where your webs do attach determines the speed and momentum of your swing. Combined with the zip-lines and quick webs and wall running skills, you’ll need to make the most of all these mechanics and physics to become a truly gifted web-swinger. Especially if you want to complete the various challenges and missions.

Within the story missions, Insomniac blends these gameplay elements with well-placed quick time event button presses to create impressive spectacles. Spidey swings from helicopters and stops falling cranes and smashes through glass ceilings while beating on villains. The scale of these events makes for highly memorable moments after the various side content available between them.

Spider-Man’s open world certainly tries nothing new. You stop random crimes, pick up collectibles, activate towers that fill in the map, and take photos of various landmarks. Nothing about it breaks the mold formed by dozens of open-world games before. Where Spider-Man tends to avoid monotony, though, comes from the speed of these tasks. In the time it takes to scale to a viewpoint in Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man lets you stop a crime, collect a backpack, activate a tower, and be on your way to the next objective. None of these typically mundane tasks feel mundane because of how quickly you complete them. None of these tasks feel lazy or boring when it’s so easy to check multiple items off the list in like 3 minutes. Thus, Spider-Man’s web-swinging adds a fresh new dynamic to the familiar open-world formula.

Like with the combat, it is this speed that defines the game. If you have an aversion to this kind of open-world repetitiveness, I can’t promise this game will overcome it. If one can, though, this may be it. Besides the brisk nature of these tasks, the game also does a good job pacing them. Right when you might be sick of picking up collectibles, enemy strongholds are revealed. You get sick of that and the challenge missions show up. You get sick of random thugs and the research stations unlock.

Overall, Spider-Man takes advantage of its namesake’s abilities, along with some excellent design, to avoid a lot of the flaws in open-world gaming design. It’s a fresh, updated fusion of Batman and Assassin’s Creed. Almost everything about it plays fantastically. If you have any interest in Spider-Man or open-world games, I can’t imagine feeling dissatisfied. Even if you don’t, I think you’d enjoy this game.

Now It’s Personal

But what about the underlying story and characters driving all this gameplay? After all, who cares about gameplay if I feel no motivation around anything? If you’re a Spider-Man fan, I think you’ll be more than satisfied. Insomniac has a GREAT grasp on what makes Spidey and Peter Parker so appealing.

The game takes place 8 years after Peter acquired his powers, bypassing a lot of the “learning to use your powers” stuff we’ve seen and played a thousand times. This allowed Insomniac to build a rich history of what Spider-Man has already done, what kind of relationships he has with those in his life, and how exactly he lives his life. Insomniac uses this basis to build a story and world operating as a love letter to Spidey comics new and old.

From the beginning, we see a familiar picture: Peter Parker struggling between his personal life and his superhero responsibilities. He has a tense post-relationship dynamic with Mary Jane Watson. He helps Aunt May at a homeless shelter. His professional life takes place in a lab with Otto Octavius, who feuds with Mayor Norman Osborn. Peter isn’t the unsure kid facing these difficulties for the first time. That doesn’t mean he fails to struggle. Early in the game, he even loses his apartment after failing to pay rent on time. Said apartment is cluttered with late notices and makeshift gadgets.

To be honest, I think this is the best version of Peter Parker anyone has ever managed, even in comics. He’s a perfect blend of the struggling, responsible dork and super-capable superhero veteran. He blends effortlessly between cracking jokes and dramatic moments. One moment he’s stopping masked thugs, the next he’s freaking out over a text message MJ took the wrong way. Spider-Man never shies from leaning into these moments and letting the emotion and drama of a moment speak for itself.

Peter’s personal relationships lay at the center of the story. Both of the major villains are mentor figures to Peter. Aunt May and Mary Jane feature prominently, including in gameplay. Miles Morales is introduced during one of the game’s big twists and becomes a prominent character afterwards. A pre-Wraith Yuri Watanabe plays a Commissioner Gordon role, and the banter between her and Pete make for some of the game’s funniest moments. Even the lesser supervillains have a history with Spidey that come into play when he confronts them.

Everything is so steeped in personal history and Insomniac does a terrific job relaying that history.

One considerably controversial piece of storytelling occurs through the occasional stealth sections putting Mary Jane Watson and eventually Miles Morales in the player’s hands. Some dislike these sections for interrupting the Spider-Man gameplay with comparably weak content. I actually like them. They’re easy, forgiving, and typically do a great job giving MJ and Miles a key role in the story. They also serve as a perfect example of something I mentioned earlier: the excellent pacing keeping the open-world Spidey gameplay from becoming monotonous.

These gameplay segments are also used to great effect in some key story moments, making you really feel the tension or tragedy of the moment. Plus they do great things for player investment in those characters. Investigative journalist MJ is easily my favorite MJ ever.

The same can be said of the lab puzzles you perform for Octavius. All of the puzzles are pretty easy, quick, and give useful rewards. They help immerse the player in the shoes of Peter Parker, not just Spider-Man. Not everyone likes them, and I get it. Insomniac does, too. They let the player skip them completely while also receiving the rewards for them. It’s the storytelling purpose of these segments that matter and are why they exist.

Overall the story doesn’t hit any particularly groundbreaking beats. Does it matter when they hit the familiar beats so well? Seeing the degradation of some relationships alongside the rehabilitation of others makes for some fantastically well-told moments. Insomniac succeeds with storytelling no Spider-Man game would attempt 10-20 years ago. Some of the more dramatic plot points rank among some of my favorite video game moments in recent years.

And when it all finally comes to an end, the game pulls no punches. The final boss has all the emotion you’d expect after hours of build-up, and afterwards, Peter is forced to make one last decision perfectly representing the idea of “with great power, comes great responsibility.” In fact, the ending can be seen as a direct rebuke of an infamous Spider-Man story from the 2000s.

Overall, like with the gameplay, no Spider-Man game has ever captured his life this well. Insomniac chose to create a Spidey game for a reason, and I think their love for the character shines in every second of this experience. I wish I could delve into a more spoiler-y summary of it to make this opinion more clear.

Perhaps myself or someone else will eventually, because I think Spider-Man deserves it.

Final Thoughts

I won’t say this is the best game of the year. Not with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey currently receiving hype as the best game the series has put out in years, and definitely not with Red Dead Redemption II releasing this month. You also have to consider God of War, Monster Hunter, Dragon Ball Fighterz, etc….it’s a hard slog to proclaim Spider-Man the best of that bunch.

As a Spidey fan, though, I can’t imagine anything besides Red Dead possibly competing for the title of my favorite game this year. This is the best Spidey game yet.

There’s certainly room to improve. The game kind of bogs down in the final act, with an excessive amount of armed thugs lying around. The open world stuff could be more imaginative. Improvements can be made to the web-swinging. I’d also love to see inspired boss fights taking full advantage of the combat’s depth. Also, no symbiote suit? Really?

Considering the obvious sequel setup this game ends on, I’m sure we will get these improvements and then some. Insomniac knows how to do sequels. Just look at the sequels to Spyro the Dragon or Ratchet and Clank.

For now, though, I prefer to bask in the many, many things Spider-Man does right. I was skeptical this game would be anything more than solid, and feared the worst. Years of Spidey-related disappointments trained to temper my expectations. Instead I got something very, very good, but just short of great. But it was great enough for this Spidey fan.

You can bet that for once, I’ll be ready to pre-order a sequel immediately.


Images Courtesy of Sony Entertainment

Bo

Bo relaxes after long days of staring at computers by staring at computers some more, and continues drifting wearily through the slog of summer TV.

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Pokemon Moon, a different take

Oni

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Majority of pokemon games have shown us that even though we are completing the same goal, we still want to continue on this journey. Every Pokemon game in my opinion never felt boring or similar to the previous games. Game Freak takes the same formula time and time again, but they improve upon the story and game play. This formula has worked for a long time, but the biggest change to this system was with the release of Black/White 2. For the first time we had a Pokemon game that had a sequel. For a long time we had games that were separated from each other so that each one felt like a fresh start.

Now the big questions is, why did they decide to do this? Other games do this and succeed, but Pokemon never did this before. My guess is that there were unanswered questions at the end of the game. The bigger question is why not just make a bigger game? The fans would love a longer Pokemon game to get themselves into and draw them to anticipate another game of the like. Maybe Game Freak decided to make more money by splitting a game in half since dlc isn’t something they can add to their game. I say that, but they can make it easier for you to acquire shiny Pokemon and the like, but for their sake, I hope they never do that.

Those were just, what ifs, things that may or may not have happened. I can’t even tell you if that is true since I didn’t even finish Black. I can tell you that Moon/Sun is the game where they truly took a risk. They decided to take the game in a completely different location, change the gyms into a different type of battle and also change the race of the character we were used to seeing. I think that was the biggest thing that surprised me when I first learned about this game and it still surprises me that the character isn’t white or Japanese. Just by the looks of the sprites, it never occurred to me that the character would be Japanese even though the game was made in Japan. I always thought the character would be white, but now I realize that they were just Asian with the old anime art styles.

I think the reasoning that I thought this is because I never really thought of Pokemon as an anime or anime game. There aren’t a ton of animes that have aired as long as Pokemon and even if they had, they weren’t in the limelight on American television. Only two that I know of that have shown on major networks are Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh.  Anime games give a certain feel to it and it usually follows a certain timeline in the anime, so it is best not to watch the anime if you don’t want anything spoiled for you. Pokemon has a different storyline from the show so that you didn’t have to relive the episode again. It is smart to think that the people buying the games, are the same people that are watching the show. It isn’t true for every show, but Pokemon has been running for a very long time and it doesn’t seem like it will end anytime soon.

Moon feels great because you don’t have your Pokemon learn hm moves this time around. Pokemon with the moves are given to you so that you can train your Pokemon with any moves you see fit. It is the only game where I didn’t actually catch as much Pokemon because I didn’t need a filler Pokemon to learn the hm move. That was a big thing to me because I lost interest in those Pokemon because they were good for getting me places, but not good in a fight. Moon seemed too fast to me because once you beat all the Kahunas, you were already at end game. You did have another goal while on your way to the final four, but it didn’t give you any character development. Let me rephrase that, you didn’t get any character development for your character, but you got it for all the other characters around you. Then again, Pokemon never really felt like a game that gave you great character development for your own character.

Moon was strong with changing the gym system and giving us a villain that we could actually relate to. In my eyes, it revolutionized Pokemon games in the near future. I was happy with the game, but it left me wanting more, like there was something taken from it for another game. Maybe that game will be called Super Moon/Sun. Another game that gives you more story and some additional Pokemon and legendaries as well. If I didn’t know better, I would think that this was Game Freaks way of having dlc. This is just my own opinion, so please tell me what you think about Pokemon and what the future will hold for the game series.


 

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Let’s Unpack This: The Expanse

Dan

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Let us journey to the Belt and beyond in the official board game adaptation of The Expanse! Tenye wa tim gut!

Thanks to Wizkids for providing the materials for this unboxing, and stay tuned for our full review.

The Expanse currently retails for around $30.00

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Why KotOR II Is Overrated

Angelina

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Knights of the Old Republic II–or just Kotor 2, as it’s known in fandom–is one of the most respected games in the Star Wars fandom. The more or less common consensus about it is that it was a bit underdeveloped but still very good (and you can always use Restored Content Mod). And anyway, it’s the best because of its story, not its gameplay.

I have no problem with this opinion, actually. I vaguely remember playing it in 2005, and I remember I kinda enjoyed it. But lately I decided to make use of a holiday discount and try replaying it. And…well, now I feel it was a mistake.

As the story part is considered the best thing in Kotor 2, I will mostly talk about story–though a bit of gameplay talk is in order, too. But before I dive in, I must remind that I am not in any possible way “a gamer.” My list of played games includes only several Star Wars games, Heroes of Might and Magic III and IV, and Loom, (which, by the way, is the best game I ever played both gameplay-wise and story-wise). I’m absolutely sure that more experienced person would find problems I encountered to not be problems at all. But as I’m equally sure games should consider casual gamers’ needs, too, I will still talk about them.

How Does It Work as a Sequel?

As Kotor 2 is, obviously, a sequel to the first, Revan-themed, Kotor.

That game had two basic endings: either Revan is hailed as a hero and savior, or Revan installs themselves as a dark emperor. Basically, whatever ending do you choose, they seem to be immensely prominent figure in the Republic. What does it have to do with the second game? Nothing.

We start in the midst of a civil war that started…somehow. Three mighty Siths emerged from nowhere and devastated the Republic while Revan was, for some reason, out from the picture. The lame-ness of this plot device is actually kinda lampshaded in the game itself. If you chose Revan to be a woman, then you can get the deliciously sexist, “You know, those women and their feminine logic!” remark from several characters.

Nothing that happened in the first game has any bearing on what happens in the second one. The war that was ended there, continues here. The problems that were there are no more. The ideas that were there are no more. The few shared characters could as well be totally new characters, having so little in common with their previous selves.

The only thing that is really important is, Revan. Not as a person, a hero or anything, but as something our playable character, Meethra, can be constantly compared to.

Gameplay-wise…

There are things that improved since the first game, sure. I appreciated the rebalanced pazaak game, for example. Or that when you loot a crate the game marks it as “empty.” Also, the ability to equip two weapons and switch between them was something the first game was thoroughly lacking, as well as much more advanced crafting system.

But all this came at a cost of Fake Difficulty as it is. Consular class lacks its past abilities. As you constantly play with your companions as PCs, you have to equip them all no less than your main. Counterintuitive skill trees, crafting options, and the sheer amount of sudden changes don’t help at all, as well as lack of autosaves and quick travel. They changed so much, while seemingly having the same interface, I’d even say that playing the first game can impair your ability to understand second’s gameplay, not improve.

How Does Its Main Character Work?

This was sadly something that soured the whole game for me. The main character, The Exile, is basically…no character. Sure, they have a bit backstory and some informed attributes, but that’s all. Remember how you could talk, argue, bicker, and commiserate as Revan? Forget it.

You have choices, sure, but those are far less personalized. You almost cannot joke, or brag, or anything. You either do or don’t, either agree or disagree, and in the end, each and every companion has much more personality than your main hero, your in-game avatar.

The hero’s main function is to listen. Listen to the companions. Listen to the NPCs. Listen to the authors that wanted you–a player–to listen to their pseudo-philosophical harangues. That are very, very long and you shouldn’t (and sometimes cannot) skip them.

I guess this setup could work better, though, for those who don’t want their PC to be anything more than an interface for interacting with the environment. When I “switched” to it, I felt it really works. The game has no interest in The Exile, true–but it really wants you to think and listen.

Also, I should commend the game for the fact that it has little gender preference. Though it’s obvious The Exile was written as a male, you can play a female Exile and miss nothing important (it’s more dull, though).

Gameplay-wise…

It was…okay, I guess? Sure, if you like playing consular, you have to spend several level-ups on game-essential skills you weren’t given just for fake difficulty’s sake, but otherwise it works surprisingly smoothly.

How Do Its Other Characters Work?

They don’t work, they talk. Talk. TALK. You cannot escape it; every single one of them has some important idea or other to bestow on you. And, as mentioned earlier, you either literally cannot skip it, or you can but you shouldn’t as somewhere inside that rant was a grain of game-essential information.

Let me make myself clear: it’s not that they are badly written or have dull backstory. It’s that the main function of such monologues is not interaction but lecturing. Interaction-wise you have Mira and Bao-Dur who at least would listen to you and you even can have something like a dialogue with them. Otherwise, everyone seems completely uninterested in anything but themselves.

Gameplay-wise…

They are fine. You will have to equip them all to a tee, that’s true, but otherwise they are fine. The only problem is, the game has an influence system but doesn’t have any place where I can actually see what influence I have on which companion character. It’s just a quick “you get”/you lose” notification and nothing else I could find.

Let’s Talk About Kreya

She is lauded as the most interesting and subversive character, and I hated her. Yep. That’s all I can say about her.

Why do I hate her? You see, she is the epitome of what is wrong with that game. Her main and only function is to be dismissive, sassy, and lecture the protagonist. If you happen to agree with her point of view–you’re lucky. If you don’t, it will be game-long mind torture.

I won’t say her point of view is morally bad, more that it’s poorly thought out and incredibly dull, nihilistic junk you can freely get from our beloved HBO series. By the way, I can describe her using that series: imagine a cross between Dowager Sasstress and Batfinger. That’s Kreya in all her glory.

Actually I’d argue she is the true protagonist, not The Exile, who is there only as a device for watching her incredible story of hard labor and bitter betrayals. Problem is, I don’t like her, so I’m not interested in her story, but I cannot escape it anyway.

Gameplay-wise…

She is mostly okay as well, actually, apart from two aspects. First, she is so obviously a villain, your character has to be very dumb not to notice it. That, or your character is a plot device that has to play dumb so that we, the players, could see Kreya in all her Batfinger glory. Second, if you don’t like Kreya’s particular sort of sass and don’t want her in your party, you’re screwed. She will sass you anyway and you cannot escape it.

Closing Thoughts

I could talk at length about other little and not so little aspects of this game that bothered me. The non-romance. The constant sexism of all the NPCs and companions who will never hold their offensive remarks if you play female Exile. The astonishing laziness of game development that can’t be hidden even by restored content more. Or, how I feel the “subversive” and “interesting” Kreya’s goal to extinguish the Force is kinda similar to the goal of extinguishing Newton’s Laws. Or, that many quests and some features totally require a manual.

But I still managed to enjoy the game, even if it was kind of a hate-play. It still has nice fights. It’s interesting to try playing different characters with different skill sets (though you have to make several tries before you configure what skill sets they or your PC need because it’s not intuitive at all).

Basically, it’s a fine, if glitchy, game that has its good sides. It’s just neither really deep, nor the best-written Star Wars game, and one that really wants you to listen to the authors’ nihilistic rants.


Image Courtesy of LucasArt

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