LOS ANGELES—A typical E3 video game demo offers one of two things: a snappy "vertical slice" of immediately accessible action, or an all-too-brief tease of a much larger and more complicated sales pitch.
Our first hands-on with Sony's exclusive Spider-Man, launching on PlayStation 4 this September, offered the rare, seductive combination of both.
As a result, I doubled back for a second demo replay (something I rarely have time to do at crazy events like E3). This confirmed my suspicions: Insomniac Games had unlocked a ton of Spider-Man content for its E3 gameplay-premiere demo, and that the game's learning curve—which seems staggering at first—is absolutely surmountable. And a freaking blast, to boot.
"Life as Spider-Man"
Insomniac has been careful to hold back a full explanation of Spider-Man's plot and campaign, so this E3 demo revolves largely around plot-divorced gameplay "many hours" into the campaign, according to Insomniac Games lead writer Jon Paquette. "Things are happening out in the city," Paquette told Ars Technica, "and you have to balance life as Spider-Man and life as Peter Parker. This is just the Spider-Man part."
Being Spider-Man, unsurprisingly, revolves around kicking butt and fighting crime. In this demo, we were tasked with breaking up two specific crimes and killing time between those by using spidey sense to toggle a litany of waypoints. The game's first main fight requires web-slinging roughly half a mile across Manhattan, then climbing up a skyscraper, where Peter's friend Yuri Watanabe says a gang is up to no good.
The game's reveal trailers have hinted that it will combat what largely resembles the Batman Arkham series. A basic "attack" button will pull off attractive, dynamic melee combos, while other buttons let you dodge, jump, and throw gadgets like bombs and traps. The Spidey-specific juice comes from web-slinging, which you can toggle with an unlimited supply. Grab an enemy with a web-sling, then pull yourself toward that foe to start chaining a melee combo and to pull yourself away from impending attacks. Sling your body to a girder or other hanging point above to escape and get a breather. Hold a pair of trigger buttons to grab and throw any useable debris nearby.
This combination of commands feeds a combat system that already feels faster, more dynamic, and more exploratory than the admittedly similar Batman Arkham games. By the time I got to my second playthrough, I could confidently keep my combo meter running while making the most of surfaces above and below my general combat.
What's more, Insomniac has juiced combat by adding optional objectives to every discrete fight, sometimes emphasizing the use of bombs, stealth takedowns, super moves, launch-in-the-air punch combos, and more. Pulling these off feeds Spider-Man's variety of in-game XP counters (though we didn't get to test how the game's upgrade system will play out). Lighthearted spoken dialogue also keeps proceedings fun, as my two playthroughs included a variety of jokes and one-liners that ranged from hilarious to tolerably pleasant. (Meaning, no obnoxious groaners. Good work thus far, Insomniac.)
Smooth speed, smooth combat, rough camera
Between this first fight and an eventual boss encounter against series villain the Shocker, I was given free reign to web-swing across a massive chunk of virtual Manhattan. Once I got the hang of certain abilities, particularly a perfectly timed swing-and-jump maneuver, I found myself speeding through the game's ridiculously dense environs. Insomniac's balance of object density, per-object motion blur, view distance, and gorgeous lighting is remarkable enough when watching video replays of the game—but all that stuff is triply impressive when realizing how easy it is to swing, wall-run, speed-dive, and string-pull yourself to distant objects.
Impressively, Insomniac has built its web-swinging model to require some logical structure above Peter's body to connect to. Without one of those, the swing-launch button won't work, and you'll have to aim and connect yourself to lower "perch" points… which you can immediately spring off of with a perfectly timed tap of a "jump" button.
My two playthroughs let me try out different side missions, which all popped up on my heads-up display after clicking down on the right joystick (the "spidey sense" button). Sometimes, I'd be led to an alleyway to break up a mugging in progress. Other times, I found and unlocked a technology lab full of secrets, which fueled the game's as-yet-unexplained tech-tree progress. And one waypoint unlocked a massive, multi-floor crime lab which required a mix of stealth takedowns and all-around-me combat against four waves of increasingly tough baddies—with the worst of them wielding giant shields, shock batons, or freaking rocket launchers.
Hence, you can expect an open-world superhero game with a "golden path" campaign and a bunch of "I'm a superhero" side missions. But Insomniac's take on combat and speed already realizes the kinds of Spider-Man gaming oomph I've hungered for ever since Treyarch gave the idea a spin in the '00s. The E3 demo's boss fight against the Shocker, in particular, feels like a high-level synthesis of everything that separates Insomniac's Spider-Man from other open-world superhero games. To survive this fight, you must wall-run, web-sling, and pull yourself up to safe points while whizzing around a large, dome-shaped bank vault.
The Shocker is tough, thanks to his dome-filling attacks, but this Spider-Man's control suite is elaborate enough to let players overcome the meaty challenge. This fight exposes the game's biggest issue thus far: camera control. Insomniac hasn't yet nailed how to automatically adjust your camera while making room for so much verticality, 360-degree combat, and rapid-speed slinging. As Spider-Man is now, it's easy to lose sight of your opponent in this encounter.
But that's why I had to play twice: to answer whether I could get the hang of Spider-Man in its current, unoptimized camera state. My answer came in the form of the beatdown I pulled off on my second go-round. Between that (and a largely steady frame rate), I'm hugely optimistic for what Insomniac will have to offer Spider-Man fans when the final game launches on PlayStation 4 systems on September 7, 2018.