This is a big one, guys. When my ever-thoughtful girlfriend bought me a second-hand PS2 for Christmas last year (best present ever), this was one of the games I unequivocally had to get. It’s one of my favourite games of all time, so you may have to forgive me if I lapse into nostalgic babbling. I don’t think I can be completely objective here, so this is meant to be less of an unbiased review, and more of an exploration of why this game is remembered so fondly – plus a look at how it stands up over a decade after it came out. It’s an extremely rare thing in the world of gaming – an official movie tie-in game that was actually good. It is, of course, Spider-Man 2.
With the trailer for the new Spider-Man film dropping recently and causing fans to wet their pants (myself included), it seems an appropriate time to drop back into the Spidey universe. I’ve geeked out on superheroes since I was a kid, and like a lot of people my age, my love of the genre stemmed not from comics, but from watching cartoons like the Spider-Man and X-Men animated series. The older I’ve got, the more fond I’ve grown of Spider-Man: he has this irrepressible eagerness to do the right thing, and his constant struggle to balance his sense of duty with his turbulent personal life makes it impossible not to root for him. He’s both iconic and relatable, and is an obvious choice as the subject of all kinds of games, films, comics and TV shows – it’s just a shame that so few of them have done justice to the character. This may be up for debate, but I feel Spidey has been mistreated in the mainstream media. Spider-Man 3 was an obvious disaster, and the two Amazing Spider-Man films starring Andrew Garfield – a fine actor, don’t get me wrong – were mediocre at best. In gaming things have been even worse: aside from a couple of exceptions, most Spider-Man games feel poorly though out and shallow, and fans clamouring for a good Spidey game are often let down.
Thank God, then, for Spider-Man 2. The film is brilliant, a perfect superhero movie that acknowledges the silliness of a man in a costume fighting crime, but still delivers an earnest story with charming characters. It would have been easy to churn out a forgettable tie-in to cash in on the movie’s success, but amazingly, we were treated to a damn good video game. It borrowed the actors’ voices from the movie (except James Franco’s, for some reason), and loosely followed the film’s plot, but what made the game great was that you felt like Spider-Man in a way no other medium has matched since. It dropped you in an open-world New York and let you swing around the city – oh man, the swinging – fighting crime and saving civilians; put simply, it allowed you to be a superhero. And who doesn’t want that?
You start out the game with a short tutorial, presided over by the hilariously sardonic Bruce Campbell as your narrator – seriously, this guy is one of the best things about the game. After that you’re free to roam the city, occasionally being prompted to participate in the main story missions but generally left to your own devices. The plot follows that of the movie, with a few diversions to visit some well-known villains like Shocker and Mysterio; these are a nice touch, but little more than fan service. The story may not be particularly strong, but it really isn’t what matters about this game – what matters is how it feels to navigate the semi-fictional New York as our favourite web-slinger.
Now let’s talk about that swinging. The swinging mechanic in this game has an almost mythical status, and fans will invariably point to it as the best thing about the experience. I know nothing about physics, so I’m not going into any detail here, but it just feels right in a way that’s difficult to describe. There’s a weight to it that seems natural, and the rush you get from leaping off a skyscraper, firing out a web before you hit the ground and swooping between buildings is like nothing else. It can be unforgiving when you start out, but when you master the timing and speed it is exhilarating. I played the game recently on my old PS2 before I wrote this post, and the swinging honestly feels just as good today as it did when I first got the game, which is a testament to its design. The game generally controls well, and I never felt prohibited when zipping around the map.
The open-world setting was a relatively new concept when Spider-Man 2 was released, but it was a stroke of genius. While other superhero titles were level-based, in this game you were let loose in an entire city, free to go pretty much anywhere. You could scale the Empire State Building and throw yourself off; you could swing around a flagpole in Times Square; you could even catch a ride on a helicopter out to the Statue of Liberty. The map had a bunch of collectibles to give a bit more incentive for exploration, and you could enter races to test your traversal skills. The game also introduced a variety of side missions you could complete to earn XP; some of them are somewhat notorious, like the little girl who refuses to keep hold of her damn balloon. These are fun ways to pad out your experience, and, while they do get repetitive, they add to the feeling of being, in his own words, your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.
Some things about the game have understandably held up less well than others. I’m not going to be too critical of the graphics considering the game came out in 2004, but it does look dated, and there were games made around the same time that are much prettier. The combat was never particularly strong, but it offers a few options: you can chain together a few basic combos, fire webbing to stop enemies in their tracks, and launch people into the air and then beat the crap out of them before they hit the ground. It works most of the time, but it’s clunky and rudimentary, and fights get monotonous very quickly. Boss fights are predictable and occasionally obtuse – I remember the climactic battle with Doc Ock being a frustrating chore. These issues are annoying, sure, but for me they don’t detract significantly from my enjoyment of the game.
The main thing I remember from playing the game the first time round is how fun it was to simply be Spider-Man in that city. A few other things stick out, like Bruce Campbell’s sarcastic narration or the ridiculous pizza delivery missions, but I think the reason I and many others fell in love with this game is that it makes you feel like a superhero in a way that nothing else does. The way you could move around the world was so well-tuned and so fluid, and the freedom to scale impossible heights and swoop at astonishing speeds was utterly thrilling. There are more polished, deeper and better-looking superhero games, but I don’t think I’ve played anything that matches the joyful flow of movement in Spider-Man 2 at its best, and to me that makes it special.