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E3 2017: Spider-Man is Sony’s Trump Card, but is it Enough?
Post by Steve Farrelly @ 05:22pm 20/06/17 | Comments
Closing out the Sony pre-E3 press briefing with Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man was both bold and brave, but did it do enough to satisfy the hardcore, or sate the naysayers?

The short answer to the lead-in is “umm… maybe”, but the truth is, it’s a little too hard to say at this stage. Not only did we see the action-packed sequence while at the Sony pre-E3 press briefing, we also saw an extended run of it behind closed doors out on the show floor, and had a chance to grill a member of the team -- creative director Bryan Intihar, on our biggest concerns. Which essentially spin around the web-slinging physics along with questions on whether it presents an open-world with heavily-scripted action sequences like the one we were shown. And most importantly, just how often are we going to be coming across quick time events (and will they feature hard-fail scenarios), thus breaking the superhero fantasy?

To follow the preview and interview commentary presented here, be sure to watch this gameplay sequence in full

Heady questions, really, but well worth asking after that showing. Coyly, they were danced around with only marginal explanations based on the sequence, which is really the only context we have against them, but it was definitely confirmed there is a physics system tied to web-slinging through the city. And yes, the webs do need to attach to a physical object in the world to be able to work. It was also suggested that the helicopter chase sequence could have been performed more quickly with said physics system, but for the sake of showcasing the world and the chase itself, the pacing was akin to a more cinematic presentation. Moreover, that sequence won’t require you to take the same route, with Intihar revealing there are multiple pathways to objectives -- even for ones as scripted and narratively important as that, but the elaboration ended there.

“There are fail-states for those [QTE] moments, I would say we use them to accentuate some missions, [but] we don’t rely on them,” he explains. “Our core experience is what you saw on the tower when he was doing the combat as well as chasing the helicopter -- our core is that true experience [and] we use some of those [QTE] moments to accentuate the bigger set pieces.”

What becomes alarming about this statement, and E3 demos in general, is that largely Triple-A games like this stick to an action-heavy script. E3 isn’t only for media, retail buyers are there as well and are, pretty much, seen as far more important to impress than any of us because the bulk of product is pre-purchased and ordered by them. And more often than not, buyers aren’t as hardcore about gaming as we are, so while we dissect and get in deep, buyers like to be wowed and awed, which is why E3 always has such a mixed bag when it comes to how games are often presented. You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle.

“This is one of our ‘golden path’ missions,” Intihar reveals when asked about the game’s scripted action versus its open-world gameplay and player-freedom, the latter part of which is sorely missing in vision-action for punters where that Sony pre-E3 closer is concerned. “We’re going to be talking about the open-world [later]. Yes, this is a sprawling New York City that you can explore... but we’re not really talking about the big open-world yet, we’re just concentrating on the core Spider-Man mechanics for right now.”

What would be ideal is for games of this nature to show at least two variations on the same demo. So, let Sony and Insomniac have their big action-heavy, scripted gameplay reveal at the pre-show event, but then in the BCD sessions, go off script to let everyone see that there is freedom afoot and any and all concerns around a QTE-heavy game can be alleviated. And some devs and publishers do do this, so it’s a bit telling that Spider-Man, inasmuch as what we saw twice, barely altered in its delivery. Moreover, Intihar’s reluctance to deep-dive on the driving questions raised alarms. We highlight his use of the word “big” when talking about later reveals where the open-world part of the game is concerned, because it was encouraging, but that the “core Spider-Man mechanics” seem more centred around the Arkham-like combat (no judgement here, Arkham’s combat is still flawless, so borrow from the best we say), and less around the freedom of being Spider-Man. Which just adds heavier Comic Sans question marks into our cloudy thought balloons, and across several panels.

“One thing is,” he adds. “We want New York to be a character itself, and we wanted to add a lot of detail, but sometimes that action becomes a pain in the ass when you’re traversing. So it was a battle of, well the environment team wants to create this super-detailed New York City, but the traversal team wants [Spider-Man] moving fast and fluid, and we said ‘well we want to do both’, and that’s where a lot of the parkour elements came from. [For example] we don’t do it in the demo, but say Scott (demo player) had missed his mark and landed on one of the rooftops, you can just keep going and literally, that sequence you saw inside the building -- those moves apply to the open-world, whether you’re on the rooftop or on the ground.

“So for us, it’s making sure we keep it a detailed world, and we keep your momentum and fluidity going and then have levels of accessibility but at the same time a level of mastery.”

So while this is an equally encouraging point, it continues to speak to concepts of ‘accessibility’ which can be read as a more scripted, action-heavy experience over a player-driven adventure where being Spider-Man is directed by the player, and not the studio. Rocksteady absolutely nailed the split between “golden path” story delivery, and player-freedom bordering-on-emergent-play. All three of their games are arguably sandbox over open-world in design, but how those sandboxes were constructed and open to players was near-on perfect. And so the proof of a misdirected concept, even when the intention is to flatter the better design that’s come before to keep players just as invested, can be seen in Warner Bros. Montreal’s Batman: Arkham Origins effort (read: it wasn’t great, despite the best template before them, meaning they might have been better off looking forward rather than in the direction of quasi-emulation). And we’re beginning to see some of that “misdirection” surface here in Insomniac’s Spider-Man.

To be fair, the Batman: Arkham series is a very high bar, and there’s also no real reason Insomniac should be looking to it for design inspiration, beyond what it did right to put comic book videogaming on the map (and then some) in the first place. But comparisons between them are inevitable, in the same way comparisons between The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt were inevitable. In the end, the latter two delivered different experiences while utilising similar design pillars, and it’s what we’re hoping we’re going to see from Insomniac’s Spider-Man, but at the moment, we’re simply not entirely convinced it’s going to be the freedom-giving Spidey game we all so desperately want. And honestly, it has a lot to do with those quick time events and that demo, which we saw twice with little-to-no shift in approach upon the second viewing. Finally, a reluctance to emphatically suggest the heavily scripted gameplay is few and far between throughout your Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man journey has our Spidey Sense tingling, and for all the wrong reasons.

Prove us wrong, Insomniac. Prove us wrong.
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