Marvel Spider-Man for PS4

I’ll start by addressing the big problem with this game: On its easy difficulty setting (dubbed “Friendly”), the game is much too hard for casual players — at first.

The game starts in media res, with Spider-Man fighting the thugs of Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin. Since this videogame is frequently compared with Batman: Arkham Asylum, I’ll make my own comparison: the start of B:AA started you out with a couple of keypresses, and gave you time to learn how to use them. Spider-Man starts with deluging you with keypress combinations (and there are more to come!), and you have to use all of them right away.

In B:AA, you had a chance to learn how to play before your first Big Boss battle. In Spider-Man, after several times when my avatar was killed and I had to start over, I was thrust immediately into a Boss battle. It wasn’t clear what to do, and my avatar was killed over and over again.

Finally, I got through it, more by luck than skill. I turned off the game, disgusted and frustrated. I had no plans to play the game again, and resigned myself to having wasted the money. My impression was that, in the “Friendly” setting, the designers had reduced the number of hits it takes to take down an enemy, but kept the precision timing needed to press the controls. A clumsy, casual player like myself had no chance.

A couple of days later, I decided to give it one last try. After that punishing beginning, the game eases up. There were three types of quests that required no combat: activating police antenna, finding old backpacks, and taking pictures of New York City landmarks. I completed all of those, dipping my toe into some less-intense combats. By the time I completed all of those non-combat quests, I was level 12 with some new skills. Now I found I could play the actual game.

The hallmark of Spider-Man is a detailed rendering of New York City for Spider-Man to swing around in. Unlike Batman: Arkham Asylum, the Lara Croft series, or the Uncharted games, you can immediately travel to any part of the play area. You can’t leave the borders of Manhattan, so you can’t swing around the Statue of Liberty. Otherwise, every major NYC landmark is there, plus some sites (like the Avengers Tower or the Oscorp Building) that exist in the Marvel Universe. I went to school at Columbia University, so I swung over to 114th and Broadway, and the major buildings of the CU campus were there, including Low Library. (NYU is replaced by its Marvel equivalent, Empire State University.)

New York City is one example of the game’s general graphic excellence. There are no pre-rendered cinematics; there are plenty of cut-scenes, but you can tell they’re rendered in real time because Spider-Man always appears in whatever costume you’ve chosen for him.

As I alluded above, Spider-Man is like the Arkham series or the Lara Croft games in that you earn experience to buy skills. Various side quests (including the non-combat ones) let you pick up tokens to purchase upgrades to your equipment and your Spider-Man costume. Your enemies also become more powerful as the game goes on; by the end of the game it seems that half the thugs have laser-mounted sniper rifles. By that time, I’d picked up enough skills that I could have taken out that initial Fisk mob easily.

In other reviews, much has been made of the way you can swing Spider-Man around New York, controlling the duration and height of the swings. If you’re not on a mission, it’s fun. However, the designers of Spider-Man put in the “Batmobile”. I don’t mean that literally; what I mean is that they included missions that required precise control of the web-swinging to complete them within a given amount of time. This same element (precision control of the Batmobile) ruined Batman: Arkham Knight for me; I describe that in detail in my B:AK review.

For the most part, you can quit any such missions with no lasting consequences, except that you may not be able get the tokens associated with that mission. I finally picked up the hint that Spider-Man moves faster with many short swings. Also, swing speed increases with Spider-Man’s level, so I was able to complete the couple of mandatory chases and a few of the optional ones. I still found the process to be messy; it was all too easy to screw up one keypress and find Spider-Man zooming off in a direction I did not intend.

The story: As a derivative of the standard Marvel comic-book Spider-Man, I found it to be engaging. Spider-Man doesn’t bother with an origin story (at least, not for Spider-Man). Peter Parker has finished college, is working for Dr. Otto Octavius (yes, he does), in a city whose mayor is Norman Osborne (no, he doesn’t; that’s left for the sequel). His relationship with Mary Jane Parker is on a time-out. Aunt May is working at F.E.A.S.T., a homeless shelter in lower Manhattan. At first, the general plot of the game is cleaning up after the Kingpin is sent to jail. Then a new faction enters the field…

I’ll give positive marks for one aspect of the game that other reviewers don’t seem to like: the mini-games. At some points during the game there are both optional and mandatory pattern-matching puzzles to solve to gain experience and advance the plot. I liked them, mainly because I needed the break from the sometimes intense button-mashing required for much of the game.

My final score: I start with five stars for graphical excellence, the rendering of NYC, the plot, and the puzzles. Then I subtract one star for each of the things that frustrated me: the punishing beginning (for casuals on easy mode) and the “Batmobiling” of the web-swinging required for too many missions. So I give the game three stars out of five.

Theadora’s epic journey

Through a World of Warcraft discussion message board, I heard of a research study being conducted by West Virginia University on the relationships between videogame players and their avatars. In a “what the hell” mood, I responded to the survey with a story about one of my WoW characters.

I thought the story was minor, but to my surprise I was contacted by one of the researchers. I was asked by them to expand the story for “a curated collection of multimedia stories to be displayed in print in the WVU Library as part of its Art in the Libraries program, as well as a more complete collection to be curated and hosted through the WVU Library’s digital collections, indefinitely.”

What follows is the longer version of that story that I plan to submit for the collection.

I’ve played World of Warcraft (WoW) since before the game formally began in November 2004. In the first few days after the game’s release, I created a group of avatars based on characters I once played in a live-action role-playing game. One of those LARP characters was Theodorus Ursus, a wood elf Druid.

At this time, many WoW players were influenced in their choice of characters by an animated ad Blizzard released to promote the game. One of the the characters in the ad was a female Night Elf Druid. I personally am neither female, nor an elf, nor a Druid, but I decided to lean into the stereotype that the ad presented. I feminized “Theodorus” into Theadora and created that avatar in World of Warcraft.

In WoW, one of the unique characteristics of a Druid is their ability to assume different forms; e.g., bear, cat, seal. Druid characters gain the ability to shapeshift into these forms as they go up in level, and in the early days of WoW they could only gain those forms by going on quests.

The Druid quest for Aquatic form (the shape of a seal) was given when the character was level 10, but (as I’ll describe) it was a stiff challenge to complete the quest at that level. The responsible thing to do would be to continue to gain levels until your character was ready to complete the quest. Of course, in video gaming you don’t want to wait; you want it NOW! Also the Druid Aquatic form was useful; it allowed the avatar to breath underwater, and it increased underwater movement speed.

I received the quest from the Druid Trainer in the Night Elf city of Darnassus. As I was trying to figure out how to travel to get to the quest’s site, I met two other Night Elf characters. One was another Druid, Etherealmoon. The other was her friend, Longarms, a Warrior. Etherealmoon had also just received the Aquatic form quest. They were slightly newer to WoW than I was, and did not know how to get to the site.

I’d played a human and a dwarf character already, so I had some idea of the geography. I offered to ask as guide, and together we set off on the trip around the planet of Azeroth.

The first step in the journey was easy: travel to the nearby town of Auberdine. From there we took a boat to Menethil Harbor on another continent. That when the most difficult part of the overall journey began: Menethil is located in the Wetlands, a zone with monsters from level 20 to 30, and we were level 10.

There was nothing for it but to run as fast as we could. We stuck to the road, which monsters generally avoid. Even so it wasn’t easy. In WoW, monsters are attracted to you at a distance that increases by how much the monster’s level is greater than yours. At at least 10 levels difference, we were pulling in monsters all over the place. All of them could run faster than us. We could do almost no damage to them, so each monster attack would wipe us out. There would be no other option than to run back in spirit form to where our corpses lay, resurrect, and start running again.

Fortunately, a couple of times some higher-level players would help us out. The rest of the time, it was running, spirit-running, and hope.

Finally, we got to the other side of the Wetlands and passed through a tunnel into Loch Modan. That zone had monsters from level 10 to 20. By sticking to the road, we were only attacked a couple of times, and this time we could do some significant damage to the monsters. I don’t recall any corpse runs in Loch Modan.

After Loch Modan, we passed through another tunnel into Dun Morogh. This is a starter zone, with all the monsters below our level. It was smooth travel until we reached the Dwarven city of Ironforge. From there we took the underground train to the Human capital of Stormwind. Then we ran through Elwynn Forest, another safe starter zone, and entered the final zone of Westfall.

Here my knowledge as a guide petered out. The quest-giver had given us a clue about where to go, but it was not specific. Fortunately, a passing higher level player had already been on the quest and told us where to look on our game maps: “It’s just to the west of the unnamed island near the middle of the coast, not far from the ‘T’ in “THE GREAT SEA” on the map.” It took us across Westfall, to a spot where there were no roads, and the monsters could be of level 10 to 20.

After a couple of real-time hours of travel, we got to the spot. We were on the other side of the world from where we’d started.

There was a new difficulty: at the time, the completion of the Druid aquatic-form quest was in the water, a short ways into the “fatigue” region: If you stayed more than a minute in that area, your character would die. If you died and went into spirit form and tried to get back to your corpse, your spirit would experience fatigue as well.

It was a race against time: Get as close to the spot as we could, then swim as fast as possible to the interior of a sunken ship deep undersea in the fatigue zone.

Etherealmoon did it on her first try. I was nowhere near as swift. I made several tries, with my avatar dying deep under the sea. A couple of times I couldn’t even get to Theadora’s corpse before fatigue overtook my spirit form. Both Etherealmoon and Longarms were rooting for me, but there was no way they could aid me.

I gave up for the day. I tried a couple of days later, and just barely managed to succeed.

As I write this, it’s fourteen years later. All three of us diverged in our gameplay and how often we logged in, and I never adventured with Etherealmoon or Longarms again. I still see them from time to time. When I’m playing Theadora, I give them a wave.

That journey can’t be repeated anymore in the same way. Blizzard changed the game to make it easier to travel to that location; only the newest players would not have access to a mount that can travel faster than the monsters can. The site for completing the aquatic quest is no longer in the fatigue zone. Monsters now scale with a character’s level, so it’s no longer a challenge to cross those zones. There are many web sites that offer guides to completing quests in WoW; these did not exist in 2004. Even getting advice about the location is easier, since there’s now a coordinate system the players can use to share map locations.

Of all the stories I could have told, why do I remember this one? From the perspective of most World of Warcraft players, it’s a fairly minor event. I’m pretty sure both Longarms and Etherealmoon have forgotten it. I’ve adventured with many other players since then. It’s not even the most difficult challenge I’ve faced in World of Warcraft, much less other video games.

It’s because, for me, that journey had an epic quality for that time and with those strangers who were willing to share it with me. I think it took place less than a month after World of Warcraft started. Everything was fresh and new, and the game challenges had greater impact. There was something around walking around the world that gave the journey an extra spice.

I don’t have any pictures of Theadora from that time, and any picture of her now would show her in fancy armor that did not exist back then. Instead, I present how Theadora looks in her seal form, the goal of that long-ago adventure:

Theadora Aquatic Form