Continuing their home-run streak of great conferences in recent years, Sony’s E3 2017 press conference was a big success. Long-standing rumours such as a console-based Monster Hunter were confirmed (praise thee, blessed Capcom), and the show was almost stolen by a surprise remake of a bona fide classic from my own childhood: Shadow of the Colossus (mmm, yes please). On top of all that classic franchise bliss, we received information on some new (and older, updated) VR titles, including a version of Skyrim for the virtual reality platform.
Among these titans of the video game industry, however, comes the resurrection of a classic: Marvel’s Spider-Man. The latest game featuring the sassy web-slinger, developed by Insomniac Games (Ratchet & Clank, Resistance), seems like a return to form for the superhero. The gameplay trailer shown at E3 demonstrated an amplified version of the close-quarters combat system seen in games such as Rocksteady’s Arkham series, a combat system doubly suited to Spider-Man’s unique spider-sense ability. However, it also showed something far more important to the veteran Spider-Man gamer: a return to environmental & momentum-based web swinging.
Fans of previous Spider-Man titles will remember the glory days of the PlayStation 2-era, namely Spider-Man 2 and Ultimate Spider-Man. Both games were decent adventures from the perspective of Spidey, with average combat and levelling mechanics, as well as what was at the time a vast open playground to explore and fight crime in. What really drove this exploration and set these games apart from other open-world titles was the fantastic web-swinging mechanic that you used to traverse the map.
The way the web-swinging works in Spider-Man 2 is quite simple and realistic (to a degree): Spidey has to attach his web line to a building, as he would need to in real life, and as you swing forward you then release that rope and shoot another line of webbing onto another building, gaining momentum. The mechanic is simple to learn but hard to master, and done correctly, you’ll soon be hurtling through the city searching for criminals to catch, a red-blue blur through the New York skyline. This iconic factor to the game elevated Spider-Man 2 from a passable open-world action game to a memorable classic (the guy who invented this swinging mechanic, Jame Fristrom, released a spiritual successor with Energy Hook, which has been available since July 5th last year.)
Spider-Man 3 did away with this mechanic, instead allowing the player to shoot lines of webbing into thin air, and everything went downhill – fast. No longer did traversal require skill or perfect timing –simply mash a button and watch Spider-Man go. They took away the best mechanic of the previous games, leaving one with a boring plot, uninspired combat, and bugs, bugs galore if you decided to pick up the PS3/X360 version of the game.
It looks like (finally) a new Spider-Man game is going to get it right again. At the very least, the webbing has to connect to buildings; no more swinging from open space. However, as we wait for Marvel’s Spider-Man, it’s worth taking some time to consider other games with unique traversal mechanics.
Attack on Titan/A.o.T.: Wings of Freedom – Omni-Directional Manoeuvre Gear
The recent Attack on Titan game definitely owes a debt to Fristrom. One of the core in-universe concepts of the hit anime show is the Omnidirectional Manoeuvre Gear. Press a button and two ropes shoot out of your character’s gear belt, fastening to nearby buildings or trees. With a burst of compressed air from your trusty gas canisters, you’re thrown forwards at a break-neck pace, and into battle with the lumbering titans.
The locales in Wings of Freedom do not have the verticality of Peter Parker’s New York City, and nor does the Manoeuvre Gear have the manual precision and momentum-building of Spider-man’s web-slinging, but the character hurtles through the air at such a visceral speed that you can’t stop to think about it. In close quarters with the titular monsters you fasten the rope to specific parts of the Titan, hacking at certain limbs for bonus materials before going in for the kill by striking the titan’s nape – all extremely gratifying, if marginally shallow and repetitive in the long run. At those velocities, however, you’d be hard pressed to care for how shallow the actual combat is.
Mirror’s Edge – Parkour
DICE’s hyper-stylized first-person runner was certainly not the first game to feature parkour; the game was released a year after Ubisoft’s first Assassin’s Creed, and the same company had previously touched upon wall-running mechanics in Prince of Persia. The parkour in Mirror’s Edge, however, was so utterly polished and immersive that it blew any previous attempt out of the water.
Playing as Faith, a ‘runner’ in the dystopian city of Glass, your (spoiler-free) job is to carry illicit messages outside of official government channels. You do so by leaping, climbing, and sprinting from rooftop to rooftop. Faith has a huge array of parkour abilities; you seamlessly slide under an obstacle before running down an incline and launching yourself through the air, allowing you to build a highly satisfying sense of forward momentum, a momentum that you must conserve. This movement is the core mechanic of the game – combat and gunplay is secondary – and many Mirror’s Edge fans look down on those who choose to use any of the potential weapons given to you (I don’t, but then again, I was never good enough to beat the game just by running and/or punching). Racing through the all-too-clean city skyline while evading militarized police was one of the most memorable experiences of the previous generation.
Other games and developers have taken notes from DICE’s cult-classic runner, including Titanfall and Dying Light (as supplemental, rather than core gameplay). The game has also had a recent reboot named Mirror’s Edge Catalyst that upholds much of the same gameplay – refined and improved in places, but with a new (unnecessary) level-up system and weaker art direction overall.
Who better to round off this feature than one of the best action game developers of all time? PlatinumGames knows how to create a satisfying gaming experience, and aside from a couple of recent missteps with Activision-licensed properties, the studio has an impeccable track record for polished third-personal character action games. Almost every game developed by Platinum shares the design philosophy of stylish close-quarters action, often enhanced by visceral movement options.
Take Bayonetta, for instance: one of the first games released by the company, Bayonetta is a hyper-stylized brawler in the vein of Devil May Cry. What made the game stand apart at release was its core dodge mechanic. With a well-timed button press, Bayonetta would cartwheel or roll out of danger, while with a perfectly-timed press, she’d also enter ‘Witch-Time,’ in which time slows to a crawl, a purple hue shades the world, and Bayo is then free to combo away for several seconds, dealing damage to her angelic foes without fear of counter-attack (and with a bonus score multiplier, to boot). This dodge mechanic elevated the third-person action experience past its predecessors.
Another prominent example of satisfying movement from Platinum is present in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. While not the main system by any means, cyborg samurai Raiden has a specific technique to help him traverse the levels and move from one enemy encounter to another: the Ninja Run. This supplemental platforming mechanic is more a tool than a feature, but it’s still eminently satisfying. With the hold of a button, Raiden will scale walls and jump over obstacles, and any bullets fired at the warrior will be automatically deflected in mid-air by a lazy slash of his high-frequency katana. Many obstacles in the path that Raiden can’t traverse via this technique can also be slashed to pieces with a few swings of his blade. While this game is loved for its combat and goofy storyline, it wouldn’t be as great without the sense of power and finesse you get from this ninja-run mechanic.
(Rest in peace, Scalebound. We all wonder what innovations you might have given us.)
Insomniac have a lot to live up to with Marvel’s Spider-Man, both within the Spider-Man gaming canon and the wider industry. The E3 gameplay trailer was promising, and as the movement was one of the best elements of Insomniac’s recent Sunset Overdrive, here’s hoping that Marvel’s Spider-Man will take us to the New York City skyline with exhilarating momentum once again. In the meantime, I’m going to boot up Mirror’s Edge again. Maybe this time I’ll beat it without firing a shot.
P.S. If you want to inform me (or shout me down) about great movement mechanics I’ve clearly missed, please find me on twitter @georgecheesee.