Just swinging around New York in Spider-Man is some of the most fun you can have in a game
I have never really got on well with open-world video games
I am old enough to remember when Shenmue first came out. It was genuinely like nothing I’d seen before. A fully 3D game. A whole town, where you could walk into every building and speak to every non-player character. You could play darts, and arcade games, and even get a job.
And then Grand Theft Auto 3 came along. Whereas as Shenmue let you be a weedy kid in a little town, GTA let you be Henry Hill or Tony Montana in the big city, and roam as free as you wanted. Steal any car or get in shoot-outs with the police. It was a whole 3D city to explore at your leisure, to experiment with and discover things in, without following a set path. It was, to paraphrase Princess Jasmin, a whole new world.
But quickly things got boring. As GTA spawned its imitators – The Getaway, Sleeping Dogs, Saints Row etc – something became patently obvious. A lot of the ‘gameplay’ was driving to a point on a map to start a mission and then driving to another point for another mission.
The fun of playing in the sandbox was replaced by endless travelling.
You play video games for fun and excitement, not to recreate your daily commute. If you feel bored while playing a game, or it is becoming a chore, why play it? Completely linear games like Uncharted are a far better playing experience because they feed players exciting stuff without any bullshit downtime in between.
Which brings us to Marvel's Spider-Man, the PlayStation 4 exclusive that has sucked up my free time over the last few weeks. It has the same basic set-up as any modern AAA-title open world game. There are story missions spread across the environment (in this case, a gorgeously realised version of the Marvel universe’s New York), with side quests, and collectables, and hidden secrets. The combat is fun, the story is varied and exciting, and the visuals are beautiful.
Instead of driving to a mission with a funny radio station playing, you swing gracefully around the skyscrapers of New York. And it is just so much fun to swing between the buildings that traversing between missions is as much fun as the missions themselves.
The web-slinging mechanics are perfectly balanced. Simple enough to pick up and play, but with enough nuance to have you staying up all night mastering the perfect swing.
Playing it I found myself doing something I hadn’t done since Grand Theft Auto 3 - exploring the city for no reason at all. Not hunting for secrets or items, just swinging around for the sheer hell of it. Swooping around the financial district, trying to be as graceful as possible. Setting little challenges for myself. Climbing to the very top of Avengers Tower, the highest point in the game, and diving off.
Eventually, fast-travel is unlocked, but I never use it. I’m having too much fun.
Of course, a big part of this is being a Marvel Comics nerd and being able to play out my Spidey fantasies. But it is also so rare for a video game mechanic to be enjoyable enough that you don't need to think about the challenge or ‘game’ elements of the game.
The city might need saving, but Doctor Octopus can wait.