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Marvel's Spider-Man 2 trailer impresses - but is it a generational leap?

The big highlight from Sony's 2023 PlayStation showcase.

The highlight of Sony's 2023 PlayStation showcase was a 12-minute trailer for Marvel's Spider-Man 2 - but despite impressive gameplay, reactions to its graphics have been mixed. On the surface, we seem to be getting a similar look to prior Spider-Man titles without obvious new graphical techniques - but if we analyse the trailer's gameplay segments more closely, we can get a better sense of where the game's visuals are from a technical perspective.

Right away, the most obvious visual improvement comes down to the building rendering. The Spider-Man titles on PS4 were bound by the console's hard drive and CPU, so to stream in New York City at a rapid enough clip for web-slinging traversal at up to 32 metres per second, certain concessions had to be made. Buildings were made with relatively simple, tiled textures with repeated detail. This was also true in Miles Morales and the two games' PS5 editions seem to use the same basic geometry and texture layouts as the PS4 versions.

In the Spider-Man 2 trailer, much of the action takes place in new regions of New York (unseen in the prior games) but there is some footage ripe for comparison - which reveals more varied texture work with grime and a smoother brick pattern up close, alongside different-looking windows and added vents, while other buildings in the distance are totally overhauled, with rounded-off edges, and broad, wide-set windows.

Here's our video analysis of the Spider-Man 2 trailer from Sony's recent PlayStation showcase.

Other buildings exhibit other obvious improvements, with detailed murals, archways, market stalls, balconies and other structural features added. It seems like Insomniac has carried over its work from 2018's Spider-Man and have made extensive re-use of the world from that game - but a lot of effort has clearly gone into adding additional detail to suit the capabilities of the PlayStation 5. It's not a top-to-bottom makeover, but it does make a difference - particularly when evaluated from close range.

Water rendering is another area where Insomniac has pushed the visuals considerably, with greatly improved water simulation and greater geometric density without depending as much on normal maps for detail. When characters make contact with its surface, there's a lot of spray as well as some deformation of the water surface. It's interactive in a way that we simply didn't see in the prior titles.

The water surface also generally appears glossier and more true-to-life than what we saw before, thanks to ray-traced reflections. The clearest giveaway here is the way the reflections cohere over a few frames after a camera cut, as more rays are shot out and denoised. Prior Spider-Man titles relied on screen-space reflections, even on PS5, so this is a definite upgrade. Reflections have the sort of chopped-up look that you tend to see on uneven water surfaces, but they consistently reflect the environment and don't suffer from issues with disocclusion.

Building assets in the first two Spider-Man releases on PS5 sometimes looked repetitive and lacked geometric detail, which appears to have been addressed in Spider-Man 2.

Perhaps the most game-changing technical boost comes down to the ability to swap between Spider-Men (Peter Parker and Miles Morales) seemingly on the fly. This occurs once in the trailer during a scripted mission, but it's not clear if this is limited to certain key spots during the main story. In any case, swapping between locations essentially instantly is a neat trick, reminiscent of Insomniac's work on Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, and wouldn't be possible on a last-gen console.

Outside of those improvements, spotting clear visual boosts is a bit tricky as there's a lot of visual continuity between Insomniac's Spider-Man games. Environmental reflections are still handled using RT - at least in the 30fps mode that was used for the demo - which is impressive but a technique we've seen before. Likewise, shadows are reasonably detailed but the RT shadows from the Spider-Man PC releases don't seem to have made the jump to PS5. They have the uniform appearance characteristic of rasterised shadows, and struggle slightly with fine geometric features at times.

Characters are expressive, with bold designs and plenty of detail, although this was also true of the prior games. Lighting does seem like an area where we might see some evolution from the last games' probe-based GI system, which to be fair did look convincing. Spider-Man 2 is delivering high-quality results, but it's hard to judge from this limited sample if much has changed.

Looking at reflections in the water in the frames immediately following a camera cut reveals the tell-tale signs of ray-traced reflections.

Everything else from animation to world lighting to draw distances is all refined and seems perfectly pleasing, especially when the world is flying by at 100 kilometres per hour, but that speed does make it hard to make sense of potential upgrades.

Visually speaking then, Spider-Man 2 seems mostly like an iterative upgrade over the prior games based on a surface level look. Insomniac's excellent-looking 2018 Spider-Man rendition seems to have served as a base for this title, with upgrades to take advantage of the much faster PS5 hardware. Granted, we're only seeing a very small slice of what is sure to be a content-rich experience, but that's my impression from the footage we've seen thus far.

There is one small visual issue worth noting as well - towards the end of the chase sequence, the sun visibly scrolls to the right before disappearing out of view, before returning to its prior position offscreen a few moments later. I suspect this may be demo-specific scripting or simply a change that's meant to trigger offscreen, but in any case I don't think this will be an issue in the final game. Outside of that, the showcase footage does look very polished.

Switching from Peter in one part of the city to Miles in another in the blink of an eye is impressive stuff - and calls to mind Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart.

Looking at the streamed footage, there are a few fairly clean spots to count out pixel edges, with results between 1296p and 1872p across a handful of shots, suggesting perhaps a dynamic 4K setup at 30fps targeting high resolutions with ray tracing enabled.

Beyond all the technical minutiae, I'm impressed with the Spider-Man 2 demo. I really like that Insomniac has expanded Peter Parker's abilities for this entry. Playing Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales back-to-back, you definitely get the impression that the faster, flashier combat in Miles Morales holds up better, and it seems like Peter Parker's new symbiote suit should bring the two characters up to par in terms of combat pacing. The symbiote powers look very tactile and satisfying, and each combat move is well-animated.

There are also new context-sensitive gameplay options, like the ability to fling Spider-Man forward at high speeds in select spots, to wrap up multiple enemies at a time while perched, and to take down enemy vehicles. Some of the higher-speed manoeuvres probably wouldn't have been easy to achieve on the PS4, given how hard that system was pushed to stream in assets. The core gameplay doesn't seem all that different - it's still a brawler built around making successive hits while dodging incoming fire and building towards special moves and powers, but Insomniac has filled out the arsenal a bit.

Missed Sony's showcase? Here's the DF Direct discussing the highlights - and lowlights - of the PS presentation.

Insomniac has delivered three defining current-gen console experiences so far this generation. The first two Spider-Man games on PS5 were the first titles to demonstrate that high-quality ray tracing was possible on current-gen hardware - even at 60fps - while 2021's Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart offered stunning, CG-like detail, alongside another excellent implementation of RT reflections. For the studio to deliver another heavy-hitter three years into the console's lifecycle is very impressive.

At the same time, based on this small slice of action at least, Spider-Man 2 seems like a more iterative effort that borrows quite a bit from those prior Spider-Man titles. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, and the game continues to look excellent, with welcome gameplay upgrades too.

We'll have to wait for Spider-Man 2's fall release to really evaluate the game in full, as this is literally a small preview of a much larger experience but this does look like another solid effort from Insomniac.

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Oliver Mackenzie avatar

Oliver Mackenzie


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