Tuesday, September 11, 2018

How The Web Works

I'm still a bit amazed by how good Spider-Man is.  If a game has a fun system for movement, I'll forgive a lot of flaws - Gravity Rush, Bionic Commando and Galak-Z are the first examples that come to mind - and it's kind of interesting that all of those have some serious reflections of real-world physics going on.  Not that Spider-Man has a lot of flaws - it's kind of shockingly accomplished, for Insomniac - offering the type of polish they usually reserve for a core Ratchet & Clank, but as much as I love the combat (and I do!), I'm here because I heard the web-slinging traversal was fun, I'm staying because the web-slinging traversal is so fun, and my plans for last night were vaporized by... super-fun web-slinging traversal.

I was gonna' work on the next Clip Show.  I was gonna' make GIFs of cool web-swinging and combat in Spider-Man.  Instead, I did some story missions, addressed some street crime and cleared the city of a certain collectible.  Because it's that fucking fun.

There are 3 main moves for traversal - there's an air-dash that propels you briefly forward with the X button (if there's a building in front of you, at or above your current height to attach a line to and yank).

There's the point-attach, the only traversal move that you can actually aim - and it's very flexible.  As you fly along, a reticle around the center of your screen will be constantly appearing on weather vanes and flagpoles and rooftop ledges - it's showing you what you're aiming for if you wanna' do a point-attach.  Tap R2+L2 and Spidey will launch a line from each wrist to the point and yank himself over to it.  It could be 50 feet below or above or directly in front of him - it can be used to gain height or lose it, or simply to maintain momentum when travelling along rooftops, because if you tap X as you hit the point, Spidey will leap off it.  With a point or two in an upgrade tree, Spidey will launch himself up and forward when timed right, allowing you to race across the city's canopy without a single swing of a web.

Point-attach can also be used without a point - as you fly by a building, you can hold L2 to aim, look at the surface of the building (or rooftop or pavement) where you want to land, and with a tap of R2 Spidey will whip himself over to it.  Handy and precise!

And then there's the swing.  It's just hold R2 while airborne.  That's it.  Spidey will fire off a line and swing along, releasing only when you let go of R2 or he stalls out in midair, out of momentum.  Like the point-attach and air-dash, it's entirely dependent on what's around you.  You can't air-dash if there's not a building nearby Spidey could latch on to, to pull himself forward, you can't point-attach if there's no point, and how precisely Spidey is going to swing is dictated by...

Well, a lot.  It's actually pretty complex.  It's really complex, but that's the brilliance of Insomniac's Spider-Man.  The swinging is really, really complicated - and incredibly easy to understand, once you're playing it.

There's so many factors going into it, and while it's almost-entirely out of your direct control, by understanding the system you can make it do exactly what you want. So here's how it works.

As you sail through the air, if you hold down R2, Spidey will fire off a line to a nearby building, and swing from it.  The speed you go into the swing with is dictated by your momentum when you fired off that line, and the line's exact properties will be very different depending on a lot of factors.

Let's say, for example, that you're 1 story off the ground, and there are only 2-story buildings around.  The line you swing from will be constrained by that - it can't be longer than your current distance from a nearby rooftop, and it also can't be so long that Spidey might impact the ground (at worse, you'll skim along a few feet above the pavement).  You can get long, long lines among the towering skyscrapers of midtown, because halfway up one of those you're still hundreds of feet from its roof and hundreds of feet from the ground, allowing for insane swings that last for city blocks.

You can nudge the system to attach to certain buildings just by being conscious of how it likes to favor targets - it generally picks the building closest to you, or a structure directly above you if you're sailing along under a bridge or crane - so if you know you've got a left turn coming up you're going to want to skydive a little to the left so the line will attach to a building on your left, and with enough velocity you can practically swing horizontally around a rooftop, tapping jump to fire yourself off when you've hit the right angle to complete your turn.

A longer swing actually takes more energy than a small one - it "absorbs" more of your momentum, and those larger swings don't maintain inertia as well as a quick one.  Here's a good example:

Leap off a skyscraper.  Do a nosedive towards the pavement.  As you pass a rooftop, immediately hold down R2 to fire off a line before you're even 1 story from the top of the building - now, because line length is dictated by distance to the nearest rooftop, you're on a very short line coming out of a very fast freefall.  You almost-immediately hit the bottom of your swing and go flying back up, and with a tap of X you're launched like a slingshot far above the roof you'd just grabbed.

If you'd been closer to the skyscraper than the low-rise when you fired off that line, you would have instead gone into a colossal, slower, 800-yard swing on a 400-yard line.

And it never explains that shit to you. It just says "Hold R2 to swing, release R2 to let go!"

It really is that simple, and that complicated, and you soon learn to maintain speed you need to release the line somewhere near the bottom of your swing, because soon all that energy will be moving vertically instead of horizontally - perhaps setting you up for a terminal-velocity freefall to feed into your next swing, and...

I don't know physics or geometry.  I still can't do my times tables. Math was always my worst subject, but you and I both naturally understand that if you hold out a rock and let it go, it's gonna' fall - and we understand what would happen if there was a string attached to a nearby point.  And that's... that's just one of the reasons why the swinging in Insomniac's Spider-Man is fucking brilliant.  It's actually, really quite byzantine - but its unspoken rules and inherent limitations are simple to understand, because even though it's a game about a guy with spider-based superpowers battling techno-villains, Insomniac's Spider-Man bases its mechanics in simple real-world rules of what is and isn't possible that the player's imagination will automatically iterate on, and understand. 

It doesn't explain itself because it doesn't have to.

With a mote of practice, I'm sailin'.  Spider-Man makes just enough decisions on behalf of the player, in pursuit of achieving what the player means to do, and still leaves a great deal on our human shoulders - so getting it right is thrilling.

The web-slinging is, for all its complications, entirely intuitive.  Flying  around New York in this - plummeting towards the pavement to catch yourself at the last moment, slingshotting yourself above the rooftops, zipping to a point and firing yourself off into the sky - is probably the funnest action-gameplay I've experienced since...



Okay, give me a minute, here.

[update] Dying Light.  Or maybe inFamous 2.  I mean it's still kinda' apples-and-oranges, but yeah - Dying Light.[/update]

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