Marvel’s Spider-Man: Remastered is a definitive polish of a beloved game. The visuals in this game are a marked improvement. But it’s the feel of the game—the sensory tickles from the PlayStation 5 DualSense controller—that made me appreciate and enjoy it in a new way.
I remember first reading about vibrating controllers in Nintendo Power magazine, when Star Fox 64 came bundled with a Rumble Pak peripheral in 1997. At the time, I wondered if the Rumble Pak, which attached to the back of your controller and vibrated in accordance with the on-screen action, would be successful or just another failure in a long line of Nintendo gimmicks. It turned out to be the former; fast forward two decades, and a vibrating controller is the industry standard.
The obstacle to popularizing something like a Rumble Pak is that players have to experience it for themselves. Visuals are self-evident; players can discern an uptick of quality with a side-by-side comparison. Vibration quality cannot be communicated nearly as well, but it has long-term potential. This is evident in Spider-Man: Remastered. The visuals are the most obvious improvement, with the game running at 60 fps and employing ray tracing. The draw distance is rendered further than before. The faces are more detailed and expressive. The reflections and ambient shadows are more crisp and detailed. The developers relit entire scenes to highlight the action more clearly. During the game’s launch week, Insomniac Community Director James Stevenson tweeted out side-by-side screenshots of the opening fight in Fisk Tower:
But to me, what makes this remastered game special is the haptic feedback and use of the DualSense’s adaptive triggers. On the PS4, the vibration could only be measured in terms of big and small. Get shot by a pistol? Small. Get hit by a rocket launcher? Big. But in Remastered, every reactive vibration is so much more distinct and precise. It’s not just how much something vibrates, but the manner in which it vibrates. It’s like I’m discovering Peter Parker’s powers for the first time.
It starts with the web swinging. When Spidey free-falls off a building, the controller creates subtle vibration feedback to mimic the air resistance. You get a little bit more resistance when you thwip out your web, right before you hit the pavement. No move in Spidey’s repertoire vibrates in exactly the same way; they correspond to different parts of your hand, and the feedback can be anything from a low-level hum to a strong pulse. Your Web Shooter feels different from your Web Bomb. Your finishing blow feels different from your launching uppercut.
At specific points in the game, you’re required to take control of a Spider-Bot, a drone that can crawl around Central Park. The best way I can describe the vibration during these segments is “grainy.” You feel the bumpiness of the dirt, and every now and then, there’s a sharp sensation, like the Spider-Bot walked over a small pebble and has to rebalance itself. In the 2018 game, I found these Spider-Bot sequences boring. But now, thanks to the haptic feedback, I remember this sequence vividly, both how it felt and what happened on-screen. It’s associative memory, where one sensory detail reinforces the other.
The adaptive L2 and R2 triggers, which offer more or less resistance depending on the on-screen action, are similarly memorable. During the web swinging segments, the R2 trigger is easy to press down for about three-fourths of the way. After that, you have to apply a bit more pressure to get the trigger all the way down. It communicates the limitations of Spidey’s technology; he can use his webs to swing over the Manhattan skyline, but he is not limitless. He still has to abide by the laws of physics and matter. Hitting that little bit of resistance mimics that feeling of “running out,” like rolling up a toothpaste tube to squeeze out the last bit.
When you go to Dr. Octavius’ lab, you encounter multiple circuit board puzzles, where you rotate components to create a complete circuit. Here too, the developers added some memorable adaptive trigger feedback. Midway through pressing L2 or R2 to rotate a component into place, the button has a slight bit of resistance that forces you to apply additional pressure. After you break through that invisible barrier, the trigger becomes easier to press again. It recalls the sense of clicking something into place, which is perfect for the activity you’re engaged in.
Perhaps the novelty of this will wear off eventually, and haptic feedback and adaptive triggers will become another innovation that we eventually take for granted. But from my perspective, this could become a new way to tell stories and reinforce key game mechanics. What if in a game, your gun jams or runs empty? Could that be tied to a sensation? Could a horror game take place in pitch black darkness, and you have to rely entirely on haptic feedback to negotiate an obstacle? Could haptic feedback serve as sensory notifications and eliminate a complex UI display? In Spider-Man: Remastered, I see the potential for something sophisticated that pushes the boundaries, not only in terms of what the game looks like, but also in terms of how it plays.