Video Games

Marvel’s Spider-Man

Marvel's Spider-Man

It may seem somewhat odd to shine a spotlight on a game that was released more than a year ago—or to even be talking about gaming at all on a site devoted largely to luxury home cinema. But the simple truth of the matter is that when Marvel’s Spider-Man was released for PlayStation 4 back in September 2018, I found myself in the middle of a long hiatus from console gaming to focus on some more strategic PC games that had been piling up in my Steam library. What drew me back was an unused PlayStation Network gift card my dad had given me for my birthday, as well as the relatively new release of Spider-Man: Game of the Year Edition, which hit store shelves recently. What I discovered when I finally dug in was one of the most compelling home cinema experiences I’ve had in ages.

 

For those of you who aren’t deeply imbedded in video-gaming culture, “Game of the Year Edition” is common vernacular for a soft relaunch of a popular game that generally includes all of the little add-ons that have been released since, bundled with the original title, for one lower price. In the case of Spider-Man, that includes three mini-sequels, collectively dubbed Spider-Man: The City that Never Sleeps, which sold for $9.99 a pop in the months following the main release. Spider-Man: Game of the Year Edition collects all of this content—the original game and its followups—on one disc (or in one download) for $35.

 

As for why I’m taking the time to write up a year-old game on a site like Cineluxe, there’s a good reason for that, which has nothing to do with my long delay in finally picking it up and playing it. Simply put, Marvel’s Spider-Man is one of the most cinematic games I’ve played in ages, both in its gameplay and its AV presentation. But not in the most intuitive of ways.

At its heart, Spider-Man is what’s known as an open-world game, the world in this case being a slightly scaled-down and very Marvel-specific version of Manhattan circa 2014 (when development of the game began). Simply put, this playground in and of itself is a technological wonder, not only in its relatively faithful recreation of Times Square, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Station, etc., but also in the way it captures the feeling of moving through the city from district to district, squinting at the sunlight gleaming off buildings in the daytime and the stunning array of neon, halogen, and LED lights piercing what little darkness exists in the shadows at night. The way the game uses its deep shadows and intense highlights to convey the Manhttanhenge effect is simply among the best applications of HDR I’ve seen to date.

 

All of this could be written off as mere eye-candy, of course, but it’s more than that. The developers of Marvel’s Spider-Man, Insomniac Games, spent so much time working on the web-swinging mechanic—making sure webs would only attach to buildings or flagpoles or what have you rather than clinging to empty air as in past Spidey games, for example, and also 

making sure the parabolic physics of such swinging felt genuine—that if there weren’t some verisimilitude to the look of the city itself, the illusion of Tarzaning through its vertical landscapes would be broken. 

 

It isn’t just graphics and physics that drive the experience, though. The sound also elevates the AV presentation of the game, 

Marvel's Spider-Man

with a rich real-time uncompressed 7.1 soundscape and cinematic score that whips and whirs around you as you swing through the city or walk its streets, or even poke around in the science lab where Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) works when the red-and-blue pajamas come off. (By the way, not that this really affects the gameplay, but you’re far from limited to the default two-toned onesie, as one of the game’s most compelling Easter-egg hunts is an ongoing search for the badges and components that allow you to craft or unlock all manner of other Spidey-suits.)

 

Of course, whooshing around from skyscraper to skyscraper or tinkering with circuit boards in the lab isn’t all there is to do here. There’s an overarching story—based not on any of the previous versions of the Spider-Man mythos, but rather a new amalgamation that draws elements from the best that movies and cartoons and comics have to offer—and you’re drawn to new story beats by way of police-scanner alerts or cellphone calls from allies and loved ones.

 

Quite frankly, it’s a more emotionally engaging story than that of any Spider-Man film to date, in part due to its complex ethical and moral themes, but also due to its length. Simply burn through the main storyline without stopping to thwart muggers or

Marvel's Spider-Man

terrorists or take perfectly framed photos of Manhattan’s numerous landmarks and you could probably reach the story’s conclusion in 20 or 25 hours.

 

That’s certainly enough time to become attached to the characters and invested in the relationships, but it would also be completely contrary to the point of the game. 

The beauty of Marvel’s Spider-Man is the freedom it gives you to explore this world and its wonderful original storyline at your own pace.

 

As I approached the end of the main quest, my wife and I sat on our sofa—me an active participant in this wonderful interactive storytelling-and-exploration experience; her a very willing passive viewer—and openly wept at the poignant and impactful emotional resolution of it all. It’s honestly that engaging.

 

Of course, having the Game of the Year Edition meant I still had three more intertwining stories to explore, more petty crimes to deal with in the byways and back alleys between the Church of the Intercession and Battery Park, and more time to rummage around in the city’s sewers and abandoned subways. And while feeling a little tacked on at first, this trilogy of mini-sequels eventually evolves into yet another web of intrigue that picks up on threads only hinted at in the main storyline. It may lack some of the personal emotional resonance of the main game, but it does amp the moral complexity up to new levels.

 

Whether you merely play through the primary questline of Marvel’s Spider-Man or pick every achievement and side quest clean, as I’ve done (purely as a consequence of wanting to spend more time in this amazing world), you owe it to yourself to play it on the best AV system in the house. And yes, that even includes an Atmos sound system.

 

I know I’ve grumped in the past about not being the biggest fan of object-based surround sound with movies, but the 7.1 soundtrack of Spider-Man upmixed into Atmos opens the landscape of Manhattan up, bringing it into the third dimension in a way that meaningfully enhances the open nature of this exploration-based interactive experience. Hearing the roll of thunder and crack of lightning not merely around you, but also above you, helps transform the game world into something you exist within, rather than merely a backdrop you navigate through. 

 

By the way, if you do play the game through a reference-quality sound system, make sure to dip into the audio settings and make one essential tweak. Change the default sound mode from “Home Theater,” which is really intended more for soundbars and smaller sound systems, to “Maximum,” which is mixed for “premium home theater systems or studio playback.”

 

Little touches like that prove at least some game developers realize the home cinema potential of their efforts, even if the AV industry continues to treat video games like mere children’s entertainment.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

PS4: Celeste

As is the case with any form of media, nostalgia is a strong selling point with video games these days. Interestingly, the nostalgic push that has permeated the gaming market for the past few years has taken a few radically different forms. One example is the recreations of classic consoles with HDMI ports slapped on and built-in collections of classics pretty much in their original forms. Then you have popular games of the ‘80s and ‘90s being re-released for modern platforms, complete with remastered high-definition graphics, re-recorded audio, and modern conveniences like game-save options.

 

The most curious way nostalgia has crept into the video game market, though, is by way of brand-new offerings that look like they could have been released a quarter-century ago, including all of the pixelated graphics and controller-throwing difficulty that defined games of the 8-bit era.

 

At first blush, Celeste looks like one of the latter. Despite debuting on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Steam, the game looks as if it could have just as easily been ported to the original Sega Master System. And that blocky, pixelated look complements its gameplay quite well.

 

At its heart, Celeste is what’s known in gamer’s parlance as a “platformer”—and if you don’t speak the lingo, just imagine the dominant genre from that era of gaming, in which you spend most of your time jumping from platform to platform as you work your way from one end of a flat 2D world to another. Think Sonic or Super Mario or Super Metroid or some other game with “Super” in the title, and you’re at least on the right track in terms of the gameplay.

Celeste

In this case, though, Celeste’s hook is more of a lure. And I’ll admit, even I was drawn in by the premise of recreating the gaming memories of my youth without actually having to actually suffer through one of the unforgiving actual games of that bygone era.

 

Spend a few hours getting sucked into this delightful little slice of neo-nostalgia, though, and it becomes apparent—not quickly, but undeniably—that Celeste isn’t merely trying to feed you a dose of the feel-goods. There’s a point to all of this: The look, the feel, the simple three-button controls. Even the luscious piano and synth score, which isn’t exactly held to the same retro standards as the rest of the game’s aesthetic, is true to the spirit of music from ‘80s and ‘90s games, thanks to its deceptive simplicity and undeniably hooky melodies.

 

All of these retro trappings combine, in a weird way, to keep you focused on the task at hand, which is jumping, dashing, and grabbing onto platforms, with a level of precision that my teenaged self never would have dreamt possible. And the thing is, due to that intense concentration on running and jumping and not dying, you sort of end up missing the point of Celeste until you’re a few hours in.

 

Masterfully woven into all this platformer action is a rich and nuanced, slow-burn story about depression and ennui and the consequences of constant aspiration. It’s not heavy handed at all, and if you’re the type of person to skip dialogue sequences, you can easily nope right past it all. But you’d be missing out on one of the most heartfelt and gripping stories I’ve encountered in any form of media in quite some time.

 

Oddly enough, it’s a narrative that’s so tightly interwoven with the presentation of the game that I can’t imagine it being quite as impactful if Celeste had been a beautifully rendered, fully modern game with 3D graphics and 14-button control schemes. In other words, all of this isn’t merely nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, no matter how much it may look like such. The real brilliance of Celeste is that with its form, it sets up expectations of a silly narrative about saving princesses or whatever, then sucker-punches you with the sort of substance that would have been nearly unimaginable back when games had no choice but to look like this.

 

If you have access to a modern gaming console or computer, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. At $19.99, it’s practically a steal, and although you’ll probably burn through it in seven or eight hours the first time through, Celeste is a game with a heck of a lot of replay value. I can’t imagine putting it down anytime soon.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

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Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Wolfenstein II

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is either the 9th or the 11th game in the popular anti-Nazi video game series, depending on how much of a purist you are in your counting. And if that statement strikes you as somewhat confusing, well—welcome to the world of video game series reboots. The New Colossus is a direct sequel to 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, a soft relaunch of the franchise that was followed up by the 2015 release of Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, which was equal parts expansion pack and standalone prequel.

 

If that seems like too convoluted a history for you to even bother with at this point, rest easy. All you really need to know about the Wolfenstein series is that the Nazis won World War II, they’re taking over the world, and it’s your job to shoot them. Imagine The Man in the High Castle if it had been written by Paul Verhoeven instead of Philip K. Dick. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course. This new game draws on characters and themes from much earlier entries and manages to tell a quite personal tale about identity, parental relationships, and indeed the very nature of freedom.

 

But at its heart, the real draw of Wolfenstein II is in shooting Nazis. Tons and tons and more tons of Nazis. Sometimes you shoot them with big guns. Sometime with pistols. Sometimes you have to sneak up on them and whack ‘em with an ax. But in the end, dead Nazis is the first, second, and only meaningful objective in the game.

 

The biggest thing setting The New Colossus apart from its forebears is that this time around the action takes place in the United States—one overrun by the Reich, whose citizens have, for the most part, acquiesced to or outright embraced their goose-stepping overlords.

Wolfenstein II

That has led to criticism from those who see the game as a critique of our current political environment. It’s not intended as such, mind you. Games like this take years to develop and its developers aren’t prognosticators. But the fact that a game about killing Nazis is seen as a commentary on American politics at all, accidentally or not, is certainly worth mentioning. As much as this is a silly, brutal, over-the-top violence-fest, the central message here is that racism is bad. Fascism is bad. But also key to the narrative is the fact that most people aren’t badthey simply play along with their own tribe.

 

One thing I can say about Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus that isn’t even remotely controversial is that it’s an audiovisual tour de force. It’s a game that positively begs to be experienced on as large a screen as possible, with as many channels of sound as you can throw at it. Developer MachineGames has managed to shake up the series with entirely new environments while also hanging onto the same art design and overall aesthetic flair that made the last two games such stunners. And the Hollywood-caliber sound mix is, without question, the most dynamic and raucous I’ve heard in quite some time. Attempt to play this game on your tinny TV speakers and you’re just betting to blow a driver or two.

 

Truth be told, there are times when I wish I could just pop a big bowl of popcorn and watch someone else play the game. It truly can be that compelling. Whether you experience it from the firsthand perspective or as a passive bystander, though, you owe it to yourself to experience this game.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Gran Turismo Sport PS4

Draw a Venn diagram of car enthusiasts and video gamers, and where the two circles intersect you’ll find a group of people who, without exception, have very strong opinions about the Gran Turismo series.

 

For most of us contained within that vesica piscis, the original “Real Driving Simulator” was far from merely a gameit was a religion. It taught us how to accelerate out of hairpin turns. It made us love mid-engine powertrains and AWD drivetrains. It turned us into oil-changing obsessives. Granted, many of us have graduated from Gran Turismo to more hardcore racing simulators over the years, especially since the disappointing sixth entry was released in 2013, but the nostalgia is still strong with this one.

 

In an attempt to win back the racers it lost to games like iRacing, Assetto Corsa, and Project CARS, GT developer Polyphony Digital is back with a wholly new and completely different effort dubbed Gran Turismo Sport. Don’t call it Gran Turismo 7. This is intended as the first entry in a newly revamped series whose emphasis isn’t on the single-player career mode that defined the franchise for the past 20 years but rather on eSports—ranked competitive multiplayer online gaming, that is to say. 

 

The results are a stunning mess, to put it mildly. Let’s focus on the stunning part first, because Gran Turismo Sport features without question the best use of High Dynamic Range video I’ve seen to date. And I’m not limiting the comparison to video games, either. Find me a movie with more lifelike use of shadows and piercing sunlight, and I’ll eat that UHD Blu-ray Disc. Without ketchup.

Pass alongside trees and other obstructions, and you can almost feel the shadows crossing your arms. Turn your car toward the west as sunset approaches and you’ll be scrambling for your sunglasses. This isn’t merely demo materialit’s the new gold standard for HDR that all content producers should be measuring themselves against.

 

Polyphony has also seriously upped the ante in terms of the game’s audio mix, likely in response to criticism of its previous games in this department. No longer does a supercharged V8 sound like a Singer sewing machine. The sound this time around is positively ferocious.

 

Sadly, in all other respects, Gran Turismo Sport is a rather hollow experience. At least for now. Long gone are the days when you could buy a cheap, beat-up four-cylinder car and scrape your pennies together to upgrade it as you slowly advanced through the ranks.

 

The single-player experience mostly consists of the game’s legendary driver’s-license challenges and a few driving-school scenarios. These are fun while they lastespecially with a good racing wheel like Logitech’s G29but they don’t last nearly long enough. And the online racing experience is sadly ruined by trolls who take pleasure from turning a good race into a demolition derby. What’s more, the punishment system set up to discourage such behavior punishes victims as harshly as instigators.

 

If Polyphony Digital can sort out such problems and add some more compelling single-player content down the road, it’ll have a successful game on its hands, if only on the strength of the audiovisual experience alone. For now, the lack of content and a middling online experience make Gran Turismo Sport feel more like an extended demo than a full-blown racing game.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

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