As we're approaching the release of Insomniac's Spider-Man game, it's become clear that the game nails the big things. For a lot of fans, getting the feel of Spider-Man right was the most important concern. We now know that traversing New York City indeed feels fantastic, with smooth, satisfying web-swinging and parkour that effortlessly carries Spidey from one corner of the concrete jungle to another. Combat, too, is easy to pick up yet complex enough to reward experimentation and encourage customization. Taking on the role of Spider-Man feels so good that it's very easy to overlook the other playable character.
Though you spend most of your time playing as Spider-Man (and plainclothes Peter Parker), some missions star his on-again, off-again girlfriend Mary Jane. She understandably hasn't been the focus of the pre-release hype; when I had a chance to play several hours of Spider-Man recently, I, like a lot of other people, was most interested in trying out web-swinging for myself. But after a few hours, a handful of story missions, and a lot of goofing-off as Spider-Man, I was surprised at how much MJ stood out.
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This version of MJ is an investigative journalist, and she hasn't talked to Peter in months. They're reunited early in the game thanks to circumstances involving bigtime crime boss Wilson Fisk (suffice it to say his art collection is on sale). Peter is at the gallery to take out bad guys, while MJ is there to snoop around under the guise of covering the auction for an art publication. You play the first part of the mission as Peter, switching to MJ as a flashback in lieu of listening to her explain what happened.
The two are opposites in a lot of ways. MJ's part has no combat, just some low-pressure stealth and a minor puzzle; the main activity is taking photos of the art, which MJ comments on as you go. A samurai-like statue prompts her to comment about how history sometimes feels like a series of "boys dressing up and getting into fights," while a mask leads her to ruminate on Peter's secret and how, if she were a hero, she'd want people to see her face.
When MJ asks one too many probing questions, the art dealer tells her to leave. Instead, she pretends to head to the bathroom and sneaks her way to a back room to find the incriminating files she's looking for. Later, when the dust has settled, Peter asks MJ to dinner, and she asks him if he remembers why they broke up--it's implied that being Spider-Man and being a boyfriend don't exactly go together.
MJ, like Peter, wants to make the world a better place. She goes about it a different way both because she has no powers and because she's a different person; it's very clear from the relatively brief introduction that she and Peter don't always see eye to eye and that she isn't afraid to tell him that. All of this gives her the potential to be a powerful foil and provide much-needed depth to Spider-Man's superheroic story.
The unfortunate reality is that female characters in stories like this often exist solely to further the male protagonist's journey, and we don't know yet what MJ's place is in the game overall. Her role as a foil only works if she's also a well-rounded character in her own right; otherwise, any depth she seems to provide would be a convenient facade. But after only 20 minutes, I got a sense of the character she might end up being: someone strong-willed, clever, maybe a little rash, and who's interesting to play even though she can't swing from building to building.