Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever an incredibly well polished Playstation 4 exclusive title can!
When I finally reached the end of Marvel’s Spider-Man, I had to stop and catch my breath. Somehow, Insomniac Games had managed to take a character I’ve grown up with and actually do something truly special with him. Considering Spider-Man’s history goes back seventy years, doing that is one huge feat already. Even more impressive is just how much fun it is to get there.
Functionally speaking, Spider-Man is a superhero simulator. Players take the titular hero on a tour of a sizable recreation of New York City and given free rein of the hero’s stomping ground. For readers of this site, that might sound awfully familiar. To many players, 2004’s tie-in game for the Spider-Man 2 Sam Raimi film is considered the gold standard of Spider-Man titles. That game’s developer, Treyarch, implemented a physics system to replicate the way Spidey’s web-swinging is depicted, it was the first and last thing they worked on all the way through the end of development, and the effort shows. Webs actually attached to buildings, and swinging in a pendulum motion let players get around the city in record time. Following that game’s release a majority of the team behind that mechanic departed Treyarch, and ever since there have been all sorts of attempts to replicate that feeling to various results.
In the case of this game, however, it’s an unquestionable success. Enhanced by new technology and a whole lot of polish, the feeling of swinging around New York’s iconic rooftops has never felt this fast or polished. Insomniac wisely chose to borrow the classic Treyarch mechanic of mapping more than a single button to webswinging actions, instead giving players the ability to cut a line at their desire and launch one the same way. Other options allow for making a quick zip-line to maintain altitude or even dive straight down to increase speed when you eventually swing again. Being able to implement these on the fly makes everything feel like a proper upgrade to that classic design.
New York has always been a principle requirement for Spidey’s powers to make sense, and thusly players are given free reign of the city nearly immediately, though for some reason there are those open world prerequisite “Ubisoft Towers” that have to be activated in order for the map to properly fill in. While these let you track various collectibles and side missions, such a detail feels more like checking a box on a design document then something specifically needed to help navigate the city. As for the aforementioned collectibles, it is inarguable that there are quite a lot all over the map. Within only an hour into the game, the map quickly gets littered with icons tied to small objectives, and only more find their way in the more the game progresses. In many games, these can feel daunting. In Spider-Man, these come off significantly less so; and of course that’s thanks to the way traversal works in the game. When you can zip around places so quickly, it feels so much more simple to stop and snag a pick up or do a side mission. These yield rewards needed to unlock various costumes, which I’m a huge sucker for. It also helps that many of these contain little callouts and details of the long term history of Spider-Man as a character.
That deep understanding of Spider-Man is what really drives Spider-Man the game beyond a mechanical triumph and into something much more special. While several of the trailers leading into the game indicated something similar to the Batman: Arkham games – a smorgasbord of rogues to take down – but instead the story chooses to narrow its focus to a handful of characters and their conflicts not unlike what you’d see from a film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Mostly this centers around a newer villain Mr. Negative, who attempts to cement his own place as the lead of crime in the city after Spidey takes down the Kingpin in the beginning of the game. While getting into Negative’s motivations starts moving into spoiler territory, his appearance forces several changes onto Spider-Man; and subsequently the man under the mask.
Another solid choice by Insomniac is to set the events of Spider-Man years into Peter Parker’s time as the wallcrawler. By doing so, they’re freed up to dive a little bit deeper into Peter and his relationships. Given their own Earth in Marvel’s multiverse and given a hand from seasoned comic vets Christos Gage and Dan Scott, the writing team of Jon Paquette, Benjamin Arfmann, and Kelsey Beachum have really taking advantage of the opportunity to put a spin on the Spidey mythos. In Insomniac’s version, Peter is a full fledged scientist with as much a sense of purpose in that work as his work as Spider-Man, while supporting his Aunt’s work at a huge homeless shelter. When the plot kicks in, things are way past “great power, great responsibility.” Peter is taken from a place of subtle confidence in his place in the world to having all of that challenged, piece by piece. It’s one thing to see Peter’s core built up in origin stories, it’s always something very different to see that core torn down and challenged.
For everything I love being done with Peter Parker, I love that much more about what’s been done with Mary Jane Watson. Whereas most characters in the game resemble their comic counterparts; MJ has been radically redesigned. Gone is the wild enigma or girl next door persona and in its place Is a character intended to exist as her own character first, and it works. To some degree, there’s a sense of Lois Lane meets Jessica Jones one could pick out of it, but with a proper script and a voice actress that’s game, this version of MJ is stellar. Occasionally, the game will take players away from the webswinging action to enter MJ’s shoes for some stealth sections. This allows MJ to support the game’s story through action instead of just standing around, waiting to be kidnapped. Proper stealth sections too, while they aren’t necessarily difficult, they are designed to be stealth, the kind of way you’d want to be a full.
Out of the suit, Peter get some gameplay himself; but it’s very much a casualty of the rest of the game. Most of the time Spider-Man changes into street clothes to walk into a building as a transition into a cutscene. Since MJ gets the actually investigation tasks, there’s not a whole lot to come from walking around areas like the FEAST shelter except to trigger those cutscenes. Otherwise, he’s solving science problems via routing mini-games right out of Bioshock, which I’ll admit I definitely wasn’t asking for in modern games.
Ultimately though, everyone’s here for doing some super hero action; and there’s plenty to be had in Spider-Man. The aforementioned comparison to the Arkham games are apt: most of the combat is Spider-Man against a group of lower tier members of various villain sects. The goal, of course, is to be reactive to the actions of the opponent, and strike when an opening occurs. Thanks to Spider-Man’s more naturally acrobatic skillset, this feels much less like the “wait, then react” one would see in Arkham and instead feels more like the player is a more active participant, trying to anticipate attacks from all sides while taking action. Holding certain buttons as opposed to pressing them quickly yields different but critical results, and it’s surprisingly easy to manage. Spidey also has various upgradable gadgets on a weapon wheel he can employ; though some are much handier than others. It’s difficult to want to use Impact Webs, for example, when Web Bombs can snag multiple enemies. Furthermore, unlockable costumes come with a sort of bonus power-which are unlocked with the suit but can be mixed and matched with the one you actually want to wear-that can also help make the difference in combat. The entire experience is satisfying, if only slightly less so than webswinging.
Yet, being a mechanical marvel really wouldn’t be enough. Truly, the greater understanding of Spider-Man really does shine throughout the game to take things to another level. Despite having a long background in the character’s comic history, the game manages to catch even the most experienced fan off guard. It’s not hard to start to feel obligated to making a hard right to chase a runaway car or stop an assault, even when you’re almost to an objective. That falls right in line with the constant sense of responsibility barring down on Spider-Man, exasperated by calls from allies or from J. Jonah Jameson’s internet radio show accusing him of various conspiracy theories.
Oh, about Jonah: turning him into a Rush Limbaugh/Alex Jones style partisan hack with a podcast is incredibly inspired and that’s definitely something they should steal for the movies. That said, the world has changed quite a bit since it would have been decided to do this and it’s safe to say the real life equivalent is beyond parody. Because of that, I had a hard time enjoying that part consistently.
The point being is that Spider-Man has gone above and beyond to deliver on the full experience. While there are less encounters with the larger rogues gallery than expected-the payoff is an experience that feels like it has a real impact. No deals with the devil here, the actions all the characters undertake have consequences; especially for Peter. Interestingly, even with those consequences, the game isn’t interested in throwing a pity party for Parker. It would be easy to make him feel put upon, but multiple times the game is more than happy to call out Peter, both when he messes up, and when he means well. That kind of desire is huge to me on a personal level. It sounds cliché to say such a popular character is my “favorite,” but I really did grow up with Spider-Man. To me, Spidey is at his best when the odds are all against him, and he stands up to do the right thing. Not just with his fists and webs, but in his mind and his heart. Peter Parker isn’t a perfect or flawless character, and unlike most super hero fair – especially the Batman games these take so much inspiration from – Spider-Man chooses to own it. By doing so, there is some good and proper chances to feel triumphant; not just by taking down the bad guys but by bonding with Miles Morales or realizing he may not see Mary Jane the way he should be and taking responsibility for such. Even when the rants of an angry man blast over the sounds of the city to regurgitate the fears he has of himself, Spider-Man is still out there trying to do the right thing – and Spider-Man the game exhibits this right down to picking up Parker’s old backpacks off the street.
So much could be said to the accomplishment on hand here: a brilliant and culturally accurate voice cast brings stellar performances; no one’s off their game. The included photo mode is just as much of a blast as in other games, if not more so. Even teases of possible future content and sequels only fills me with glee rather than dread. I could go on and on, even as much as I somewhat hate giving Sony yet another exclusive win, they really did nail this one. This game truly is the superior Spider-Man.
Developer: Insomniac Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: September 7th, 2018
Copy Purchased By Reviewer