Insomniac Games finds itself is an amazing position at the moment. The history of gaming has been littered with Spider-Man titles, but most have been based on a particular version of the character. There's always been input from Marvel artists, writers, and editors as to the direction of the game's narrative or aesthetic. There was always something to draw directly from, whether the game was based on the Maximum Carnage storyline or the Ultimate universe.
With Marvel's Spider-Man for PlayStation 4, Insomniac Games has been given the chance to craft its own version of our friendly neighborhood hero. Sure, the developer has pulled elements of its Spider-Man from various eras, but the character and his world are unique and distinct. One look at the new costume Insomniac's Spider-Man sports sets him apart from his predecessors. Marvel has even blessed the new Spider-Man by featuring him in the upcoming Spider-Geddon event, placing the hero alongside the classic Peter Parker, Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen, Scarlet Spider, Spider-Woman, Silk, and more.
At a recent event, I had the chance to sit down and play the first few hours of Spider-Man for PlayStation 4. These opening moments give Insomniac Games a chance to establish its version of Peter Parker, his heroic alter-ego, and his supporting cast.
Puny Parker No More
Right from the opening, Spider-Man establishes a very Insomniac tone—think Sunset Overdrive—with Peter Parker waking up to criminal activity coming over his police blotter. You get an immediate feeling of Peter's situation: his cramped apartment, pictures of friends and family, messy living conditions, and even a do-it-yourself automated toaster to complete the budding scientist vibe. Peter bounces around the room, getting his costume on and swinging out the window, all to the tune of Alive by the Warbly Jets. (If my grasp of the lyrics was correct.)
One thing that's clear from the outset is this Peter Parker has history. He's in his early 20s, having done the Spider-Man thing for some time now in his classic outfit. (Yeah, that brief tease of the original costume in the last trailer is from the beginning of the game.) Spider-Man is a known figure to the police, having worked with Detective Yuri Watanabe for years. The opening missions of the game actually have Spider-Man working to take down Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime, after years of fighting.
This history extends to the relationships of Peter and Spider-Man. Former Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson is now a radio host, though he still retains his hate of the wall-crawler. J. Jonah's voice will be your constant companion during the game as his radio show references your exploits and failures. (Yes, you can turn it off.) Aunt May appears as a volunteer at the F.E.A.S.T. (Food, Emergency Aid, Shelter and Training) homeless shelter, run by key story figure Martin Li.
Long-time friend, romantic interest, and confidant Mary Jane Watson showed up halfway through my playthrough as an investigative journalist at the Bugle. The banter shows a pair that's been together through a lot of joy and heartache, even though they've broken up ahead of the events of the game. Mary Jane is even playable in a non-combat stealth sequence, where she has to hide from prying eyes while looking for clues. Other trailers have shown a different stealth sequence with MJ, so there will probably be more in the game.
Of all the choices Insomniac has made in terms of narrative, making MJ a more dynamic part of Peter's life is probably the best one in my mind, especially since her own goals see her crossing paths with the Spider-Man side of things. Think Lois Lane to Spider-Man's Superman, and you have the right idea.
Go Down Swinging
A ton has been written and said about the web-swinging in Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 and everyone has their own take on the feeling of it. I can say it's not the full-on straight physics-based affair that hardcore Spider-Man 2 for PlayStation 2 fans are probably looking for. There are some definite spots where the game does its best to keep your momentum going, like the transition from an aerial dive to swinging or from swinging to wall-running.
Still, momentum and weight do play a strong part, something that becomes rather clear when you have to chase things while swinging. The car chase crime events and one side-mission where I had to catch a group of pigeons shows there's a definite gap between just swinging and someone who knows web-swinging in and out. Knowing when and at what height to release your swing is key to moving quickly. The webs themselves look like they attach directly to structures, something that's readily noticeable in areas like Central Park, where the general lack of buildings makes it harder to get around.
Movement in Marvel's Spider-Man seems mostly aimed at keeping the player moving once they're on a roll, with wall-running being an all-out sprint, the web-zip allowing you to add speed and keep height for a short distance, and the point-to-point web pull/perch allowing you to launch yourself forward. Visually and conceptually, it feels somewhat like Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, though gravity here isn't as present in some respects. Spider-Man's air hangtime is longer, likely to give you more options in terms of continuing to swing, web zipping, or point-to-point movement.
Regardless, I enjoyed the hell out of it. In fact, I spent the latter part of my demo just swinging around the city collecting stuff. There's landmark photos that you can take with Peter's camera and backpacks full of old mementos webbed up around the city; the open-world completist in me took over, moving from thing to thing, stopping the occasional crime here and there. Web-slinging is its own feeling of zen; if left to my own devices, I would've been swinging for another couple of hours.
Spider-Man isn't just a swinger though, he can also put the hurt on the criminal element. Spider-Man's combat system is somewhat reminiscent of Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham series at its root. He's got a basic attack that roughly snaps to his intended target, his starting web shooters stun targets similar to Batman's batarangs, and he has a handy dodge. That's about where the similarities end though.
Spider-Man is more lithe and mobile than Rocksteady's beefy Dark Knight. You can use your webbing to pull yourself towards a target or vice versa, even for targets a considerable distance away. The dodge itself is multi-faceted: use it near a wall and you'll set yourself up for a wall attack. Use it after any basic attack to slide through the legs of your target. Spider-Man is also more acrobatic and aerial. Holding down the attack button knocks an enemy into the air; from there you can web them up, hit them with a gadget, or follow them to continue your combo.
There's also a decent amount of environmental improvisation. There are always random objects within striking distance—a manhole cover, a trash can, a wooden pallet, or a car door. You can grab these objects simply by hitting L1 and R1 together and use them to soften up targets. This is necessary, especially when it comes to targets with shields or stun rods.
Fighting well generates Focus, which has two uses. Once you fill up your focus meter, you can activate your equipped Suit Power move. (More on those later.) Alternatively, you can dump focus into your health bar at any time. Fight poorly and you won't get to use those sweet ultimate attacks.
You'll occasionally have to fight from the shadows and high places in Marvel's Spider-Man. Your point-to-point move also allows you to perch on top of objects and if you don't hold R2, your movement on a wall is the classic wall-crawling. From above, you can stealth attack unsuspecting targets directly or web them up to take them out of the fight. Your Spider-Sense—read as 'Detective Vision'—can also let you know whether a target is or isn't visible by one of his fellow criminals, and thus safe to stealth attack. Ninja Spider-Man is surprisingly fun and being able to take out an entire hideout without alerting anyone is satisfying.
If This Be My Destiny...
You won't be the same Spider-Man from beginning to end in this game. Finishing storyline and side missions will reward experience, which adds up to new levels. Leveling up increases Spider-Man's general health and offers up skill points to improve yourself. Skill points can be spent in three different skill trees: Innovator, Defender, and Webslinger. Innovator offers new counters to enemy abilities, like re-directing enemy rockets or ripping the pistols right out of their hands. Defender unlocks new moves like perfect dodge, a combo booster, and increased focus gain. Finally, Webslinger skills improve Spider-Man's swinging and aerial attacks.
The overall story of Insomniac's Spider-Man is focused on change and evolution in Peter Parker's life. Parker has found a new job and a new mentor, allowing him to fully explore his scientific side. In fact, during a conversation with Mary Jane during the early hours, Peter even remarks that his scientific work might actually outstrip his efforts as Spider-Man. Parker has always had an affinity for science and engineering—something one character refers to as his 'guerilla science'—but in this reality he really gets a chance to use those skills.
The DIY feeling also means Peter has whipped up a slew of gadgets for his alter ego. You begin with only basic Web Shooters, but you can also unlock the long-range punch of Impact Webbing, the Web Bomb, the stunning Electric Web, Trip Mines, an autonomous Drone, the Shocker-style Concussive Blast, and one interesting gravity-based gadget at the end of the line. You unlock and upgrade these gadgets by getting various Tokens.
These Tokens come from completing tasks around the city, with six categories of token related to a certain event type: Crime, Landmark, Backpack, Research, Base, and Challenge. Crimes are general events around the city, like store robberies or running thieves. Landmarks are pictures Peter takes with his camera. Backpack tokens come from the hidden, webbed-up backpacks I mentioned before. Base tokens are rewarded for clearing out Kingpin's goons or Mister Negative's Inner Demons from their hideouts. The last two Token types weren't in this build, but previously featured in the E3 2018 build: Research tokens come from helping Harry Osborn at research stations around the city and Challenge tokens comes from completing timed challenges, like races.
Peter's scientific know-how and these Tokens combine when it comes to Spider-Man's costumes. As I noted earlier, the classic Spider-Man outfit is available at the beginning of the game, as is a torn-up version of that costume. The costume on the cover and featured in most of Spider-Man's marketing is called the Advanced Suit in-game. It's a technologically-improved outfit Peter builds as a transition to this new phase of his life.
The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man (Costumes)
There are way more outfits though and the list doesn't seem to include the three pre-order bonus costumes. Costumes are unlocked and crafted with tokens, with each suit offering a new suit power. Suit powers are the special focus-based attacks mentioned earlier. Each suit also has slots for suit mods, small boosts to things like health and speed. Once you've crafted a costume, its suit power can be equipped no matter which costume you're wearing, so you're not locked into using an outfit for its cool ability.
I counted a total of 25 different Spider-Man costumes, with some slots only becoming visible at specific points during my playtime. In addition to the Classic, Classic Damaged, and Advanced Suit costumes, visible outfits also included Spider-Man Noir, Secret War, the Scarlet Spider (classic hoodie version), Spider-Armor Mark II, Spider-Man: Homecoming's Stark suit, and that film's home-made costume. I personally unlocked the Scarlet Spider outfit and never looked back; sorry Insomniac art team.
Each suit's suit power and general feature is related to the concept behind it. The Spider-Armor is bulletproof, the Secret War suit power is an EMP Blast that disables enemy weapons. The Noir suit makes you quieter and its suit power prevents enemies from calling for backup. The Web Blossom you may have seen in trailers and gameplay videos, where Spider-Man webs up all enemies in the current vicinity? That's from the classic suit. The Homecoming suit lets you to call on a Spider double to help you in combat.
The three pre-order costumes—Spider-Punk, the Velocity Suit, and the Iron Spider outfit—didn't look like they were on the list of 25 suits. One silhouette definitely looked like the distinctive Spider-Man 2099 outfit. Beyond that, the rest of the costumes remain in the dark. But if you're a Spider-fan, Insomniac has a lot of visual lore for you.
I can't close out this preview without talking about Manhattan itself. Insomniac's version of New York City includes many of the familiar neighborhoods, even if they're not 1-to-1 recreations. This means you can swing across locations like Greenwich Village, Chinatown, the East Village, and Times Square. There's also a number of real-world buildings, like the Empire State Building, the Manhattan Bridge, the United Nations, and Madison Square Garden.
But this is some alternate version of the Marvel Universe. The rest of the Marvel heroes exist within the world of Spider-Man for PlayStation 4, they just don't show up, because this is Peter's story. There are a few fictional locations that I noticed during my demo. Avengers Tower is the biggest one, sitting right there on the skyline with a big red 'A'. But I also spied Iron Fist's Rand Corporation, Doctor Strange's Sanctum Sanctorum, and the Wakandan Embassy, decked out in purple light. While I was wandering, I also found some graffiti inspired by everyone's favorite thief, the Black Cat.
So you can swing your way down to Greenwich Village, take a picture of the Sanctum Sanctorum, say "hi" to some passing pedestrians, and then take off to prevent a local robbery. That screams Spider-Man to me.
All told, I've been feeling good about Insomniac Games' Spider-Man for some time now. The studio surprised and impressed me with Sunset Overdrive and I played the demo for Spider-Man twice at E3 2018. It's looking simply fantastic; a wonderfully realized open-world take on Manhattan, a unique version of Spider-Man and his supporting cast, and a focus on some of the newer parts of the character's rogues gallery. These early hours of the game have only made me more excited for the final product. Hopefully, Insomniac will land this high dive.
Marvel's Spider-Man is coming to PlayStation 4 on September 7, 2018. If you want to know more about the game, check out our information hub for all things Marvel's Spider-Man.
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