Given the current state of pop culture, one thing is true: there will always be Spider-Man and Batman video games. Each is the most popular character of their respective universes and it behooves their owners to keep them in the public eye. Marvel's Spider-Man by Insomniac Games is the 35th game starring everyone's friendly neighborhood hero, and that's not counting the titles where he's been a member of an ensemble cast. That history has had a variable quality with some gems, some average experiences, and some dire moments.
Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 stands at the top.
Insomniac Games has pulled ideas and concepts from various sources-past Spider-Man games, titles from the competition, and the long history of the comics from Marvel-to spin its own unique version of Peter Parker and his alter-ego. And it works, with a beautifully-realized New York City to explore, a fantastic new version of a classic hero, a story that stands up to some of the best films, and a whole lot of crime that needs fighting.
Ends of the Earth: Exploring the Open-World
Spider-Man has always been a hero of New York first and foremost, with Peter Parker hailing from the borough of Queens. Parker's hometown isn't in Insomniac's Spider-Man though, with the game instead focusing on Manhattan. Our hero is older and wiser, having been Spider-Man for eight years now. He lives and works in the city, protecting the populace from the existing members of his rogue's gallery.
Insomniac built a Manhattan full of life. As you swing across the city as Spider-Man, the people below wander about from place to place. You can even hop down to the ground level and listen to them interacting with their local hero: some will high-five, others will take pictures, and one dude definitely called Spider-Man a mensch. This lively version of the city is one of the things that puts Insomniac's Spider-Man above some of the previous gems in the series: Treyarch's Spider-Man 2 and Ultimate Spider-Man had traffic and citizens, but were limited by the technology of that era, while Spider-Man: Web of Shadows took place in a city under invasion. There's definitely more of a sense of what Spider-Man is fighting for, even when you're just leisurely swinging across a city block.
Your primary mode of getting around is web-slinging and parkour. The former is a key aspect of any Spider-Man game and I'd say that Insomniac mostly nailed it. R2 is your web-swinging and parkour button. In the air, holding R2 spins a web line and releasing it disengages. On the ground or wall, holding R2 sprints and leaps over smaller objects in your path.
Webs attach to actual objects, something that's clear when you try to hoof your way through areas like Central Park. Swinging well requires an understanding of speed and momentum; where you leave the arc of a swing determines how fast you're going to be moving. Sometimes you wait until the end of an arc to shoot yourself high in the air, while in other cases, you'll want to disengage at the midpoint to get more forward momentum. It's not too complex, so you can zone out and just swing if nothing pressing is happening, but you need to have a firm understanding of the mechanics for chases or other challenges. There will be clear gulf between a neophyte and a veteran player, especially in certain high-stress situations.
Insomniac's Spider-Man doesn't handle its physics like Spider-Man 2 did back in the day. It plays fast and loose at points to preserve the fiction of veteran hero. (Note: Those old games also had their own weird physics, where Spider-Man is less a person and more a pinball.) You'll never faceplant on a wall, just go sprinting horizontally or vertical along it. More noticable is the shift in momentum if you swing out from a dive near ground level: there's a moment where Spider-Man will float for a bit before being pulled forward. My guess is web-swinging always pulls you forward a small distance, but it's not as noticeable during normal web-swinging. I didn't have a problem with it, but if you're a hardcore Spider-Man 2 fan, it's something to keep in mind.
Basic swinging is augmented by other abilities. Pressing X does a Web Zip, which quickly pulls you forward and it's very good for keeping height. Perch points are also continuously highlighted as you move around the world, and hitting L2 and R2 together when you see one will have Spider-Man zipping directly towards them. (You can also hold L2 to slow down time and aim towards a specific spot. Hitting R2 during this will have you zipping towards whatever your target is.) If you hit X while zipping towards a perch spot, you'll immediately leap off of it. Together, these moves allow Spider-Man to be constantly mobile and moving around Manhattan. If you're not focused on a particular mission, web-swinging can be a very zen experience. Marvel's Spider-Man unlocks fast travel at a certain point, but swinging is so enjoyable that I found myself defaulting to that mode of travel if I wasn't in a hurry.
Grim Hunt: Things to Do in Marvel's Spider-Man
Marvel's Spider-Man is an open-world game and it really doesn't do much to stray from the formula players have come to expect from the genre. Police Radio Stations around the map clear the the fog of war and show what you can do in each district. This includes general crimes, enemy bases to clear out, and side missions. There are a number of things to collect as well, like pictures of notable landmarks, backpacks, Black Cat statues, and even uh... pigeons. Yeah, it's weird.
Marvel's Spider-Man is good about not hitting the player with all of these at once. You'll do some story missions, and then the game will open up with one facet, like Police Stations or backpacks. Do some more and then Research Missions or Bases will open up. It tries to parcel out everything across the entire game instead of throwing everything at you all at once.
Completing different objectives around the map rewards you with six types of tokens. Research Missions and scientific matching puzzles net you Research tokens. Snapping pictures of landmarks gives you Landmark tokens. Clearing out criminal hideouts gives you Base tokens. Each backpack containing mementos of Spider-Man's life gets you a Backpack token. Specific combat, stealth, and traversal challenges give you Challenge token. Finally, dealing with general crimes out in the world will give you Crime tokens.
Crimes are probably my favorite feature in Spider-Man for PlayStation 4. Sure, I know they're randomly generated based on a number of templates, but they fit the fiction so well. You really feel like Spider-Man when you're swinging around and you hear about a nearby crime over the police blotter. You swing in and save a civilian from a car wreck, prevent a robbery, or chase down a stolen vehicle. Then you leave the perpetrators webbed up for the police and swing away. Stopping crimes make you feel like you're actually Spider-Man. I found myself actually responding to crimes long after I needed to because it felt right. I ended up with a huge surplus of Crime tokens by time I finished my playthrough.
The Tokens are used to craft the various gadgets and costumes available to this veteran Spider-Man. You begin the game with the classic Spider-Man design, before Peter decides to upgrade to the Advanced Suit shown in most of trailers and box art. There are a whole host of other outfits, though, including Spider-Man Noir, the original Scarlet Spider, Spider-Man 2099, and the Spider-Man: Homecoming suit. There are a few Insomniac original outfits, some drawn from the lengthy Dan Slott run of the comic, and even some odd choices. Those weirder options, like the Ghost Spider costume, seem to come at the expense of missing suits, like the comic Iron Spider, the Future Foundation outfit, or the classic black suit. I have to assume some of those will be coming to the downloadable content releases.
Insomniac's art team did an absolutely fantastic jobs with the costumes available. You can tell they took their time to really figure out what each costume was made of. In the Advanced Suit, the light shines differently on the white armored parts than they do the matte blue spandex parts. The care put into these costumes actually made me appreciate them more than I did originally.
The Spider-Armor Mark II, originally designed in the comics by Marcos Martin, looks fantastic with the lacquered black helmet and shoulders, the "pop" of the yellow spider symbol, and the textured parts of the suit. The Spider-Armor Mark IV, which was the default uniform for the last Amazing Spider-Man comics run, wasn't my cup of tea there, but in game the shine of the red armored sections and the faint blue-green glow of the eyes is just... *chef's kiss*. And long-time fans of Spider-Man will love the Vintage Comic Book outfit, which uses cell-shading and filters to look like the Ditko original leaping right off the page.
And whichever costume you're wearing appears in every cutscene. I found myself just switching costumes at random through my entire playthrough.
Go Down Swinging: On Combat
Spider-Man isn't just swinging and costumes though. He's also into fisticuffs, with combat and stealth being key pillars of Marvel's Spider-Man. Many have characterized what they've seen of the game as akin to Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham series. I think that's a bit off. Visually, yes, Spider-Man bounces from foe-to-foe like Batman, but it's not really the same. Arkham is based heavily around countering and ground takedowns; Batman himself is a beefy, hulking figure that works primarily on brawn. Even closer analogs from the Arkham games like Catwoman and Nightwing are still based around countering. In practice, this game is actually closer to older Spider-Man games, not the Arkham titles.
Spider-Man is a lithe, mobile character going for dodging instead of countering. (You can unlock a counter-style addition to a perfectly timed dodge, but it only webs up an enemy.) The general rhythm of early combat sees you snapping to a target for a combo on the ground, launching them in the air with an uppercut for further combos, and using your webs to pull yourself towards enemies or vice versa. Marvel's Spider-Man throws in various enemy types that require specific tactics, like dodging under shield-wielding enemies to hit them from behind or webbing up enemies with stun prods or other melee weapons to lock them down.
It was probably halfway through my playthrough that I realized that my combat style wasn't optimal. In combat challenges, I was dodging like a champ and taking down enemies with melee, but I couldn't hit the higher ranks of the challenge. On a whim, I changed up the playstyle and found I could hit the Ultimate rank on combat challenges pretty consistently.
Spider-Man's gadgets are the real core of this combat system, even if Insomniac doesn't entirely succeed in telegraphing this to the player early on. When you don't have all of the gadgets unlocked, environmental objects (activated by L1+R1) will give you a way to soften up foes by hitting them with a manhole cover or pulling down a structure. But once you unlock all the gadgets, they're the star of the show and Insomniac's Spider-Man wants you to be using them all the time.
For example, instead of fighting a group individually, a quick way to clear up 5-6 foes at once is to drop a Web Bomb on a group and then use the Concussion Blast to push them towards a wall. Fully webbed up enemies that hit walls get stuck there and taken out of a fight, so that one-two punch can see multiple enemies gone at once. And since you get gadgets back for defeating foes, you likely won't even lose any of your supply. Is there a lone guy shooting rockets at you? A shot of Impact Webbing will send him flying off that roof. You need to take a Brute-type enemy out of a fight temporarily? Electric Webs will help. You can switch gadgets on the fly by holding down L1 and you're encouraged to do so.
Once you switch over to using gadgets most of the time, combat encounters become much quicker and more about which gadgets will whittle down enemy forces efficiently. Finishing foes off faster gives you more focus, which you can use for finishing attacks or healing yourself. It puts a different spin on the game in comparison to its predecessors or the Batman: Arkham games.
I do find that Spider-Man has the same problem that the Arkham games did, in that in larger groups, it can sometimes be difficult to hit the right target. You'll rely on the auto-lock for a melee attack or Web Strike, only to hit the wrong target. You can hold L2 to choose a specific target, but it feels a bit inelegant overall.
I focused on combat, but stealth is also a large component of the game. Bases generally begin with a stealth section, there are pure stealth challenges, and the sections of the game where you play as Mary Jane are all stealth-driven. Earlier I argued that Marvel's Spider-Man isn't like the Arkham games in terms of combat, but here, it's very much a similar system. You move from perch to perch, silently webbing up or knocking out enemies. This title does offer an indicator of whether a target is "Safe" though, meaning you can attack them without alerting their compatriots. Silent Spider works quite well, but it doesn't do anything particularly new or different.
The Conversation: The Story of Insomniac's Spider-Man
I've left the story for last here because this review is already long and there's a lot of the game's plot that Sony Interactive Entertainment and Insomniac Games would rather I not spoil for you. Suffice it to say, I think the story is actually the best part of Marvel's Spider-Man. Even the best Spider-Man games have usually had weak or hokey stories. Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions was one of the better games in story terms, but it traded open-world play for a linear experience.
Starting with its own version of Spider-Man means that Insomniac is able to pull from 56 years of comic and multimedia history. There's a bit of the Ultimate Comics version and some facets of the Raimi films. This Peter feels like an older version of Andrew Garfield's character in the Amazing films. Characters from the Slott run like Yuriko Watanabe and Mister Negative are weaved into the narrative. And the handling of Mary Jane and Miles Morales is mostly fantastic.
A strong part of the overall tale is spent on dealing with both sides of Peter Parker's dual life. The friendships and sacrifices made in order to live up to the classic mantra, "With great power, comes great responsibility." Peter's engineering know-how as important as Spider-Man's athletic ability; when folks remember that Parker is supposed to be a genius, I find it results in more interesting stories.
I can quibble with some choices here and there, but as I enter the final stretch, I was in love with these characters all over again. And way the story is framed means when things get bad for Peter and Manhattan, the drastic changes are clearly visible. There was also some real emotional weight to the end, done in a way that rivals some of the films.
This is probably the facet of the game that as a fan of the comics, I want to gush over a bit more, but instead I'll just say it's good and let you experience it for yourself. Personally, I'm ready for a sequel, even if I know that sequel won't be coming for some years from now.
Do I have other issues with Marvel's Spider-Man? Sure. Some of the Research Missions, which are there to provide you with some alternate styles of play, fall with a dull thud. (There's one involving barrels in water that was just unclear and a bit tedious.) There a few costumes I wish were in the game proper. And there's one major story choice that I feel was a misstep.
But at the end of the day, I really loved Marvel's Spider-Man. I fully-cleared every district and I'm probably on the road to a Platinum. And even once I finished the story, I wanted to jump back in to swing around Manhattan and stop crime because it makes me feel like Spider-Man. It's a fantastic-looking game, with a detailed, realistic New York, rendered with excellent lighting, weather effects and more. (Honestly, playing this while reading through last week's nonsense gave me a headache.)
It's a fantastic in terms of execution and I'm mostly sad that it's over for the time being. As one character says later in the game: "I will miss you and your bizarre witticisms, Spider-Man. Until we meet again."
Insomniac Games takes Marvel's most popular character for a spin and the results are fantastic. The developer establishes its own Spider-Man with a unique supporting cast and a beautiful recreation of New York to play around in. This is an absolutely beautiful game, with solid combat and a great story. Most of all, it really sells the feeling of being Spider-Man. The gaming history of Spider-Man has been uneven, but this is an amazing entry in that history. Pun intended.