Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for Marvel's Spider-Man on PS4 abound, including the ending.
In the build up to the release of Insomniac's take on the popular superhero, the game that was on the tip of everyone's tongue was a different one: a tale from Peter Parker's past, the Treyarch adaptation of Sam Raimi's film Spider-Man 2. In every interview I read in the lead up to Marvel's Spider-Man, reporters would ask the developers at Insomniac if they played it, if its groundbreaking swinging was an inspiration to them, and so on. I felt kinda bad for Insomniac—it's like they were living in the shadow of a game from over a decade ago before its own game was even out yet.
All that apprehension seemed to evaporate the moment the embargo lifted. Everywhere people were heralding it as the best Spider-Man game, or at least the most fun. Treyarch's Spider-Man 2 floated away like a distant memory, because here was this shiny new game that also had good swinging. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a sweet tribute to the character too, the sort of game kid-me would have loved. It reminded me of how I felt back when I played Spider-Man 2 all those years ago, but it wasn't the only game I thought of though.
Of course, the swinging we all loved in Spider-Man 2 is what Marvel's Spider-Man perfects. But playing through it, I found myself remembering the yellow hazy skies of Neversoft's Spider-Man too, because like Neversoft's Spider-Man, the PlayStation 4-bound Spider-Man has way too much stealth, man.
At the start, Spider-Man's combat is hard to get a handle on. Guns are Peter's worst enemy, obviously, and it's easy to approach battles Arkham Asylum-style due to its similar structure. That is, lurking in high places, eavesdropping, highlighting who's safe to take out and who will alert the others before jumping into action when I wouldn't be overwhelmed. Once I let go of that inclination and attained more abilities, combat largely got a lot better. Yet, it was still the stealth that dragged everything down, from the situations that require it in the main story to the annoyance of wiping out bases where even if you clear out the entire first wave in silence, the second wave will immediately know Spidey's whereabouts.
The stealth sections only get worse with the introduction of Mary Jane Watson and Miles Morales, who also get their own playable sections. These segments are some the dullest of the entire game—stripping you of the joy of Spidey's power, and encouraging you to crouch (in most instances) powerless behind cupboards, waiting for danger to pass by. For the inevitable sequel, I mused in a group write-up that it'd be great to see these characters, Mary Jane specifically, with a more robust moveset. While she doesn't need to be bitten by a radioactive spider or anything, it'd be great if she, y'know, had more than a little taser and a "don't be seen at all or it's instant fail" clause. If she could hide in interesting places and also make a break for it when needed, it'd make the stealth feel a lot more versatile and not like a road block en route to the good stuff.
It's those small inconsistencies that really irked me about Spider-Man's scenario structure. And like Neversoft's Spider-Man, I found myself wondering why it went in the stealth direction at all. When I think of Spider-Man, I don't think of him webbing up enemies in a quiet manner, I picture him using his environment and webs while while dodging attacks and making quips. Spider-Man's nimble, and while in midgame moments the combat does err in that direction, once Peter maxes out his abilities, encounters become a little too trite.
Without the excellent traversal of swinging around, you'd think Spider-Man was an Ubisoft game circa early 2010s. Each side objective is marked clearly on the map, and aside from the varied (and clever) objectives of Research Stations—which includes cleaning up smog and vaccinating diseased fish—they all pan out the same way. At bases, you clear out waves of enemies. For the Riddler-esque Taskmaster, you do speed challenges and other menial "tasks." And with the heavily overpowered Web Blossom suit ability, situations like randomly generated crime events are a cinch to dispose of effortlessly. It ruins its own fun, because what's the point of switching suit abilities if Web Blossom (which you attain early on) can just take out all enemies in the vicinity with a button tap?
An Amazing Spider-Man Story
Despite my grievances with the stealth and its overly familiar open world trappings, the thing that pushed me forward was that satisfying, familiar swinging, and the story. The story was the last thing I expected to enjoy out of Spider-Man. When I was a kid, I read The Amazing Spider-Man comic series casually, and I've hardly kept up ever since. I've watched every Spider-Man movie—some against my better judgment. I'm not the biggest superhero fan in the world, but I feel like I can easily say that Spider-Man's probably my favorite because he's one of the few who just wants to do good for his neighbors, rather than save the entire world all the time. He's grounded and earnest and puts up with a lot of bullshit, and I find all of that quite admirable.
Even in Marvel's Spider-Man, he's a glorified couch surfer. All his money, seemingly, just goes into making gadgets and fixing his ever-tearable Spidey suit. The dude's dedicated to a job that doesn't even pay and finds time for the job that barely pays him as is. The story (even the smaller details, like the lore snippets in collectible backpacks) in Spider-Man does a pretty stellar job showing all the sides of Peter Parker off. The good (do-gooder Peter) and the bad (full-on narc Peter).
The familiar characters also take on different roles in the modern setting of New York City, some unfamiliar to their comic counterparts. Mary Jane is arguably likable, like truly likable, for the first time in her character's history thanks to her role as a budding investigative journalist. J. Jonah Jameson is basically Alex Jones, only he's the host of an anti-Spider-Man podcast.
It's the villains, though, that surprised me, beyond Otto Octavius and his rushed final act. The plot does a solid setup of the subtle evil of Norman Osborne, and the big villain we all know he will become. The final scene after the credits is especially juicy, where Norman visits his pod-encased son, who's seemingly being experimented on. Norman solemnly basks in a green glow while he leans up to the glass, and a symbiote from within reaches out to touch him, signaling that Harry (who is only present through old voicemails in the campaign, having gone to "Europe") will likely take on the role of Venom in a future title. It's a solid cliffhanger moment, and a superb start for what will likely at least be a trilogy.
After finishing up the campaign, I resolved to try and Platinum Spider-Man since I had credits roll on 80-something percent completed already. After chasing down crimes per neighborhood and clearing out base after base, though, I got tired. There was nothing compelling for me to play anymore. No story or largely inane side quests to chase down, where the only one of value culminates with a face-off with Tombstone. No more backpacks to find or pigeons to chase while swinging from place to place. Insomniac's staggering rendering of Manhattan started feeling so empty, even with the endless streams of pedestrians to high five and take selfies with.
But I had fun with Spider-Man. The foundation of what I'm guessing will be a series of games is as solid as Peter webbing up a helicopter between two buildings. I hope that for the sequel, Marvel's Spider-Man will take as many risks as its story does. Because from a mechanical and open word standpoint, it feels like the same ol' Spidey, now with a coat of polish.