When I first heard the rumblings of a new Spider-Man game coming from Insomniac I was somewhat excited. After watching a few trailers, I became cautiously optimistic. The problem I saw in the trailers is the Spider-Man world look too gamified. Essentially, it looked like it was taking the freedom of Spider-Man as a character and pushing it into a very generic game. Don’t get me wrong, the trailer looked beautiful, but I was not really sure it would be fun. I’ve been wrong once in my life, and I’m happy to say Spider-Man is that time.
My fears of Marvel’s Spider-Man being too much of a video game and less of a power fantasy were completely unfounded. That isn’t all that makes the game so special, but it is the key to the game’s success. There are numerous characters in the game, most of which I will not mention to avoid spoilers, but the two biggest are Spider-Man/Peter Parker and New York. This is part of what makes this title so special. New York is a fully realized city that feels alive. Not just because there are cars and people, but because the little details litter the street as you explore, and that exploration is one of the pieces of the game that makes everything so interesting.
As you would expect, Spider-Man swings through the city as his main means of traversal, but it is a disservice to your experience with the game to stay airborne throughout the length of your playtime. Walking the streets in whatever suit you choose, allows you to see just how much passion went into creating the streets of New York. Scattered through the entire city are landmarks, such as Avengers Tower, as well as real locations, such as The Battery and Rockefeller Center.
In addition, you will find secret photo opportunities by just snapping away as you play the game. This becomes much easier once you reach level 50 and equip a gadget that helps you find them but part of the fun was exploring, thinking “Hey, this looks interesting,” and taking a picture. Sometimes they would give me a secret op, sometimes they would just be a point of interest but each time, I felt like I was touring New York.
All of this wouldn’t work without the fine details. In the image below, you can see that it is a foggy night and that plays into visibility and the overall tone of the game. These seem like inconsequential details, but I can’t stress enough just how important the overall feeling of New York is to the game.
I’ve never been to the city, so I can’t say how accurate the portrayal is but from looking at maps and “traveling” through Google Street View, I could recognize certain areas. Again, this all shows just how much work went into the smaller details, which elevates this from fun superhero game to a generation-defining Spider-Man experience.
Experience is the key word here. Spider-Man starts off feeling like a game as you learn the swing mechanics, but in a short amount of time, you start to feel as if you are actually living in the city. The characters, the random events, the city streets, and the random people, all turn what could have been a game into a simulation of the life of a somewhat experienced Peter Parker.
The choice to put the story eight years after Peter and the spider meet makes this a story unlike any that we have seen in the MCU or in games. The experienced Spider-Man and the struggling Peter Parker create a tension that anyone in their late 20’s and older can relate to. The personal side of the story is about Peter and his need to pay bills, while also chasing his passion. Balancing his day job and his desire to get out on the streets in his spandex are constantly at odds and create additional tension in an already tense story.
However, Peter isn’t the only character that is facing a crisis of two halves. While his story is one that is relatable, at least from the Parker side, other characters have equally difficult choices to make. While there are bad guys in the game, at least half are in more of a grey area. You come to understand the choices they made, even if you don’t agree with them. This leads to one of the best stories I’ve experienced compared to other MCU properties. Don’t let that throw you. Spider-Man is presented as an MCU movie from start to post-credit scenes.
Swinging is a big part of being Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 has been lauded for years as the high point in that aspect of gaming. Going back to the days of Atari, swinging was little more than drawing a line up a building. As time went on, things got more and more sophisticated, until Spider-Man 2 introduced the more realistic swinging mechanics that required anchor points and physics. Insomniac took a page out of the Spider-Man 2 playbook and kept that momentum based swinging that required you to have buildings or other structurally sound points to “thwp” onto, but polished it up a bit to make it even more visceral.
Many fights came down to me playing Spider-Man as if I were playing an Ace Combat title. I would swing in, knock a few guys around, and then swing around buildings to better position myself. I was always able to plan this movement ahead of time. Perched on top of a building, I could look down at the group I was about to fight, check the surrounding buildings, their height, their proximity to the fight, and how far I could fall off one to build up enough momentum to swing far above the fight and zip down onto an enemy with a web. Battles went from white-knuckled survivals to planning for the best and having the ability to react when it all went south.
In addition, the boss fights are a mixture of quick time events and actual combat. A few would mix a button prompt at the right time to find an opening, but my favorite battles were the ones that I dubbed “the floor is lava fights”. These require you to know how to play the game and stay swinging in the air amidst the chaos of a big battle, while still keeping everything in sight. The camera doesn’t always work as you want in battles, boss or otherwise, but it rarely caused any major issue.
I couldn’t write a review about this game without mentioning the Arkham series and its style of combat. From videos, and even at the start of the game, there seems to be little difference. The combat looks to be nothing more than Spider-Man with the Shadow of Mordor or Arkham series style of the counter then punch fighting style. Although in time, you quickly learn that Spider-Man isn’t as tough as Batman, and a smash in the face with a stun baton can put you inches from death. Partly due to the fact that animations are not interrupted in the same way as other games, a dodge can lead you directly into a rocket to the face. What Spider-Man as a character brings to the table, though, is agility.
Where other characters are more about brute strength, Spider-Man is about agility and quick movements. This, and the fact that the enemies don’t wait their turn to attack you one-on-one makes combat fairly tough when you are starting the game. In time though, you start to become accustomed to the style of fighting and you will start to swing in and out of fights, hone in on the easy prey to thin the herd, then web up the big guys while you handle the higher damage enemies.
Even after the completion of the game, there are still enemies that give me a challenge. There is a reason for that, which I won’t spoil, but you will know when you approach one of their bases of operation that you are in for a long drawn out fight. The guys do a good bit of damage, work with each other well, and can take a serious beating but the combat is so much fun you don’t care. You do your sneaking and take out as many guys as you can before things get going, then you lean forward on your couch and settle in for an intense 15-minute fight against waves and waves of tough enemies.
On the other hand, there are much easier fights, as random crimes happen throughout the city frequently. Sometimes you just need to beat up a few muggers, which is always satisfying as you can dispatch them quickly. Other times you end up chasing the police and a carjacker, trying to swing through the streets as fast as possible, dodging bullets or rockets, and attempting to land on the car to stop them from escaping. It all builds into a beautifully chaotic version of New York that needs Spider-Man.
That leads to the detractors. J. Jonah Jameson has a talk show that plays randomly throughout the entire game and discusses things that Spider-Man has done. Of course, he always spins anything you have done into an act against the people of the city, while he also plugs his own products. It is a little heavy handed, feeling like a stab at Info Wars, but it isn’t far off the Jameson from the comics and films. In addition, not all New Yorkers like Spidey, and they let him know as he travels through the city. Others are fans, but the mixture makes the city feel more alive as the random pedestrians have differing opinions.
There are a few things I could do without in the game, though. While the Peter Parker and other character missions are fun, I never really enjoyed the puzzles that took the place of doing “SCIENCE!” Most of these puzzles are little more than apps that you likely play on your phone already. Put the right piece in the right place to make the line connect so that science stuff can happen.
On the other hand, one of the things I dreaded when starting another open-world game was the collectathons. You need to activate towers to unlock the map for quadrants of the city, which then shows you the endless icons that we have all become accustomed to in similar games. Conversely, Spider-Man does something special here. It makes those different icons enjoyable enough once you get to them and relies on the fact that swinging 3000 or 4000 meters across the city is nothing but pure bliss. More often than not, I got distracted as I headed to a point of interest by a crime or an interesting area on the map that I wanted to explore.
Each of these activities gives you tokens which are used to unlock the costumes in the game. Of which some are custom suits created by Insomniac and others are iconic suits from different story arcs in the comics or the films. Most come with a special power, such as the ability to unload a ton of webbing all around you, but they are not locked to the costume. One costume from Homecoming, which quickly became a favorite, had a power I didn’t particularly care for, so I just switched in one of the other suits powers. As long as the suit is unlocked, you can use the power with any other suit.
Another important point to mention is just how user-friendly everything is in the game. While combat is complicated, traversal can be learned quickly. My daughter (8 years old now) is a huge fan of anything open-world. She loves to explore. I was a little concerned that she would have trouble with the swinging mechanics, but she picked it right up. The difference is she only used the R2 button to swing, keeping her moving at a slower pace. When I picked up the controller I would use the additional buttons and release at specific times to make sure I was picking up as much speed as possible. So if you have kids, this is a great game to let them explore, just make sure you are around when the baddies come for you.
Finally, the score. When you drop from your first building and start swinging new, yet familiar music swells as you travel through the city. It creates a cinematic feeling that, on mute, isn’t there. On top of that, the music was a perfect mixture of being a big piece of a scene, to being a background that you barely noticed, but would miss if it wasn’t there. Everything about the music feels like it came straight from a Spider-Man film, and deserves a great deal of praise.
There is much more to the game that I would like to cover, but much of it would be spoiler territory. So I’ll summarize the experience in as general terms as possible. Insomniac nailed the controls for fighting and swinging. The story is on par with many of the great MCU films of the last few years, driven home by fantastic voice acting. Spider-Man is full of additional content beyond the story that will keep you coming back over and over as you wait for more DLC.
The city is alive and a true wonder at which to look and explore. I honestly didn’t think current gen hardware could pack in so much detail. Outside of a few stand-in puzzles for the “SCIENCE” part of the game, everything from start to 100% is truly a joy to experience. Add in a photo mode that allows you to take incredible pictures from movie shots to comic book covers, and Marvel’s Spider-Man comes in as my favorite game of this generation.
Stay tuned for more coverage as Marcus and I go all spoilery on an upcoming podcast about how this world fits into the Spider-Man canon and how we felt each character was portrayed. We will update the review with a link to that podcast as soon as it goes live in the coming weeks.