As big as superhero hero movies have become, as much money as Disney and Warner Bros. are pulling in from their respective comic-book companies’ stables of legendary licenses, there’s something weird: there are very, very few comic-book games, and even fewer good ones. The 2004 Spider-Man 2 is still, almost 15 years later, regarded as one of the best, despite being one of the very first open-world games and a PlayStation 2 release. A lot of fans would argue that Spider-Man 2 was the only great Spider-Man game.
We had to wait 14 years, but Spidey is back. Thanks to developer Insomniac, we have the first truly great Spider-Man game in 14 years and a spiritual successor to Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series as a game that truly delivers on the promise of being a superhero.
Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man delivers on everything that makes Spider-Man who he is, from the feel of swinging through a believably huge New York City, to getting what the Spidey Sense feels like in the heat of battle, to learning about the human side of Spider-Man and his villainous enemies. It’s reverent to Spider-Man’s long history and wide cast of characters, but not slavishly so. It remixes many of the relationships at play in the comics without changing the core of what makes it feel so good.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being Spider-Man
Spider-Man is the perfect comic-book character to center a video game around, and it’s kind of baffling that it has proven so difficult to do over the years. He’s super-powered without being ultra-powerful like The Flash and Superman. Insomniac managed to find that balance almost perfectly.
Spider-Man himself has a weight to him, but he defies gravity in a way that feels distinctly Spidey. He isn’t bound by the same rules we are in the physical world, but he is still part of that world.
Swinging around NYC is a perfect example of this. As Spidey swings, each of his webs makes contact with something nearby. If there aren’t buildings above him, he can only zip. If he’s over water, he might be about to get wet if he doesn’t have enough momentum. When you swing, there’s a weighty pendulum feel to it. As gravity would pull me down, and then as momentum would pull me back up, I quickly learned to feel out when it was best to let go. Holding “X” down on the pad would give a little extra boost, which I could then string out with a couple web zips. You can get going incredibly fast, but it stays active the whole time. You’re in full control of the direction you’re swinging or zipping, and you can go from having tons of forward movement to switching directions and even stopping in a way that feels really natural. And then there’s the moment you take a swing to its absolute apex, let go, and continue sailing upward. Your momentum runs out, and for a second, you’re floating, silhouetted against the sky, and it feels amazing.
Through all of this, you’re always active. Swinging isn’t lazy. You can’t go on autopilot. You could just keep clicking R2, but the layout of the city means that won’t last long no matter what you do. I felt fast, I felt powerful, and I always felt present while navigating New York City.
On the ground, the same thing applies the combat. I played at normal difficulty, and generally felt a good mix of easy and difficult play as the game threw baddies at me. As you level Spidey up, you’ll collect a comprehensive list of moves and attacks that let you interact with enemies both directly and at the end of some webbing. Even when you’re far away from your target, you’re only a split second away if you know the right move. Meanwhile, your Spidey Sense is always backing you up, buzzing around your head when enemies are about to pull a trigger.
The Spidey Sense and the finishing moves also have a neat effect where the camera will pause just for a split second, catching Spider-Man in one of his iconic poses, part acrobat, part wrestler, part cartoon, and that really drives home the sensation of being a superhero.
Despite this, Spider-Man doesn’t feel quite like the Batman: Arkham games. It has a very different pace. Spider-Man is acrobatic and fast and, usually, a lot smaller than his opponents – he’s not a bruiser like Batman can be. The game never forgets this. You can move between enemies at will, brutalizing them with long combos or knocking them over and webbing them to the ground. You can slide between an enemy’s feet or somersault over them and give them a mask made out of webbing. One of my favorite feelings playing the game was to web a chump up, yank him into the air (there’s literally a move called Air Yank), and then swing-kick him into a nearby wall. At the end of a combat, I would look around and admire my Jackson Pollock-like spread of goons webbed to the walls, trash dumpsters, and vehicles all around me.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an open-world game without lots of collectibles, activities, and leveling up, and there’s plenty of that to do here. Manhattan is covered in activities that have you practicing swinging and combat, exploring the carefully laid-out city and all its landmarks – both real and Marvel-specific – in detail. You might have to take down an enclave of one of the factions gunning for you, engage in some science for one of Harry Osborn’s research stations, or you might stumble across one of your old backpacks. These are just a few examples of what the game has you getting into between story missions.
As you progress, you level up not just as a player but as a character. Spider-Man has something like 40 skills to pick up that mix active and passive effects. You have a pile of Spider-Gadgets to discover, each with its own small leveling structure. There are also a whole ton of suits to unlock. I don’t want to spoil all of them, but we’ll talk about a couple here to cover what they do. There’s, of course, the “white spider” outfit from the game’s promotional materials, but then there are other suits like the silly Spider-Punk suit, the super-cool “vintage” suit, and the Noir Spider suit. Each suit comes with its own special ability. The initial suit lets you build up your power meter faster, unlocking finishing moves and healing options, while Noir Spider can silence enemies, keeping them from calling in for backup. What’s especially cool here is that while the suits unlock the abilities that accompany them, those suits and abilities aren’t linked. If you want to be old-school comic-shaded Spidey but get your rock-and-roll on with Spider-Punk’s guitar move, you can do that. It’s a nice bit of freedom that lets you look how you want to look and play how you want to play, while still having a nice progression of unlocking and experimenting.
The many activities mostly feel good, though I’ll admit that some of it definitely feels like padding that didn’t get as much attention, which I feel might be inevitable in a game like this. Some of Harry’s research stations, for example, have you doing things like firing electric web shots at LED screens in Times Square – because if you don’t they’ll blow up any minute. The game delivers these bits so straight that it doesn’t feel like they were meant to be laughed at. But this is a tiny minority of the game’s content, and even if you skipped these entirely you’d still have plenty to do. The top rewards for some of the challenges feel so difficult as to be completely out of reach. While swinging feels every bit as good as I talked about above, it doesn’t have the laser precision some of these challenges ask for.
More Human than Spider
The other part of what makes Spider-Man feel like Spider-Man is the humanity sewn into its best and most enduring characters. It’s fun to see Spidey shout with joy as he swings around the city, but that needs to be grounded with the reality of who he is. Peter Parker has never been a rich kid like so many superheroes, and he goes looking for misery because of his total commitment to his oath of great power being tied to great responsibility. Both of those come into play in the game.
In the opening moments, we see Peter getting ready to step out his window in full costume as an eviction notice slides under the door. We see him perpetually late to nearly everything in his life – even the stuff that matters – because of his feeling of obligation to, well, everyone. A siren left unfollowed might as well be a full-on flashback to Uncle Ben’s death, the defining moment that ultimately set Peter on the path to being Spider-Man, even if it wasn’t what gave him the powers in the first place.
Beware that there may be some spoilers beneath this gallery. If you’re worried about even the most vague details of the game’s story, stop here. We’ve avoided major story beats and any hard details that happen outside the first few hours of the game.
In Spider-Man, Peter is somewhere between the periods we usually see him. He’s usually either in school or he’s a grown-ass man just about to hit 30. Here, he’s 23. Old enough that he’s been Spider-Man for a while and has picked up a few arch-nemeses but not so old that he doesn’t have time to pick up a few new ones. Trailers showed us characters like Rhino, Shocker, Vulture, and Electro, and we got to experience the joy of J. Jonah Jameson’s voice in a least one promotional video. But big names like Doctor Octopus and Green Goblin have been absent from the promotional materials.
Doctor Otto Octavius joins the cast in the first few scenes of the game. Peter is working with him on research to create a new kind of prosthetic that might enable people without full use of their limbs to get back some kind of functionality. Octavius ends up being one of the game’s most interesting characters. He and Peter have a warm relationship and mutual respect for each others’ abilities. Octavius is an underappreciated genius who sees in Peter a flair for what he calls “guerrilla science” – an ability to find cheap, improvised solutions to problems that another researcher might spend millions trying to solve.
Okay, maybe the retro costume looks weird in cutscenes.
The relationship these two have and the changes it goes through as New York ends up in chaos make up some of the best character moments in the game. The actor playing Octavius owns the role completely, and turns the villain into a more tragic character than we’re used to seeing. He’s warm-hearted, but feels unappreciated, and his constant difficulties with current New York City mayor Norman Osborn have taken an emotional toll on him. It’s easy to sympathize with him, and to want to see things from his point of view.
Peter sees Octavius as something of a father figure and personal idol. His constant fight for even meager funding only seems to fuel that further thanks to Peter’s state of perpetual poverty, and Peter has a view of him that might as well be hero worship.
Other characters, too, have been reimagined. Mary Jane isn’t a model, but rather an investigative journalist with a nose for news and an almost magnetic attraction to danger. This lets Peter and Mary Jane still be in each others’ lives but it completely rewrites the relationship between them. It becomes apparent quite quickly that trust is an issue for them. Peter needs to trust his unpowered counterpart before she can feel happy with him – he needs to treat her like a person instead of a fragile doll. It feels like a much more modern take on the relationship that still, again, retains the core idea that makes it work.
Mr. Negative, who has appeared heavily in the promotional materials, plays a major role in the game, too, with his own tragic backstory. A lot of the game’s core story beats come from some of the Spider-Man stories surrounding Mr. Negative, though once again, Insomniac does a great job of taking interesting cues from the story and repurposing them. Even if you know Spidey’s decades of storylines by heart, there are still surprises to be found.
I’d be remiss in not talking about New York City itself. New York is definitely a character of its own in Marvel comics, but especially so in Spider-Man, where the hero’s commitment to stopping even the smallest crimes means that just about everyone in the city has an opinion about him, from J. Jonah Jameson on his conspiracy-fueled talk-radio podcast to the police and people you run into on the street. The city is also littered with landmarks real and fictional like the Empire State building, Doctor Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, Avengers tower, and a Marvel-specific take on the raging bull.
Actually fighting the villains should relieve many fans of their biggest concern – that this would be a timed-button-press-fest, with battles being more about hitting buttons at the right moments than about actually fighting. While there is some of that, it makes up a minority of the game – the sequence from the trailer with Spider-Man webbing up the construction crane and catching the helicopter is definitely the biggest setpiece moment that has that stuff. While fighting villains, you’ll be swinging around, using your web shots to slow down or confuse villains, and it’s only once you get a few hits in that a triangle button prompt will come up to initiate a more exciting move. The button presses are there, but they’re far from the whole enchilada.
Difficulty feels well-tuned for the most part. When I talked to director Bryan Intihar he talked about wanting to give players both the chance to feel instantly powerful and to pursue mastery. In addition to having three difficulty levels, the game is littered with challenges that let you work hard to get higher scores, and many of the activities will ask you to focus on something like attaining maximum speed, aiming webshots while in motion, or taking down enemies without being seen. If I bunched challenges together they did get a bit repetitive, but when I spaced them out between missions they felt good. Passing the basic challenges is relatively simple, while getting the top score takes some creativity with Spider-Man’s gadgets and moveset.
I want to take a moment, too, to mention that I did run into a few bugs in my pre-day-one build. I ran into moments where I wasn’t awarded the “tokens” I should’ve been for completing challenges, a few moments when enemies were frozen in place mid-run, and even a few moments where enemies were stuck in geometry or hiding in the back of an unopened truck that would never trigger and open up. But for every one of those, I found small moments around the city, like guys talking about and playing a game of tennis, complete with scoring and comments about their swings, that showed how much detail work Insomniac has put into the game. The bugs didn’t affect my experience with the game in any meaningful way.
If Insomniac makes a sequel – and I really, really hope they get to – they’ve already gotten so much right. This feels like a Spider-Man game. It has the right tone and pace. The characters are interesting and entertaining. The major villains feel like they play off Spider-Man’s strengths and weaknesses in the ways that make them stand up to coming back year after year over Spidey’s nearly 60-year history. Insomniac is definitely the right developer to have tackled a project like this, and it leaves me satisfied but looking forward to more. To the promised New Game Plus that’s coming later, to the City That Never Sleeps DLC that’s coming, and to – years down the line – a sequel that could bring in even more of Spidey’s spider-family in the same fresh ways Insomniac found this time. Spider-Man is the best superhspiderero game in years, the best Spider-Man game in well over a decade, and one of my easy favorites for 2018. Not only did I finish Spider-Man, I ended up completing all of the side content. I’m still working on maxing out a few challenges, but my save game says 100% completion. This is a great game.
DISCLAIMER: We received a review code from the publisher and completed the single-player campaign and all side activities on PlayStation 4 Pro.
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