Spider-Man video games has had a storied history that dates back all the way to the earliest console games. And as such, its progression with each title in various outlets feels like a walk down the history of video gaming itself and how each subsequent console generation pushes forward the technology that will displayed in the next Spider-Man game.
Insomniac Games’ first foray into the world of super-hero video games takes up the mantle of showcasing everything possible in the currently available technology into a game that succeeds in making us be like Spider-Man. Every swing across Manhattan’s rooftops, every dash up a skyscraper hammers home the Spidey experience coupled with a delightful tale that not only lets you get into the suit of Spider-Man, but also in the shoes of Peter Parker and lets you experience his complicated world in all its emotional glory.
It will not be a Spider-Man game without the web mechanics, acrobatics, and high-paced action and this game delivers in all three. The best comparison with regards to controls would be the Arkham games, but adds its own original twist to it which can be really felt once the character has sufficiently leveled-up and you have access to most of the moves. Boss fights and set pieces are accentuated with quick-time events that you can mercifully turn off in the menu (hurrah for accessibility!). It would seem that Insomniac had hit a home-run in its very first open-world super-hero game.
As befits our hero, web-swinging is one of the best things in the game. Once you get past the learning curve, you will find yourself effortlessly swinging, making Spidey do some acrobatic moves, taking photos (via the Photo Mode), and conveniently forgetting story missions. There is something therapeutic about the web-swinging because it made me forget all my real life problems by just letting Spidey free, swinging through the streets and having fun.
Insomniac has made what is probably the greatest open-world traversing mechanic ever. Because while you will eventually get fast-travel points, you will find yourself choosing to rather swing your way to your objective instead. This is because while the map is huge enough, you can eventually swing your way to such speeds as to nullify whatever great the distance might be. And also because it is quite FUN to do so.
Since he is “Spider” Man, you also have the ability to climb up walls and tall buildings, whether the trademark slow crawl, or actually running straight up. The seamless transition between swinging and running sideways is pure ecstasy as hitting a wall during a chase won’t necessarily stop Spider-Man in his tracks but will make him continue with the chase on a different traversing method. What is more, you can just immediately swing afterwards anyway. Any building that is higher than Spidey can be used to swing, and should you find yourself higher than the apartment blocks (the different neighborhoods’ have different building types) for example, you can use the “web-pull” to keep your momentum, or wait till the buildings are higher than you and you can just swing away again.
The game also has interiors, mostly during the story missions. This is where the inspiration from the Arkham series is at its finest as you would then use Spider-Man’s skills and gadgets to keep out of sight and take out the bad guys without alerting anyone.
What these indoor locations do is to let Spidey showcase his gadgets. There are several gadgets that help you take on bad guys who may require a different move or tactic to defeat, just like in the Arkham games. Some guys you can just beat up easily, while some would require you to beat them from behind. Most bad guys are easily affected by your webbing, but some are not, forcing you to change tactics on the fly.
Here is where Spidey’s skill tree comes in handy. As Spider-Man levels up, you can use these skill points to give Spidey new abilities and gadgets. Soon, you will be sufficiently leveled enough to mix and match moves and skills for a fun and deep combat. The timing and correct combination of moves coupled with smart use of the Focus Meter makes for very fun and often cinematic fights.
The boss fights can be really fun, but can at times be uninspired. Some of the bosses are fun to go against, allowing you to be creative in taking them out. But others are just……boss battles. I think the word “inconsistent” comes to mind when it comes to Boss Battles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it also means that some of them (the very first one, for example) aren’t particularly memorable. But the really good ones are the ones that comes with some emotional baggage, as the stakes are higher and depending on how involved you are with the story, personal.
For a super hero, Spider-Man also has an extensive wardrobe. Like previous Spider-Man games, suits can be unlocked and each come with their own powers which can be used independently of the outfit. But once you have reached a high enough level, some of these powers can be redundant, or just not that worth it because you don’t really need it to finish the game. But they do serve to make things feel different each time you play because it gives you options you might use, instead of being just there for the sake of adding gadgets and powers.
The game’s New York city is beautiful especially when you are swinging across roof-tops at high speed, or standing on top of a tower surveying your surroundings. But there are graphical disparities, like how Peter Parker or the other main characters’ models look spectacular but the average person in the open-world doesn’t. But there are other visual treats in the game that makes it up for those deficiencies or at least allows you to overlook them. When you gaze in awe at some of the visual effects like light bouncing off glass windows in buildings, you really can’t think of anything else. And besides, you wouldn’t really interacting much with the civilian NPCs anyway.
As I’ve never been to New York, I would never really be sure if Marvel’s Spider-Man is a 1:1 or a near 1:1 recreation of the famous city. But I have seen a lot of familiar locations mostly via playing other games set in New York like The Division. It’s not quite the same, but you will know it by seeing it. The key landmarks are recreated faithfully, and the different neighborhoods can be easily discerned even when you are swinging high up in the air. For sure, I don’t think each nook and cranny was preserved in the game but the important thing is that the place looks and feels New York City.
The music reminds me of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Although the game does not share the same continuity as the MCU or any of the other Spider-Man movies, the music is cinematic enough for you to sometimes make the connection.
As an open-world however, the game inherits both the advantages and the problems of the genre. The side-missions can often be good way to level up your character, but they can be repetitive. There are side-missions that gives you the opportunity to discover the places and know them by heart but there are also others that are standard “wipe out waves of bad guys” fare. The best side-quests though are the collectibles. Each bag you find in New York tells something about Spider-Man, making you more and more connected to the character. Obviously these side-quests reward you with points you can use to purchase the costumes and gadget modifications, but they are also important in other ways.
Marvel’s Spider-Man has a great story that might be slow at the beginning, but is very engaging and compelling. The Spider-Man you will be controlling in this game already has a history in this world, unlike other games that has you going through the same origin story again and again. The game assumes you know Spider-Man or at least have a functional knowledge of his early history. But even if you are not a hardcore Spidey fan, the story will still be easy to follow because the game also introduces you to conflicts easily understood, even if it is with a villain that Spidey has had a past with, along with the fore-mentioned collectibles.
I really appreciate the fact that we would not have to see Uncle Ben dying for the nth time, not because it is unrelated to this story, but because we are already at a point in time where Peter has had other motivations to being Spider-Man besides the death of his Uncle. In this game, you may be dealing with the consequences of being Manhattan’s friendly neighborhood super hero, but it is also very much a story of the present. However, the game still reminds you of that loss and how it forced Peter Parker to make the decisions he made to that point.
But perhaps Insomniac’s greatest accomplishment with regards to the story is their treatment of Peter Parker. Getting into the shoes of a super hero without the mask allows you to get into his head sometimes and get a taste of his difficult balancing act between being Spider-Man and being Peter Parker.
In this story, Peter Parker looks up to a mentor, and as Spider-Man, he is becoming one too. It is this duality that was expertly weaved together by Insomniac into a cohesive and sometimes touching story, that gives justice to Spider-Man’s reputation as an “easy-to-connect-with” character throughout the years. He may have the super powers, but he is still very much a human being. It develops Peter as a character independent of Spider-Man, and again helps us understand his struggles as he tries to balance his personal life and super-hero duties.
It was nice to see Mary Jane again in a Spider-Man video game, and her relationship with Peter and how the deal with what to do with their relationship adds depth into their tandem in this game. A big reason for that is that their romance is warm and full of life, as they go through things that also happen to real-life partners. Mary Jane is a big part of Peter Parker’s life, and this game lets you feel that.
Despite some elements of the open-world genre, Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4 made me feel like Spider-Man with all his skills and abilities under your control, as well as making me feel like Peter Parker with all his emotional baggage. If previous Spider-Man games looked like showcases for the innovations and technologies being accumulated as the console generations move along, this game blew it wide open, possibly making the effort to make the next one a very gargantuan task. The finely-tuned web mechanics and combat, the masterful inter-weaving of multiple story-threads into one largely cohesive and compelling story, and the superb visual treats gives this game a winning super hero debut for Insomniac.