Marvel’s Spider-Man isn’t the game I expected. It’s probably not the game you’re expecting, either.
That isn’t to say that you’ll be wholly mystified when you first take control of Spidey and swing through the streets of Manhattan. Insomniac did, after all, draw on some of the most obvious sources of inspiration, cribbing the best bits of movement from prior Spider-Man games and building combat around a flashy, rhythm-based system in the vein of Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games.
But what’s surprising is that Spider-Man pushes beyond those touchstones, layering in elements of less expected games. It inherits a sense of highly personal, character-driven storytelling from Sony exclusives like The Last of Usand Uncharted 4. For better and for worse, it borrows some open-world sensibilities from the pre-Origins era of Assassin’s Creed. In combat, it expands its palette with some of the aerial attacks, juggling, and fluid combos of “stylish action” games like Devil May Cry. There’s even a touch of Gone Home, if you look for it. On paper, it’s an utterly bizarre grab bag. In practice, it all hangs together beautifully.
When it comes to conveying the fantasy of being Spider-Man, Insomniac ticks all the necessary boxes with confidence and panache. Web-swinging, mostly a streamlined update of the physics-based system introduced in 2004’s Spider-Man 2, is an absolute blast. Sure, some concessions have been made in the name of speed, approachability, and control, but the heart of the thing is intact. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss being able to spin in full loops or throw out a web in each hand to slingshot from between two buildings, but what’s here is great, and what’s not would have probably been a bit extraneous, if I’m being honest. As it stands, the rich set of movement options at your disposal make getting from point A to point B in between missions, usually just filler in a game like this, one of the highlights. It’s rare to play anything where that immediate marriage between the controller and onscreen action is so consistently joyous.
Combat likewise impresses, delivering heaps of versatility and expressiveness, if not quite depth. Pinging between enemies feels just like playing through your own action-heavy comics sequence panel by panel. You’ll dart between flurries of quick hits that end in perfect heroic poses and mix in showier maneuvers and takedowns that look like a splash page come to life. The cadence of attacks and dodges offers plenty of room for mastery, as do the variety of enemy types and XP-based unlocks that offer up new abilities.
My only real gripe here is with the gadgets you can unlock. Individually, items like the web bombs, trip-mine, and Spider-Bots are an exciting way to mix up your combos. Since they’re all equipped via a single radial menu accessed by holding L1, however, it can be hard to swap between them without ruining the flow of combat. I lost count of the times I moved the right stick too quickly in anticipation of aiming my next attack and released the bumper only to discover I’d mistakenly selected a different gadget than the one I intended.
The stealth options on offer, probably the closest thing to a straight lift from the Arkham games, are admittedly a bit shallow. Importantly, though, they’re never unpleasant and rarely mandatory. If you’re not into zipping from perch to perch and webbing up isolated enemies, you can usually just drop down and start pounding faces without any real penalty.
If I haven’t said much about the game’s story so far, that’s by design. For one thing, I wouldn’t want to spoil anything. But the bigger reason is that the specifics of what happens are far from the most interesting thing about Spider-Man’s storytelling. Yes, you’ll fight Mr. Negative and a version of the Sinister Six, complete with some updates on classic villains. Yes, Pete has a will-they-won’t-they thing with Mary Jane, and Miles Morales shows up, and Aunt May is secretly Mephisto in disguise. (Okay, that last one may not actually be true.)
At the end of the day, the only thing I really want to tell you about Spider-Man’s story—and the only thing I need to tell you to sell you on it—is this game understands, more than almost any other comics adaptation, what sort of person would dedicate their life to becoming a hero. This isn’t a Peter Parker who became Spider-Man because Uncle Ben said something about power and responsibility and then died. You won’t hear any version of that tired line during the game, and good on Insomniac for that. Boiling down Spider-Man to an overused catchphrase misses the point.
Peter Parker is a hero because the grand total of all the lessons his aunt and uncle taught him throughout his life made him the sort of person who strives to do the right thing. Peter would be trying to help the people around him regardless of whether or not he was bitten by a radioactive spider. The mercifully unspoken “great power” thing just serves as a reminder that the stakes are higher now. It’s an optimistic perspective, but one that never feels oversimplified or immature even as a few scenes, lines, and story beats fall flat.
And in what might be the game’s most impressive juggling act, each of Peter’s allies and most of his enemies serves as a foil or mirror for his altruistic approach to heroism. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the major players in the story all get crystal-clear motivations, all human in scope. They’re trying to help people, even when it’s not entirely clear their approach is the right one. They’re trying to do right by family members they’ve lost. They’re struggling to make ends meet. Everyone is doing the same things Peter is striving to do. Everyone is trying to get by. Some of them just happen to have superhuman abilities, too. This is admittedly writing competence at the most basic level, but so many games and so many superhero adaptations still manage to botch it. Spider-Man doesn’t.
If the core gameplay and story missions shine, though, the side content certainly fares a little worse. The early stages of exploring the open-world are a bit of a drag, thanks to a tower-based system that requires you to unfuzz the map piece by piece. Though I’ve got a higher tolerance than most for collectibles and simplistic side-content, there’s quite a bit of it here, even for me, and none of the more fully realized sidequests come close to the depth, complexity, or fun of the big story missions.
The biggest culprit here is the random crimes that pop up around the city. There’s theoretically an infinite number of these available, but a whopping 165 of them contribute to your overall completion percentage. That’s far too many, given that there isn’t a ton of variety among them. Even some of the different categories, like muggings and drug deals, play out in a more or less identical fashion despite the different setups. It’s copy-and-paste filler in a game that would have been plenty long enough without it.
And the real bummer is that pretty much all of the game’s unlocks are tied into this side content, making it mandatory for any player that wants to unlock a full suite of toys and a full wardrobe of alternate costumes. Even the leveling system is structured around the idea that you’ll do quite a few of the non-story objectives if you’re going to reach max level and fill out your skill tree by the game’s end.
Ultimately, though, I have a hard time faulting Spider-Man for its missteps when it succeeds so wonderfully at letting me embody my favorite superhero. And yes, here’s where I should probably mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I’m a closet stan for Spider-Man. These days, I don’t go in much for fandom—when a crowd forms, I run the other way—but my connection to Spider-Man goes deeper than any sense of shame. My first online handle was “webhed89.” One of my earliest memories is dressing up as Spider-Man for Halloween, probably during preschool, with my parents warning me not to pantomime shooting web lest the hand gesture be interpreted as a gang sign. And when Spider-Man 2 came out for the PlayStation 2, I spent an entire summer tearing that game apart, reveling in the way it made me feel like Spidey.
In that respect, I’m probably predisposed to be both nicer to and harder on Insomniac’s Spider-Man than most. I’ll love anything that lets me live out my childhood fantasies, but I also can’t help but hold up Insomniac’s game to the version of Spider-Man 2 that exists in my head, all distorted and frozen in the amber of nostalgia. For all my high expectations, and for all the ways Marvel’s Spider-Man upended them, I sit here feeling every bit like I’m back in 2004, an awkward adolescent who can’t wait to go swing from the Empire State Building and pretend to be a hero.
Marvel’s Spider-Man mixes the prestige ambitions of a Sony exclusive with the hyperkinetic fun of a great superhero game. It’s not a pairing you’d expect to work, but it mostly does here, though some aspects of the open-world design, like repetitive side content, let down the overall package.
Sony Interactive Entertainment
T – Teen
|Marvel’s Spider-Man is available on PlayStation 4. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|