As Peter Parker’s alter-ego bursts onto your television in a flurry of sticky webs and flashy cinematics, you may be wondering if this, finally, is the Spider-Man game you’ve been hoping for. The one where it actually feels like you’re playing Spider-Man, rather than a skinned avatar who lurches around like a Transit van with cut brake lines. The one where you’re invested in Peter as a person and get to fully appreciate the villains he goes up against. The one which is fun to play. Happily, the answer is yes, on all counts. Marvel’s Spider-Man isn’t perfect, and it certainly isn’t the ground-up revolutionary superhero video game you might be hoping for, but it it polished, gorgeous and enjoyable enough to keep you hanging around, literally.
Entering in medias res is a bold move, but with the security of Sony’s publishing behemoth and the confidence bestowed upon a studio given Marvel's full blessing, Spider-Man can afford to take chances with the story. They pay off too: Peter is a lowly lab assistant working with Dr. Octavius, pre-Doc Ock breakdown. He is behind on his rent, has broken up with Mary Jane, and is barely holding his two separate lives together. You couldn’t tell though, given he flings almost as many quips at his enemies as webs. This is the cocky, urgent Spider-Man using humour as both a weapon and a defense mechanism, and Yuri Lowenthal captures him perfectly.
He isn’t alone. The voice acting across the board is flawless. It is quite possibly the most perfectly voiced superhero video game you’ve ever played. Whether you’re listening to J. Jonah Jameson’s hilarious character swivel to a shock jock presenter raging at Spidey or the comforting, homely tones of Aunt May, no-one puts a foot wrong. The villains have just the right amount of ham with their nuance, and the protagonists — for you occasionally play as MJ as well as another surprise guest — all nail the dialogue. The story takes surprising and often dark turns, but the cast are all up to the task.
To address the game’s most obvious criticism is also to highlight its strength. This is Insomniac’s rebuttal to the Arkham series, to the point where Rocksteady Games may be watching and shaking their head at the sheer cheek of their American counterparts. If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then Rocksteady have been flattered to death. Spider-Man emulates Batman’s outings almost wholesale, from the combat to the open world, from the gadget progression to the cinematics. The difference is that they do it better.
Combat is a simplistic affair to begin with which relies on a basic two-button dodge/attack combo. Like the Arkham series, a warning (or rather, spider sense) will flash above your head just before an enemy attacks you. Like Arkham you can power between different enemies, hitting them with a few punches before bounding over to the next guy and repeating. Like Arkham you can deploy one of Spidey’s numerous gadgets to give you an advantage, including shocking webs, spider-drones and web bombs for large groups. So much of it is similar that you might feel a bit bemused to begin with — while a revelatory new combat system might have been a lot to ask, surely some originality was called for? But as you progress you realise that Insomniac has taken the best parts of Batman’s combat and tailored them to the lithe frame of Spider-Man. The result is a fast, fluid, thoroughly enjoyable affair that lets you utilise a spectacular host of goodies to tie up your foes (in non-lethal ways, of course). Each hit increases your combo and Focus meter, the latter of which can be built up to either allow you to instantly heal or to take down bad guys in a single move.
As you level up and upgrade your abilities from three distinct skill trees, the option opens up to rip guns from the hands of enemies and hurl them back at them, or catch rockets and do the same. You can web up foes and use them to batter their buddies, pull down shelves on top of groups of thugs, and smash people over the head with webbed car doors and manhole covers. Every environment has numerous items to grab, deploy and destroy, which keeps the combat interesting — and even though you’re doing the same thing twenty hours in, the joy of fighting doesn’t diminish. New enemies are introduced at a steady pace to keep you on your toes. Hulking brutes need you to double up your Focus meter to take them out, goons armed with shields or electric whips provide a different challenge, and superfast swordsmen offer yet more variety.
The waves of goons you’ll fight are split over the multitude of side missions as well as the main story. Insomniac’s open world is like many others, replete with different tasks to tempt you off course. While collectibles such as backpacks with Peter’s mementos are standard affairs, other tasks include helping Harry Osborn with various science endeavours like scanning smog particles, taking photos of Black Cat’s trail, or clearing out bunkers of Fisk’s men. Puzzles involving rerouting circuits and performing lab chemistry feel as indulgent as they are enjoyable, and the stealth sections are simplistic and generous in their checkpoints. Each task adds to the experience required to level up and the numerous tokens you need to unlock new gadgets, suits and upgrades, so even the more routine tasks help you build a bigger, better Peter. Whether you’re stopping armed robberies, chasing vehicles containing bombs, or helping police take on gangs, it’s hard not to get sucked in when you spot a red alert on your map only a couple of hundred metres away. There is a risk in open world games which litter the map with icons that the amount of side quests become mere filler, and there is certainly an element of that with the various repurposed arenas of bad guys and a series of missions which literally has you chasing pigeons. Mostly though, they tie into Spider-Man’s lore and comic book history and bring the living, breathing city to life.
And what a city it is. New York’s famous skyscrapers are the perfect platform for Spidey’s skills, and it is faithfully recreated here with all of the landmarks you’d expect — and if you aren’t convinced, a tourist side quest will have you visiting them all to snap photographs. Cameos from Marvel's other series make an appearance, tying all of their IPs together and giving a feeling of connectivity that has yet to be bettered in the comic book world. None of this would matter if Spider-Man didn’t feel like Spider-Man, though and here, Insomniac have excelled. Somehow, they managed to condense the complex traversal of the city via lines of sticky silk into a single trigger button which makes moving around an absolute joy. So much so, in fact, that when fast travel options open up later on, you may find yourself eschewing the loading screen and going there via web instead. You can mix up things with other buttons to perform tricks, run along and up buildings, launch yourself from points and more, but the core movement is as simple as it could be.
That foundation in making you feel like you’re embodying one of the trickiest superheroes to be portrayed on the small screen is half the battle won. The other half is how it looks, and we are happy to tell you to disregard any news you may have read about the recent downgraded “puddle” controversy: this is the best-looking superhero game to date. The animation of Spider-Man is near perfect, a liquid ball of red who flows between enemies as easily as buildings. The city’s day, night and weather cycles deliver breathtakingly different vistas. The cinematics are unbelievably good, to the point where you will forget you’re not actually watching a Marvel film. The whole graphical package is so polished that at times you won’t appreciate even smaller things — like the way Spidey’s suit lights up when he’s looking at his smartphone, or how the cutscenes segue seamlessly into battle. All of this can be captured in glorious detail using the built-in photo mode.
Sound, too, deserves plaudits. The music is as thrilling as you would expect from something with Marvel’s name slapped on it, but there’s even more going on under the hood. You know the amazing voice acting mentioned earlier? It gets better — each of the lines Spidey speaks when swinging outside is actually one of two identical lines which change depending on whether he is currently exerting himself. Think about that for a minute. We didn’t even notice the social media stream within the menu system until a few hours in containing reams of notices and messages to pore through. The amount of effort that went into tiny but fundamental details like this are what makes this world so enthralling. They may not all be obvious or even things you’re interested in, but they’re included all the same and make a huge difference in comparison to, say, the empty world of Arkham City.
The perfect superhero game then? Close, but not quite. Little quirks and annoyances stop the game from reaching the very peak of greatness. The reliance on emulating so much of what has come before in both Arkham and open world games in general means that Spider-Man can sometimes feel by-the-numbers. There’s a series of towers you need to scale to view more of an area; there’s a mission involving you lining up symbols on buildings; there’s a prison break-out releasing some more formidable foes. And despite having no fewer than six enemies to battle, the boss fights themselves feel rather muted after the spectacle of the cinematics leading up to them. Most involve you webbing up each antagonist then hitting triangle to batter them, rinse, repeat. A few variations exist which utilise the environment, but none of them ever feel like they match the audacity and scope of their cutscene warmups. The agency is ripped away, making you watch Spider-Man do incredible things rather than actually letting you do them. Bugs, too, exist, though they are smaller in number. Bad guys occasionally stuck on the other side of doors when fighting inside, while a more serious issue with the introduction of the fast travel tutorial not activating meant that our save game was stuck in limbo. Fortunately the game takes a backup autosave as well as a standard one, so a manual reload resolved that — otherwise it would have been a game-breaking situation with a quarter of the game completed.
Even with these annoyances, it’s hard to fault a game that sucks you in so completely and still compels you to explore its open world, even after the fifteen-hour main storyline is finished. It may not be the ultimate superhero title, but spectacular and amazing? Absolutely.
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