Spider-Man’s video game adventures center around three general principles: web-swinging across Manhattan, acrobatic combat featuring Spider-Man’s spider sense, and a rogues’ gallery of colorful villains. This has translated into linear brawling games and open-world games, the most critically successful of which was Spider-Man 2 (based on the popular Sam Raimi-directed movie) and Ultimate Spider-Man (based more directly on the comic book of the same name). However, despite his relative popularity, Spider-Man hasn’t had a game yet with a compelling Peter Parker story, nor empowered players to use Spider-Man’s full abilities, as Batman has in the Arkham Asylum games.
That has changed with Insomniac Games’ take on the friendly neighborhood web-slinger. In a New York City that is fun to swing around in, Insomniac has made combat that wraps the Arkham-style mechanics in smart Spider-Man-like trappings. A well-paced story also humanizes most of Spider-Man’s friends, sidekicks, and villains, finally delivering my favorite superhero a game that is worthy of attention despite some minor gripes about its open-world tropes.
Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4)
Developer: Insomniac Games
Genre: Open-World Superhero Action Adventure
Released: September 7, 2018
Played: Completed single-player campaign in 15 hours. Mopped up side activities and 100% completion in 10 more hours.
Marvel’s Spider-Man was reviewed using a final retail copy purchased by the reviewer.
Insomniac chose to make Peter Parker’s life the focus of the game’s plot, a good choice since the character’s popularity is due to how relatable his problems are. In this universe, Peter Parker is a recently graduated scientist who struggles to pay rent while working under Dr. Otto Octavius, keeps his secret identity as Spider-Man hidden, maintains his relationships with Aunt May and ex-girlfriend Mary Jane, and fights crime to keep New York City safe.
The game’s central conflict reflects Spider-Man’s comic book origins, on what it means to do the right thing in spite of personal consequences, and how good intentions don't always pay off with equally good results. What's new here is that we don't get another tired take of the Spider-Man origin story, the part where Uncle Ben dies and spouts the infamous maxim “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.” Instead, players get what great responsibility actually looks like when Parker tries to be as good as he can.
Without getting too much into spoilers, the game’s cast features many of the Spider-Man characters you might expect, including more modern Spidey-friends in Miles Morales and NYPD detective Yuri Watanabe, plus Spidey-foes such as Mr. Negative. There's even a fun twist on J. Jonah Jameson, Parker’s old boss at the Daily Bugle, who spouts exaggerated Spider-Man conspiracy theories as a crank talk show podcaster. The level of details woven in to these side stories makes the ensemble feel filled out more than just standard NPCs. It makes some of the game’s small character moments work as much as some of the game’s visual set pieces.
Visually, this spin on Manhattan is colorful and vibrant, especially if you’re playing on a PS4 Pro, though the polish and sheen is obvious during gameplay. This Spider-Man’s New York City pays homage to the real place while simultaneously leaving it filled with fun Easter eggs for fans to uncover. Though there is fast travel in this game, I found myself using it sparingly, instead preferring the faster momentum and honest joy I had simply traversing the city. This is the most fun and kinetic it has been to move through a game world since Mirror’s Edge, not to mention the game’s well implemented photo mode.
To get nitpicky though, the indoor spaces you sometimes encounter in Spider-Man’s world feel constraining and not as well polished. Several side activities feature combat challenges in warehouses or construction sites, and while it’s entertaining to web henchmen into walls and kick them off of buildings, it gets a little repetitive and constraining in these settings.
Speaking of side quests, depending on your personal level of open-world fatigue, you may find some of them disappointingly familiar. Yes, Spider-Man has Ubisoft-style towers, tedious random crimes to stop, and lots of little points of interest to dot the map. However, the game does a good job of doling out some of these optional activities from the main quest. By the end, without really trying, I found myself at 76% completion of everything while not straying too much from the main story missions. The best of these challenges involve the Osborn research centers, which force Spider-Man into playing an EPA agent while mastering some of his traversal mechanics and superpowers.
If you have played any of the Batman Arkham games in the last decade, you’ll feel at home with Spider-Man’s combat. There is a standard four-hit combo along with a one-button counter and dodge indicator, but Spider-Man’s agility makes completing air combos a breeze. Additionally, building your combo higher builds your focus meter, which allows you to perform finishers (again borrowed from Arkham) or heal Spider-Man mid-battle. The combat’s sometimes pinball-like momentum can be a blast when bouncing between groups of foes, even in the more climatic one-on-one supervillain boss battles, especially when using Spidey’s various gadgets and suit powers. Though quick-time events still rear their ugly heads in these sequences every once in a while, the Arkham-style combat feels evolved in Spider-Man without completely reinventing the wheel.
You should also know that there are some stealth sections in this game where getting caught means instant failure. They’re sprinkled throughout the campaign and make sense in the game’s context, and while not too difficult, they can still be a roadblock for some players.
The game also has experience points, leveling, and ability trees. Many of these upgrades feel slight, though the Webslinger branch will help you really take advantage of Spider-Man’s quickness and mobility in and out of combat. If you focus only on the main story’s progression, you’ll earn enough upgrades to fill out most of the skill trees, besides a few key unlocks, I really didn’t feel like my Spider-Man was all that different in hour one versus hour fifteen. The game is also not too difficult, but this is actually a plus considering the character’s mainstream appeal. Insomniac should also be applauded for having a number of accessibility options available from the start, a trend I hope other developers follow, including increasing subtitle font size, changing button taps to holds, and options to skip puzzles and the game’s infrequent quick-time events.
Marvel’s Spider-Man isn’t perfect, but it’s probably my favorite version of the open world superhero game. There’s enough personality to make it stand out from previous iterations of the Spider-Man formula, and I’m so happy a developer has finally nailed what it means to be both Peter Parker and the Amazing Spider-Man. The game’s ending also teases a possible sequel without making things feel inconclusive, and if this Spider-Man game is any indication, there is great potential for this reinvigorated video game franchise.