After what feels like a long time, Insomniac’s Spider-Man game is finally swinging its way onto the PS4. The developer’s been strongly linked to Sony for a long time and has brought us the excellent Ratchet and Clank and Resistance series, but this is a different proposition. There’s history to contend with and not only from 56 years of comics – a huge amount of people have fond memories of the superb Spider-Man 2 from Activision; and when the hero is so iconic it’s difficult to do something different that won’t alienate players and keep things familiar without being accused of copying. However, a lot’s changed in 14 years for game design, and here is an adventure that knows what worked in the past, does the character justice, and sets a new benchmark for comic book games.
The game (as well as the pre-launch marketing) is quick to establish that you’re not donning the red mask at the beginning of Spider-Man’s adventures, and you won’t have to endure yet another origin tale and watch his nearest and dearest suffer due to his mistakes. You’re joining Peter Parker a few years into life as the wallcrawler, and whilst he’s got his superhero alter ego moves down, his personal life is a bit of a mess. Working as a scientist for virtually no money, he’s split with MJ and is on the verge of being evicted. It’s an interesting side to see because it instils that sense of everyman reluctant hero with the dogmatic mantra about responsibility, and means the focus isn’t entirely on beating up bad guys and web zipping across rooftops. That’s still a massive part of it, but having another facet to the character to ground it in reality heightens the action elements and draws you in. It also opens up some options in gameplay that otherwise would have jarred with everything else.
To support the years of crime fighting experience, the game opens with Spidey whipping across Manhattan to take down Wilson Fisk once and for all. A full suite of powers and abilities lie at your disposal as you swing along city streets, gently guided by button prompts and help text, allowing you to settle into the rhythm and flow fairly naturally. There’s no complex or convoluted web system, just a button to hold and another to press if you want to jump. The game does the boring stuff of anchoring lines and lets you get on with being acrobatic and working out which route you want to take through the open landscape. Buildings rush by, trees rustle as you skim the tops, reflections dazzle in the glass fronted buildings, and people and cars bustle below. It’s a sight to behold and one that never stops being enjoyable… so much so you’ll be tempted to ignore the mission prompts and just head off to explore the city. All too soon though the final destinations loom in front and it’s time to save the day.
Most, but not all, of the ways to tackle the criminals in the game revolve around knocking them out in one form or another, with mixtures of stealth and direct combat employed depending on the scenario. Typically there’ll be some low level fodder to butter up first, then an intermediate wave that will test your reflexes and space management, and then, if it’s the right point in the game, time to take out a boss character. Your agility and speed is what you bring to the party, along with a full compliment of gadgets that help even the overwhelming odds. Punching and kicking inflict the damage, dodging is an essential skill and telegraphed by the Spider-Sense tingle (a blue halo around his head), and webs of varying types slow the approaching gangs down so that you don’t get stomped too easily. That’s a real risk too because despite the brains and athleticism, Spider-Man is not a built for being hit and a couple of decent blows from a large enemy can put you out of the game. Fortunately the fighting is very fluid and easy to get to grips with, and crucially, makes you look and feel like a bad ass most of the time. It gets even better when upgrades come into play.
Gadgets, skills and suit tech can all be improved to provide bonuses and different abilities that mainly support pummelling your foes. XP drives the skill upgrades and even though there’s an impressive move set from the beginning, there’s much, much more our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man can learn. Gadgets unlock through story progression and become better as you put resources into them, as do the suits. There are a lot of suits in the game and each has a particular “super” move that complements it. Rather nicely though, these aren’t locked to the suit you pick so you can mix and match through the game once you’ve developed the particular outfit. Then you’re able to add up to three perks that boost certain attributes, which again can be swapped out at will. It doesn’t cost too much to make these changes, and the currency needed comes in the form of tokens that are earned from completing a variety of side activities. There’s a slight catch – with several different token types you can’t just farm the same activities over and over again, everything has to be played to get to the gear you want. It makes a change from simple collectables, though those are present, and encourages trying different things and breaking up the gameplay. It doesn’t have to be a battle royale for every event.
When you get the chance there’s always the sneaky approach – climbing along the walls and ceilings and webbing up enemies that wander around unaware. It’s enforced in a few sections, though not many to be annoying, and is mandatory if you’re playing as a different character. Yes, that’s right, there are two others to play as after Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Mary Jane Watson makes her showing as a reporter persistently chasing a story in unsafe areas, and Miles Morales, an unlucky teen that gets taken under the suited arm of our hero (and is of particular relevance if you know the lore). The sequences are generally hiding and running from cover when no one’s looking, and fit well as they never outstay their welcome. The QTEs are like this too. Many were worried they’d be playing an on-rails game that relied on timing button presses after seeing the press demos, that’s definitely not the case. They are there in important cutscenes, but only appear in specific scripted events outside that, and enhance the action rather than take away from it.
Leveraging the fact that Peter Parker has a day job as a scientist opens up the opportunity for some puzzle solving to counterpoint the action. These take a number of different forms from electrical circuit fixing to spectrograph analysis to city plumbing design and are executed in some quite entertaining ways. Usually they’re woven into the side quests and they add some much needed depth to the game. The locomotion and frenetic combat are what we think of with Spider-Man, but without something else to do it could have easily become repetitive and lost a lot of its shine. Having tertiary elements that do things differently really puts in a distraction and you’ll find yourself heading out into the city to see what you can find. Random events happen spontaneously, or at least appear that way, and stumbling across a drug deal in progress means getting involved. Likewise, how could you ignore a car crash or stolen truck? There’s that much going on that you want to spend time exploring the island rather than trying to save it… at least in the early stages.
As the story progresses it picks up pace and that desire to see what’s coming next kicks in. If you’ve a passing knowledge of any of the characters it’s not hard to see broadly where things are ultimately going, but there are still some twists and turns along the breadcrumb trail, some unexpectedly bleak moments, and a commendably strong finish. It links into the current MCU without actually trying to be one of the films, and if it chucks something at you that you don’t know then there’s usually an answer in the character biographies or collections screens. It helps that it’s visually stunning with an immense level of detail not just in the environments, but in the vibrancy of New York, the population going about their lives, and the sound design that all blend together in one fantastic playground that begs you to use the photo mode. A lot. Voice acting, motion capture and performances are spot on from every major player, and every piece is geared towards you being Spider-Man in this epic telling of revenge, remorse and triumph.
So it does everything right then? That depends on what you want out of a game. There will be those that find some of the side quests a bit generic, and some that will compare this with Rocksteady’s Batman games and say we’ve seen the style before. There are moves that are difficult to pull off, low level enemy encounters that are harder than boss fights, and a certain amount of padding in the busy work. Yet that belies what is a superb adventure with a lengthy story and many reasons to revisit once it’s complete. Marvel’s Spider-Man takes inspiration from the great superhero games we’ve had. It expands on the good ideas, ditches the bad and produces one of the most compelling titles of the year. With great power comes great responsibility, and Insomniac have wielded it perfectly.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is out now and is exclusive to Sony’s PlayStation 4.