Marvel’s Spider-Man is Ultimately Spectacular; Amazing even. I could list 2099 reasons why this is the case, and maybe I’ll Thwip up that listicle another day, but for now unlike J. Jonah Jameson, I’d like to issue an apology to our Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man, because ever since this -- Insomniac’s greatest game yet -- was revealed at E3 in 2017, I’ve been apprehensive about how it would play out and if, indeed, we’d get the sort of open-world Spider-Man game we’ve so richly deserved all these years.
First, let’s get the requisite Batman: Arkham and Rocksteady comparisons out of the way. Yes, Insomniac took a broad blueprint written by Rocksteady, and utilised it here in foundation form. But that foundation is no different than comparing one RPG to another, or one corridor shooter to another; one racing game to another. All we see here is that Rocksteady’s blueprint is the right blueprint for superhero and comic-book games, and what any developer does on top of that blueprint will shape their own game, in their own way. And that is exactly what Insomniac has done here -- though I’d like to issue a warning to them, and other developers in the future: showing super-action-heavy scripted sequences with Quick Time Events at a trade show full of scarred, jaded media and content creators, will net you a year or so of stupid questions around that, and how much it all permeates the full experience.
Spoiler: It does not overshadow this game. They’re very few and far between and do make sense in the context of those moments through narrative and sequence. But let’s move on.
Marvel’s Spider-Man almost has no right to exist in the shape that it does. The world-building on display here is next-level. The tech driving the game is simply breathtaking, and the basic sensation of being Spider-Man is so confidentiality portrayed here, it almost feels like this experience has been with us forever. It’s familiar in that this is open-world action gaming and Insomniac has embraced what all of that means. Combat is visceral and rewarding, and as you upgrade your Spidey through his Innovator, Defender and Webslinger skills (more on these in a minute), how you decide to be Spider-Man becomes as much a gameplay mechanic as anything else.
I’m not a fan of his lurching walk, and his light jog yog, and I’m still of the mind that utilising L2 and R2 as left and right arms, respectively, to shoot webs for webslinging through the city would have been the better option, but what’s here is still very, very good. And those, everyone, are largely my only gripes with the game. Everything else here is incredible.
What’s helpful too, is the missions that take place not as Spider-Man (even those as Peter). These gameplay breaks both ground you in terms of the sheer size of the game-world here (they created an almost 1:1 Manhattan, New York), and also make you realise how freaking cool it is being Spider-Man. This juxtaposition is a fantastic way of not just breaking up the flow of gameplay, it helps you see the game from unique and informative angles. It also reminds us that Spidey is never alone, which is a large part of the Spider-Man transmedia universe. And Insomniac has completely embraced all of this. Their story-telling alongside the actual plot is built from pure confidence in their ability to become a premier Spider-Man storyteller -- much in the same way Rocksteady backed themselves to do the same with the Batman: Arkham series.
What elevates an already amazing story here, is every member of the voice cast is perfect. Yuri Lowenthal as Peter Parker and Spider-Man is a revelation. His portrayal, comedy timing, tone and ability to shift in an out of demure Parker to annoying Spider-Man is seamless at best, and perfect at worst. Expect Spider-Man to be in heavy award contention at the end of the year, even with the looming Red Dead Redemption 2 next month.
From a structure perspective, the game doesn’t break too many rules, but it doesn’t overly hold your hand, either. As Spider-Man, you have a sprawling Manhattan to explore, which is full of life and things to do. It can get a bit Checklisty, but with such a large game, that’s not a major flaw. How all the activities in the world reward you, too, is fantastic, however. For example, you have a number of Gadgets. Some only unlock through story beats or once you reach a certain level, but these can also be upgraded, but require Tokens -- rewards collected for performing said activities throughout the game-world -- and often combinations of Tokens, as each token is activity-specific. This informally forces the player who wants to upgrade to engage the game-world. It’s not heavy-handed, but Insomniac has built a toybox for us to play with, and they want to make sure we’re playing with all of the toys on offer.
Moreover, they’ve injected a stack of Spider-Man history into much of this, while the greater Marvel New York universe isn’t forgotten, either. One of the tasks you can perform as part of the game’s activities is to take photos of New York landmarks, and while these include the likes of the UN, Times Square, Central Park and more, you’ll also find the Sanctum Sanctorum, Alias Investigations and more. There are a number of fantastic nods to Marvel’s history throughout, but that they’re baked into the game-world proper, rather than just as superfluous collectibles is further proof Insomniac has had an idea about how important a superhero stomping ground really is (as I’ve explored, and declared myself in the past).
From a combat and traversal perspective, the game is nearly flawless. Once you grasp how to really swing through the city, and tie various movement move-types together, you’ll ignore the later-unlocked fast travel system (though the Spider-Commute animations are amazing) just to swing to each location yourself. And later you’ll unlock challenges built around how quickly you can navigate in tight spaces against a timer, further expanding on utilising the game’s extracurricular activities as a means to become an even better Spider-Man.
Meanwhile, where fisticuffs is concerned, Spider-Man changes up on Rocksteady’s system. The game is less strict with how you build your combo -- allowing for a larger fighting arena, and for you to zip around with agility and poise to take out snipers and guys with rocket launchers (there are a lot of guys with rocket launchers in this game). You gain adrenalin that can be used for takedowns, or to heal yourself (another unique aspect to the character -- and one I’m not overly sold on, as a diehard fan). And you can build adrenalin in tiers, which means you can also stack healing or takedowns, depending on your level of confidence in not losing any of it as you work to combo up. You also have a lot more of the environment at your disposal and webslinging during combat. If you’re an Arkham combat expert like myself, it won’t take long to work this out, but it’s also revelatory in contrast to those game, and offers a different feeling in execution of stringing together flawless moves and smashing mobs.
Naturally, in equal contrast to bringing (upgradeable) Web Shooters to an electrified baton, negative energy-charged spiked weapon, handgun, riot shield, automatic weapon, rocket launcher fight, Spidey can go dark and take on certain scenarios with stealth. There are challenges around this, but it’s the situations that emerge through the game’s story that highlight how well the team has handled a number of gameplay systems against dynamic story situations. Where Rocksteady’s efforts often did become a bit predictable in how they needed to be approached, Insomniac has continually kept theirs fresh, new and unique throughout the experience. And we’re all the better for it.
The final piece to all of this is in pacing. Marvel’s Spider-Man does not rush you. You’re living two lives that are both disparate and more often than not intertwine, usually in bad ways for Peter. It’s a unique balance from an interactive writing perspective, and my hat is off to Insomniac for pulling it off so maturely, without compromising any parts, beats or player-agency. In how they’ve drawn out their impressive narrative stacked against compelling, open-world gameplay Spider-Man is now an absolute benchmark. I keep coming back to confidence in design and storytelling, and there’s a reason for that: this is the game this studio was seemingly tailored to make and once again Sony now has another top-shelf Triple-A exclusive under their belt. This is absolute “buy a PS4 (Pro) for” (it looks AMAZING on a 4K HDR screen).
Let the adventures of “Spider-Cop” play out for as long as possible, Insomniac. We love them.
What we liked
The Spider-Man game we've all been waiting for
An amazing story with wonderfully written and voiced characters
Manhattan is a thing to behold as a sprawling, living playground
Traversing Manhattan is incredible
Combat is visceral and not a total carbon-copy of Batman: Arkham combat
An impeccably balanced and paced narrative with a number of excellent arcs
More than enough nods to the greater Marvel universe throughout
What we didn't like
I still think dual-arm webslinging would have been a better option