“With great power comes great responsibility.” Never has the iconic phrase from the Spider-Man franchise rung more true in regards to the hero’s video game outings. The same can be said about Marvel’s Spider-Man and the years-long journey that developer, Insomniac Games, ventured to bring us one of the boldest and most memorable Spider-Man experiences yet.
True to its slogan: “Be Greater,” Marvel’s Spider-Man accomplishes just that. Here you really do become Spider-Man, and a greater one than we’ve seen in some of the Web Slinger’s most recent string of games developed by Beenox. Under their direction, the Spider-Man license had been growing frail and uninspired. Insomniac Games was just the shot-in-the-arm the franchise needed, made all the more remarkable considering this is the developers first time with a licensed IP.
Marvel’s Spider-Man encapsulates the essence of the Wall Crawler in practice. While not a 1:1 scale of New York City, web-slinging from building to building has never felt more natural and thrilling. Several iconic locations from New York are faithfully recreated, such as the Empire State Building, World Trade Center, and Chrysler Building. It was also surreal to see Marvel locations as if they exist in the real world. These well known locations include Avengers Tower, the Daily Bugle, the Wakandan Embassy, and even the Sanctum Sanctorum.
Insomniac Games has gone out of their way to make web-slinging as flawless as possible. There’s no wrong way to get around, whether it’s running up the side of a building, dive bombing from atop a skyscraper, or web zipping at break-neck speeds; traversal is never boring. Eventually, you do unlock the option to fast travel if you wish, but I never once considered using it given the game’s fun factor. Just when I thought I was about to come to a complete stop by a water tower, I was amazed to see that Spidey would automatically vault through the tower’s railing, not once slowing the momentum I had built up. The mid-air acrobatics are even straight out of some of the best web-slinging sequences from the live action movies. Spider-Man’s ability to seemingly break the laws of physics never ceases to amaze with its visual splendor.
Combat is just as engrossing. Think of the fighting system from the Batman: Arkham franchise, but faster and nimbler to accommodate for Spider-Man’s athletic prowess. Numerous baddies can group up to take you down, but Spider-Man can unleash flurries of punches, kicks, and web attacks to even the odds. Also similar to the Arkham series is the feeling of being kept on your toes. There’s a strategy you need to figure out with every new fight because eventually, you’ll come across armed thugs using pipes, swords, guns, and brutes who are invulnerable to standard punches.
While jarring at first, some of the most satisfying moments with the game come from succeeding in otherwise insurmountable odds. For instance, you start a fight by sneaking around the combat zone to stealthily web up anyone on patrol duty, slowly working your way from the outside in only to find that you mopped the floor with everyone else remaining in the room. An improvement to Batman, however, is that you don’t lose your combo multiplier for missing one punch, which means earning consistent points to enable your suit power isn’t a lost cause for every fight. An extensive skill tree can open up dozens of offensive and defensive techniques to the player each time they level up, such as the ability to pull firearms from a thug’s hands, or even slam the ground following an aerial attack.
What’s more is that Spider-Man can make use of his arsenal of gadgets during a fight as well. Impact webs can instantly wrap an enemy in a web trap. Trip mines can snatch unsuspecting foes and web them to a wall. Web bombs can be tossed to web up a whole group at once. Each of these gadgets also come with their own upgrade trees to boost their effectiveness in fights.
Spider-Man’s wardrobe pushes the envelope further with a multitude of suit abilities. With over a dozen different suits from Spidey’s history, there are numerous ways to amplify how you fight. For example, the Iron Spider suit, as seen in Avengers: Infinity War, features extendable mechanical legs, while the Spider-Punk suit power releases incapacitating sound waves. What’s great about this system is that you can apply any suit power to a suit of your choice once you’ve unlocked said power. Say you like the Spider-Punk suit power, but you want that applied to the Iron Spider suit instead, it’s possible to do just that.
These features can often take a backseat to boss battles, however. Instead, Insomniac Games goes for encounters that would otherwise come straight from the Spider-Man movies. So while I can’t stretch my acrobatic dexterity, or aptitude with gadgets in these sequences, the set pieces surrounding pivotal battles are hard to argue with, especially when you come out the other end feeling like a boss having webbed up a helicopter without ever touching the ground.
At times Peter will also be tasked with completing science-themed activities such as filling in biological code sequences and repairing circuit boards in Dr. Octavius’ lab. It was a bit confounding at first, but I have to admit that I thought it was a clever use of Spidey’s oddball nature to be a geek in costume and not just the photographer side of him. While optional in some instances, it was very satisfying to complete the entire list of challenges using my willpower alone.
The story of Marvel’s Spider-Man is elevated thanks in part to Insomniac Games’ own approach to the Spider-Man mythos. There are several familiar faces from the Spider-Man rogue gallery to take down, and each is merged into the greater narrative slowly over time, giving players greater satisfaction when they do take down these villains for the count. What’s more is that there are characters present in the game that haven’t become villains yet, and the sense of foreshadowing evident in Marvel’s Spider-Man, admittedly, stirred some emotions in me. Eagle-eyed Spidey fans know what these characters will become, and I have to praise the developer for showing these characters’ motives as they slowly shape themselves into their villainous counterparts.
What Insomniac Games also managed to pull off was making me feel for Peter Parker, who can oftentimes be far more vulnerable, and often more compelling, than his superhero alter ego. Here’s a Peter Parker that is barely making ends meet as he is behind on his rent, his student loans have stacked up, who’s socially awkward, and sometimes hopeless in the throes of young love. One of my favorite themes explored in Marvel’s Spider-Man is Peter’s fluctuation between the roles of an apprentice and mentor. Both Peter Parker and Spider-Man are imperfect people, and Insomniac Games doesn’t shy away from the idea that neither person has everything figured out.
I especially have to applaud the relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, more so given the invigorating direction that Insomniac Games took with Mary Jane. A romantic subplot in these types of games can feel tacked on, but that isn’t the case here. This Peter and MJ have a history. They dated before. It didn’t work. Yet the pair remain close friends, or partners, or maybe an on-again couple. Herein lies the enjoyment of seeing these two onscreen because you want them to be together. They often tip-toe around the possibility of reconciling with one another. It’s instantly believable because of how well paced their story arc is handled. One night they’re having dinner with each other for the first time in months following their breakup. Another day they’re exchanging conspiracy theories over dinner at MJ’s apartment. There was even a time when I could easily feel for Peter when his emotions teetered between joy, worry, confusion, and anguish during an emotionally-charged exchange of texts with Mary Jane. Dare I say these versions of the characters outperform any interpretation we’ve seen in the live action Spider-Man movies.
Aside from the main campaign, there are numerous side missions to complete. Some range from taking down enemy outposts, locating Black Cat’s hidden cat figurines, helping Harry Osborn clean up New York City, battling B grade villains, to even chasing down the most agile pigeons ever seen in a video game. This is where your attention can shift from easily entertained to mildly fatigued. Don’t get me wrong, swinging across the city to suddenly stop a crime in progress, or stop a car chase, can be a rousing experience the first dozen or so times you try it, but will you still feel the same way the umpteenth time you have to do it?
There’s even backpacks to collect and iconic NYC sights that need photographing, and while the rewards can be worth tracking them down, the act of doing so isn’t fun because their location is always highlighted on the map for you to find. Instead, it would have been great to turn the backpack side mission into more of a scavenger hunt. Photos of what’s surrounding the backpack can act as your clues to eventually find what you’re looking for.
The day one patch for Marvel’s Spider-Man enabled the use of an in-game camera for a photo mode. It’s quite a versatile feature in which you can make comic covers of your own, or capture memorable moments and slap unique panels sporting the occasional “Whoosh,” “Pow!”, or “KABAAM” monikers for added oomph. Truthfully, it’s been a lot of fun to see what people on social media have been able to capture. The level of customization for the feature has a surprising amount of depth.
Having played Marvel’s Spider-Man on a PS4 Pro, I can attest to the vibrancy of the game’s graphics engine. Sunsets in New York carry warmth. Rainy days look very dreary, where even droplets of water slip and curl away at building structures. Times Square feels alive with every popping neon sign. A minor nitpick I have is that, while feature characters like Peter, Mary Jane, Miles, and Aunt May display superb facial animation, anyone relegated to a background character looks bland in comparison. It’s noticeable in several cutscenes. To top off the cinematic aspect, the game’s soundtrack feels straight out of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film. An orchestral fanfare sounds off each time you begin swinging through the city, and timid strings accentuate the tension of stealth sequences.
From the moment I swung into Marvel’s Spider-Man, I was certain I was getting myself into something memorable. While I have played numerous Spider-Man games before this one, I can say with absolute confidence that this is the best Spider-Man experience I’ve ever had. And yet, at a closer glance, this isn’t just about Spider-Man. More accurately, this is a player’s opportunity to experience Peter Parker, the flawed young man taking on the weight of the world, as well as that of those he cares about, as the snippy costumed crime fighter he is. Aside from a few pacing issues in side missions that don’t always live up to the campaign, if you come expecting to play as Spider-Man, you’ll get that in spades. But you’ll find yourself coming back for more because Insomniac Games imbued such a thrill in this franchise when it was sorely in need of it again. If this is the shape of things to come, then the future of Spider-Man is looking amazing indeed.