It’s finally here. Insomniacs’s long-awaited PS4-exclusive tribute to everyone’s favourite wall-crawling icon has finally arrived. And my word, is it fantastic. The team behind Ratchet and Clank and Sunset Overdrive have seriously hit a home-run here; absolutely nailing everything from the combat, to the web-swinging, to the fundamental presentation of the title character.
From the moment the game begins, it’s easy to see the incredible heart the developer has put into crafting a Spider-Man game that is truly worthy of the name. The intuitive mechanics are continuously matched by a heartwarming level of charm and sincerity that serve to create an experience that doesn’t just allow the player ‘feel’ like Spider-Man, but in a sense embody him, even on a personal and emotional level.
Of course the game is not without its issues; some being minute, others a little more noticeable. But while it may get tangled up in it’s own webs from time to time, Insomniac’s adventure is one that finally gives the Arkham franchise a run for its money.
Narrative – A seasoned Spider-Man
Let’s start with the story, which is genuinely brilliant. Admittedly, it gets off to a bit of a slow start; spending a lot of time educating the player on the current state of Peter’s relationships with classic characters. Which is perfectly fine, considering how much effort Insomniac have put into developing incarnations of classic Spider-Man characters that are somehow simultaneously both familiar and unique. The choice of narrative setting is a stroke of genius as well: Peter, having recently graduated college, is highly experienced as Spider-Man but less so as an independent adult. Struggling with bills and working as a low-paid lab assistant, Peter has recently learned having ‘great power’ doesn’t necessarily help with his own responsibilities.
Peter’s new perspective on the struggles of everyday life has also caused him to start questioning the precise nature of his role of as Spider-Man – at one point Pete mentions working to help people as a scientist has made him realise he can ‘do as much good for the world in a lab coat as in tights, maybe more.’ This presentation of a mature, seasoned and somewhat more philosophical Peter Parker does sensationally well to differentiate him from his big-screen counterparts, and consequently cemented him as perhaps one of the most interesting on-screen iterations of the character I have seen, period. The introduction of this mindset also perfectly sets up a fascinating mentor/mentee relationship with a certain other well-known character: Miles Morales. I won’t go into it but, suffice to say, Miles’ own character arc is fantastic. Insomniac do incredibly well at establishing him as both an interesting and relatable character; with his scenes with either Peter Parker or Spider-Man always being fascinating or heartfelt or both.
Of course, huge credit should also be given to the voice-acting, which is absolutely top-notch. Aided by sensational graphics and animation, practically every actor commits to lending each of their characters a remarkable level of authenticity that resonates incredibly strongly in each of their more intense or emotional scenes. But, most certainly, Yuri Lowenthal deserves special commendation for his performances as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker. Handling both the wisecracks and poignant remarks with such charm and genuineness, Yuri and Insomniac together ensure the player can entirely immerse themselves in the eponymous heroes’ exciting yet empirically relatable, sometimes deeply emotional, narrative.
Of course, the story isn’t without its snags. There are some inherent pacing issues, where occasionally the time spent establishing character backgrounds and relationships starts to distract somewhat from the main plot. There are, for instance, quite a few sequences where the player takes control of certain other characters. While the idea itself is sound from a narrative standpoint, these scenes tend to be a bit hit-and-miss; with the simplicity of each sequence’s gameplay often causing some to feel more than a little sluggish, and others even downright boring and unnecessary. A few of them, especially those that come a little later in the campaign, are actually highly interesting, however; either by enhancing the emotional weight of certain plot points, or using the simple mechanics more inventively to generate some satisfying set-piece moments (a particular highlight being a sequence that takes place in Grand Central Terminal about half-way through the game).
Web-Swinging – Creating a digital playground
Ok, now on to what everyone really cares about: web-swinging. Well, quite frankly, it’s utterly glorious. Insomniac created a series of mechanics that are simple enough to be immediately accessible and yet intuitive enough to benefit from practice and experimentation. You can grasp the nature of swinging literally within seconds of the game beginning, and yet alternating between swinging, web zipping, wallrunning and parkour is where the true gratification lies. The various extra traversal abilities Spidey possesses serve to complete the experience; with some that are unique to Insomniac, such as the ability to quickly corner a building or pivot over a roof, and others that hearken back to previous Spider-Man games; such as the incorporation of the ‘Point Launch’ ability which (similar to Beenox’s Amazing Spider-Man tie-ins) allows Spidey to zip to and propel himself off an obstacle, and even allowing the player to perform ‘air-ticks’ while free-falling, Spider-Man 2-style.
The overall feel of traversal gameplay, however, is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. It’s easy to see why the Sunset Overdrive developer was chosen for the task of making Marvel’s official Spider-Man game once you’ve got the controller in your hands. The world feels so authentic and reactive, where practically every obstacle can be traversed in some unique way. It’s obviously much faster to just swing straight to wherever you’re going, but it’s ridiculously fun to deliberately land on a roof now and again to watch Spidey vault and flip over a few chimneys and air-conditioning units, or wallrunning across a building just to see him him gracefully spin over and around its fire escapes. And point launching through the gaps in a water tower or crane, likewise, never gets old. The effort Insomniac have put into animation ensures traversal is not just accessible and enjoyable, but visually stunning as well.
Combat – Redefining free-flow fighting
Alright let’s get the Arkham comparison out of the way now: yes since 2009 Rocksteady’s revolutionary Free-Flow system has influenced countless developers and their games – this particular title being among them – but Insomniac’s own take on the dynamic is the first I have ever encountered that hasn’t simply made a loose copy of the system, but intelligently adapted it to the context and uniqueness of their own adventure. In fact, I would go so far as to say Spider-Man‘s own adaptation of the mechanics may actually be an improvement on the original – and considering how much I adore the Arkham games, I do not deliver that statement lightly.
Combat in Marvel’s Spider-Man has an extraordinarily unique feel to it. Rather than fights being fundamentally formulaic, taking place exclusively in close-quarters with enemies tending to attack one-at-a-time, in Spider-Man combat is open, hectic and doesn’t just encourage but demands strategic improvisation on the part of the player. Enemies aren’t always grouped into a horde, they tend to spread themselves out somewhat; with basic thugs swarming the player, while those with melee weapons hang back and wait for a timely opening, and the goons with guns distance themselves further in order to take pot shots. This adds a unique level of complexity to combat; not only because the player has a lot of different forms of attacks to keep an eye out for, but because the player has to be able to actively zip between different enemies or groups of enemies during encounters.
At any time during a fight, pointing the left stick at an enemy and pressing triangle will have Spidey web straight to them for a combo, even while attacking or in the air. And after dealing with that enemy, you can move on to the next in the same fashion. The range of your ‘web-strike’, as its so called, can also be upgraded which is very helpful during certain story and side missions where enemies are spread out across a vast, sometimes multi-storied, playing field. Once you get the hang of it, you can even incorporate certain traversal moves into combat; swinging around to avoid enemies, performing aerial dodges, propelling yourself off walls or attacking straight from a Point Launch for extra force.
As for Spidey’s actual combat abilities, well, there are a lot of them. To begin with, your fights will consist predominantly of melee attacks, web strikes, dodges and web shooters. But before long you’ll be taught about how to knock enemies into the air for aerial combos, set them up for web slams and web-throws, take advantage of environmental objects and hazards and use more elaborate forms of dodging (pressing circle during a combo will see Spidey slip beneath a guy’s legs, while pressing x will have him propel himself off the enemy and into the air). And that’s before you even get a chance to start upgrading yourself with even more abilties.
On top of all that, the player also has access to a selection of high-tech gadgets. In fact, Spider-Man’s arsenal has a non-coincidental Ratchet and Clank-feel to it, with each gadget designed to be effective in its own unique scenario. In addition to basic web shooters which can be used to immobilise goons temporarily, or permanently if used when foes are near walls or sprawled out on the ground; Spider-Man has access to web-bombs, combat drones, concussive blasts and electrified webbing, amongst other toys.
Unfortunately, having all these gadgets and abilities at your disposal can feel a little overwhelming at first; especially since Insomniac kind of throw the player into the deep end before long, sending large waves of various enemy archetypes for them to deal with. The fact that enemies also tend not to attack individually but as a group make things even more challenging. As a result, I found that with a lot of the more hectic fights I could easily slip into a mess of erratic dodging and button mashing. But, as per usual, practice makes perfect. Once you’ve taken the time to really hone your understanding of the basic mechanics and rhythm of combat, then you can start trying to learn and memorise each of the numerous tools and abilities at your disposal. My initial issue was that I kept trying to remember all the moves I could do during each and every fight, which would often cause me to lose my concentration and composure. So instead I decided to just focus on one or two abilities per fight, then practice and master their usage before moving on to new ones. It can take a while to really get to grips with it but, once you do, combat becomes outrageously fun and addictive.
To be honest, being one of the best combat systems of any game I’ve played, I don’t really have any grievances at all. The only thing I found noticeably missing from the experience was the ability to switch between gadgets on-the-fly. The player has 8 different gadgets available to them (once unlocked) but, again reminiscent of Ratchet and Clank, must bring up a weapon wheel to select them, which pauses the game and thereby breaks the flow of combat. You have the option of double-tapping L1 to quickly switch between your last two selected gadgets but no way of smoothly cycling through them. This meant that I rarely used most of the gadgets throughout the majority of the game as I didn’t want to keep interrupting gameplay, so I pretty much just stuck to the same two or three for each fight. But once you get further into the game and other gadgets become much more useful when dealing with tougher enemies, a way of selecting them without having to pause gameplay would have been appreciated. Strangely, the left and right directional buttons have been left entirely unassigned, so the window as at least still wide open for Insomniac to integrate such a feature in a future update.
Stealth – Spidey in the shadows
There’s not a great deal to say about stealth gameplay, except that it also is tremendous fun. It’s certainly more apt to make Arkham comparisons here, as the two experiences are far more similar than the combat systems. Spidey can sneak behind enemies for instant stealth takedowns, or use web zips to reach vantage points for ‘perch-takedowns’. Gadgets also become much more appealing in stealth encounters, and can be used to either immobilise foes – the Trip-Mine (seen briefly in Spider-Man: Homecoming) is especially fun for this – or distract them, separating groups to isolate enemies for instant but loud web-strike takedowns, for instance.
Free-Roam – New York, New York
And finally, the free-roam gameplay: in a sense the true essence of a modern Spider-Man game. Well, Insomniac’s New York City is truly gorgeous; each of its nine districts brimming with stunning detail. While architecture in various remote areas of course tends to repeat itself somewhat, there remain dozens of areas throughout the city that have a very distinct look and feel to them. The game’s 50 or so landmarks contribute massively to this sense of authenticity and uniqueness. Many of the landmarks are of course real recognisable attractions from the Big Apple, while others are Easter-Egg like references to other characters from the Marvel Universe (I have to say, Spidey commenting on the ‘cool’ window on the front of the Sanctum Sanctorum made me more than a little giddy).
On top of that, the citizens likewise feel like a deeply significant aspect of the free-roam environment. They operate as a sort of living entity; reacting to Spider-Man as he drops in out of nowhere and subsequently greeting or sometimes chastising him. What’s especially gratifying is the way Insomniac allow the player to actually interact with pedestrians themselves: ‘square’ functions as a makeshift ‘greet button’ (Spidey will wave, salute or do some cheesy Fonzy finger-guns), whilst certain other pedestrians will provide opportunities for special interactions – pressing ‘triangle’ in these scenarios will see Spidey shake someone’s hand, high-five or take a selfie with them. Some pedestrians will even point out a nearby side mission or collectible for the player to investigate. They are small touches but really go a long way to making the world feel ‘alive’, while also ensuring the player truly has the chance to feel like a real ‘Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man’.
The main story takes about 12-15 hours to complete, but the player will spend an equal amount of time tackling the many extra-curricular activities spread across Spider-Man’s NYC. These activities are probably the only area where Spider-Man starts to lose its inherent uniqueness; while additional content is usually a good thing, Insomniac went a little overboard and so the game begins to fall prey to the traditional issues that tend to plague open-world games. The side missions, for instance, are extremely basic, especially when compared to the ingenuity the developer displays throughout the game’s campaign. Unlike Arkham Knight, which used side-missions more inventively to introduce new villains and as an opportunity to generate some unique set-pieces, Spider-Man‘s side quests tend to be fairly dull affairs. Some may have a few references here and there to certain Spidey villains from the comics, but most have no unique encounters and tend simply to feel like disguised versions of the game’s various extra-curricular activities
The game’s extra-curricular tasks are another issue: there’s just far too many. In addition to regular side quests, you’ve got local crimes, base excursions, challenges (combat, stealth and traversal varieties), research station missions, radio tower hacks, backpack collectibles, black-cat stake-outs, photo ops and, erm, pigeon chases.
It’s nice that Insomniac spent lots of time imbuing the city with extra things to do and extra incentives to explore, but including so many of the same types of missions means the game easily can start to repeat itself. The player can’t really ignore them either, since the tokens you get from completing them are used to craft upgrades, mods and new suits – something that makes Insomniac’s planned addition of a New Game Plus mode particularly appealing.
Now technically the game ‘repeating itself’ isn’t too much of a problem, considering how preposterously fun it is anyway, but I can’t help but feel swapping the inclusion of some of the mundane tasks for a deeper focus on creating some more varied and involving side-missions would have been far more preferable. Insomniac’s commendable restraint in limiting the number of villains that appear in the main story in order to develop specific characters in more detail means many notable enemies are missing from the game. Yes there is a DLC expansion in the works, and the game is most certainly more than worthy of a sequel, but having a few more classic villains make cameos in some of the side missions, perhaps accompanied by a few inventive boss fights, would have been far more interesting than catching pigeons or plugging water tower leaks.
Another slight issue I had was that, despite giving you a whole host of extra stuff to do, the main campaign rarely gives you any narrative free-time to attend to it. Arkham Knight (I know, I’m sorry to keep bringing it up) had an excellent system in that it would purposely implement occasional narrative intermissions into the main campaign, thereby freeing up opportunities for the player to start tackling some of the side missions, should they so choose. Spider-Man sort of does this sometimes, where after a mission Spidey might say something like “Ah, time to get back to helping the city”, but once the player has completed even just one or two tasks the game will then decide, on its own, to resume the story once again; with Spidey getting a phone call telling him that something serious requires his attention, for instance. Even if all you’ve done to ‘help the city’ in that time is retrieve a lost pigeon and find an old backpack, the game will still tell you that enough’s enough and it’s time to get back to the main campaign. Yes of course you can easily just ignore the story, but Spidey reminding the player every 10 minutes to head towards the pulsing yellow icon can get a little annoying and even end up sort of taking the ‘free’ out of ‘free-roam’. That being said, my unhealthy obsession with playing games ‘cinematically’ means this distinction is very noticeable for me, while it may not even register at all with other players.
My petty moans aside, however, Marvel’s Spider-Man is one mighty powerhouse of a superhero game. The story, while a little stunted at times, is both intelligent and packs a real emotional punch. Insomniac’s open-world is vast, detailed and packed full of content (in a sense, to its detriment). But it’s in the web-swinging and uniquely complex combat that the game truly shines. Making the player ‘feel’ like Spider-Man is a fundamental requirement for any Spidey game, and Insomniac have achieved that in ways I never would have thought possible. In true heroic fashion, Insomniac have proven they have genuine developmental power and, with it, they have more than to lived up to the responsibility.