Directed by Bryan Intihar and Ryan Smith
Produced by Ara Demirjian
Developed by Insomniac Games
Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
They got the web-slinging right.
That’s been the first question for most people, in my experience, since the moment Insomniac’s Spider-Man was officially announced. Back in 2004, Treyarch got the feel of web-slinging around New York pretty close to perfect in Spider-Man 2. But for some reason, almost every other Spider-Man game since then hasn’t gotten close to capturing the same feel, if it tried to do it at all.
Insomniac’s new Spider-Man, if anything, does it better. One of my big must-haves in a decent open world game is that the world itself must be fun to navigate - you’re not just going to steal a car and drive for two or five or ten minutes; you’ve got to actively be involved in the travel process - and in Spider-Man, it’s genuinely entertaining just to get from one end of Manhattan to the other. It’s just automated enough that it feels effortless, while also having a lot of little tricks that you can use to show off or speed up. There are fast-travel points, but there’s almost no reason to use them, because that would cut into your web-slinging time.
The rest of the game - and there will probably be people who play this for 200 hours without being aware there is a “rest of the game” - is generally excellent, with a few low points. Spider-Man has inherited a lot of creative DNA from Insomniac’s last big open-world game, Sunset Overdrive on the Xbox One, and like Sunset Overdrive, it relies heavily on charm and visual spectacle to pull you in. It’s a funny, intelligent game that provides just enough of a challenge to keep things interesting, and every so often, there’s a new toy to play with, a new costume to wear (and there are some deep cuts in this game’s suit wardrobe, including a couple of Spider-suits that have only ever been in a single comic book before this one), or a new set of side missions. Before you know it, you’ve been playing for hours and you’re surprisingly close to 100% completion.
Does This Have An Official Earth Number Yet?
Spider-Man is set in its own unique universe, which mixes and matches elements from the mainstream comics (particularly Dan Slott’s recent run, for better and for worse), the Ultimate line, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Sam Raimi films, and a little bit of the Sony movies just for color.
You play as a 23-year-old Peter Parker, eight years into his “other other job” as Spider-Man, splitting the rest of his time between helping his Aunt May work at a homeless shelter and lab work as an underpaid intern. J. Jonah Jameson is a fiery radio host, ranting at his listeners; Mary Jane Watson has grown up to be a reporter for The Daily Bugle, and hasn’t spoken to Peter in six months. At the start of the game, Spidey’s put the last member of his rogues’ gallery safely behind bars, but just as he thinks it’s safe to take a break, a new problem shows up.
The game’s story mode runs about 15 to 20 hours long, with a lot of surprises along the way. Some will be blatantly obvious from the jump to anyone who has even a slight familiarity with the comic books, but you should still try to go into this as blind as possible, which is why this sounds a little vague.
The most refreshing thing about Spider-Man’s story is that it’s not his origin. This is a practiced, competent Spider-Man, secure in his skills and his superhero career, even if his personal life is usually a garbage fire. His experience comes across in everything from his dialogue to how he uses his webbing to his incidental combat animations; even at the beginning of the game, when Spider-Man’s at level 1, he’s still got most of his combat arsenal and web-slinging moves. This isn’t the story of how Peter learns to be a superhero, but instead, it’s about how he’s forced to turn his game up a notch in response to a new set of threats.
Everywhere At Once
The weak spots in Spider-Man mostly have to do with its combat. It’s a really good thug-pummeling simulator, with a lot of flashy moves and cool tricks you can pull off, but things get dicey when it strays outside that lane.
Like a lot of games from the last few years, Spider-Man owes a lot to the combat system from Batman: Arkham Asylum. (You can even do the bit where you take unaware enemies out from above and leave them dangling off ceiling beams.) You’re often outnumbered and usually surrounded, but you can use your agility, a selection of gadgets (I particularly like the impact webbing), and your environment to even the odds. You’ve also got a special focus meter, which fills up as you land attacks, which you can expend to heal up or launch special finishing moves, and a selection of “suit powers” that provide a number of short-lived but powerful bonuses on a lengthy recharge timer.
There’s a peculiar rhythm here, once you get used to it. You can ricochet around the room in much the same way that Spider-Man does in the comic books - avoiding gunfire, landing what shots you can, and taking out enemies with aerial combos and the occasional blast of webbing. Then, when you have the chance, you can lower the boom with any of a handful of painful-looking one-shot knockouts.
One thing I really like here is that an opponent who’s webbed is effectively stunned, and will stand there struggling with his arms bound. If you then hit a webbed opponent into a solid surface, they get stuck there and the game counts them as being knocked out. It’s a lot of fun to deal with an obnoxious gunman by binding his arms, then punting him at the nearest wall.
There’s a sweet spot to the combat, however, where a good balance of the right kind of enemies makes the system sing, but a bad group really highlights the flaws. This starts to show up in the mid- to late game, once more powerful standard opponents start appearing regularly. At that point, regular fights can quickly turn into a slog, where you’re constantly locked down by intersecting fields of fire or prevented from going airborne. The fights flow best when they’re freeform, and whenever the game starts adding restrictions, it’s worse for it.
I’d also point out here that most of the boss fights in Spider-Man are gimmicks, where you have to use specific parts of the environment, quick-time events, and/or wait for particular moments before you can attack at all. There’s one about halfway through that introduces an entirely new set of controls for dodging, which are never used again after that point. Sure, it makes those fights cinematic as hell and fun to watch, and they still aren’t terribly difficult, but it also makes them less than satisfying.
Polish and Care
I do have issues with the combat - and I’ll freely admit here that this could be something that’ll work itself out once I’ve had more practice, or after a patch or two - but Spider-Man feels like the product of a confident, unhurried team of developers. It’s an extremely polished game, full of little details, with a clear love and respect for the source material.
Like any open-world game, of course, there are a couple of irritating missions, but they don’t really drag down the whole. There’s also a really jarring shift in tone about a third of the way through the story, where it turns into a PG-13 horror movie for a few minutes, and I’m convinced that could’ve been handled better.
That being said, at its best, Spider-Man is a really good alternate-universe take on the character, with a strong supporting cast, a great sense of humor, and a story that draws on the comic books’ universe without just being a blatant, Jeph Loeb-style greatest hits collection. This is, at a slow walk, the best video game Spider-Man’s ever received, and is arguably the best Marvel video game out there today.
Insomniac Games' Spider-Man is scheduled to be released September 7 for the Playstation 4.