Even when I’m not actively playing Marvel’s Spider-Man, I’m zipping through Manhattan in my mind, squeezing my controller’s triggers to pounce from skyscraper to skyscraper with pinpoint precision. That’s how good it feels to move around in this game.
Insomniac Games’ new take on the iconic Marvel wall-crawler is Spidey’s best video game outing yet, offering up a refreshingly unique story, fun combat and a vibrant open-world New York City teeming with cool things to do. But more importantly than any of those things, Sony’s big new PS4 exclusive captures the sheer exhilaration of speeding through a massive metropolitan playground in ways that only Spider-Man can.
Whatever a spider can
Perfecting a concept first introduced in 2004’s Spider-Man 2, Marvel’s Spider-Man features the best open-world web-swinging to ever be featured in video game, bar none. Thanks to a rich traversal system that lets you chain together all kinds of acrobatic moves, I’ve never felt so in control of Spider Man — or had this much fun zipping around New York City as him.
Spider-Man’s movement is easy enough to grasp — you can swing from building to building with a quick squeeze of the R2 button — but the real fun of the game comes from mastering and combining more complex techniques.
There’s a distinct sense of joy that comes from chaining together wall runs, web zips and ledge jumps to dart through the skyline like a bullet, or free falling headfirst off of the Empire State Building and swinging just above the ground at the last possible second. It’s the same improvisational adrenaline rush that first made me fall in love with the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games, and one that I haven’t felt since Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac’s last big open world outing.
Spider-Man’s combat is less groundbreaking by comparison, but still tons of fun. The basic flow of punching, dodging and using an array of gadgets feels lifted from the Batman: Arkham games, but with an added layer of agility and speed. You can launch enemies into the air and follow up with an air combo, dodge bullets mid-swing, and web up thugs and toss them at other enemies like they’re bowling pins. It all feels great.
You’re also given plenty of opportunities to go the stealthy route, webbing bad guys from above as you zip from ceiling to ceiling like a friendly neighborhood predator. Factor in gadgets like web bombs, trip mines and concussive blasts as well as suit-specific special moves, and you’ve not no shortage of creative, gleefully satisfying ways to dispose of bad dudes.
But Marvel’s Spider-Man also features plenty of moments you spend outside of the Spidey suit, as you’ll occasionally step into the shoes of Mary Jane Watson and Peter Parker (sans spandex) for brief non-combat scenarios. The MJ scenes task you with investigating and sneaking through areas while using various gadgets to distract guards, which provides a refreshingly tense change of pace from beating up thugs as Spider-Man.
Marvel’s Spider-Man features the best open-world web-swinging to ever be featured in a video game.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the Peter Parker scenes, which largely have you do two things: solve tedious slide puzzles in your laboratory, or walk from point A to point B to trigger a cutscene. While the MJ moments keep the story going in interesting ways, the Parker puzzle moments completely bog it down, to the point where I started audibly groaning every time one appeared.
A spectacular story
Still, not even dull puzzles could keep me from progressing through Spider-Man’s story, which is a refreshing standalone tale that provides unique twists on established Marvel mythology. The game’s core plot sees Spider-Man out to save the city from the Inner Demons, a ruthless and powerful gang lead by relatively obscure comics villain Martin Li aka Mister Negative. While Spider-Man’s story is packed with familiar faces like Kingpin and Electro, its focus on a lesser known antagonist makes it feel distinct from any movie or comic book.
This is truly Insomniac’s Spider-Man universe: established characters like Aunt May and Norman Osborn are rewritten in clever ways, but still maintain the spirit of what makes them so iconic. I especially love the game’s take on Otto Octavius and Mary Jane Watson, the latter of whom is a badass investigative reporter instead of the damsel in distress she’s so often forced to be. Yuri Lowenthal plays a pitch perfect 23-year-old Spider-Man, balancing cornball humor with moments of tenderness and vulnerability.
What makes Spider-Man’s story so compelling are the grey areas. Villains are pit against villains in this universe, and all of the main antagonists are complex, conflicted and have understandable motivations that clash in grand fashion by the game’s conclusion.
What makes Spider-Man’s story so compelling are the grey areas. Villains are pit against villains in this universe, and all of the main antagonists are complex.
The game’s set pieces and cutscenes are as cinematic as Spider-Man’s best big-screen blockbusters — thanks in no small part to the fact that Marvel’s Spider-Man is one of the best-looking PS4 games yet. Characters look impressively lifelike down to each wrinkle and piece of facial stubble, and everything from the reds and blues of Spidey’s suit to the orange of a Manhattan sunset burst with color.
The game looked stunning even on my launch PS4 and old 1080p TV, and even better on a PS4 Pro and 4K HDR TV, where I could make out the tiniest fabric patterns in Spider-Man’s many colorful costumes. Insomniac has created the most painstakingly authentic video game New York City I’ve seen since Tom Clancy’s The Division, and I often found myself scaling to the top of the tallest skyscrapers just to take in the sheer scope of it all.
Spider-Man’s massive open-world New York isn’t just gorgeous, it’s also brimming with fun things to do. Between collectables, enemy bases, time trial challenges and spontaneous crimes, I often found myself completely ignoring the main story, chasing after the game map’s myriad of colorful icons like they were pieces of candy.
Completing these tasks helps you earn the game’s many upgrades and unlockables, which range from useful combat bonuses to a trove of alternate suits pulled from Spidey’s entire comic book and movie history (even obscure cuts like Spider-Punk are covered here).
Insomniac has created the most painstakingly authentic video game New York City I’ve seen since Tom Clancy’s The Division.
Which brings me to my next point — Marvel’s Spider-Man is absolutely dripping with fan service. The game’s collectable backpacks contain knicknacks from iconic moments in Spider-Man history. There’s a fake in-game Twitter feed that lets you see New Yorkers react to story events (and witness Aunt May struggle with caps lock), and as you swing around, you’ll hear J. Jonah Jameson host a podcast about how much he hates Spider-Man. The open-world Spider-Man concept has been done many times before, but never with this much heart or attention to detail.
As someone who paid actual money for The Amazing Spider-Man 2, calling Marvel’s Spider Man the Spidey game I’ve been waiting for would be an understatement. Insomniac has delivered the definitive wall-crawling experience, complete with a memorable, distinct and authentic story and a gorgeous New York City playground that’s an absolute joy to traverse.
Sure, it’s not the first open-world Spider-Man game, and sure, it takes some not-so-subtle inspiration from other superhero masterpieces like Batman: Arkham Asylum. And yes, those puzzles can really be a drag. But none of those things detract from the fact that Marvel’s Spider-Man fulfills the fantasy of being ol’ webhead better than any video game before it.
Image Credit: Sony