Sometimes games sit on my shelf for all sorts of reasons. Often it’s because, like many others, I’m afflicted by a crippling addiction to buying random games that I justify under the “well maybe one day I’ll play them” defence. Other games languish because I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re simply shit. Very occasionally though games stick around unplayed because they’re good. As I’ve said before on this blog, I try to approach games as neutrally as possible because too much hype kills games, and as far as big PS4 releases go, few come as highly recommended as Marvel’s Spider-Man.
Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4 [reviewed], PS5)
Released Sep 2018 | Developed: Insomniac | Published: Sony
Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 17 hours
But why is Spider-Man so well-loved? For a start, it’s exceptionally well-written. Like all of the biggest comic book heroes, there’s a veritable wealth of history to draw from when writing Spider-Man. From the horde of villains he’s faced and the various storylines he’s experienced, to the array of different versions of the character, anyone sitting down to craft their own Spider-Man story has an awful lot of material to work with. Insomniac’s edition of the character is recognisable as a big mixture of the movie Spider-Men; he has Garfield’s youthfulness, elements of Maguire’s character relationships, and Holland’s gadgetry, but all presented in such a way as to be uniquely Insomniac’s take. I like that this game doesn’t give us an origin story; instead we play as a Peter Parker some 8 years into his crime-fighting career. He’s long left his usual job as a photographer for the Daily Bugle, and now makes a living as a lab assistant for one Otto Octavius, a beleaguered and tired old scientist. Of course, established fans of the franchise know exactly who that is and what must therefore be coming by the story’s end, but I don’t think predictability is a mark against comic book stories.
Peter’s relationship with Otto was one of my favourite bits of the game, actually. Octavius in this game cuts a gaunt, drawn, and melancholy figure, and knowing what’s coming makes the arc all the more tragic, especially as he enjoys a brilliantly touching fatherly relationship with Peter. In fact, Peter’s various relationships are as much at the centre of the game as the various supervillain plots that whirl around our hapless hero. Obviously, franchise mainstays show up, such as Aunt May as the emotional heart grounding Peter’s sense of responsibility, and of course Mary Jane Watson, who brings with her a “will-they-won’t-they-obviously-they-will” dynamic as she struggles to balance her life between Peter’s vigilante escapades and his entrenched white knight sensibilities towards her. I rather like the choice to include Miles Morales in the game; in lieu of Peter’s origin story, instead the game chooses to adapt Miles’ albeit in its very early stages – Insomniac need to save something for the Miles Morales expandalone content after all.
Spider-Man also brings some solid portrayals of our hero’s rogues gallery to the party. The prologue and tutorial sees Spidey take on the Kingpin, which I love, but in the wake of his defeat New York has to contend with the ensuing power vacuum as several new forces attempt to muscle in and take control of the city’s crime. If you’re already a fan of Spider-Man, you’ll find yourself trying to second-guess which baddie is going to show up and do what, but it’s still very accessible for non-fans. The game takes certain cues from the previous movies and the MCU, but it is still very much its own beast, and the villains in particular do feel like they’re lifted from the pages of the comic books. That’s probably for the best, to be honest; while the MCU has of course been titanic, Spider-Man in particular has benefitted from several different iterations these last few years that have all existed more or less simultaneously. They’ve all had their own sense of identity, and Insomniac’s is no different; sitting somewhere between the comics and the movies, it retains a charm all of its own.
It’s for the best that Insomniac made a point of giving Spider-Man a clear sense of identity of its own, because a great deal of its gameplay isn’t theirs. As I played there was an undeniable sense of familiarity that crept up; it’s in the combat, the side missions, even the way the game unfolds. I was maybe 5 or 6 hours in when it really hit me: this is a Rocksteady game! It’s impossible to ignore the cues this game takes from the Batman: Arkham series, to the point where if you’d have told me this was developed by the same team I’d have believed you. Still, if you’re going to grab some ideas, you might as well copy them from the unquestioned masters of the modern open-world superhero genre. I should be clear, that’s not really a criticism from me; I think it’s honestly a bright move to adapt elements of Rocksteady’s seminal superhero series, and what makes Spider-Man particularly good is the way it makes that format completely its own.
Take the web-swinging, for example. A Spider-Man game definitely lives or dies on how well it recreates Spidey’s most recognisable ability and let me tell you, in this game it is an absolute joy. Open worlds depend on a few things to be good, and one of them is the method by which you get around them; if that’s boring or monotonous, then the entire world suffers. Ever since the tie-in game to Spider-Man 2 absolutely nailed web-swinging for the first time, each subsequent game has had to live up to the standard it set, but this one is a particular master of it. Everything works in concert beautifully to construct that feeling of exhilaration as you hurtle down towards street level before peeling off into a looping swing that flings you high into the air and across half a block. This game has a fast-travel system (a funny one to boot as Spidey boards the subway and you’re treated to a tiny vignette of him chilling in full costume as people around him either stare wide-eyed at their hero or studiously ignore another New York weirdo) but it’s telling that beyond the achievement that pops when you fast travel 5 times I never wanted, let alone felt I needed, to use the fast travel.
That’s also helped by the size of the game world. In many AAA titles of this type it’s clear that “bigger is better” is the mantra the developers are held to, but Spider-Man is a Manhattan-based superhero and as such the game world is naturally limited in size and scope. This works to Spider-Man’s favour though, as the result is a smaller but more densely-populated open-world that doesn’t take an actual day to trek across. There are of course plenty of pieces of side content scattered around the city which unlock in a staggered pattern as you progress through the story. This side content is ok, but I can’t help but feel it would have been better had Insomniac decided to take a few more cues from Rocksteady here; one of the finest things about the side quests in the Arkham games is the fact that almost all of them tie into the wider Batman universe, with all sorts of villains showing up to get punched in the face by Bats. Spider-Man obviously has a similar wealth of baddies, and the game does acknowledge a wider Marvel universe given the Avengers tower has been lifted from the movies and plonked in the middle of the city, and there are visitable locations in New York such as the Wakandan embassy and Dr. Strange’s sanctum, but the side content doesn’t tap into that same well. There are a couple of neat ones, such as the cat-and-, uhh, spider, chase across the city of tracking clues left by master thief Black Cat, and completing the challenges left by Taskmaster result in a series of extremely entertaining fights against the man himself, but the vast majority of the content in Spider-Man is based around finding random crime encounters and beating up whatever goons are hanging around. While I would have preferred more variety, I will say I never once complained about having more fighting to do because the combat in this game is fantastic.
Combat is of course another element lifted largely from the Arkham games. Regular attacks can send Spider-Man hurtling around from enemy to enemy in his characteristic hyper-acrobatic style, and timing your button presses increases his Focus bar which, when full, allows you to either exchange it for health or perform an instant takedown attack against an enemy. It wouldn’t be a Spider-Man game without getting to use his web shooters, and so you can not only use them to rip weapons from the hands of baddies, but also lasso them and swing goons around or fire them to web enemies to walls and surfaces. This incarnation of Spider-Man is also a much more gadget-happy iteration of the wall crawler, packing an entire arsenal of gizmos to aid him during combat. While I don’t think I used or unlocked everything during my playthrough, I did get a wide array of combat tricks to use and they certainly all came in handy, particularly the web bomb which can tie up a whole clump of foes, and the electric web which chains from person to person, stunning them long enough to get a combo in. You fight quite a large range of enemy types throughout the game, and one challenge I found was remembering the specific ways the game wants you to beat them; some really can only be taken down by one or two things, whether that’s specific gadgets or attack types, and getting them wrong can cost you a surprisingly large chunk of your health. At its best you feel like a genius, but at its worst it can make open combat feel like a pointlessly tricky puzzle that frustrates you as you die too quickly to work out where you’ve gone wrong.
Of course, you don’t spend all your time in open combat. Spider-Man is, after all, a fragile soul, and too many gun-toting goons and superpowered baddies make him a bit leery of constant fistfights. Therefore this Spidey is also a master of stealth, which makes sense for his character, and isn’t just another mechanic adapted from Batman. Given you’ve almost always got a height advantage on your opponents as you swoop down from above, you often get the opportunity for stealth takedowns at the beginning of combat encounters, and whittling down enemy goons by way of webbing them to lampposts and walls is a simple matter. In a really helpful, player-friendly touch, scanning the environment while in stealth mode highlights which enemies can be safely taken out without alerting any opponents, and even if you do alert guards it’s a very, very rare occasion where the game penalises you for it, instead typically opting to let you fight your way out of trouble. However, peppered throughout the story are missions where you take control of either MJ or Miles; these are also stealth missions but unlike when Spider-Man gets to play at stealth, these unquestionably suck. Obviously neither MJ nor Miles have any powers and so it makes sense that getting spotted is a lethal problem for them, but instant-failure sections are always miserable to play and these ones are no exception.
One thing that was constantly on my mind while I played Spider-Man was a kind of running comparison to Ghost of Tsushima. It’s a bit of an idle comparison, I grant you, but at the time of playing I’d not long beaten Sucker Punch’s fantastic sadboy samurai simulator and I’d fallen in love with its approach to the open-world AAA formula, and Spider-Man gave me very similar feelings. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed simply traversing an open-world as much as I did in Spider-Man, and that’s a testament to the quality and effort put into making the web-swinging feel authentic. Frankly, that’s as good a reason as any to play Spider-Man, but it helps that the swinging is only a tiny, beautiful part in an amazing whole. I was expecting the writing to be pretty standard, MCU-esque, middle of the road stuff but I was caught off-guard by the depth and heart on display, and even though I knew what was coming as the story moved from beat to beat, it still hurt every single time. I know I made a meal of the Rocksteady comparisons, but in truth, Spider-Man doesn’t just copy a lot but makes it all its own, repurposing and giving new life to mechanics that have been simply reiterated in many other games, and the end result is an exceptional title, and probably the best version of Spider-Man we’ve seen in many years.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.