Despite the massive box office success and ever-growing fanbase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it’s been a while since we’ve been graced with a AAA game based off a Marvel character or series. Other than a few movie tie-in games and a handful of Lego titles, the last decade has mostly seen a never-ending series of free-to-play mobile releases. While an untitled Avengers video game is in the works, fans will likely have to wait until 2019 (or longer) until its release.
One of the rare exceptions to this trend is Spider-Man, who made his MCU debut in Captain America: Civil War. Unlike his fellow Avengers, the teenaged webslinger has been digitized in a handful of games over the past decade. Unfortunately, these releases have generally been met with lukewarm reception, with 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2: The Video Game ushering in a temporary moratorium on future releases.
Things aren’t all that bad though. With developer Insomniac Games at the helm, Sony Interactive Entertainment is helping to revive the series with Marvel’s Spider-Man, due out exclusively for the PlayStation 4. With his first proper debut on current-gen consoles, Spider-Man fills a void left by previous superhero video games, even if it misses the mark occasionally.
While recent versions of the titular webslinger have focused on his life during high school or college, Marvel’s Spider-Man puts us in the shoes of a slightly older Peter Parker. Having already graduated from college, we find Peter as a young adult, trying to balance his work life with his responsibilities of protecting the city. It doesn’t take long to see how his social life is more or less non-existent. Peter has no real friends to speak of with his relationship with Mary-Jane Watson broken off, and Harry Osborn spending time in Europe. Peter still finds time for Aunt May, who helps manage a shelter for the needy and homeless.
While most superhero video games tend to focus exclusively on action and combat, Insomniac Games has opted for a more holistic approach. Sure, much of your time will be spent swinging around the city and roughing up criminals, but you’ll be taking a break every now and then to experience the doldrums of regular life. There’s not a lot to these sections – visiting Peter’s place of work is not all that exciting – but these moments help to move the narrative forward. Speaking of which, I won’t go into any detail regarding the game’s plot, but if you’ve seen any of the game’s trailers and other promotional material, you’re already aware of the slew of villains that Spider-Man will have to face at some point or another.
By now, you’re probably waiting for me to answer the most important question: how is the web-slinging? Simply put, its near-perfect. Aside from the slick camera angles and sense of speed, the developers have smartly allowed the player to choose how much effort they want to put into zipping around Manhattan. Want to hold down the right trigger and casually make your way to the next mission? That’s totally doable. Want to carefully time button presses to gain speed and height, or integrate parkour into your acrobatics? No problem. Regardless of how invested you want to get, the controls and movement feel fluid and responsive, with only a few minor hiccups here and there. A few hours into the game, you’ll gain the ability to fast-travel to specific locations; a godsend for those who would rather cut out any downtime.
Still, while it’s a blast and a half to traverse and explore the city, the locale itself ends up being one of Spider-Man’s biggest missteps. For better or for worse, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and God of War have set new highs when it comes to handling open worlds and exploration, and in this day and age, Spider-Man comes off a little dated. The game takes more than a few cues from Ubisoft’s formula for open-worlds and collectibles. For those who haven’t played an Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry game as of late, here’s a quick summary of how things boil down in Spider-Man:
- In any given borough, find an Oscorp Surveillance Tower.
- Travel to it and complete a painfully simple hacking mini-game.
- Unlock a section of the map, which will now be populated with dozens of icons representing side-missions and collectibles.
- Rinse and repeat for different neighborhoods and boroughs.
Granted, while some of the open-world content is genuinely fun – one side quest, for example, has you chasing down a Spider-Man wannabe – a good portion of it boils down to travelling to a marked location on the map and picking up a collectible or snapping a quick picture. Every now and then, you’ll have to give chase, or you’ll stumble upon a crime-in-progress, but aside from developer-curated side quests, the “collectathon” part of Spider-Man quickly loses its charm. To add insult to injury, you’ll occasionally have to partake in simple tile-based puzzles, which won’t get your neurons firing in the slightest. It’s disappointing to say the least, especially when compared to something like the Riddler trophies from the Batman Arkham series.
Thankfully, the combat and moment-to-moment gameplay largely makes up for the underwhelming open world content. While I hate to make the same comparison twice, Insomniac Games uses the Batman Arkham series as a jumping off point, and layers on additional mechanics and systems to keep the action flowing. At its core, combat boils down to landing punches and other melee attacks to build combos, while simultaneously dodging and avoiding incoming attacks when tipped off by your Spidey-Sense. Unlike the Caped Crusader, Spider-Man can switch back and forth between ground and air combat, with the latter being more effective at building “Focus” and putting space between you and any nearby threats. Instead of relying on pickups or regenerating health to keep you going, you can deplete your Focus meter at any given moment to replenish a small amount of health.
Web attacks are available from the get-go, with new forms and variations doled out as you progress through the game. You’ll start off with a basic web shot that will temporarily slow down enemies, before unlocking impact webs (which incapacitate weaker enemies) and web bombs (which should really just be called web grenades). In fact, Spider-Man is heavily steeped in customizability. Aside from upgrading and unlocking new web shots, there are dozens of different outfits to unlock and purchase, each with their own passive abilities and buffs. You can also equip a special move, that can only be triggered when you have a full Focus meter, forcing you to choose between healing or going on the offensive (Focus is replenished by fighting effectively and stringing combos together).
The upgrades don’t end there. You can have up to three perks unlocked, which you can swap out on the fly. Suits, perks, and special moves are all purchased using in-game tokens, which you can accrue by tracking down collectibles and completing side-quests. There’s also a completely separate skill tree, which uses a different XP system when it comes to unlocking and purchasing new skills. There’s a sizable number of upgrades to purchase, so much so that it can make your head spin when trying to keep track of the game’s various tokens and systems.
Still, Spider-Man delivers on the promise of stepping into the webslinger’s shoes (err, Spidey-Suit?), and it’s easy to forget its shortcomings and missteps when you’re zipping around town or dispatching enemies with ease. A lot of this is afforded by the game’s impressive technical underpinnings. Animations are absolutely top-notch, and in-game cutscenes and cinematics are extremely well-produced. If you happen to own a PlayStation 4 Pro and a 4K, HDR-enabled TV, you’re in for a real treat. While eclipsed by the stellar visuals, the soundtrack and voice acting are no slouches either, even if J.K. Simmons doesn’t reprise his role as editor (now turned podcaster) J. Jonah Jameson.
To be fair, most of Spider-Man’s faults can’t be attributed to design decisions or a lack of effort on the developer’s part. Had it been released a couple of years ago (pre-Breath of the Wild), the collectible-driven approach to crafting an open world wouldn’t have hampered the overall experience. Still, even with a sometimes-boring city and the occasional rote stealth section, Marvel’s Spider-Man is easily the best Spider-Man game to date. Any respectable superhero or Marvel fan shouldn’t even think about skipping this one.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game. A copy was provided to us by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Despite a few missteps in its open world design, Insomniac Games has delivered on its promise. Needless to say, this is the best Spider-Man game to date.