This review is exclusive to ComicsOnConsoles.com.
For most of the past decade, the vast majority of video games released that feature comic book characters have been divided into two very disparate categories: the Batman: Arkham games, and…pretty much everything else. It’s easy to see why: when Arkham Asylum broke the mold surrounding what gamers and superhero fans found they could actually expect from comics-based video games in 2009, it represented a forward leap for games featuring the characters we love unlike anything else that had come before.
The intervening years between 2009 and 2018 have brought a lot of titles that have attempted to imitate what the Arkham games accomplished, but they’ve all managed to fall short in at least one area, but often in many others. Something else missing from those previous games was also a unique sense of identity: something that would allow them to push the envelope of how the game feels when you have a controller in your hand, but also one that justifies its own existence by presenting a world, a story, and characters that you become easily invested in that feel truthful to both the heroes and comics that they’re charged with representing.
This is where Marvel’s Spider-Man, developed by Insomniac Games and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment exclusively for the PlayStation 4, comes into play: while it’s easily apparent to see how much the game’s overall format owes to the innovations first made by Rocksteady Studios, that’s really where the similarities to previous games begin and end. Spider-Man isn’t trying to be a Marvel version of a DC game: it wants to be a full-on Spider-Man game and a legitimately pure Marvel experience, and on virtually every front, it succeeds brilliantly.
Design and Story
Design-wise, Spider-Man is a bit of an interesting animal when you take a look at both A) the PlayStation 4’s catalog of recent exclusive titles, and B) previous titles developed by Insomniac Games. Recent exclusive titles to the platform like Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Horizon Zero Dawn and God of War have all set major, demonstrable benchmarks in the graphical fidelity that titles can achieve in this console generation. Still, previous Insomniac titles like 2016’s Ratchet & Clank and 2014’s Xbox One-exclusive Sunset Overdrive show the studio’s generally stylized philosophy in the art direction of their projects, to say nothing of their legacy titles going back to 1998’s original Spyro the Dragon.
Spider-Man represents an intriguing combination of the studio’s artistic sensibilities with a more generally photo-realistic style, making for a game that is very evocative of the source material’s roots while also giving a layer of realism that makes swinging through the streets of New York very exhilarating. Continuing the high-fidelity trend of titles like God of War, humans are rendered with near-uncanny realism, while Spidey himself — along with the villainous contingent of New York — are all clearly interpreted as descending from their four-color counterparts in comics. Playing on a PS4 Pro system makes the art assets pop with true vibrancy, afforded by near-4K resolution and High Dynamic Range (HDR) color for added dimension. Spider-Man may not be quite as much of a looker as God of War, but it’s certainly not far off, and makes up for any menial shortcomings by evoking stories we love from other mediums.
Story-wise, the game tells an original tale in its own universe, which has a series of benefits for players that come to this from either prior games, prior comics, or Spidey’s appearances on film or television. Taking place in its own universe means that it can take from the source material as much as it needs to in order to feel familiar, but it also has plenty of room with which to play around with the narrative and its world, which has the potential to keep things very surprising for even the most die-hard Marvel or Spider-Man fan. The other added benefit is that, unlike Arkham Asylum, it looks like this game has the intention of kicking off a more dedicated, sustained shared universe that could encompass other games and characters from across the Marvel Universe, and this version of Spider-Man is making his comic book debut in a crossover series called Spider-Geddon. Corporate synergy? Sure. Great potential for future stories in this world? Absolutely.
When the game begins, the story makes a few key things clear from the get-go: Peter has been Spider-Man for a long time, eight years, to be exact. Now at the ripe old age of 23, Peter moved on from snapping photos for the Daily Bugle some time ago, and now devotes his professional pursuits to science: something he’s always had an aptitude for.
At the beginning of the game, Spidey assists the NYPD in bringing down Wilson Fisk, aka the “Kingpin of Crime,” toppling a criminal empire that has stood for decades, but which also had the hidden benefit of bringing order to some of the more chaotic elements of criminality in New York. The capture of the Kingpin emboldens some smaller criminals to step out of line — which makes Spidey busy on the streets — but the efforts of the city’s mayor, Norman Osborn, seem to be showing progress toward creating a more generally stable New York.
Meanwhile, Peter works for a small scientific company called Octavius Industries, headed by renowned cyberneticist Dr. Otto Octavius. Their research consists of trying to create better, more responsive prosthetic limbs for amputees or disabled people, and Peter is thrilled to have a boss he truly believes in, unlike one who screams to the heavens about how Spider-Man is a menace while then profiting off of great pictures of him surreptitiously snapped by the focus of his verbose ire himself. Aunt May is working for a philanthropist named Martin Li, who’s in charge of Project F.E.A.S.T., a major humanitarian effort in the city working to try and alleviate the burden on the city’s homeless and disadvantaged populations. What Peter and May don’t know, though, is that Li is holding a darkness at bay, which he slowly plans on unleashing to take revenge on Mayor Osborn for an unspecified reason in the plot’s early going. Li’s machinations will lead to a far different fight for Spider-Man, though, as Li’s “Mr. Negative” is only the first domino that could bring untold death and destruction on New York from a very sinister direction.
The thing that was continuously refreshing about the story while playing it is just how surprising it managed to be. It’s a testament to Insomniac’s desire to be truthful to the source material, in that they offer some familiar storytelling beats while then swerving into a direction that would be generally unpredictable for the uninitiated Spider-Man fan, and downright shocking for even the most devoted regular reader of the Webhead’s adventures. When you add some other major recent characters into the mix along with new takes on some classic Spider-Man villains and supporting players, you have a story that feels worthy of a new, unique and purely Spider-Man experience, while also completely justifying elements of storytelling that can only come across in an interactive medium. Marvel’s Spider-Man succeeds in being a game that is both a uniquely Spider-Man type of experience, and a complete justification as to why this legitimate Spidey story is told via the medium of video games.
Compared with a lot of other open-world games available today, Marvel’s Spider-Man might seem to lack an overall amount of content. Whether you want to look at titles like Grand Theft Auto V, The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed Origins, or even the promise of an upcoming title like Red Dead Redemption 2, a gamer might think that the New York of this game compares unfavorably to those sprawling worlds of fantasy, yesterday, or today. If you write off the Marvel New York built by Insomniac based on that alone, though, you would be missing the point: that point being the very clear depth on display here.
In addition to being one of the most aesthetically truthful representations of Manhattan ever produced in any game released thus far, the sheer attention-to-detail and manner by which you explore everything it has to offer is virtually unparalleled. Spider-Man doesn’t lend itself to 40 hours of grinding for a single skill, sure, but the roughly 20 hours of play time it gives you to complete most of what it has to offer will be rewarding by virtue of being A) one of the absolutely best superhero simulators someone could ask for, and B) terrific representations of the characters, locales, and set-pieces on display that you find over the course of its story.
While the game doesn’t have a real-time day/night cycle, one would also be completely unnecessary. Spider-Man is very clearly designed to take place over a mere couple of days, and a real-time change in day or night conditions would likely impede the way Insomniac and story writers Christos Gage and Dan Slott intended to tell its tale. The depth of the open-world and the way in which it illustrates the amount of time that passes is perfect for this kind of experience, and the complaint brought about by some observers for the game’s lack of real-time daylight changes seems to completely miss the point of that fact.
Playing as Spider-Man himself is incredibly freeing, largely because of the core element that Insomniac chose to emphasize: momentum. Building it and maintaining it as the centerpiece of almost every element of the experience, whether you’re swinging through the concrete jungle of the city, or taking on small armies of henchmen whether in a head-on fight or stealthily from the shadows. Unlike prior Spider-Man games, swinging around and straight into a building doesn’t stop you in your tracks. Instead, you begin to quickly and deftly scale the building, or swing around it entirely by maintaining your hold on the R2 trigger on your DualShock 4 controller.
Adding to the sense of continued speed and momentum is the skill tree, where you upgrade your combat and traversal abilities, along with a separate upgrade tree for various gadgets you can acquire over the course of the story. My personal favorite is likely the “impact webbing,” which you can fire at an enemy to then launch them into a nearby wall, immediately incapacitating them and sticking them to that surface. It’s great for stealth missions, where keeping a low profile is key.
In addition to the story-based missions that range from simple combat encounters to jaw-dropping, massive set-pieces, the city is also littered with several bases with differing enemy types that you can choose to either sneak into, or bull-rush with all the subtlety of a Mack truck. Also peppered around the city are specific time-based skill challenges revolving around combat, stealth, and two kinds of traversal challenges, which may lean a little too much on speed over general skill. Still, they allow you to hone your abilities in an effective way by thinking up new possibilities for shaving a few precious seconds off your completion time. The gadgets you use also add to the variety with which you can choose to take groups of enemies down, and while that concept isn’t new in superhero games, this is the first time that it feels so closely and correctly evocative of Marvel’s friendly neighborhood…well, you know.
Another unique facet of Spider-Man that offers something unlike other superhero games is a couple of specific instances which call on you to play as non-powered supporting characters. This is how you primarily meet the game’s re-imagined vision of Peter’s greatest love, Mary Jane Watson. In a deft creative stroke, the game remolds her as an up-and-coming investigative reporter working under editor Robbie Robertson at the Daily Bugle, which frankly gives her far more of a purpose than many of the pursuits she’s had over the years in comics and on film: being in such close proximity to Spider-Man over the years has given her a sense of duty to help make the city a better place, and it presents a very welcome change to her character. Also a playable character at points is young Miles Morales, who will — hopefully — play a very important part of New York’s future, as well as Peter’s if the comics are any indication.
All in all, Spider-Man provides the best opportunity yet to strap Spidey’s web shooters to your wrists. It tells a compelling story in a vibrant vision of New York City, allows you to stretch your abilities to the limit in giving you a choice on how to deal with specific encounters and situations, and feels like a game that’s both uniquely evocative of, and worthy of the icon it’s charged with representing. The design of all of the gameplay elements reinforce this very effectively, and even if some of the timed challenges may be a little baffling at first, you’ll likely power through it by taking a look at your skill tree and upgrading your abilities and gadgets where necessary.
And, of course, this is before even mentioning something that comics fans will just eat up completely: the game doesn’t restrict you to one costume, instead recreating several iconic suits from across Spidey’s history in multimedia to play through everything the game has to offer, and your choice even shows up in the real-time cutscenes. That makes for a big ol’ thumbs up from this comic book fan.
A lot of superhero video game fans were unsure of what the landscape of the genre might be going forward after Rocksteady Studios delivered their final Batman game in 2015. However, if Marvel’s Spider-Man is any indication, those previous games may end up proving to be the catalyst that finally delivers on a reformed genre from capable studios going forward. Still, Spider-Man isn’t a great game just because we can track its lineage back to something else: it’s a great game because it delivers an experience that is fully evocative of the world it wants to represent, using a series of tools that helps to deliver a story, a tone, and a series of tasks that help to complement our existing perceptions built by comics, by television, by movies, and more.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is a great game because it delivers on the fantastical promise of its main character, effectively putting you in the boots (or, in the case of the “advanced suit,” the running soles) of Marvel’s most iconic hero, dropping you into a world that is both recognizable and unbound by anything you’ve seen with him before. That gives it a familiarity that will make any Spidey fan immediately comfortable, before embarking on a story that could very well pull the rug out from under you and surprise at far more turns than even the most seasoned Marvel fan might expect.
Hopefully, this is just the beginning of seeing a wonderfully-realized world going forward because for the first time in at least seven years — and perhaps in as much as eighteen years — Marvel’s Spider-Man delivers an experience on par with all of the Webhead’s most typical titular adjectives: amazing, spectacular, sensational, and superior.
Please hold down R2, Insomniac: keep the momentum going, and take us along for another spin as soon as you can. No need to rush, though: something tells me it’ll be worth the wait.