With the incredible success of the ever-expanding, unstoppable juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s always felt like Marvel Comics was missing a golden opportunity to create incredible video games. I mean, look at DC. They’re movies are steaming piles of garbage and even they’ve managed to pump out fantastic licensed titles like Injustice and the Batman Arkham trilogy. Marvel’s long-awaited debut on next generation consoles (or should I say, console) finally made its way into gamer’s hands with the long awaited release of Marvel’s Spider-Man on the Playstation 4 and, after years of small teases and seemingly endless excitement, the game delivers on every single promise for an incredibly immersive and deep game that truly understands everything that makes Spider-Man such an endearing character.
This iteration operates within its own universe and continuity, freeing Insomniac from the constraints of pre-established plot points or character developments. This clean slate approach allows Insomniac to make a Spider-Universe all of their own, and what they’ve created is truly spectacular. There are some slight tweaks to iconic Spider-Man characters- Mary Jane as a reporter, J. Jonah Jameson as an Alex Jones type podcaster, Norman Osborne as a Trump-esque Mayor- but no one is changed beyond recognition. None of these characters feel like mere cameos either- every character, even the villains, is completely fleshed out with their own motivations and problems to tackle. No character feels forced into the narrative nor overlooked, simply right where they belong.
The main narrative itself is worthy of the title it bears, feeling like a classic, sprawling comic book epic that would usually be told across a year long story arc. The story takes about 20 hours to complete, yet it’s so beautifully paced and easy to follow that it’ll be hard for many players to put the game down, making the 20 hours easily surmountable in two or three prolonged play throughs. It perfectly captures everything that makes Spider-Man such a beloved character- all the highs and the lows, especially the lows, of life as Peter Parker.
There are incredible set pieces, heartbreaking moments of loss, adorable romantic scenes, classic Spidey quips, and the all-too-relatable struggle of being a 23 year-old surviving life in a huge city. Certain scenes had me busting up laughing while the climatic finale had me wiping away man-tears just as the credits began to roll. This is not some hammed together story that strips bits and pieces from existing Spidery-arcs to create some derivative rip-off. This is a completely original, exciting, gripping, and adventurous story that does the Spider-Man name proud.
What made the story most mesmerizing, however, is how perfectly the team at Insomniac captured the intricacies of Peter Parker. Dare I say it, this is the best non-comic book interpretation of Spider-Man yet. This version of Peter is so fiercely devoted to his city, to helping every single person out, always fighting for the little guy. While the overarching conflict could make it easy to forget why Peter does what he does, the game sprinkles eloquent and powerful reminders of Peter’s undying commitment to responsibility and doing the right thing that most gamers will likely walk away inspired to do good themselves. Even I found myself adding a few dollars to a local charity because of Pete’s great example.
The game also does a wonderful job capturing the incredible human side of Spider-Man – his inability to manage relationships properly, passion for a career in science, iconic sense of humor, and struggles with keeping a roof over his head. The game doesn’t bombard you with Peter-centric side stories, but it routinely reminds the player that, despite his arachnid abilities, Peter is just a normal guy who struggles like everyone else, yet still goes out of his way to help everyone he can. This is a perfect representation of what makes Peter Parker/Spider-Man such a grand character in every way.
The same could be said for the robust combat system behind the game. The immense amount of combinations and the flashy, yet rhythmic flow of every conflict really makes the best use of Spider-Man’s style. There’s an eclectic mixture of kicks, punches, and throws mixed with gadget related attacks and aerial, web-slinging moves that allow a great sense of freedom and creativity in every fight. Take the stealth approach and web unsuspecting goons to light posts. Zip punch your way through every bad guy till they’re all in a coma. Launch enemies into their and unleash an onslaught of aerial punishment. The choice is left up to the player, making every encounter riddled with possibility and creativity.
Part of what makes the combat so engaging is the speed at which fights happen. Spider-Man, after all, beats his foes with agility not brute force. The overall quickness of Spider-Man’s style plays out wonderfully in each encounter and compliments the vast amount of combos nicely. That’s not to say, however, that mastering the combat is easy. It takes a keen mastery of every style of attack to take on a massive group of enemies, like the ones encountered at the many Fisk, Demon, and Sable hideouts throughout Manhattan. Luckily, the game does a tremendous job of slowly ramping up the difficulty as the game progresses, with more and more enemies being added to each encounter as you progress. The game doesn’t hold the player’s hand by any means, however, it does guide the player through the subtleties of combat in a way that makes mastering the robust combat system more of a rite of passage than an obstacle.
The swinging mechanics, on the other hand, are effortless, addictive fun throughout the game. It’s such an integral facet of any Spider-Man experience to adequately capture the exhilarating spectacle of Spidey swinging through New York City, and this game nails the feeling to a tee. I spent countless hours lazily swinging through the breathtakingly detailed New York City, perfectly happy and excited swinging around Central Park or Empire State or Hell’s Kitchen with no real direction. Swinging from building to building, vaulting through tight corridors or bounding off ledges is a seamless experience that, alone, would make this game worth the cover price.
Swinging is fast, responsive, and simply a blast. The only problem with swinging is how tricky it is to transition from the speed of free running and webs slinging to slower wall crawling. Once transitioned into wall crawling, controlling Spider-Man felt clunky and tankish, as if there were certain surfaces he couldn’t crawl over. That being said, I enjoyed the unrivaled speed of vaunting through the city so much I hardly ever bothered to slow down to crawl along walls unless absolutely necessary.
The combat and transversal mechanics while playing as Spider-Man are so addicting that whenever the player is forced to play as a powerless character the game turns into more of a chore. Luckily, these scenes account for maybe an hour of the twenty hour campaign, but they’re very annoying nonetheless. Every time I was forced to sneak around enemies as either Miles Morales or Mary Jane Watson I was more aggravated about being de-powered than drawn into the tacked on stealth mechanics.
These scenes aren’t even challenging, they’re very simplistic and bare-bones stealth missions that, as I mentioned, feel tacked on for the sake of gameplay diversity. I understand Insomniac was trying to make the game an ever deeper experience with these levels, but at the end of the day they simply disrupt the exhilarating experience of controlling Spider-Man.
Other added elements, however, do make the experience feel more diverse and enriched. Fixing circuit boards in Otto Octavius’s lab immerses the player into the Peter Parker side of the Spider-Man narrative and offers challenging puzzles in between brawls and web-slinging. These are moments that, like the sneaking missions, are necessary to progress the story but, unlike the sneaking missions, don’t take too much time and don’t derail the fun.
Aside from the expansive main narrative, there is an absurd amount to do, see, and unlock. The progression system is made up of three progression trees that will likely be filled up, or close, by the end of the story. Each new level of experience unlocks another point to redeem on a new skill or combo. Insomniac isn’t doing anything new here, but the progression system is effective nonetheless. However, the progression doesn’t end there- players still have plenty of suit styles, powers, and modifications to keep the player engaged.
The city itself is sprawling, gorgeously rendered, and densely populated with New Yorkers, side missions to explore, and crimes to thwart. New York City is so fully realized that it feels less like living, breathing city full of real people. There’s sights to see- both real and fake, like the Avengers tower- and photograph for reward tokens, old Spidey backpacks to discover carrying pieces of Spider-Man lore and backstory, Taskmaster challenges to complete, citizens to liberate, hideouts to take out- the list goes on and on and on. Insomniac crammed the city so full of side missions and auxiliary quests that completing everything may take just as long, if not longer, than completing the main game.
The suit options placed into the game are simply awesome. Comic book readers will recognize some iconic suits- my personal favorite is the Spider Armor MK IV suit made famous by Alex Ross’s beautiful Amazing Spider-Man covers- while movie fans will see their favorite Spidey suits available to unlock as well. There’s even some really obscure suits thrown in to appease even the more die-hard Spider-Man aficionados- like the Noir suit or the Scarlet Spider suit. The suits aren’t purely aesthetic either, each comes with it’s own suit power that can be assigned to any suit, making unlocking every suit as beneficial to gameplay as it is to the game’s aesthetic. Some of these suit powers are immensely helpful in specific missions, making the quest to unlock suits less about vanity and more about tactical strategy.
Make no mistake, Marvel’s Spider-Man is not simply “good for a comic book game” or “good for a licensed game.” It is simply fantastic, period. The long awaited wall-crawling, web-slinging adventure delivered on every aspect of the Spider-Man experience to deliver not just the best comic book video game ever, but possibly the best game of 2018. With more DLC on the horizon with the possibility of even more suits to unlock and skills to acquire, I don’t see any reason why players will be putting this masterpiece down any time soon.