In which Insomniac Games teaches a master class in what it means to make something for every kind of Spidey fan.
While the Spider-Man archive in my brain runs back as far as I can remember, my first Spider-Man videogame was Spider-Man 2. For most people, this game was a deeply positive experience. For me, it was a waking nightmare from which there was no return. I was working in the games department of a Best Buy, where we'd received a full copy of the game to put in our demo station. This lead people to come in as soon as the store opened each day and wait for a turn to play. We had that game in the demo station for almost six months, during which I heard the sounds of web slinging approximately 700 billion times. To say I was not a fan of Spider-Man games at this point would be underselling it considerably.
30 seconds into the first gameplay teaser for Insomniac's vision of a whole new Spider-Man game, and all of that negativity washed away entirely. I was excited and, like countless others, started following every step of the development process. The PlayStation 4 community has been following this game so closely that there was an argument about whether game performance had forced developers to adjust the size of puddles in the game because one was not where it looked like it should be from a pair of gameplay videos. It is not understating anything to say this title has earned itself a rabid fan base before it even launched and, after spending 16 hours in this game, I can safely say a lot of that hype has been well earned.
Bottom line: On top of being absolutely stuffed with fun things from every corner of the Spider-verse, this game is fun as hell to play from beginning to end. It absolutely deserves a place on your shelf.
- Breathtakingly beautiful
- Strong story
- Excellent combat system
- Heaps of content
- Boss fights are way too scripted
- Non-combatant AI is sloppy
About this review
I've been playing a copy of Marvel's Spider Man, provided by Sony, for the last four days. While I have completed the core story, I have only completed 64% of the total game according to the save menu. My total gameplay time for this review is 16.4 hours.
NYC has never looked so pretty
Marvel's Spider-Man world and story
Welcome to a New York City-sized sandbox. For long-time Spider-Man fans, your first few minutes in this game will feel all too familiar. Sling the web, sail through the city, spot a bad guy, do the friendly neighborhood thing, repeat. This is the experience you paid for, the thing everyone craves when they hear about a Spider-Man game.
But what Insomniac has done here exists on an entirely different level from any other game in this genre. This world doesn't just kind of look like NYC, it feels like you're actually there. As someone who regularly travels to a lot of the places in New York where events unfold in this game, it was beyond cool to see things like the Amtrak entrance to Madison Square Garden and appreciate how real it seemed. There's a mission where you are put inside of Grand Central Terminal and you can actually walk up into the Apple Store on the balcony and crouch among the tables full of phones. And for people who have actually stood next to those tables, surreal doesn't adequately cover it.
The basics of a Spider-Man game are polished to a point of realism as well. Most Spider-Man fans are used to having that "what did that web he just shot even attach to" conversation while playing these games. It's even something you hear about the movies at times. Even in a city like New York, there are limitations to where you can attach a web and swing through and those limitations are pretty reasonably respected in this game. When you sail through the city, your web looks like it connected to something. If you're up high above the buildings, you can't shoot a web into nothing and continue swinging. You fall below the buildings and then the web starts flying again. This gameplay mechanic is fairly automatic as you play but there are lots of little things you can do to speed yourself up or perform aerial tricks which make the experience a whole lot more dynamic. You can choose to be less engaged when traveling from place to place, but the game rewards you for having fun and really getting into character. And really, that's a theme for the whole game. You are rewarded for being excited about the game and for not taking every moment super seriously.
For many, this is going to be a fairly new take on Spider-Man and I personally loved every minute of it.
Since this web travel mechanic includes a bit of a free-fall, Insomniac doubled-down and includes a way for you to basically skydive straight down from time to time. This is a handy and visually stunning way to bring yourself down closer to the streets and it also helps close the gap when chasing villains in a car. However, all of this sort of falls apart if you hit the ground accidentally. If this happens, Spider-Man assumes the tried and true three-point superhero landing - even if that drop happened from the top of the Empire State Building.
There is no death or damage from falling when travelling through the city but you do get to scare the pants off the citizens walking the sidewalks. When you hit the ground everyone around you is immediately alarmed and scatters but this AI quickly forgets why it is running away when someone recognizes you so you get this mix of panic and someone shouting about getting your autograph. This weird mixed panic mechanic even happens when you land on the roof of a police building. The officers standing on the roof for seemingly no reason are not only surprised to see you, but frequently say things like "we don't need your help right now" as they run from you. Clearly, the civilian AI didn't get the same level of polish as the rest of the city.
As for our hero, well let's just say he's not the Spider-Man you've seen in the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe films. This isn't Tony Stark's ward, as Doctor Strange would call him. This is grown up Peter Parker. He's graduated from college, has a job, struggles to pay his rent on time and has a great relationship with his aging Aunt May when he remembers to stop by to see her. You aren't playing through an origin story; this Spider-Man has lived through multiple revisions to his suit and has already defeated many of the big-name villains from the early days of the comics. J. Jonah Jameson has been relieved of his post at the Bugle, and spends his days as a Alex Jones-esque radio loon, which you tune in to as you sail through the city. For many, this is going to be a fairly new take on Spider-Man and I personally loved every minute of it.
Perhaps my favorite part of the world Insomniac has created for this game is in the little details. It couldn't be more clear this game was made by people who cherish the Spider-Man franchise and had some opinions on the direction it had been taken in previously. The game is positively stuffed with references to the other movies and games and comics, from the suits you can unlock to the trinkets you find lying around the city. There are jokes about web gliders, commentary on past relationships and so many nods to other parts of the Marvel universe.
And the focus is always on Spider-Man, instead of constantly bumping into the other heroes who also live in the city. You can find Doctor Strange's New York Sanctum or Jessica Jones' Alias Investigations, but there's no awkward side-quest where you have to interact with these heroes and help them with something. This is the most complete Spider-Man experience I've ever played and every kind of fan is going to deeply appreciate how much work went in to building this shrine to Spidey.
Meanwhile Jameson is over here shouting about Nazis made of bees...
Marvel's Spider-Man gameplay and missions
Capturing the way Spider-Man fights in video game form is a challenge no previous developer has quite managed. Spider-Man's combat style is fluid; he fights in the air and on the ground and around obstacles and with every part of his body constantly. Spider-Man dodges first, attacks when opportunity arises and relies on his webs and web-based gadgets to get him out of trouble when the stakes are truly high. Building all of these elements into a single combat system, without making it too difficult for most people to play and still have fun, seemed almost impossible before playing this game. Insomniac, in my opinion, absolutely nailed what it is to fight as Spider-Man.
This combat system is something truly special. You are rewarded for dodging at just the right moment or landing that perfect hit, and you can spend that reward in real time on more devastating and visually stunning takedowns or on quick bursts of health to keep the fight going. You can be surrounded by a dozen enemies and not feel overwhelmed, as long as you keep moving and remember to use your gadgets. Give some of the enemies a reason to pause and free themselves from webs, while you focus on taking down the others. Use the momentum of one enemy to take out another. Never stay on the ground for long, and always remember to dodge first and punch later. It's challenging but also deeply exciting, and judging from the way my whole family sat and watched as I played this game, it's almost more entertaining to watch than it is to play.
And as much as you are rewarded for thinking like Spider-Man, you're punished for trying to take on too many enemies with just brute force. This game has no problem killing you in combat and, in most cases, that death is surprisingly violent. You don't see blood and guts or anything, but the visuals of Spider-Man's broken body as a car hits him or as he's beaten into the dirt quickly refocus you into seeking a different strategy. In missions, death resets you to the last save point but out in the sandbox, you'll revert to the closest high point on a building or lamp post and whatever random encounter you were in will have disappeared. The bottom line is you really need to be constantly thinking about how you are fighting and moving, which ends up being quite a bit of fun.
Marvel's Spider-Man is a thrilling celebration of everything fans love about the friendly neighborhood web-slinger.
Unfortunately, all of that fluid combat and careful thought goes out the window as soon as you are in a boss fight. Every boss fight is scripted, almost entirely taking away your user agency in exchange for something that looks nice. And it's almost always the same format, too: interrupt the bad guy, land a hit, dodge the counter. Everything else is quick-time events and the occasional grouping of non-boss mobs to help you restore your combat bars for health or extra points for more visual takedowns. It honestly felt like the boss fights were designed by a different team, whose focus was more on exposition than gameplay. As incredible as normal combat feels, that's how lackluster every boss fight is throughout this game.
When you're not following the story, the sandbox is filled with tons of other things for you to do. You can flex Peter Parker's mind with research puzzles, stop random crime events throughout the city, follow clues left by Black Cat and a bunch of other clusters of tasks. Each of these events on the map earn you tokens, which you can spend on upgrading your gadgets and purchasing new suits with new abilities. And, mercifully, you aren't presented with all of these options at the very beginning of the game. Instead, there's a nice slow trickle so you're encouraged to spend a fairly even amount of time exploring the city in between plot points throughout the entire game. There are, however, some obvious advantages to fulfilling these side missions as early as possible, especially if your goal is to collect all of the suits.
Each of the Spider-Man suits you can unlock has a specific ability attached to it. Some help with stealth, while others give you combat or healing advantages. None of these abilities are actually locked to the suit after you purchase them, which means you can wear the Iron Spider suit from Avenger's Infinity War but use the super stealth ability from the Spider-Man Noir suit. This means you can wear your favorite suit throughout the whole game without compromising your abilities, which I appreciated. It also means there's value in unlocking things as quickly as possible so you can see how those abilities impact your combat style throughout the missions. Without giving too much away, you're really going to want to play with as many of these abilities as possible.
The combination of story and side missions comes together to really make this game feel full. By the time you reach the endgame, the map is covered in things to do and the difficulty level for everything from combat to puzzles increases at a steady pace. The whole design encourages you to play through all of the game evenly, instead of just plowing through the story in a rush to the end, which should come together to make at least 20 hours of gameplay by the time you've reached the final mission in the story.
That ending though
Marvel's Spider-Man review
Insomniac deserves all of the positivity this game is about to receive. It couldn't be more clear this was a labor of love crafted by folks who genuinely enjoy every facet of the universe they were invited to be a part of. The story is unique yet familiar, the combat natural while complex, and there's a constant focus on Spider-Man and his immediate connections I deeply appreciated. Marvel's Spider-Man is a thrilling celebration of everything fans love about the friendly neighborhood web-slinger and, with three different DLC packs already announced, it's clear this is going to be a deeply popular game for quite a while.
The best thing you can do for the Spider-Man fan in your life is make sure they have time to really explore this game deeply and with as few spoilers as possible. Also, don't be too alarmed if you catch them shouting with excitement towards the end of the game. It's fine, I promise. We all did it.