THIS REVIEW OF ‘SPIDER-MAN’ IS SPOILER-FREE.
by Jarrod Jones. It looks like a million bucks, runs like a dream, and does whatever a spider can—it’s Spider-Man from Insomniac Games, the PlayStation 4 exclusive that rules so hard I’m only just now getting around to a review. (Sorry, but not all of us have radioactive blood coursing through our veins.)
The J. Jonah Jamesons of the world would have bet the Bugle on Spider-Man being another mediocre entry in a very long line of the Web-Head’s mediocre video game entries. And while the game certainly has its limits (and we’ll get into those before long), Marvel’s world-famous arach-kid has rarely swung higher, looked better, or felt more relevant than he has today.
Spider-Man for the PS4 contains the sweet promise of bigger and greater entries down the line. For now? It serves (and serves magnificently) as a tribute to the character’s 56-year history on the comics page and beyond, even if the game arrives without any remarkable innovations of its own.
WITH GREAT POWER…
On a narrative level, Spider-Man might be the strongest adaptation of the character yet. It has the heart of the Sam Raimi films (punctuated by the stirring, Elfman-esque John Paesano score), the goofy flaws of Sony’s Amazing reboot series (everything—yes, everything—is connected!), and it has the spritely energy of the MCU’s Homecoming (even if the game is lacking a bit of its bite.)
Story credits go to Jon Paquette, Benjamin Arfmann and Kelsey Beachum, who teamed with comics writer Christos Gage and Amazing Spider-Man alum Dan Slott (who just came off of an eight-year run on the character) for this all-new tale. They’ve wisely moved past the character’s well-trod origin to focus on an established Spider-Man who’s life is ever at the mercy of the responsibility that comes with his great powers. Here, Peter Parker is in his early twenties and working with his scientific idol (a doctor named Octavius); he’s struggling to pay his rent but he feels like he’s a part of something important. His aunt May is thriving, too, at F.E.A.S.T., a non-profit organization that feeds and shelters the city’s homeless. (An aside: The game’s frequent attention to the homeless and how they survive in an economically turbulent city such as New York may be one of its greater unsung qualities.)
When the game begins Parker is also in a pretty great place as his be-webbed alter ego. He’s established a strong partnership with police chief Yuri Watanabe (who coordinates with the hero to more effectively take on the criminal element, including a game-opening siege on crime kingpin Wilson Fisk’s high-rise), and he’s already sent some of his more infamous supervillains off to the hoosegow (a super-max prison facility called The Raft that floats just off of Manhattan in the East River, clearly meant to be a calamity waiting to happen). There’s a power vacuum created by the Kingpin’s timely arrest and crime is hectic as ever, sure, but Parker’s investigations into a growing threat have borne a strong partnership with Mary Jane Watson, here a shrewd beat reporter for the Daily Bugle.
Of course, this being a Spider-Man story, everything is dual-edged. Working with MJ allows Peter to better understand rising villain Mr. Negative, but MJ & Peter are still reeling from a disastrous break-up that keeps this adorable pair at arms’ length. Peter helping Dr. Octavius to achieve his ambitions only seems to push the good doctor towards a mania that can’t possibly end well, considering his mounting hostility towards the city’s mayor (and former business partner), Norman Osborn. With everything simultaneously working for Parker and against him, it’s only a matter of time before the rug gets pulled out from under our wall-crawling hero. And when things get bad for Peter in this game, they get really, really bad.
IS HE STRONG? LISTEN, BUD…
Gameplay in Spider-Man is addictive, which is handy considering how much there is to do. In this gigantic map (a fine, if sometimes peculiar, recreation of Manhattan) there are dozens of side missions that pop up after you de-scramble a series of police surveillance towers planted in strategic spots around the city. (This wrinkle is especially gross after you factor in Spidey’s long-held anti-authoritarian stance on crime-fighting, and it’s something I hope gets dropped in the sequel.) Unlocking parts of the map doesn’t preclude you from swinging from one end of the city to the other if that’s what you want to do, however, and these missions will pop up anyway so long as you make frequent use of the R3 button.
But if maxing out AAA games is your thing, unlocking police towers is just one of several frequently annoying grinds you’ll find yourself huffing through just to get to 100%. (Pigeons! You have to chase pigeons.) I cleared the entire map before finishing the story campaign, which left an empty open-world for me to swing through after all was said and done. Even the city’s population, a fine addition that seems to take the Arkham series’ barren sandboxes to task, became lifeless and stock once I found there was no more story to work through. Spider-Man left me wanting more, so much more, than what its near 30 hours of gameplay offered. But to me, that’s a sign of a job well done.
As for the web-swinging, the one thing Insomniac absolutely needed to get right, it’s so damn fun it borders on the ridiculous. The moment you step out of Parker’s apartment window and shoot your first web out into the city had me engaged in a way I haven’t experienced in any other game before. The visceral thrill of swinging through the glass and concrete canyons of New York is staggering. It feels designed to inspire a sense of discovery, and Insomniac peppers the map with plenty of cheeky Spider-eggs throughout to reward frequent swing-sessions. I spent most of my time hurtling myself at great speed and dropping from ludicrous heights, which is something the game also rewards through a taxing (yet satisfying) benchmark system.
And combat? It’s your basic Arkham-esque counter-based punchery. There’s an easily navigable skill tree that allows you to pack a larger wallop, not to mention get more creative with your web-shooting abilities. And while it’s very satisfying, not to mention easy, to clear a warehouse full of goons using the stealth options at your disposal (do none of these dudes know how to look up?), the game encourages you to master its robust combat controls, and doing so only makes the experience that much richer. Clear five waves of enemies, all with varying levels of difficulty to them, and try not to pat yourself on the back afterwards. There’s a surmountable learning curve to Spider-Man and I love it for that.
Even though this game is thorough in terms of controls, your mastery of them doesn’t mean a damn thing when Spider-Man periodically marries the gameplay with its cinematics. During these admittedly awe-inspiring action sequences—there’s a helicopter chase that involves a falling crane that’s particularly astounding—you’re left to passively tap your way through quicktime events. This doesn’t improve much with the boss fights, which either require you to sneak past major-league baddies as Mary Jane or Miles Morales (a character addition that makes me optimistic for this franchise’s future) or endure the basic dodge/counter/strike/repeat motions found in lesser superhero games.
LOOK OUT—HERE COMES THE SPIDER-MAN!
Spider-Man has its flaws, but they can be easily cast aside if you’re willing to do so. There’s so much energy and passion poured into this game, from its various Easter eggs, to the score, to the character design, vocal work and performance capture that you can’t help but get swept up by it. These characters are so well-realized that you find yourself missing them when they’re gone, which bodes incredibly well for the inevitable sequel. (There are a couple cliffhangers that promises that paradigm-shifting changes are waiting in the wings, too.)
Insomniac’s Spider-Man wants everyone to play it, and it has quite a bit to offer no matter what kind of gamer you are—hardened, casual, lapsed, or new. There’s a camera feature with a surprisingly healthy selfie mode that, when you combine the game’s array of various unlockable costumes with its vividly realized New York City skyline (seriously; blue never looked so blue), is itself a compulsively playable thing. It instills in you a keen desire to run out of your house once the game is completed to your nearest comic book store to snag as many Spider-Man comics as you can get your hands on, and that alone makes it a triumph. (I certainly spent some time afterwards reacquainting myself with the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko/John Romita eras.)
Then there’s J. Jonah Jameson, retired as EiC of the Daily Bugle and now a right-wing blowhard for a local radio affiliate, who pops up whenever Peter is at his lowest just to kick him in the ribs. Jameson’s depiction in the game (voiced by Darin de Paul, who does a fine mimic of J.K. Simmons) is a frequently mean-spirited, eye-rolling annoyance amid all this digital paradise, which ultimately serves as a fine metaphor for the overall quality to Spider-Man on the PS4. There’s just enough aggravating things in this game to keep it from being perfect, but who wants to complain when everything looks and feels this good?
Developed by Insomniac Games.
Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment.
Directed by Brian Horton, Bryan Intihar, Marcus Smith, Ryan Smith.
Designed by Cameron Christian, James Cooper, Mike Daly, Joel Goodsell, Mark Stuart.
Programmed by Joe Valenzuela.
Art byJacinda Chew, Grant Hollis.
Written by Jon Paquette, Benjamin Arfmann, Kelsey Beachum, Christos Gage, Dan Slott.
Composed by John Paesano.
Platform: PlayStation 4
8.5 out of 10