Spider-Man PS4: looking back, one year later

Spider-Man PS4 was sandbox triumph for Insomniac, and somehow a year has passed since its release...

So, it’s been a year since Marvel’s Spider-Man came into our lives and onto our PS4s and boy has it made its mark in gaming… and pop culture. With its top-tier storytelling that is reminiscent of multiple Spider-Man properties before it, particularly various comic book arcs and the beloved 1990s animated series, Marvel’s Spider-Man proved to be a huge achievement in gaming.

Spidey’s back catalogue of video games has been something of a mixed bag to say the least. For the dazzling gems that were Spider-Man 2 and Neversoft’s Spider-Man, there were many others that just didn’t quite hit the right note with fans.

But after already having a string of successful hits including Ratchet And Clank and Sunset Overdrive, Insomniac Games gave the treasured wall-crawler a much-needed fresh coat of paint last year. Let’s have a look back, starting with the games that paved the way to Spider-Man PS4

The history of Spidey games

Spider-Man games have always been a product of their time. This goes way back to the Atari era in 1986, which brought us the first-ever licensed Spider-Man game. Despite the simplistic visuals and gameplay, Spider-Man on the Atari 2600 marked the birth of a legacy which would eventually lead down a long, meandering road to 2018’s Spider-Man.

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The 1990s saw the popularity of 16-bit era consoles, meaning lots of puzzle platformers and side scrolling beat-em-ups. There was the Maximum Carnage video game tie-in game to the major comic book event at the time, as well the tie-in game to the popular animated series on SNES and SEGA Genesis. And then there was the transition to 3D with Neversoft’s Spider-Man, which weaved a tangled web of characters and storylines and showcased just how much potential Spidey has in the gaming realm.

Spider-Man the swung onto the big screen with the Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi movies, which opened the door for a lot of movie tie-in games capitalising on their popularity. These tended to stick closely to the plot of the film, albeit with some extra side-stories spliced in. Spider-Man 2: The Game completely revolutionised the web-swinging mechanic, and it was held up as the gold standard of Spidey games for many years. 

The Ultimate Spider-Man game aimed to add to the canon of the Ultimate comics series. Then there was Web Of Shadows with its choice-based morality system and a branching narrative, similar to that of a BioWare game. Shattered Dimensions was a more linear adventure that brought together multiple iterations of Marvel’s iconic wall-crawler, paving the way for numerous comic book crossovers and the Into The Spider-Verse movie.

More games came and went, with the Andrew Garfield/Marc Webb films receiving their own tie-in products and Edge Of Time following on (somewhat underwhelmingly) from Shattered Dimensions. A few years passed, with Spidey continuing to appear in LEGO-based Marvel games and other team-focused affairs, but ol’ web-head seemed to have hit a brick wall with regards to receiving his own high-quality solo games. 

Then, in 2016, the announcement came that Spider-Man PS4 was on the way. Hype for Insomniac’s Spidey title grew to heady heights over a period of years, reaching a stage where anticipant players were so hungry for information that they started analysing the size of puddles in the game’s trailers.

It was a pivotal point for the wall-crawler’s gaming career, and it was also a very important moment for Insomniac Games: it was the first time in the company’s 25-year history that they’d made a licensed game. It’s very clear that a lot of care went into this game, and a lot of effort too. The pressure was on. 

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In praise of the game’s story

From the moment you boot up this game, you know you’re in for a rollercoaster ride. We found ourselves genuinely caring about the story, very quickly, from the moment an ostensibly good Otto Octavius appeared in the frame. The game’s writing was easily its biggest strength, with welcome contributions from long-time comic book writers Christos Gage and Dan Slott, who clearly understood the essence of the character.

The story had so many moments of intensity and many heartfelt character interactions. It even took an underused Spider-Man villain, Mr Negative, and made him more interesting and important to the story. It takes over five decades of Spidey lore and presents it in a more streamlined, accessible version. Spider-Man PS4 gave us a brand-new story which didn’t heavily rely on nostalgia nor was tied to any specific comic runs, movies or TV shows.

At the core of the story was the dynamic between Peter Parker and Otto Octavius, which definitely anchored the game, as well as charting Otto’s eventual downward spiral and transformation into Dr Octopus. While many could have foreseen it, it still held a lot of emotional gravitas, which could be predominantly felt during the final confrontation on the side of Oscorp during the game’s climactic finale.

We got a version of Peter Parker that felt different from what we’d seen in previous games. No Spider-Man game before had ever given Peter Parker himself as much depth or nuance as seen in this game. His vulnerabilities raise the stakes. He has such detailed characterisation, and the story peels away the layers of his character, which really elevates the experience of the game. The game perfectly captures what makes the hero awesome – you feel his power, you feel his responsibility, and you feel the emotional connections in his life.

That old Parker luck is present and correct, as well: there’s even an entire side mission in which Peter gets evicted from his apartment and has to retrieve his stuff, showing a high degree of relatability. This story makes us really feel for the characters, presenting us with very real human interactions.

Spider-Man PS4 also gave us a more active, interesting, engaging take on Mary Jane Watson, who proved to be the most polarising aspect of the game. This iteration of MJ was a drastic departure from the classic, glamorous, high-fashion supermodel that long-time fans were familiar with. Besides, most multimedia iterations of MJ had very little in common with the classic MJ anyway.

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It was highly laudable that Insomniac committed to moving away from the damsel in distress trope that had continued to plague many superhero properties. There are times when they do take it a step too far and risk making her very unlikeable. Whilst many would consider her a Lois Lane clone, it turned out to be the wisest decision to head down the reporter route as it gives her more involvement in Spidey’s shenanigans. This also gives her and Peter/Spider-Man’s relationship a whole new dynamic and gives their interactions a new meaning.

MJ’s arc also provided arguably one of the most standout, exhilarating gameplay experiences in the game: a story mission at Grand Central Station, in which you were tasked with working collaboratively with Spidey to take out some armed goons.

Remembering the epic gameplay

After spending hours with their previous titles, it was clear to see that Insomniac could not have been a more perfect fit for Spider-Man. With their expertise in creating excellent gadgets systems and creativity (the amount of Groovitrons in their previous offering Ratchet And Clank is a testament to that), which allowed for varied combat and creative ways to take down enemies.

Spider-Man‘s free-flowing, reflex-based combat is highly reminiscent of the Arkham series’ mechanics, but it still feels fresh and unique enough in its own right. The levels were well-designed and effectively balanced with the open-world NYC sandbox. The game also had RPG elements in the shape of its skill tree, which allowed you to customise Spidey to suit your own personal playstyle. 

Let’s not forget the excellent web-swinging mechanics either, which built on the classic style of Spider-Man 2 to give us that exhilarating feeling of traversing New York in Spidey’s unique way. The swinging is so fun, in fact, that you might find yourself putting off the main missions because you’re having so much fun on your own.

Yes, you do get your typical open world tropes – towers, collectables, fast travel spots – but the game finds meaningful ways to blend them in. For example, collecting Peter’s lost backpacks rewards long-term fans of Spidey with heaps of Easter eggs and lore nuggets. Sure, the game can be repetitive, but it rarely strays from being enjoyable.

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There are also the stealth missions where you play as Miles Morales and MJ, which generated a mixed response from players as some felt it dragged from a gameplay perspective. Whilst some of these segments would have made for better cutscenes, they also added more nuance to the story.

With a rogue’s gallery as rich as Spider-Man’s, there is room for a whole barrage of villains in this universe. Insomniac did serve up a fair few familiar foes in Spider-Man PS4, but it would’ve been great see more, especially since Mr Negative and Tombstone proved just how well this universe can enhance underused enemies from the comics. But hey, that’s what sequels are for.

Also, in terms of things on our wishlist for next time… Spider-Man PS4 did such a magnificent job with its female characters that it does feel like Insomniac missed an opportunity for Black Cat to have her own playable stealthy gameplay segments. We can only hope she gets more of the spotlight in the sequel, especially now that she stars in her first ongoing comic book series and continues to be an important character in Spider-Man mythos.

Looking at Spider-Man PS4’s legacy

Not only has Spider-man PS4 built a solid foundation for a brand-new universe, it’s also sown the seeds for even more compelling stories. There are just so many characters that need the Insomniac treatment. 

For this writer, the biggest hopes are for a lot of the underrated and underused characters in Spidey lore, namely Jackpot, Spider-Girl, Silk, and a Sinister Syndicate team up with the likes of Lady Octopus, Scorpia, Beetle, White Rabbit… the list is endless. And a good place to start would be a proper sequel to Spider-Man PS4 that allows us to swing around as both Peter and Miles. 

Also, Spider-Man PS4 has had an incredible impact outside of gaming. It’s left its mark on other areas of pop culture in a major way, with the biggest example being this: in the MCU’s latest offering, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Tom Holland’s Spidey pays a little homage to the Spider-Man PS4 Photo Mode by taking a mid-swing selfie in the movie’s final scene. 

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The game’s white spider advanced suit also made a guest appearance during a couple of scenes in Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. We’ve certainly come a long way from the days of the movie tie-in games, and now we’ve got films that are tipping their caps to Spidey’s console experiences. 

What’s more, PS4 Spidey also had his very own comic book adaptation series based on the game’s story, City At War, and recently had a brand-new comic book series also set in the game’s universe, Spider-Man: Velocity.

Insomniac’s debut Spider-Man title has also become the best-selling superhero game of all time, surpassing Batman: Arkham City as well as becoming the fastest-selling PS4 exclusive ever. Last year, Spidey’s two co-creators, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, passed away – their brainchild is clearly in great hands and we are forever thankful to them.

Marvel’s Spider-Man created a whole new generation of Spidey fans and opened them up to the exciting medium of comic books. We cannot wait to see where Marvel and Insomniac take this new universe next, especially with Sony’s newly-announced acquisition of Insomniac Games. Here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait long before we’re swinging back into this lovingly crafted world…