Release Date: September 7, 2018Platform: PS4Developer: Insomniac GamesPublisher: Sony Interactive EntertainmentGenre: Action-Adventure
2004’s Spider-Man 2 is often considered to be the definitive Spider-Man game even though it is not necessarily the best game featuring the character. Why? Well, that was the game that made players truly feel like they were Spider-Man. More importantly, Spider-Man 2 was a superhero game that showcased what our friendly neighborhood hero can contribute to the world of gaming that no other character can. The title’s revolutionary web-slinging mechanics offered an open-world navigation system that none of the many open-world titles of that era could properly replicate without triggering some rip-off alarms.
Insomniac’s Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 is not that game. It is very much a game of its era, and it reflects many of today’s popular trends. However, at a time when superhero titles are bigger than ever in every medium except for gaming, it might just be the title that shows us not what Spider-Man can do for gaming, but what modern gaming can do for the increasing number of superhero fantasies that a new generation of fans harbors.
While it may be the dawn of a new era of superhero games, Spider-Man is thankfully not an origin story. The game opens with a young Peter Parker who has already lost his Uncle Ben, has already been Spider-Man for quite a few years, and who is already comfortable with most of his powers. He’s also still quite enthusiastic about his abilities and responsibilities. Simply put, this is Spider-Man in his prime.
That’s a time period that we don’t often see in Spider-Man adaptations. Many storytellers rely on the burden of being Spider-Man as a source of drama. Insomniac, though, has decided to tell a slightly more classic Spider-Man story. Peter Parker still struggles to balance his superhero and personal lives, but the main source of intrigue in this story revolves around his battles with the city’s many villains.
It’s a battle that starts with the fall of The Kingpin and the crime lord’s threat that his downfall will trigger a criminal underworld battle for NYC that Spider-Man is not prepared to deal with. His threat proves to be anything but empty as everyone from pickpockets to a new threat known as Mr. Negative begin to tear the city apart in order to claim whatever may remain.
Granted, that’s a somewhat familiar premise so far as superhero entertainment goes, but what keeps Spider-Man‘s story from feeling superfluous is both Insomniac’s ability to tell that story well and the studio’s willingness to alter certain elements of the Spider-Man mythology. While the latter aspect of the story will likely draw all the attention because of how easy it is to sensationalize (“Mary Jane is a journalist!” “Spider-Man’s suit is different!” “Character origin stories have changed!”), it’s actually the former aspect of the story that makes it easy to recommend Spider-Man based solely on the overall quality of the game’s campaign.
What makes Spider-Man special in that respect is that it manages to tap into the pure comic book origins of the character and this world (classic villain outfits, an underlying foolish optimism about being a hero) while incorporating darker elements like shocking violence, character flaws, and other “mature” storytelling that remarkably doesn’t feel out of place with the rest of the experience. There are times when the game’s plot is dragged down by the inevitability of certain events and a few dry sections that border on filler, but for a superhero game campaign that will likely take you at least 15 hours to complete (likely more), Spider-Man’s story remains remarkably compelling throughout.
Yet, Spider-Man’s best moments aren’t found in the story. Those come from the thrill of the game’s open-world web-slinging. While some may say that Spider-Man’s web-slinging system isn’t quite as tight as the legendary one featured in Spider-Man 2 (due to slightly decreased sensations of speed and momentum), Spider-Man more than makes up for any minor shortcomings by offering a slightly complex (yet immediately accessible) series of movements that force you to do more than just hold down a trigger in order to get around the city.
In fact, Spider-Man’s movement system is at its best when you’re near Central Park or another area of the game’s sizeable map that doesn’t allow you to easily zip between buildings. Instead, it’s Spider-Man’s ability to run up walls, zip forward for extra momentum, dive bomb to gain speed, and launch off the edge of rooftops that make you feel like you’ve truly mastered the full range of this character’s unique set of abilities.
Said abilities also never fail to impress visually thanks to the game’s wonderful animations and overall graphical design. We’ve heard those fans who have speculated that this game has suffered a visual downgrade since its initial E3 gameplay trailers, but if that is the case, it’s certainly not immediately obvious while you’re actually playing the game. Every movement looks incredible, environments are colorful and varied, and the raw graphics are certainly worthy of its best AAA PS4 competitors.
While much of the game’s visual flair is found when you’re exploring the city, Spider-Man’s combat system also offers many moments of spectacle. As many have speculated, Spider-Man doesn’t try to overhaul the decidedly unbroken Batman: Arkham combat system. That means you can expect to do battle against waves of foes while utilizing a quick counter system and many punches and kicks.
However, Spider-Man does manage to improve upon the familiar by giving the player access to a variety of attacks based on Spider-Man’s abilities. Granted, many of those abilities involve webbing one or more enemies in some way, but the sheer number of moves and gadgets available to you mean that you’ll rarely have to rely on jamming the basic attack button. A typical fight may see you use your webs to hurl a grenade back at an enemy before dodging a rocket just in time to launch a web bomb that traps nearby enemies. The game’s boss battles don’t offer quite as much variety (and we’re not sure why there are so many enemies with rocket launchers in NYC), but Insomniac at least attempted to ensure that each utilizes some kind of unique scenario.
Where the game’s Arkham imitations fail to flatter is in Spider-Man’s stealth system. There are many, many, many stealth sections in Spider-Man. If you think using the word “many” that much is a bit repetitive, know that I only use it three times to prepare you for the experience of encountering yet another stealth sequence as this game progresses.
To be fair, some of those sequences are quite good and make sense to the character and plot. It’s actually quite fun to see how many enemies you can quietly take out as Spider-Man before you descend on the rest of the gang. There are also some stealth sequences that don’t involve Spider-Man which actually enhance the tension of certain scenarios.
Still, for a game that is at its best when you’re confidently using Spider-Man’s various powers at lightning fast speed, the sheer number of these sequences begins to wear you down. It’s easy to spot the ones that could have (perhaps should have) been cut in order to enhance the experience of those with something more substantial to contribute.
More than Arkham, though, the most obvious (and curious) game you can compare Spider-Man to is 2018’s God of War. We’re not going to accuse anyone of copying anyone’s homework, but the amount of mechanical and visual similarities between Spider-Man and God of War is truly remarkable. Of course, God of War itself is based on some popular modern design trends that Spider-Man so happens to also utilize.
That’s especially true of the game’s upgrade systems and open-world objective format. Much like God of War, Spider-Man allows you to upgrade various aspects of our hero. New gadgets can be unlocked, new enhancements can be added to your suit, there are all kinds of character skills that become available as you progress, and even the unlockable suits come equipped with new abilities (that are thankfully transferable between suits).
Most of these unlockables are acquired through spending various resources. While many of the game’s gadgets are acquired through the course of the game’s story (and Spider-Man’s skills can be purchased through points earned as you level up) just about everything else is unlocked by spending tokens. These tokens are acquired in many ways. For instance, crime tokens are rewarded when you stop certain crimes around the city. Backpack tokens are issued when you find some of Pete’s old backpacks. Base tokens can be acquired by cleaning out various thug hideouts.
The idea behind this system seems to be to encourage you to complete many of the “optional” side missions in order to unlock better gear. There are times when that system works quite well (it’s actually kind of cool that acquiring certain items also means exploring various game mechanics), but its hindered by a frustrating in-game economy.
Simply put, not all of the game’s upgrades are created equal. There are some that feel strictly better than others, and they’re not always the ones that you unlock later in the game. For instance, the “Spider Bro” ability (a drone that shoots electrical charges) that comes with Spider-Man’s Stark suit is so good at fights against crowds of enemies (which make up the majority of the game’s battles) that I never really felt the need to use anything else outside of boss fights and one or two very specific situations. I also just forgot about the ability to buy suit enhancements as it never really felt necessary to change the set of enhancements I purchased early on.
While some of the game’s various token-based objectives are fun enough to complete without the added incentive of unlockables, others (like most crime objectives) are easy enough to ignore unless you’re really jonesing for a new suit that requires them. It’s great that there’s so much variety in the game’s side missions and objectives, but the lack of a consistently compelling unlockable system means that those who choose to complete everything this game has to offer will likely do so because they are completionists or because they simply enjoy playing the game that much.
Of course, that would be a bigger problem if playing this game wasn’t as much fun as it is. As frustrating as Spider-Man’s familiarity and specific design shortcomings can be, we’re ultimately talking about a game that is based on some fundamentally enjoyable core mechanics (swinging, combat, and, seeing what that next objective marker has to offer). On top of that, you’ve got a story that’s fairly strong on its own but really shines once you realize that it’s just one part of the larger experience.
There’s going to come a day when the industry will have to move beyond open-world levels peppered with various objectives, towers that unlock portions of the map, RPG-lite mechanics, Arkham combat and stealth, and all the other tropes that fuel Insomniac’s Spider-Man. However, at a time when superhero games – much less good superhero games – are few and far between, it’s easy enough to recommend Spider-Man as a simply enjoyable game of its time that will hopefully lead us towards something a little more timeless.