Note: This review contains mild spoilers for Marvel’s Spider-Man.
It’s 2004 and I’m swinging through the streets of New York City, running up buildings, saving citizens from their small problems, and webbing the hell out of bad guys. In my mind, no other game will ever capture so perfectly what it might feel like to be Spider-Man. And for 14 years, no other game did — until Insomniac’s Spider-Man.
Spider-Man is one of my all-time favorite superheroes, which I know is a common opinion. Peter Parker represents the power nerd most of us comic book readers have inside of us, but he also happens to be a ripped badass that can confidently rock spandex and make out with hot chicks. At least that’s what high school me cared about.
30-year-old me (yikes) connects more with his unabashed positivity and optimism, as well as his insane intelligence and the confidence that Spider-Man gives him that he doesn’t always feel in his real life. Plus, I like his dad joke sense of humor.
Just like Spider-Man Homecoming, Insomniac’s Spider-Man captures all of these minute character details that make Peter such a powerful representative of who I wanted to be as a teenager. And, even more impressive, the studio managed to make a damn fine game that surpasses even the classic Spider-Man 2 as the definitive Spider-Man video game experience.
Familiar Yet Fun
To be clear, nothing about Insomniac’s Spider-Man feels all that “new.” This is an open world ass open world game with combat clearly inspired from the Batman: Arkham series.
Just like in Batman: Arkham, Spider-Man’s gadgets are super fun to use in combat and add that additional layer of customizability and experimentation that keep the fighting fresh until the closing hours. From web bombs to electric webs to a spider-drone that zaps bad guys, it was always fun to try different tactics with each enemy group.
The actual hand to hand combat is slightly less successful — especially in the closing hours of the game — because there is so much going on that it’s difficult to successfully dodge and focus on single enemies. I wouldn’t say the game ever becomes truly challenging on normal difficulty, but there are definitely some fights that become information overload.
Playing as a stealthy Spider-Man is far more rewarding than I anticipated. Jumping from rafter to rafter and webbing guys as they search for you is fantastic, and the sound made by clanking a robber’s head against a metal beam before stringing him up with webs is oh-so-satisfying. It’s a bit of a bummer that almost all stealth sequences will eventually force you into combat, but I understand Insomniac’s desire to have stealth not make the game easy mode at every encounter.
On the other hand, there are several forced stealth sequences where you play as MJ and Miles Morales, and these pretty much all suck. The first one is pretty innocuous, but each one after becomes more difficult and adds layers of complexity like hacking electronics and making noise to distract thugs. Insomniac obviously added these to create a break in the web-swinging and fisticuffs — as well as get MJ and Miles more involved in the story — but they just aren’t fun.
Speaking of breaking up the normal gameplay loop, there is a ton of stuff to do in Spider-Man. I enjoyed most of it, including chasing down pigeons for an old homeless man, completing unique gameplay challenges in support of Harry Osborn’s science experiments, matching line puzzles to create new elements, and age-old combat and stealth challenges, but there is a lot of game here. That’s only a negative if — like me — you’re a completionist that wants to unlock all of the Spider-Man suits and get the platinum trophy. It’s easy enough to only engage in the side content that you enjoy if you don’t care about such things. But that does bring me to another small criticism.
Tokens are a Problem
You unlock most Spidey suits and upgrade your gadgets by completing challenges and getting tokens. Each different type of challenges gets you a different type of token. And each upgrade or unlock requires a different combination of token types. You probably see where I’m going with this one.
If I want to unlock the Spider-Man 2099 suit, I need two tokens from taking down criminal bases (combination of stealth and combat), four crime tokens (from stopping emergent crimes like someone stealing a car or trying to kidnap a civilian), and four research tokens (from beating different challenges set out by Harry Osborn). But maybe I really don’t like taking down the bases or doing the research stations. Then I either can’t get the suit or I have to do something I don’t want to do.
If it were up to me, I’d have made all the side activities give the same kind of token, just in different amounts. You can track down a bunch of Peter’s old backpacks, which is pretty easy. So make those worth two tokens. Taking down a crime base is much more difficult, so those are worth 12 tokens. Then a suit might cost 10 tokens, but you can get them by engaging in whatever side content you want. You can find five backpacks or beat one crime base. If you want all the suits, you’ll still have to do pretty much everything, but it wouldn’t arbitrarily lock someone out of a suit because they didn’t want to track down enough pigeons to get the pigeon tokens.
I only make a big stink about this because all of the suits are awesome and call back to the comics in really fun ways. For me, the noir suit and punk suit are the coolest overall and it isn’t close, but I tried to wear a different one each time I booted up the game just for the fun of it. Each
Peter Parker’s Story
The story in Spider-Man was perhaps the biggest surprise. From the trailers and pre-release gameplay, it was fair to assume the game would focus on some of the smaller villains. While true, the story also builds toward a more expected team-up of bad guys. If you’re familiar at all with Spider-Man villains, you probably know what I’m referencing. But it’s actually Peter’s relationships with MJ and Miles that stand out in my memory of the game. Insomniac has always done such a great job with light-hearted humor in games, but with Spider-Man, they show a knack for real human drama and emotion.
Peter in particular struggles with both small issues like paying rent and spending time with Aunt May, but also much larger problems like his
I will say that the story takes a bit to get going. I was having such a great time swinging around the city and fighting bad guys that the slower story moments felt like they were getting in the way. But by the mid-way point, I was fully engaged.
And boy, the ending of Spider-Man really
To touch on the sights and sounds
But playing the game on my PS4 Pro in HDR on a 55-inch 4K television was pretty insane. The facial animations aren’t quite Naughty Dog quality, but the colors are vibrant, the characters are expressive, and I don’t remember a single framerate dip in my 40-plus hours.
Insomniac’s version of Peter Parker has a “no matter what, everything will work out” attitude towards life that is refreshing in this age of class struggles, racial and gender issues, and political decentralization. Video games don’t only have to be seen as a medium for escape from real-life problems, but Spider-Man serves as a great example that escapism doesn’t have to be trivial and shallow.
While the game itself doesn’t do much in the way of creating new mechanics or trying new systems, it executes on all of its pieces very well. This is the new definitive Spider-Man video game, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.