With great power comes a great Spider-Man
Spider-Man has seen many game iterations over the years. He translates perfectly to the video game space, from his traversal across the city to the way he pummels enemies with his acrobatic feats. This is Insomniac Games first foray into the Marvel space coming hot off their release of 2016’s Ratchet and Clank. They have entered Spider-Man’s world to show you their vision of what this arachnid crime fighter is capable of. Insomniac has shown in the past that feeling of movement through a world is important as shown in 2014’s Sunset Overdrive. With the freedom to tell their own story, has Insomniac pulled off a new age of Spider-Man and possibly the future of subsequent games? Let’s find out, spoilers ahead.
Setting the game 8 years into Pete’s Spider-Man career shows us a more experienced Spider-Man. Peter, a fresh post-grad, works for Octavius Industries as assistant to none other than Otto Octavius. As his assistant, he and Peter are working in making prosthetics for the good of humanity. Seeing the relationship between Otto and Peter is a refreshing take on the dynamic between them, giving it a father and son dynamic. Peter looks up to Otto as a great man doing great things for the world. In his personal life Pete has his Aunt May, a shining beacon of all that is good in his life. She works at F.E.A.S.T., a shelter for homeless and those in need. The most important trait that Peter and his Aunt share is, if you have the ability to do good, be great. This has always been the core of Peters character and we see it reflected in his Aunt. Mary Jane is here and a much more fleshed out role which is fantastic. Most versions reduce her to some damsel or set dressing but not this MJ. She is Pete’s ex and a reporter for the Bugle looking to get the next big scoop on crime that is permeating throughout New York City giving her character the agency that she previously never had.
NYC is sprawling, featuring the island of Manhattan, giving you tons of buildings and parks to explore and fly through with Spider-Man’s webs. Traversal feels good and the animations look fluid as you hold R2 to sling webs from building to building. Holding in the left thumb stick lets you do a nose dive to the ground and hitting R2 uses that momentum on the swing to throw you forward giving the satisfaction of a long-distance swing. The camera plays perfectly in these cases as it closes in on Spidey’s back giving you the feeling of inertia and weight to your movements. While fast travel is available and provides fun scenes of Spidey on the NYC subway, why take the train when you can fly across buildings? Changing up the different ways you can spring off buildings makes it very satisfying moving across the city.
Combat is a tricky thing to get right in games like this. Since the Batman Arkham titles, we’ve seen many developers take their own spin on it and Spider-Man is no exception. Spider-Man works well as a brawler, with flashy acrobatic moves and an arsenal of web gadgets at your disposal. You are given a wide range of ways to take down your enemies. You have dedicated attacks, web, dodge and gadget buttons; using these together will create a dance of disaster for your foes if you know how the enemies will react to them. For example, some enemies will have batons when you hold your attack button it sends them into the air allowing you to continue your combo midair. Guns are the bane of Spider-Man’s existence, but no worries when you can use your webs to disarm them or you can close the gap by zipping in. The focus bar builds as you dish out attacks on foes giving you the choice of healing or given button prompts for flashy Spidey style take downs. It goes deeper than this which I won’t dive into, but once you get the hang of the combat it feels good. You feel in control of the fights and you finish them with flashy flair!
This leads me to what I think is the weakest part of the game: the stealth play. I’m a huge fan of stealth games, this is no secret, when stealth parts are in the game I worry that it’s just an afterthought. With Spider-Man you get multiple perch points around the areas (and city) where you can take down unsuspecting enemies: You get one button to web them up and attach them walls or hang them from posts; you can sneak close and hit the attack button to do a takedown; or from any point you can to a long distance web zip takedown, which could end up being the one that gets you alerted. By using your Spidey Sense enemies will show whether or not taking them down will alert others as well as outlining them on screen. One trick they give you is to web a nearby object to distract groups and split them up. By the end of the game I end up just zipping around taking them down faster and faster after spending most of the time treading carefully. It doesn’t bring the game down but it also feels like mostly an afterthought with multiple reused animations (though when webbing up a baddie watching them hit their head before getting cocooned is hilarious).
Did I say stealth was the weakest part? Oh, I apologize, I meant to say the puzzles. Imagine playing a game where you can climb walls, swing from the city rooftops, and stop a car chase while being shot at by bank robbers then it comes to a screeching halt when you are forced to pick up a tablet in game and solve the most mundane of puzzles. One puzzle is similar to the Bioshock pipe game where you redirect the electric current to the goal using different pieces in a grid like fashion. The other puzzle is a kind of match the lines in various sets of blocks with the pieces provided. I usually like a good puzzle thrown into my action/adventure games for a break in the action, but usually they are better when thrown into the game world, think Uncharted or Tomb Raider where you use your tools or ingenuity to solve problems. These are just boring and not what I want to be doing when you are frickin’ Spider-Man. I get that they want to show how much of a genius Petey is but dang these were a slog. However, there are a few world puzzles like zapping an electric box to open locked doors. Could these even be considered puzzles when all you do is follow the wires on walls to the box? I don’t know about that.
They trickle out the skills you acquire at a pace that feels right. Once you get the hang of one new trick you’ve learned, the game gives you a new one for your toolset. This also goes for the way the game doles out your collectables. Early in the game, when Pete gets his new flashy suit after his previous one gets torn up from fighting Fisk, his old backpack trackers light up on the map. These are great to collect because they show you what Peter has been doing as Spider-Man for the past 8 years of his tenure, filling you in on all the details of his life until this point. Soon after more things to collect and do open up. I really appreciate this instead of dropping a metric shit ton of map icons on you, the game lets you breathe between collectables and it never feels like a chore.
One way the story changes up its gameplay is letting you play as other characters. At certain points of the story you’ll find yourself playing as MJ and another well-known Spider-Man character Miles Morales. During these segments you’ll find yourself sneaking your way through areas, trying to avoid getting caught while doing investigative work, or just trying to make it to safety. I appreciate that they tried to change up how the game’s story is shown to you rather than just through the eyes of Spider-Man. While having the game slow down to a point isn’t necessarily great, playing other characters does change things up and allows the heavy action pieces to breathe.
Finally, we have the story. I can’t say for certain that I didn’t see the twist coming, but they heavily hinted it when we first see Otto Octavius. The story will take you back to his lab, where you work, and each time you visit you see the subtle hints as Otto declines mentally and where he is pushing his technology toward a familiar goal. He isn’t the only character Peter deals with personally and in costume, there are a wide array of main stay Spider-Man villains including the Sinister Six themselves! For most of the story you are facing Martin Li. When you first meet him, he is a friendly business man who wants to make his city a better place by running the shelter along side Aunt May. Later we learn of his alternate personality of Mr. Negative. Holding a long personal grudge with the city’s mayor, Norman Osborn, Mr. Negative makes it his personal goal to make him suffer for a traumatic past inflicted by Osborn. After putting down Mr. Negative and sending him to “The Raft”, the high security super villain prison, all hell breaks loose. Your mentor, Otto Octavius, reveals himself to be the master mind behind the attacks on Norman Osborn. Throughout the game you see Otto’s personality deteriorate as you try to help him with his work dropping hints of his inevitable future as Dr. Octopus. The story balances these little hints perfectly until the moment arrives he is revealed as your enemy. I still gasped even though I saw it coming because you can see how much it hurts Peter making Otto the hardest villain to take down. The game ends with a fabulous conclusion of a fight making it satisfying and heart breaking to say the least.
I won’t give everything away here as there are more surprises to be found. I can easily say this is one of the best super hero games since the Batman Arkham series without a doubt. Insomniac has something special on their hands and I hope to see more within this new take of the Spider-Man world. They have set up a magnificent universe sprawling with easter eggs hinting at a bigger Marvel world. The game ends with you wanting more and hopefully more is what we will get. I highly recommend this to any fan of Spider-Man or anyone who love’s action games with heart, and heart this game has in spades…or spiders.
Special thanks to Taylor Kowitz (Channingtater) and LockeandKey
Follow me on Twitter at @neo_aoshi
All Images are Property of Marvel’s Spider-Man for the Sony Playstation 4 Console.