[This review covers the main game only, not the recently released The City that Never Sleeps expansions.]
Late to the party.
Hello, dear reader. I hope your day is going well. Mine is. Why?
Because I just finished Marvel’s Spider-Man, the latest video game in the Spider-Man series, this time developed by Insomniac Games and published by Sony exclusively for the PlayStation 4.
And you know what? It’s good. Like, really good. I know, the game came out a few months ago and already has a slew of downloadable content available for purchase, so there isn’t much I can say that you haven’t already heard, but I’ll give it a shot.
Some mild spoilers for the campaign after the jump.
When I first heard that Insomniac Games was assigned to create the next Spider-Man game, I was worried. This is a development studio that has, for a while now, been hobbled by a series of lackluster releases. Their attempt to reboot Ratchet & Clank (a franchise nearly dormant since the PlayStation 2 era) failed miserably as a game and even more so as a film. Several years ago, before the PlayStation 4 usurped the Xbox brand as the king of the console-space, Insomniac had signed a bit of an exclusivity deal with Microsoft – the result of which was the fun-but-forgettable Sunset Overdrive.
The once prodigious creators of Spyro and Ratchet & Clank seemed on the opposite trajectory to sister Sony in-house studio, Naughty Dog – who followed their popular early PlayStation titles with the stellar Uncharted series and masterpiece The Last of Us.
Now, with the release of Marvel’s Spider-Man, Insomniac seems to have taken its step-backs in stride. By adhering to some old-school design principles, creating the most beautiful rendition of New York City’s Manhattan Island ever used in a video game, and by doubling down on narrative; Insomniac has created what is arguably the greatest Spider-Man game ever made, and probably one of the very best superhero games, as well.
The Spider’s in the details.
It starts with the world. Simply put: it’s gorgeous. Though there’s no true day/night cycle, the lighting is off-the-charts beautiful. Sony and its contracted studios have continuously made the case that the best looking games, in terms of graphical fidelity, can only be found on PlayStation. Playing this on the PS4 Pro, I was treated to vivid colors, deep shadows, reflections, enhanced draw distance, and a solidly stable frame-rate. Web-zipping across rooftops hasn’t felt this good since Treyarch’s groundbreaking Spider-Man 2 (2004).
Central Park is expansive, the buildings are massive and nearly photo-realistic in their representation here. But the map isn’t just enjoyed from the air. Stick to the surface of any building and you’re likely to be surprised that you can actually see inside them. Each exterior window of each building has a fully modeled room on the other side. Granted, they’re low resolution and procedurally-generated, but swinging through Manhattan at night, with each of its skyscrapers suddenly given the added depth of interiors behind all that reflective glass? A marvelous experience. It’s a small detail with richly immersive rewards.
Fall down to street-level (there’s no fall-damage) and walk around the city for a bit. You’ll notice varying textures on the sidewalk, people chatting on benches, a few fans to high-five or take a selfie with, or maybe an emergent game of basketball on a court in Harlem – in the shadow of a dark-splotched brick apartment building.
I’m not saying that the city feels as alive as, say, Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City, but this comes damn close. It’s leaps-and-bounds more lively, varied, and technically impressive (in a true-to-life sense) than Spider-Man 2 (2004).
There are also plenty of collectibles and Easter-eggs to be found, tucked away under bridges or offered as rewards from challenges. Not to mention the many famous buildings of the Marvel cinematic and television universes that appear. It’s a great map for scavenger hunting, and Insomniac has stuffed as much as they could between every expertly modeled building – though finding everything is, at times, a chore (looking at you, Taskmaster.)
This wonderful map would amount to nothing, however, if traversing it is a chore, and that’s where its abundantly clear Insomniac was the best choice to make this game.
A Spider about town.
Though there’s a bit of a learning curve, especially to those of you used to Spider-Man 2′s hold-and-release web-slinging, getting around Manhattan is a breeze. It’s intuitive, both the button layout and heads-up display, which allows for muscle memory to dictate how you move within an environment. Very rarely was I stuck wondering which button did what. Speed is everything, something Sunset Overdrive couldn’t master, and Spidey’s agility is on full display here. The number one rule when making a game like this is to focus on the feeling of being the superhero. The player should never feel inhibited in a way that contradicts the character they are playing. Only very rarely, in the heat of some intense and (unfortunately) camera-locked scenarios does the web-swinging feel restricted in this game.
Insomniac was clearly influenced by two games. One, Spider-Man 2 (the previous standard-bearer in the franchise) and Batman: Arkham City. The web-swinging and radiant crime mini-quests carry over from Spider-Man 2, whereas the ability to scan environments, the arsenal of gadgets, and the combo-chain combat system are owed to the Arkham series. Combat scenarios and boss-battles don’t feel tremendously fresh, especially considering the amount of quick-time events (QTE’s) that appear, but – and this is important – the mechanics feel right for a Spider-Man game. Also, it’s standard operating procedure at this point to have your open-world game require the character to climb to a vantage point and unlock segments of the in-game map, so of course that’s in here, too.
The gameplay isn’t especially innovative, but that doesn’t damn the consumer to a lackluster experience. These mechanics have persisted for so long for a reason.
And the story?
This is what elevates and what occasionally ails this game. Insomniac’s brand of witty dialogue, tongue-in-cheek humor, and visual gags are all here. The story was obviously written and executed with a genuine love for Spider-Man as a character, and a total understanding of what makes him such a compelling character.
Spider-Man has superpowers, but they do not enrich him. His power is a burden on him and those he’s cares for, but he assumes his role as the city’s protector nevertheless. Insomniac was wise to focus their narrative on not only Spidey, but on Peter Parker and the responsibilities of both. That said, Peter is still a twenty-something, and this game may just be the greatest 21st Century adaptation of the character.
He has a Twitter-esque social media feed and 15.3 million fans. He rides the subway and flips through his phone as he does so. The texts he sends are sometimes misinterpreted. He can be incredibly anxious around Mary-Jane (who is thankfully given plenty to do in the story). He’s a sarcastic millennial with a heart of gold, and the bad-guys are just as well-written.
Every villain has a motive, every hero has a weakness. Every character, when given the appropriate screen-time, shines in this game. It’s easily the best narrative that Insomniac has ever produced, and is bookended by some of the most thoroughly entertaining stuff currently available on PS4.
Where it struggles, however, is during the second act. After a bombastic opener, and a quick introduction to Manhattan and the games’ gallery of characters, the player is essentially left to deal with petty crime and side quests until the narrative decides that it’s time for something explosive to happen. There are a few too many perspective changes, a few too many “stealth” missions, and a few too many narrative elements too obviously foreshadowed. That isn’t to say that the game’s story lacks surprise, because there are quite a few genuinely incredible moments in the game, they just happen far too late in the narrative. That big fuck-all prison break showcase at E3 over the summer? That’s nearer to the end of the game than it should be.
I was asking myself at around hour twenty of my play-through, “where are the villains?”
This is an older Spider-Man, more so than the Tom Holland interpretation currently dusting around in the MCU. This is a Spider-Man game where the villains have been in jail for a bit, people have moved on, Peter has left the Bugle, everyone is working and behind on rent, and the High-School antics are a distant memory. The world is seemingly calm after the opening sequence of the game – Fisk was the last big fish to catch.
And that’s the only element that Spider-Man 2 can still lord over the rest of the Spider-Man games – it rolled out and handled its rogue’s gallery at a blissfully consistent pace. Here, due to the game’s focus on Peter Parker’s personal life and the aforementioned scavenger-hunting, the narrative is driven more by personal drama during the second act. Which is NOT a bad thing. This game has some of my favorite Peter / Mary-Jane moments, by far. However, it does feel a bit too often that you’re just waiting for the story to really kick into gear.
What that helps with, though, is underscore a point made by Fisk after his arrest early in the game – that with him out the picture, crime will slowly rise and reach a boiling point. It does do that, and the city transforms accordingly to stunning effect, but the fact remains – all those villains in the trailer? That’s just a small handful of boss fights and a frustrating dream-sequence in Act 3. There are other fights, such as with Tombstone and Taskmaster, but neither are related to the narrative in any significant way.
When the narrative is firing on all cylinders? It’s the best damn Spider-Man property, period. I mean that.
Oh, but there are the occasional bugs…
Marvel’s Spider-Man is a smart, surprising, deep, and graphically impressive title. It’s more than I was expecting, and as far as I’m concerned, has finally toppled Spider-Man 2 from its perch atop the franchise.
The combat is fun, traversal is fun, and the photo-mode is utterly addicting – it helps that the game looks so good. There are difficult challenges and heart-felt moments, some trademark Insomniac hilarity, and a startling level of detail everywhere you look. However, the game is far from groundbreaking. Consider this the perfection of the open-world third-person formula.
Don’t hesitate to pick this up, play it, and love it. You deserve to be happy, dear reader, and this game will do the trick.
4/5 – Must own.
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Until next time.