By: Adlai Rosh
The scene is a chill Malaysian afternoon. I’m standing in a function hall, sunlight streaming through water rippling off the glass roof above. I’m chatting with my new friends a few feet away from a glass display case. Inside that display case is a Spider-Man themed PS4 Pro. The excitement in the air is palpable as we gather around taking photos of the sleek red and white hardware, but we aren’t just there to gawk at a display model. We’re there for a hands-on of the upcoming Marvel’s Spider-Man, in a state that we’re told is more complete than any previous build to date. Under the watchful eye of a strict embargo, we’re all here, ready to get our hands on an exciting new adventure and see things nobody else outside of Insomniac has seen. I’ve got my jacket zipped all the way, but I still get chills as we’re ushered into the main function room.
I feel nervous and excited, both for the game and what I’m about to do.
“The Marvel’s Spider-Man themed PS4 Pro features a matte finish on the top panel and a striking red and white color scheme.
James Stevension, Community Director at Insomniac Games.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is an upcoming title from developer Insomniac Games, known for platform-defining titles such as Spyro the Dragon (PS1), Ratchet and Clank (PS2), and Resistance: Fall of Man (PS3). In it, you play as everyone’s favorite web-slinging, wise-cracking superhero Spider-Man, zipping his way across the Marvel Universe’s New York to juggle his relationships, his job, his other job, and his other other job. Only this time, we get a look not at the Spidey origin story, but at Spider-Man as an established superhero. It’s been 8 years since his debut and Spider-Man’s a regular fixture of the Manhattan skyline, slinging webs and puns in equal measure, and we get to see a facet of him rarely tackled in any non-comic medium.
Marvel’s Spider-Man may be a licensed game, but it takes place in its own contained universe. Insomniac was given plenty of creative freedom to come up with the narrative. While Spider-Man is familiar and friendly, there’s still plenty at work to keep Peter Parker fresh. Gone is the awkward high school and college drama of the Spider-Man films; now Peter works as a scientist helping to research and develop technology that can save lives. Mary Jane isn’t a supermodel or a singer or an actress, she’s a spunky and confident investigative journalist working for the Daily Bugle. J. Jonah Jamison, the iconic contrarian reporter, now runs a radio show where he gets to talk trash about Spider-Man’s continuing escapades. Miles Morales is set to appear, too, but his role’s unknown – and considering that Miles iand Peter are normally mutually-exclusive in any given run outside of universe-spanning crossovers, I’m interested to see what they’ll do with him. Faces both old and new pop up, and you can expect them to follow what you expect them to be, but it never feels like a rehash or a recap of an existing storyline, comic book, or film.
The gameplay mostly follows Spider-Man around the city of Manhattan, an open world of buildings to scale, tokens to find, sidequests to discover and viewpoints to synchronize. What sets Spider-Man apart from the Assassin’s Creeds and Arkham Cities of yore is the traversal and the sense of acrobatics. Absent are fast travel points and horse mounts – those are too slow. Marvel’s Spider-Man has achieved one of my biggest points of contention of the open world formula by making traveling fun. Swinging around feels natural and fast, faster than any horse or plane or armored car can feel in a game like this. Nothing really compares to the sheer sense of speed that perfect swings can give you. I was initially worried about the camera messing me up and giving me motion sickness but it was surprisingly slick and smooth, pulling in tight when diving and giving nice, wide shots when soaring through the air. After only a few minutes it felt natural and I was zipping my way from the Sanctum Sanctorum to the Avengers Tower in no time at all. With some of the new movement systems, even large swaths of otherwise empty areas like central park don’t feel like an utter slog to go through like in previous Spider-Man games.
Combat is what you’d expect from a game like this. There’s been many comparisons between this and the Arkham series, but those begin and end with fighting large groups of enemies. Unlike his contemporaries in the genre, Spider-Man moves like a lethal cross between an acrobat and a ballerina, employing agile leaps and graceful dodges between flashy mid-air combos and spider gadgets. While Batman might hit like a truck and Shadow of War’s Talion might slice foes apart with his sword, Spider-Man confounds his enemies with far-reaching, almost playful dodges before giving them a faceful of web and knocking them into their buddies. Building up a long enough combo fills up a Focus meter, which can be used to heal up or use a variety of powers. Spider-Man’s rich history of costumes is present, too, with the game giving you the ability to craft different legacy Spider-Man costumes with their own unique abilities. Any costume can be used with any power, so feel free to use that Spider-Man Noir costume with another costume’s power. Takedowns also refill Spidey’s gadgets; in the demo I got to use the Spider-Drone (a sort of automatic tracking web mine) and a more powerful version of Spidey’s web that knocks enemies back and takes them out of the fight if they hit a wall.
Spider-Man isn’t the only person you’ll be playing as, though. In between missions, you get to play as Peter Parker to break up the pace a little bit and give you some story. Under his new employer, Peter has more resources than ever to research tech and make improvements to his suit. In these segments you get to play a neat little puzzle game for tokens that you can use to craft new suits, gadgets, or suit powers – after the tutorial boss, Spider-Man’s suit gets torn apart and he builds a new one with the resources from his job. Sometimes you’ll get to play as intrepid reporter Mary Jane, too. My brief time with her in the gameplay demo was more of a narrative-based stealth adventure game, starting with her charming and bluffing a person of interest before having to sneak past them and solve a simple puzzle. Her sequence felt a little slow paced, but both her and Peter are chasing after the same thing – and with her investigative know-how and great acting skills, she can get into places and learn things that a bright red spandex suited superhero can’t, even if it might attract unwanted attention.
By far, though, one of my favorite things about Marvel’s Spider-Man is the voice acting – specifically, Spidey’s. In the comics he’s known for cracking jokes in the middle of fights, which can range from cringe-inducing to actually kind of funny. It’s difficult to strike an equilibrium, though, as you’d need someone who could pull off the dorky, sometimes-funny vibe without feeling forced. Yuri Lowenthal (Sasuke from the English dub of Naruto, Yosuke Hanamura from Persona 4) absolutely blew me away with his voice acting. A long, boring mission involving reactivating surveillance towers was alleviated greatly by a shockingly funny exchange between Spiderman and his police contact, Yuri (yes, her name is Yuri. No, she is not Yuri Lowenthal), and I genuinely didn’t know if I was laughing because of the way Spider-Man was talking or because of the astonished way Yuri was responding.
Despite the gameplay preview being a little under three hours long, I was already hungering for more. The build we got to play was hard-coded to stop giving story sequences after a particular mission, so I didn’t even get a taste of things after the bits I got to clear. I’m on the edge of my seat waiting for the game to go live so I can see the web of stories Insomniac has crafted for old fans and newcomers alike.
After the gameplay, we got to probe James Stevenson about the game some more. We had a lot of questions, understandably. We wanted to know more. Throughout the group interview I could really feel the passion behind the project. There were the usual questions – some asked if there would be DLC, or drew comparisons to the Batman Arkham series, or their inspiration for picking Spider-Man. This wasn’t some quick cash-in for a movie license or the throes of a desperate developer hoping to make a decent profit margin off an established IP. Marvel approached Sony, and by extension Insomniac Games, and let them choose whatever superhero they wanted to make a game for. From the gadgets to the costumes to the tight gameplay and characterization, Spider-Man was a perfect fit for Insomniac to tackle. Insomniac, in a way, was injecting their DNA into it as much as a radioactive spider would.
Which is also why I almost had second thoughts about the little joke I was about to pull.
With the interview wrapped up, we headed back into the lobby for a photo op. James was fun enough to strike a few poses in front of the Spider-Man wall, making web-firing gestures at everyone taking photos. I certainly wasn’t expecting how warm a personality he had when I approached him asking for a selfie. He obliged, and we posed together at the camera. Then I apologized in advance and unzipped my jacket. I got to watch his expression change as he looked at the round, yellow symbol on my chest from blank confusion to sudden realization. His face lit up and we both laughed as I revealed the Batman shirt I wore. We – and a few other people in the room with us – had a good chuckle about it, and I felt like that was an excellent high note to end an already fantastic day.
Marvel’s Spider-Man comes out on September 7, 2018.
James being a good sport about my little joke.