By Adlai Rosh
Growing up, I’ve played more than my fair share of Spider-Man games – from the Sam Raimi tie-ins to the cel-shaded Ultimate Spider-Man, and even a bit of the okay-ish Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions. While they all managed to nail something special, they were ultimately marred by how closely they needed to stick to the source material whether it was the Sam Raimi films’ plodding tone or an adherence to the comic’s symbiote storyline, or even the concept of the Spiderverse leading to a confusing mash of gameplay styles. For the longest time it seemed like the legendary webslinger would be relegated to cameos and appearances in other franchises, such as LEGO Marvel or Marvel Vs. Capcom Infinite, and I was well-resigned to this fate… Until now, that is.
Marvel’s Spider-Man, developed by acclaimed studio Insomniac Games, is a magnificent return to form for the webslinger. Set 8 years after Spider-Man’s debut on the superhero scene and following several interconnected plotlines, Marvel’s Spider-Man marries the high-flying acrobatics Spider-Man is known for and brings it into an open world environment. Set in the modern-day Manhattan of the Marvel Universe but in its own distinct timeline, the game features an original story set within the Spider-Man multiverse and follows Peter Parker through the usual drama that accompanies Spider-Man – shouldering the burden of being New York’s protector while juggling his real job at a research lab and his personal life as Peter Parker. And, in classic Spider-Man fashion, the story gets a lot more complicated when Peter and Spidey’s lives intersect a little too closely.
I’ll give it to you straight: Marvel’s Spider-Man is a fun game. From the traversal mechanics to the gadgets to the combat to the writing to Spidey’s absolutely hilarious voice acting (courtesy of Yuri Lowenthal), Marvel’s Spider-Man is for the most part a blast to play through. Combat is snappy and responsive, if a bit on the simple side at first glance – square is used for attacks and launchers, triangle is for closing the distance either by launching yourself into an enemy or pulling a foe towards you, and circle is for dodging. As with many open-world action games that have come out recently, the complexity of combat lies in the massive amount of foes Spidey winds up tackling at once. Weapon-wielding foes might counter-attack your web strikes and melee attacks with their own damaging attacks, while shield-brandishing foes are immune to frontal assaults. One enemy type might only be weak when launched in the air, while another enemy type will yank you out of the air at a moment’s notice. There are eight gadgets in total that Spider-Man can use to dispatch his foes, each with their unique uses such as webbing and stunning a large group of enemies or knocking them really far. Stringing together long enough combos fills up your focus meter, which can either be used to instantly dispatch an opponent or heal yourself up in the middle of battle, encouraging the player to always be in the thick of things. Gadgets refill when Spidey knocks enemies out – and man, are there a lot of enemies. Much of the challenge of combat encounters doesn’t lie in mashing attacks, but figuring out which threats should be dealt with first.
The open-world structure lends itself well to Spider-Man’s incredible mobility. You don’t even unlock the ability to fast travel until a bit later in the game, and even then it’s largely inessential; Swinging is ridiculous amounts of fun. Whereas most other games would stick you on a horse or have you travel through tunnels, there is little reason not to swing from point A to point B. Manhattan may not be a massive, province-spanning world but it’s crawling with backpacks to collect, criminals to apprehend, challenges to overcome, and photos to be taken. Each side-activity rewards you with nearly every new costume brings with it a new thematically-appropriate suit power. These suit powers can be incredibly useful, like steadily filling up your focus meter over the duration or summoning a drone to fight alongside you, and refill over time. The suits themselves are shout-outs to Spidey’s many, many appearances and alternate universes, like his MCU outfit, or the dark pilot’s outfit from the Spider-Man Noir mini-series.
Manhattan is beautiful and covered in neat little details. From a spider’s eye in the sky to street-level, the game manages to stay beautiful throughout while running smoothly for the most part. Characters are animated with a level of realism that shows even the most subtle of facial expressions, but sometimes they manage to come off as uncannily disturbing. While many will point out a graphics downgrade from the 2017 trailers to the release, shrunken puddles aren’t really something that bogs the game down; there are still many charming little details, like how some of Spidey’s suits give off glows of varying strength that bounce off smoke and reflective surfaces. It’s also incredibly satisfying to launch a crook off a manhattan office building, only to see them get pulled towards and stuck on a wall on the way down. Good to know that you’re not actually killing anyone in this game.
Sometimes, you’re required to play a brief segment where you aren’t a high-flying acrobatic daredevil superhero. Some of these segments provide pure story, such as the various times Peter visits the F.E.A.S.T. shelter and interacts with Aunt May or the homeless of New York. Other times you’ll be playing a stealth-adventure segment, such as the many times you’ll be playing as Mary Jane sneaking her way through an area and solving environmental puzzles to advance the plot. These mandatory segments provide a neat little change of pace and don’t overstay their welcome, with generous checkpoints making sure that any failures are quickly rectified. Mary Jane doesn’t get as many complex tools as Spidey does, but she at least gets a neat lure and environmental tools to dispatch and distract enemies.
The story is both familiar and new, and can trip up people who have a knowledge of Spidey-lore. Miles Morales, for one, exists in this universe – for the uninformed, Miles is usually from a universe where Peter Parker isn’t Spider-Man. Norman Osborn is running for Mayor and seems to have cleaned up his act; familiar villains show up to accost Spidey, but their motivations might be different from what they’re usually known for. Even Mary Jane takes a more proactive role in the story, being more than capable of handling herself in most situations and never really needs to be rescued – and as a hot-blooded reporter, she’ll always get the scoop. Black Cat and Taskmaster appear (through recorded messages, mostly) to taunt you and give you more challenges to overcome, with different rewards for each, but they really don’t have any bearing on the main plot. The characters even sometimes reference beloved (and infamous) bits of Spider-Man history, many of which are way too funny in-context to spoil in a review.
Despite all the praise I’m heaping on it, the game does fall short in a few areas. To seasoned gamers the game might be a bit on the easy side, but only if you’re playing on the game’s Amazing difficulty. The combat takes a while to ramp up, with the first few hours of the game feeling a bit too simple until the game really gets wild with enemy types. While the boss battles are spectacular in many regards, later bosses wound up being too repetitive and easy. The ambient music while traversing Manhattan is also largely forgettable, drawing on the same orchestral atmosphere of the Sam Raimi films, which isn’t that big of a deal but is worth mentioning at least. The story ends on a satisfying note, though the developers have stated that there will be post-launch DLC that adds new story content and suits. Rest assured though that the base game’s story is enough to stand on its own two legs.
Overall, Marvel’s Spider-Man is probably the best Spider-Man game I’ve played in a long time – it proudly wears its influences on its sleeve while making a unique name for itself. It’s an amazing take on the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and a spectacular example of how to do a licensed game right.
Marvel’s Spider-Man launches September 7.