When I was in grade 8, following the removal of my appendix I developed a sudden obsession with Spider-Man. It kicked off a stint of collecting comics, even hitting the convention circuit with my father, picking up rare back issues. I don’t really keep up to date with the webslinger anymore, though I occasionally do deep dives into backissues, primarily from the 80’s.
Spider-man’s record with video games has been spotty. A lot of his earlier forays into the digital realm ranged from mediocre to putrid trash. The spider-formula would forever be changed with the release of Spider-man 2 in 2004, an adaptation of the film of the same name.
It was revolutionary. It took Spider-man into the open world of Manhattan and introduced detailed web-swinging that emulated the wallcrawler’s preferred mode of transportation. It became the benchmark for future titles in the series and was often used as the template that later games would emulate.
It has aged like roadkill, but no title released in the franchise since has had the same impact.
Activision would then treat the series like it does its other licensed games; rushing them out the door with little respect for its source material. That era seems to be over, however, as Activision has been taken out of the picture, and the reins have been handed over to Insomniac, developers of the Infamous and Ratchet and Clank series. They’re here to prove that there’s still some fluid left in the webshooters.
DOES WHATEVER A SPIDER CAN
Rather than base the story off the comics or a recent movie, Insomniac weaves their narrative from a wide variety of sources. Elements from the both the comic book titles and adaptations such as the movies are thrown into this soup to bring together something modern, deep, but friendly to people who might not be familiar with all the background details. A lot of liberty has been taken to make everything more cohesive.
We don’t have to see Uncle Ben die for the millionth time, as Spider-man assumes you know the basics: radioactive spider, great responsibility, red and blue pajamas, etc. Peter Parker is 23 at the time of the game, and has been working as Spider-man for 8 years. He’s done battle with some of his biggest foes and, at the beginning of the story, is assisting with the takedown of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime. With the central figure of organized crime removed from the picture, there’s a power void that other figures immediately attempt to fill.
The deadliest to step in is a group of masked men who speak Chinese and wield strange energy powers. Things take a turn for the worse when they make their intentions known and start suicide bombing various targets in Manhattan and make threats to the mayor, Norman Osborne.
Along the way to save the city, you come up against many foes from Spidey’s past, and see hints to some of his others. They’re taken from various eras of Spider-man media, such as early foes like Shocker and Rhino, mid-career baddies like Tombstone, and more recent rogues like primary antagonist, Mr. Negative.
On the other end of the plot we see Peter’s struggles with romantic, financial, and family issues. In other words, it’s the perfect Peter Parker plot. Dated ideas like Parker working for a newspaper have been changed out (though still referenced). Characters have changed to fit the plot better, so Mary-Jane is no longer a model, but rather a reporter, which provides her a greater stake in the plot beyond just being a romantic interest.
WITH GREAT POWER…
The gameplay is yet another strange amalgam. Combining the webslinging of earlier Spider-man games, the snappy stealth/dodge/attack combat of Batman: Arkham Asylum, and the open world goals of Ubisoft’s most prominent titles. What you wind up with is something that is simultaneously derivative, while still being pretty damned close to the perfect Spider-man game.
Webswinging in particular is more enjoyable than it ever has been. While the swinging in games like Spider-man 2 were decent transfers of the peculiar method of transportation, Insomniac’s Spider-man modernizes it to allow for more control, speedier web-zipping, and enjoyable parkour. It feels great, and while there’s still the odd misstep in moments when the webslinger won’t target a ledge or pole that you’re pretty sure is within range, it’s extremely satisfying to traverse the world. You’re actually given the option of fast travel a little ways into the game, but it seems weird to me that anyone would want to bypass the joys of swinging through the streets of Manhattan.
Combat is similarly improved, and it works pretty well considering fisticuffs seems to have been Spider-man’s weak point in his games. Here, however, it apes Batman: Arkham Asylum‘s impactful and flowing combat and adds a dose of spider-agility. It’s easy to switch between gravity defying air combat, spider-sense aided dodging, and web gadget flinging. The enemies are extraordinarily simple archetypes that are easy to read and deal with from a distance, and while that hurts variety, it’s made up for by all the cool moves you can use on them.
If you’re not into the whole brute force approach, you often have the option (or sometimes requirement) to stealth your way out of a situation. Again, this is remarkably similar to Arkham, since you swing to high locations and web people up to ledges and hang them from poles. It can be pretty satisfying, but it’s sometimes quicker to just run in fist first.
WEB OF SPIDER-MAN
Once again, Spider-man takes place in Manhattan, which isn’t surprising, since it’s one of the few places on earth that his favoured mode of transportation would work. Chances are, fifty years from now, we’ll still be playing Spider-man games in open world representations of Manhattan island.
I’m okay with that. Insomniac’s Spider-man has the best representation of the city that I’ve seen. A lot of care has been taken to ensure that it feels like the real place, and it’s fun to just go sightseeing around the city. I personally got a little giddy when I found the Ghostbusters’ firehouse (Hook and Ladder #8) tucked away in an unassuming spot near the southwest end of the island.
I just wish the city was used in an interesting way. Spider-man unfortunately subscribes pretty closely to the particular pillar of open-world design favoured by Ubisoft. This means that you’ll be locating radio towers throughout the world and hacking them to gain information on the map. The map itself winds up absolutely peppered with various marks for collectibles and side activities. If you take time to actually tackle these, the gaps between actual story missions will be immense and the pacing will just die.
Many of them don’t add much to the game itself and are typically just busy work to do while you gain resources to craft into upgrades. There are some enjoyable side activities, but too many of them have you sometimes literally jumping through hoops. The game’s otherwise solid mechanics make the more mundane tasks a little more tolerable, but the side activities are little more than an unimaginative distraction.
Open world quests aside, there’s a lot to love about Spider-man. The main story missions feature a tremendous amount of variety, and so many incredible action sequences that it’s staggering. It’s seriously incredible how well Insomniac has managed to capture the feel of the Spider-man comics while keeping the game an entirely interactive experience.
At the same time, it’s not pulled off flawlessly. The plot contains numerous instances of icebox logic; moments where things make sense at the time, but break down the moment you pause to think about them. This is a problem the recent movies, and yes, even the comics books had, but I don’t feel it’s unreasonable to wish that the video game, with its own continuity, would avoid this sort of writing.
The problems with narrative don’t really start compounding until the end. Baddies are introduced just as obstacles that are quickly dealt with, the action moments seem to become confused and cartoon-y. Common plot devices that have been used with the webslinger time and time again rear their head for pure plot convenience sake. At times, it feels like the best story the web-slinger has seen, while at other times, it follows the logic of the 60’s cartoon. As a whole, I feel positive about it, but I don’t think it would stand up well to further analysis.
THE SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN
There’s actually a lot more I could complain about, but none of it really amounts to much. For example, when the characters are so enjoyable to interact with, does it matter that they have creepy dead eyes? That kind of sums up Spider-man: it has its problems, but they mean very little when stood up to the product as a whole.
What you get with this is a game that is utterly derivative, yet nearly perfect. It is, at least by my personal metrics, the best Spider-man game we’ve ever been given. It’s such a joy to play that all the distractions just melt away until you’re left gripped in the moment. By the time I reached the game’s emotionally affecting end, I was left with one question: when can I play more?
This review was conducted on an old vanilla PS4 using a physical copy of the game. This was paid for by the author.