Review - Marvel's Spider-Man
I knew one of the fun, but difficult parts of this career choice would be reviewing a game to which I had a personal connection prior to playing. I don’t mean this in the same way that I was a Monster Hunter fan before writing that review. I’m referring to the situation where I love a non-video game source that a game is based on: a licensed property, a sport, or some other non-game thing that a game portrays. This is absolutely that situation. I am one of the biggest Spider-Man fans on the planet.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is a great game. If you’re reading this to find out whether that game is any good, there’s your answer. But the reasons why the PS4 exclusive is so good come from all over the place. Some of it is the technical magic we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Sony’s first-party games; that same level of visual fidelity that puts even the most impressive PC games to shame. Some of it is the truly inspired writing from the game’s developer. Insomniac Games (who you may know from series like Ratchet & Clank and Resistance). A large portion of the game’s quality can be chalked up to an obsessively nuanced adaptation of the decades of Spider-Man fiction out there.
Before we get into all of that, let’s address the question on everyone’s mind: The Swinging ™ is fantastic. Marvel’s Spider-man is an open world game in the same vein as 2004’s Spider-Man 2, the iconic game based on the movie of the same name. That game was known for its physics-based swinging mechanic, built on the premise that Spider-Man’s webs must attach to actual buildings. This creates a swinging system where Spider-Man has to jump off of each web, spending much of his travel time in free fall, which allows the player to mimic those incredible action sequences in the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man film trilogy of the early 2000’s.
Marvel’s Spider-Man’s swinging is not quite as complex as Spider-Man 2’s system, but it is also much more intuitive. Holding the R2 button fires a web at the closest building and releasing R2 releases said web. Releasing the web at different angles affects how you’ll be flung through the air: releasing at the bottom of the arc will send you flying forward faster, while releasing at the top will send you higher into the air. That time spent airborne is where you’ll get the first look at the insane amount of Spider-Man-ish animations Insomniac poured into the game. He’ll spend and twist and do that weird thing where he shoots the web with his hands underneath him. You know what I’m talking about. And, of course, if you look closely, you’ll see the famous web shooting hand sign.
It’s a simple system that has been glossed up into something awesome. If you swing into a building while still holding your web, Spider-Man will begin a wall run. From there, you can run around the corner of a building, stop and climb up it, or jump off to begin another swing. This not only stops you from looking stupid if you smack into a building, but it’ll also help to maintain your speed traveling around the city. Additionally, Spider-Man can web zip to any location you target within a certain range. So, if you’re soaring over a spot you want to land on, simply aim at it, hit R2, and Spider-Man will pull himself there. The web zip move can be combined with a vault as soon as you land on a surface, which helps keep you moving, and looks very Spider-Man.
Combine all these different elements and you get a swinging mechanic that is consistently fun for the entire duration of the game, which is enough to make it one of the most enjoyable video games of the last decade, at least. Open world games often live and die by which traversal options they give to players exploring their worlds, and none that I’ve ever played have a movement system this fun. Swinging makes it really hard to go back to stealing cars or riding horses. It’s telling that this game has fast travel, but the only thing that convinced me to use it was the trophy for fast traveling five times (and for what it’s worth, even that is entertaining).
As you swing around the city, you’ll embark on the same sorts of side content we’ve come to expect from open world games. If that sounds disappointing, rest assured that even picking up collectibles is a fantastic time in Marvel’s Spider-Man. You’ll pick up backpacks, take photos, chase birds, and hack towers, and it’s all worth doing simply because it gives you an excuse to swing around. But each of these activities is accompanied by some great writing for context. I collected every available backpack long before I was anywhere near the end of the story, because the writing for each one added so much to the game. They either made me laugh, filled in a part of Peter Parker’s back story, fleshed out another character, or some combination of all three. I’ve chased down a lot of dumb shit in open world games and I don’t think any of it has been as cool as Spider-Man’s backpacks.
There are also random crime events and other combat scenarios to check out in NY. It was through these moments that I realized the best part of Marvel’s Spider-Man could be the combat. The game has what we’ve come to call “Batman combat”. It’s a system based on timing, rather than on stringing together long button combos. I’ve gone over the specifics of it in the past, but it’s worth noting, now that I’ve finished the game, that it becomes deeper and more interesting as the game goes on. Your attacks rely very heavily on Spider-Man’s unique skills, like his webs and agility, turning each fight into something that looks choreographed (when played well).
As in the Batman: Arkham games, you’ll get an overhead prompt to press the dodge button (which makes sense in this game because it’s Spider-Man’s spider sense) and you’ll take a ton of damage if you mistime the dodge. This forces you to be cautious about when to attack, so you’re not stuck in a longer move when you need to dodge, but it also leads to the crazy, acrobatic evasion moves you’re used to seeing in Spider-Man movies. Those moments where you slide under a guy’s legs, kick the guy behind him in the face, backflip off that dude’s face and into the air, web yank yourself to the side to air dodge a rocket, catch that rocket with your webs, and then whip it back at the guy who fired it never get old. I played the game on the highest difficulty setting, which forced me to use all these moves, but this was also an incredibly rewarding experience because it made each encounter feel like something from one of the movies. Spectacular difficulty seems like the way the game “was designed to be played”, to quote the Halo games. Play on easy or normal if you’re just here for the story, but I implore you to at least attempt Spectacular. It’s not the kind of hard where you’ll be stuck on any one particular encounter, and you can change difficulties at any time.
This Spider-Man is a fun video game, but it’s also significantly more than that. For me, and other lifetime fans of the source material, there’s a certain amount of care and reverence required in a Spider-Man story. It’s even more important to represent the character well these days, since he’s starred in at least 8 different movies, games, and TV shows in the past 10 years alone. It’s easy to wonder why anyone would even bother making yet another Spider-Man anything, especially considering that we’ve only just started to again see high quality Spider-man stories on the silver screen, with his appearances in Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Avengers: Infinity War, and the upcoming Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. Just counting his newest movies, that’s at least six theatrical appearances in four years. It begs the question: Why would anyone need another Spider-Man story?
It’s a logical question, and Insomniac Games answers it in two ways. Firstly, Marvel’s Spider-Man is an original story, told at a point in Spider-Man’s career we don’t often see. This time around, Peter Parker has been doing his web-slinging business for over 8 years, meaning this is not an origin story. There’s no high school drama, no bully to deal with, and no pining for Mary Jane Watson. We’re spared another Uncle Ben death scene.
It’s refreshing on its own, but the real strength in this narrative choice is that it allows for a more relatable story. At multiple points, Peter is faced with tough situations where multiple areas of his life converge, each bringing its own problems. Simply put, this Spider-Man’s biggest enemy is adulting. He’s trying to be a decent human being while struggling to pay rent, maintain personal and professional relationships, keep a positive attitude, and still… be a superhero. By the end of the story, after watching him attempt to juggle all of these plates, I realized I’d formed a personal connection to the choices this fictional character made, in a way that reminded me of my younger days.
I’ve always had a personal connection to Peter Parker’s Spider-Man. I loved the 90’s animated series just as much as most cool kids did, but it wasn’t until Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 that I truly related to Pete. My family’s financial strife, combined with my weight issues, my fears about looming adulthood, and intense pining for a girl I felt was out of my league were things I mostly tried to keep quiet, but something about that cheesy, glorious movie said all I needed to say.
In the film, Peter Parker is flat broke, and failing as a student due to his responsibilities as Spider-Man. He loses his job early on, and soon learns that his Aunt May is about to lose her home due to overwhelming debt. Peter, knowing full well that his own finances were in turmoil, rejects any form of monetary support from his Aunt, because to him, the problems of the people he cares for take priority over his own. At the time, I’d recently had a very similar conversation to the one in that scene with my own family, and from that point on, I identified with everything Tobey Maguire’s character felt for the rest of the movie. For him, it was a feeling that the Spider-Man responsibility would demand he sacrificed his normal life for the greater good. For me, it was a feeling that I needed to leave my hometown to live a successful life, and with that, leave all my relationships behind. But even for people who weren’t nerds, most of us can all relate to feeling like we’re trying to do the right thing, finding ourselves at rock bottom, and asking ourselves “Am I not supposed to have what I want?”
I give this mini-biography to get to this point: I related to Spider-Man when I was 15, but I did not expect to relate to him at all now that I’m 30. Insomniac proved me wrong. By making the complexity of his friendships and romantic life relatable, the game’s story immediately hooked me. When the plot moves into more serious moments, forcing Peter to use his childhood struggles to advise a younger generation, 30-year-old me felt that. Marvel’s Spider-Man doesn’t dip into mature themes by using violence or sexuality, but it instead tells an adult story by realistically portraying the uncertainty of adult maturation. It reminded me that we’re always growing, even at my age.
Despite having an original plot, Marvel’s Spider-Man still manages to give a nod to just about every Spider-Man story from the last 20 years. Miles Morales was shown in pre-release footage, but his character is a major addition to the game. As far as I’m aware, no other Spider-Man story has ever built a relationship between Miles and Peter, and their scenes together are some of the best moments in this whole adventure. The game features references to the Raimi movie trilogy, which certainly put a smile on my face, but it also pays homage to certain events from the 90’s cartoon. And although they never lean too heavily into it, this Spider-Man seems to have some intentional connections to the current slate of blockbuster superhero movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Avengers Tower, as it appears in the recent movies, is one such reference you’ll quickly locate, but there are other clever movie references I won’t spoil. As a huge fan of the Netflix Marvel series, I was glad to find some awesome nods to those as well.
These little things are evidence of what I found to be the most memorable thing about Marvel’s Spider-Man: no game that I’ve ever played exudes a passion for development like this one. This is a big-budget, marquee video game, and, like lots of great games, I bet a ton of love went into the final product. But I’ve never played a game where I could tell how much the developers loved making it just from playing it. I don’t know if Insomniac is just full of people who resonate with the Spider-Man character on that weird level that I do (word is they were given a choice of a Marvel character and specifically chose Spider-Man), or if they were just 100% committed to nailing it with this game, but Spider-Man is impressively, and obsessively detailed.
Some of that detail is in the visual design. It’s hard to notice due to the action, but as soon as the camera pulls in, and you see characters and environments up close, it’s apparent that this is one of the best-looking games on the market. The acting, especially the body language, is on another level. Character emotions are displayed by the way people turn their heads or move their eyes, not unlike real life. Still, the details go deeper than just visual fidelity. It’s hard to explain without just making a list, so here are a few examples:
Spider-Man speaks normally when he’s standing still, but if you’re jumping or swinging while he’s talking to people, you’ll hear that exertion in his voice. I tested this by replaying segments in both scenarios, and it’s clear that it’s either magic or they had Yuri Lowenthal record two versions of like 80% of Spider-Man’s lines.
There are 20 or so suits to unlock, all with major visual differences. The suits’ textures show wetness and damage differently. Each one has different web shooters. The soles of the boots all look different, even on suits that are based on comics where they never showed the bottoms of the boots (because what kind of insane person would model that?).
Even though the game doesn’t have every Spider-Man villain, 90% of them are referenced in some form. Mysterio, for example, comes up in a bit of narration about one of the game’s collectibles.
Those collectibles, by the way, do a great job of filling in back story without forcing you to listen to or read lengthy audio logs. They cover all sorts of little topics like Peter and MJ’s first date, that time Kingpin almost killed him (also a nod to the 90’s show), or that time Peter won a lifetime supply of backpacks.
The music swells when you leap from a building, and goes quiet when you stop moving, so that every swinging sequence has that heroic feeling from the movies.
Twitter. Spider-Man has a fake Twitter feed that you can check at any time. The feed is updated often enough that it’s probably impossible to read all of them (like real social media) and it’s so believable that I once disconnected my PS4 from the internet to make sure it wasn’t downloading Tweets and piping them into the game. Some of those fake tweets are solid gold.
It’s difficult to keep going with these without spoiling things, but the point is made. Lots of triple-A games, especially the open world ones, can feel vast, yet lifeless. This game is full of soul. While the virtual New York they’ve built is impressive, it’s not nearly as impressive as all the minute details hidden just below the surface, in everything from character biographies to newspaper clippings.
If I had to complain about anything in Spider-Man, there’s really only one issue, and even it is debatable. At several points throughout the story, you’ll play as characters who don’t have super powers. These are typically stealth sequences, and while the stealth mechanics are interesting, they break up the pacing of the game. I personally enjoyed them, because (in two of them especially) they highlight how tense these life-threatening moments can be for people who aren’t Spider-Man. And, to their credit, some of them are astoundingly creative to such a degree that I’d consider one of the later stealth segments among my favorite video game moments of 2018. At the same time, though, I never wanted to do anything other than keep swinging around NY or beating up criminals. In writing this review and debating a score for the game, I seriously had to weigh out whether those moments are bad for breaking up the pace of the game, or if I just loved the action so much that I never wanted to go do other stuff. Ultimately, these moments do wonders for the game’s storytelling, and I ended the game feeling like they’re a positive. I can understand why some players would feel differently about them, though.
I’ve already said Marvel’s Spider-Man is great. It’s significantly better than it makes any sense for a licensed Spider-Man game to be. With such a laughably ubiquitous character, it’s hard to argue that this game should even exist. Fortunately, the result is a polished blockbuster with some of the most fun action sequences I’ve ever played, the best traversal mechanic in the history of open world games, and a realistic story that will stick with me for years to come. Marvel’s Spider-Man has taken the title of Best Superhero Game from the Arkham series, and it’s also making a very strong argument for Game of the Year 2018.
Gripping, original story with fantastic writing and acting.
Insane attention to detail.
Stealth segments are good, but interrupt the game’s flow.
I’m out of Spider-Man now.
(An outstanding game with negligible flaws)
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