Spider-Man is the first truly Marvel Studios-caliber video game ever made. And that, admittedly, is a double-edged sword.
If you want levity, action, style, solid voice acting, likeable characters, and fun stuff to do, this Sony-produced, Insomniac-developed PS4 exclusive has you covered. It’s huge. It’s polished. It lives up to the Spider-Man name.
But it’s also Another Superhero Game™. Spider-Man follows the incredibly solid trail blazed by the Batman Arkham series—and iterated upon by inFamous 2, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, Assassin’s Creed: Origins, and Insomniac’s own Sunset Overdrive. Once again, you’re a badass hero in a giant world, and you spend your time zipping around, beating up thugs, and tossing gadgets every which way.
So like a good Marvel Studios film, you’ve seen this kind of adventure before. Yet unlike a good Marvel Studios film, that means 25 hours of relatively predictable and repetitive content between the game’s (very high) high points.
Do you still have bandwidth for another open-world superhero video game, complete with a mix of otherworldly action and grounded characters? If so, Spider-Man‘s pacing problems and plot pitfalls won’t dissuade you from its lengthy adventure. But if not, the game’s most tremendous aspects—its jaw-dropping 3D engine and holy-cow-wonderful web-slinging—might not be enough to change your mind.
Over 16 million followers and counting
Spider-Man drops players into a fork of the established comic-series universe, where mild-mannered Peter Parker has been doing the superhero thing for roughly six years. He has already fought established series villains like The Rhino and The Shocker. He has already dated (and been dumped by) an aspiring journalist named Mary Jane Watson. His sole surviving relative is his Aunt Mae. All of that likely sounds familiar.
While you don’t have to be a comics enthusiast to understand the plot, Insomniac’s vision requires some buy-in that Spider-Man is an established hero. He has a social media feed with tens of millions of followers (you can check its highlights at any time in the pause menu). He namechecks everything mentioned above and more in ways that feel more like fan service and cocky assertions that, duh, Spider-Man is a big deal.
This content doesn’t make the game inaccessible; Insomniac quickly brings newbies up to speed. Rather, the game sticks to comic and film canon so firmly that whenever a new character appears, their next actions are alarmingly telegraphed. One character, in particular, shows up in the game’s first hour in blatant “oh, I know what’s next” fashion. The lack of clever twists on existing characters sends ripple waves through the story.
Much of the plot just isn’t that intriguing from a higher-level, heroes-and-villains perspective. Insomniac is clearly shackled to the overarching Spider-Man universe, which, at least, gives the team wiggle room to paint both good and bad guys in shades of gray. Trouble is, you’ve seen these villains-with-hearts before, along with laughably predictable shifts in trust. It’s a spoiler to go further, but Insomniac barely inserts anything new along the course this game plots. (In similar spoiler-wary territory, it would give too much away to talk about which series villains you face—and how they drag down the story’s second half—but suffice it to say, the further the plot goes, the more it drags thanks to the central conflict becoming more boring.)
I point all of this out before describing gameplay, because you cannot talk about Spider-Man on PS4 without talking about its plot. There is a lot of story to wade through, and roughly half of it is delivered in snappy fashion—as in-ear chatter between missions, during missions’ calmer moments, and during cut scenes that are so dramatically and beautifully staged that they’re worth sitting through, rather than pressing X to skip.
It’s a credit to the writers and actors on board this project that, in spite of the aforementioned woes, the game’s complete plot thrust is somehow incredibly engrossing. That all boils down to performances and tech.
You’ll hear a lot of Peter Parker’s voice in this game as Insomniac stayed true to the kid’s propensity to yap. Insomniac’s writers somehow managed to thread the needle between fun variety in dialogue and tolerability. Actor Yuri Lowenthal (Ben 10) never becomes annoying or obnoxiously plucky in spite of his hours of dialogue. He lucks out with actor Laura Bailey as Mary Jane, who earns the title of “partner” as both a driver of adventure and a well-rounded emotional foil (as opposed to the flat, hollow female leads found in too many Marvel Studios films).
Screen shots don’t do the game’s cut scenes justice. These sequences, with lengthy focuses on emotional human faces, do ebb and flow into and out of the uncanny valley. But Insomniac has rendered these faces with a “stylized,” slightly rounder aesthetic to keep them looking a bit more like comic characters—all while delivering some peerless glossy-eye and facial-terror expressions. What’s more, many of these scenes include whichever superhero costume you’ve chosen, as if to emphasize that, yes, these gorgeous moments are being rendered in real time on your PS4 or PS4 Pro.
Combine those impressive visuals with touching, believable banter between the game’s leads, and you get an uneven plot still ultimately worth slogging through.
Pump the superhero waterwheel
Yes, there’s gameplay to go with this plot, and Spider-Man wastes no time emphasizing its wild, web-slinging action.
The game starts with players immediately jumping out of Peter’s apartment window and slinging halfway across Manhattan. Longtime Spider-Man foe Wilson Fisk has finally crossed the line as a “respectable businessman,” and Spider-Man must assist police forces in taking Fisk down. (The plot spools its figurative web from there.)
You whip around virtual Manhattan primarily by holding down a “swing” trigger button, which quickly shoots a hanging web that Spidey swings from, Tarzan-style, through the Manhattan skyline. This only launches when your environs contain something slightly above your position and ahead—and the game automatically manages this, in eerily intelligent fashion—so if you jump from the roof of a massive skyscraper, you’ll be forced to dive. The exception is a point-launch maneuver used to zip forward-and-down to a perch or building’s edge (highlighted by a circle icon when close), then immediately springboard forward by tapping the jump button.
Should you wish to web-swing faster and more efficiently, you’ll have to effectively tap and pump buttons as if you’re working a superhero waterwheel. Swing, jump, swing again, do a “flip” stunt for experience points, point-launch, web-boost (which lets you use your webs to conjure a smidge of in-air momentum, even without buildings near), dodge, swing, jump, and so on.
Sound complicated? Fear not. Web-slinging boils down to a limited simple set of buttons, and these, combined with Insomniac’s graceful inclusion of idiot-proof timing windows, make the act of sailing across Manhattan feel peerless in gaming. This stuff is the Super Mario jump of Spider-Man (and it makes Batman: Arkham‘s grapple-and-glide system feel pedestrian in comparison). Swinging through this game feels so good that I often ignored the fast-travel system, unlocked early in the game, in favor of flying around for a few extra minutes.
Combat, on the other hand, is not as revelatory. Insomniac borrows heavily from Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham melee system, in that punches and kicks automatically trigger as you deal with a large, all-around crowd. Also, a warning flare (here, “Spidey sense”) triggers just before you’re hit so that you can dodge and maintain an all-important combo meter. You get a bit more meat than in Batman’s fights, at least, thanks to a massive gadget assortment, web-powered throws, and a separate set of aerial-attack combos.
Hold a punch button down to launch a foe into the air, where you can either Dragon Ball-flurry them in the sky, fling them back to the ground, or even punch them off the edge of a skyscraper. (Spider-Man’s not a killer, so any “launched” enemies can eventually be found web-stuck to walls before they hit the ground.) You can also tap the dodge button while near a wall to bounce off it as a super-charged tackle, or use a jump-kick attack that sees Peter web-sling while careening into a foe. Plus, you can grab enemies (and their weapons) from a distance or use a variety of stealth- and control-based gadgets to stymie larger crowds of foes. As the game grows more difficult, you’ll need to mix these moves up to take out various shield- and armor-wielding enforcers.
Melee combat is a few steps above “serviceable,” but Spider-Man‘s incredible boss encounters made me wish their in-air combat was more common in standard gameplay. You’ll have to web-sling around giant battle arenas—a waterside loading zone at a dock, a dome-shaped bank vault, a psychedelic trip through bad memories—to chase major foes in mid-air, and this juggle of attacks and web-slings is breathtaking to pull off.
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