Just about every generation of game console has had its shot at bringing Marvel’s iconic arachnid to screen, from the god-awful Atari game to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 of recent memory, the library is filled with hits and misses. Today, we can rejoice. Who knew all it would take to make the best Spider-Man game of all time was allowing a studio to tell a story their way.
Developed by: Insomniac Games
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available For: PlayStation 4 (September 7, 2018)
(Note: At the time of writing this I’ve only finished the game’s story but not the dozens of side missions)
Apologies for the delay as I wasn’t finished with the game before heading to All In and watching Stephen Amell take his first wrestling loss this past weekend. So take this with a grain of salt if you must.
From the start, Insomniac Games Marvel’s Spider-Man understands where this character is in mainstream pop culture. There’s no tale to be found here where a radioactive spider bites a teenage kid and we see tons of awkward moments leading to Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man. Insomniac Games takes full advantage that after thousands of comics and multi-million dollar blockbuster films everyone on Earth knows or at least gets just how Spider-Man came to be. You won’t get an origin story so much as you get an evolution of what Marvel envisioned a teenage Spider-Man would grow up to become.
As you spring into action from hearing a police scanner in the beginning moments of the game, Insomniac makes you take a pop quiz you’re not prepared when it comes to controlling a Spider-Man who’s already a master crime fighter. Fortunately getting the basics of swinging through New York and using rich spaghetti strand McFarlane style webbing is easy to grasp but takes some time becoming second nature to you. It’s a choice in narrative and control mechanics by the developer that pays off by showing momentum of story. Take note developers, this how every first-time-out studio telling stories utilizing characters with household recognizable iconography should do it.
You’ll play as a 23-year-old Peter Parker who’s been Spider-Man for about eight years. Peter’s color is filled in by those around him through interactions with some of Marvel’s most well known supporting names Aunt May and Mary Jane Watson, even through his mentorship of one of the Marvel U’s newer creation’s Miles Morales, do we glimpse him as the college graduate figuring out adulthood. Here, the worlds of Spider-Man and Peter Parker collide in the simplicity of him always having to bail on a date to worrying about paying his rent. It’s the touchstone of what endears Spider-Man to fans for generations, relatability combined with superpowers.
Marvel’s Spider-Man features a narrative incredibly well-crafted. As the title character (there is a part where you won’t play as Spidey) you’ll be tasked with taking down Mister Negative (Martin Li) and his gang while the city of New York lives around you. Spider-Man feels more like a white blood cell in the flowing circulatory system of this city as you swing around greeting citizens, stopping minor crimes and such until you get to your next story beat which ranges from stealth based evidence gathering missions to epic super-villain stopping fights. It’s living in these moments that make players feel, even though it’s Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s story, this world is the focus.
Though it’s certainly not a focus of this site’s reviews, there’s an undeniable technical mastery of the New York realized by Insomniac Games. In an oversaturation of open world games, the smoke and mirrors used by developers to mask loading screens and scenery movement become more recognizable even to the untrained eye. Marvel’s Spider-Man isn’t a game devoid of similar tactics in the name of creating a smooth open world experience, but it is one of the few games that succeeds in smoothing out its air bubbles to the point of unnoticeable. As different parts of the city open up to exploration or cutscenes transition you into places like The Raft prison break sequence (which by the way happens much later in the game than I’d anticipated from the trailers), Insomniac’s curtain and distraction is captivating performance and short enjoyable dialogue. A testament to the game’s writers (with the help of comics veteran Christos Gage), spidey voice Yuri Lowenthal and the rest of this cast.
Marvel’s Spider-Man isn’t without flaws. Some of its hiccups are minor gripes that plague even great games such as the Batman Arkham series. Spider-Man has a ton of power enhancements and fluid combat acrobatic moves that will look awesome using the game’s photo mode to create panels straight out of a Ditko drawing. The issue is the game’s challenge never really makes you use the full arsenal beyond a few quick button combos you’ll quickly master. In-game challenge might cause you to switch up a few suit modifications but players will find themselves never calling back moves beyond the moments they’re introduced. I already read tons of comics where only parts of Spider-Man are utilized. In a one-shot experience, I’d like everything this character is capable of executing to feel like it truly counts.
When it comes to the big issue, comic book fans may be disappointed by the title’s lack of villains gallery. The focus is on Mister Negative and one more villain I won’t spoil for you. This lack of baddies means boss fights with the sinister six are few and far between even teetering on unbalanced storywise. For a franchise with movies where we all once said “there’s too many damn villains in this” I find myself shocked that I’m saying the opposite now. While there are hints of characters like Mysterio, Chameleon, Blood Spider, and more; you won’t be fighting them here. Something you could easily check off to saving something for future games, but there’s no shortage of Spider villains in the Marvel universe thus making the economic choices with Marvel’s 700+ catalog of characters a bit mind-boggling. While the minimal villains gallery could be a minor gripe to those who don’t know the full lineage of Spider-Man, for the comic book hardcore it will keep this game from being a perfect 10.
It’s probably selfish of me to admit that the future Insomniac has with Marvel’s Spider-Man has me more excited than simply enjoying this first game. So many of this game’s issues are problems the developer will no doubt improve upon in the sequel as it finds a balance in its control scheme to in-game needs. Then there’s the relationship with Marvel itself. Bill Rosemann and the Marvel Games division gave Insomniac a web cartridge worth of rope in re-imagining what Spider-Man can be and now that they’ve proven this method works, a sequel will be an even bigger collaboration between these two entities. I’ll say this: I want to see Insomniac’s version of Venom and Carnage.
Insomniac created a more ambitious superhero game for a first time out than Rocksteady did with the Arkham games, though Batman surpasses it in the sheer amount of characters utilized in some way. Nonetheless, Marvel’s Spider-Man is the real deal turning point towards fully realizing true Marvel Comics experiences in the art of video games. The only way it could get more comic book is if you smelled the old newsprint scent of a comic book store when you opened the box. I don’t care what convention or show is happening this weekend, cancel it. Because there is no level of enjoyment that could rival Marvel’s Spider-Man on PlayStation. It is the spirit of comics in video game form!