Review: Marvel's Spider-Man
Insomniac Games makes the City of New York just as much a character as Spider-Man himself. It helps push Marvel’s Spider-Man to be more than just a great superhero game; it’s a great game, period.
Spider-Man, one of the most popular and celebrated super heroes of all time, is no stranger to video games. In fact, Spider-Man’s video game legacy is almost as long as his comic book career. Spider-Man was even the first Marvel Comics hero turned into a video game, starring in the classic Atari 2600 game simply titled Spider-Man. Many different Spider-Man games have come and gone in the time since. As varied and as popular as some of those games were, it wasn’t until Treyarch’s Spider-Man 2 that somebody came close to capturing the most important part of the webbed hero, the actual web swinging itself.
Spider-Man 2, at the time of it’s release in 2004, was a blessing and a curse. It revolutionized movement in open world games. It also was the first game to really capture the feeling of playing as a super hero. Up until that point, most super hero games were top-down action games, 2D side-scrolling beat ’em ups, or just terrible N64 games. Superman 64, anybody?
The problem with Spider-Man 2 isn’t so much the game itself, but more of the shadow it had cast over every Spider-Man game that has followed since.
Many new Spider-Man games have been made since that 2004 release. Some were nothing more than licensed trash, while some were actually decent. None of them, however, could match the sky-high expectations the fan base had from Spider-Man 2. It was a thorn in the side of many a developer. You couldn’t even dream of making a Spider-Man game without somebody on the Internet screaming about the web swinging.
A silly thing to worry about, but there was some truth to the complaints. Spider-Man is, in large part, the webs and the mobility it grants him. Web swinging, and the freedom his movement gives him in traversal and combat, is key to his character.
Fast forward to 2016 – Marvel itself is a pop culture giant. Some would argue that Marvel IS pop culture. Then Sony dropped a bomb at E3 when they announced they would be releasing a major, exclusive Spider-Man game developed by the extremely talented team at Insomniac Games.
Immediately the crowd went nuts, the Internet exploded and fans all over were right back to that very same question that has plagued developers the world over for years.
“How is the swinging? Is it like Spider-man 2? Can you sling shot? How is the sense of speed?” All of the same questions that every other developer could not seem to answer.
Insomniac was different from the rest. Right away they embraced the comparisons. They vowed to become the new standard for Spider-Man going forward.
Now, two years after its initial announcement, Marvel’s Spider-Man is here and the resounding answer to those questions is a loud “YES!” Thankfully, Insomniac didn’t feel content with stopping at how good the swinging is and made sure to craft a full experience worthy of the Spider-Man name.
The problem with that old Spider-Man title that haunted the game industry for years was that the game was simply just okay. The excellent traversal masked big problems with side content, its story and combat systems.
Insomniac had bigger plans and made sure to avoid the problem so many other Spider-Man games failed to realize. You need to do more than just make the web swinging good to make a great Spider-Man.
For the most part, they pulled it off to perfection. Marvel’s Spider-Man does away with an origin story, deciding to pick up with Peter Parker eight years into his Spidey career. He has already locked away some of his greatest villains, dated and broken up with Mary Jane and is no longer working at the Daily Bugle.
Side-stepping Peter Parker’s origin story allows for a much deeper plot to take shape. Instead of following any single comic or film plot, Insomniac instead has decided to take some of the best pieces of Spider-Man lore and weave their own unique story out of that legacy.
The story they tell goes deeper than just the cutscenes and dialogue between Peter and all of his friends and foes.
Insomniac goes beyond that and makes New York City just as much a character as Spider-Man himself. For a long time the city itself was merely “there;” structures that exist to be used as swing points and not much else. Insomniac truly goes above and beyond with its environmental storytelling.
Do yourself a favor and walk on the streets for a bit. Everything on the ground is dense and hyper-detailed. NPCs fully react to Spidey and his heroics. They laugh with you, cheer you on, or give you crap for making a mess. It’s a small detail, but one that goes so far in selling you on the rest of the world.
Spider-Man, more than Batman, Superman, or almost any other hero, is a hero for the people. He is rooted and grounded in a way the more fantastical characters could never be. That’s a very integral facet of Spider-Man as a hero, and Peter Parker as a man.
Marvel’s Spider-Man kicks off with Kingpin’s arrest in a flashy opening mission worthy of any Spider-Man film. With Fisk gone, the streets are seemingly cleaned up and you can go about your everyday Spider business.
The world then opens up to the player and presents opportunities all across New York. Side missions range from hacking police towers to show you regional districts, finding random backpacks Spider-Man kept webbed up around town, and locating research stations his good friend Harry Osborn set up to help clean and protect the environment.
For the first few hours, I was really thinking these seemingly simple and mundane sidequests were going to be a problem for me. Swinging through clouds of pollution, or jumping off buildings to test algae samples, aren’t exactly thrilling Spider-Man moments. A side quest to chase and catch pigeons hidden throughout the city was giving me serious red balloon fetch quest flashbacks, and I was ready to drop them entirely and spend this whole review questioning this trivial mission design.
However, this is where the environmental storytelling comes into play. In many open world games, not just the superhero ones, the story being told in the cutscenes is very different than the story the world is telling the player.
Think of how many games you have played, where the stakes are high, the world is ending, but as soon as you gain control of your character, everything is the same as it was when you started the game.
As the main plot runs its course, the consequences of characters actions really resonate and have a deep impact on not just Spider-Man and his allies, but the city itself. Everything at some point takes a darker turn, and even the side quest content ramps up according to the danger of the main plot. You go from stopping simple alleyway muggings, to silently defeating enemies before bombs strapped to civilians detonate.
Instead of chasing pigeons and collecting them, you have to swing around to find and disarm bombs planted to cause massive destruction. The ante is raised all around Spider-Man, and the intensity of the story running its course has clear ramifications for our Spider hero, and New York City as a whole.
Now, of course, all of the greatest cutscenes and environmental story telling wouldn’t matter much if the actual gameplay wasn’t up to the challenge. This is where the expertise Insomniac brings to the table gets to really shine.
From the very moment you have control, the web swinging is immediately natural and fluid. Each new web Spider-Man shoots, the way he pulls on it to swing and gain momentum, and the responsiveness you have over his movement, is second to none. The fluidity of every single animation during a single swing is impressive. Different dismounts all lead to tons of different animations based on when you decide to jump or swing again.
Running into buildings or landing on the ground doesn’t bring the action to a halt. They gave Spider-Man great transitions from swinging, wall running, and even turning corners while on said buildings. It just “feels” great. The swinging and traversal is so good that by the time you unlock fast travel, you will hardly have a need, or desire, for it.
This is key, because despite how mundane most of the early sidequests are, they are still fun to do because they all require a mastery of your expanded set of traversal abilities.
Even better is how the movement flows with the combat. Using a blend of mechanics from older Spider-Man games and Rocksteady’s Arkham titles, instead of the traditional counters you get in many an open world game, you instead use Spidey’s patented Spider-Sense to dodge incoming attacks.
At first the system can take some getting used to, but between your extended play time and the various upgrades you earn while leveling, you will feel right at home with the combat. The best part of the combat system is the simple fact that they never strip away your sense of freedom and mobility.
Many previous Spider-Man games feel like two different games in one. The first part is all of the movement and wall crawling, the second is whenever a fight breaks out. A lot of older games would force invisible walls or ground Spidey and force him into a very limited and stifling combat style.
Insomniac wisely sidesteps that problem entirely and never takes control away from the player at any moment. You can go from a ground combo, transition into an air launcher and dodge a rocket with a well-timed web zip, all seamlessly with no buffer between any of those actions. It all adds up to some of the most dynamic and entertaining action spectacles of any open world game, let alone just the Spider-Man games.
I loved my time with this new iteration of everyone’s favorite webbed hero, but I did have some issues. Throughout the story they throw a lot at the player, and not all of it sticks. Peppered in the storyline are various stealth sequences where you play as other characters not named Spider-Man. While I appreciate the attempt at changing the pace for a little bit, the main issue I have with these moments is how mundane they are to play through. They are long, but never difficult, and extremely forgiving.
If they stripped control from the player and turned these fifteen minute stealth levels into three minute cutscenes, nothing of importance would be lost.
They also throw in more hacking sequences than Bioshock and the Mass Effect series combined in a very asinine way to demonstrate that Peter Parker is a genius. They consist of two to three very simple puzzles that only serve to provide a platform for Peter to say very long words to showcase how smart he is.
Overall, these hacking moments are nothing more than a mild annoyance. Insomniac even added a feature that allows you to simply skip all of the puzzle sequences entirely, but the question must be asked: if you felt the need to give players an option to skip them, then why bother including them at all?
The forced stealth sequences and bad puzzle mini-games aside, they don’t come close to taking away from the feat Insomniac Games pulled off with Marvel’s Spider-Man.
They broke the curse of Spider-Man 2. They told a fully realized and complete story that didn’t rely on Marvel cameos and crossover appearances to get you invested and excited in its world. Most importantly is that they didn’t just make a great Spider-Man game, they made a great video game, period.