Ever since I was a little kid, Spider-Man has been my favorite superhero. His powers are creative, his story is relatable and his adventures boast one of the finest collections of villains and supporting characters in comic history. I was a huge fan of the original Spidey game, 2004’s “Spider-Man 2,” for its jaw-dropping rendition of New York City and revolutionary web-swinging mechanics. Though there have been a few excellent Spider-Man games since its release, the 2004 version was never equaled, let alone surpassed — until now.
The first thing that a Spider-Man game must get right is the web-swinging. Luckily, Insomniac Games’ “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” its rendition of Spidey’s most famous power, is amazing — even spectacular. It’s masterfully crafted in that, once you get used to the game, you feel like a true master of Spider-Man’s powers. Spider-Man himself is an integral part of the experience, and his beautifully-detailed animations are incredible as he reacts to an especially momentous swing or effortlessly zips through water towers.
Of course, half the fun of web-swinging is the environment that you’re doing it in. Not only is the game’s New York City a concrete jungle-gym of skyscrapers, alleys and various Marvel landmarks, it is also a living world. One of my favorite things to do in this game is to simply descend to ground level and walk through crowds of civilians.
Your “attack” button instead becomes a “greeting” button as Spidey waves to and speaks with civilians, and they respond in turn. You might even have someone ask for a high-five or a selfie. There’s also an in-game social media feed where New York reacts to Spider-Man’s actions, or just whatever’s been happening in their lives.
One downside of the game that I noticed, however, is the infamous feature of having to navigate within towers to reveal a portion of the map. Having haunted this genre of video game since the first “Assassin’s Creed,” this tedium is lessened by the simple fact that getting to these towers involves web-swinging, the best part of the game.
One of the earliest criticisms of the game’s first previews was how much of its combat and stealth mechanics seemed to derive from the Batman “Arkham” series. The combat revolves around stringing combos, dodges, counters, finishers and gadgets together, while the stealth sections all involve sneakily taking out the enemies from perches. However, Insomniac makes enough changes to this admittedly stellar formula that it winds up feeling fresh again.
Spider-Man’s powers change the name of the game completely. The combat heavily focuses on Spidey’s agility, in contrast to Batman’s slower and heavier style. Additionally, both the combat and stealth aspects benefit from Spider-Man’s gadgets, which I found far more practical and tempting to use than those in the “Arkham” series.
“Marvel’s Spider-Man” also features a light RPG system, as Spider-Man earns skill points as he levels up. Players can invest these skill points into three separate skill trees: improving web-swinging, boosting spider-powered fisticuffs and improving proficiency at using webbing in combat, which introduces increasingly complex mechanics throughout the game.
Further, completing challenges rewards players with tokens, which they can use to upgrade gadgets, purchase perks such as increased health or buy new suits. There are 28 different suits to unlock, the majority of which have their own power, such as the Spider-Man Noir suit’s ability to suppress enemy calls for help during stealth sections.
What really made me fall in love with this system was the fact that you can mix and match suit powers. For example, I can wear the Iron Spider suit from “Avengers Infinity War,” but equip it with the energy blasting power granted by the Negative Spider-Man suit.
The storyline of videogames is something that designers have tended overlook. The story of “Spider-Man” takes place when Peter Parker has been Spider-Man for approximately eight years. After a major triumph in the game’s opening mission, a power gap forms in the New York City underworld, with a mysterious superpowered gang known as the Demons rising to stake its claim on the city.
Right off the bat, the story earns instant points for presenting an experienced Spider-Man at the top of his game. There’s recently been a frustrating tendency across Marvel properties to steer away from a grown-up Spider-Man and instead present either a teenage incarnation of the character or a flat-out man-child.
Yuri Lowenthal’s portrayal of the character’s voice is excellent, nailing both the light and dark moments that are thrown at Spidey. I was genuinely shocked at certain parts of the story, as Insomniac offers up a few big surprises (be sure to keep the game on until after the credits). Finally, the supporting cast of characters such as Aunt May, Mary Jane Watson and Miles Morales all shine throughout the story, as do villains the Vulture and Electro.
While Miles Morales and Mary Jane are both great characters in the story, they also are central to one of the game’s greatest problem. At certain points in the story, the game suddenly transitions from the wild ride of being Spider-Man to unexciting missions featuring either of the two characters. However, these scenes are often critical to the story and provide insight into the characters, so I’m inclined to give them a partial pass.
The one thing I cannot make excuses for is the minigames required by the story, which disrupt the flow of the gameplay even more than the MJ/Miles missions and serve no real story purpose. It is very telling that Insomniac included an option to skip these puzzles entirely and will offer to let you skip individual puzzles if you take too long on one.
Despite these hiccups, “Marvel’s Spider-Man” joins the list of the Playstation 4’s killer apps as the best superhero game currently on the market, with a gripping story, an engaging sandbox, a great combat system and the adrenaline rush of a web-swinging mechanic. With Insomniac announcing plans for not only paid downloadable content but also free features such as New Game + and the recently released photo mode, I can see myself protecting the city for a long time to come.