Insomniac’s foray into the super hero game field was one we’ve been anticipating for a long time now, and now that it is here, the hype is high and we’re web slinging around New York City on our PlayStation 4 systems to no abandon. It feels great to see a fully realized Spider-Man game with today’s technology, and even despite some hiccups, it overcomes a lot of its own inner obstacles cementing itself as the next true Spider-Man game.
My biggest issue with Spider-Man is that right off the bat you can see it has a base built around a paint by the numbers open world school of video game design. The open world template has been driven into the ground by this point and where other titles have offered different ways to capitalize and push the genre forward (looking at you The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn) Spider-Man falls into all too familiar territory with predictable choices regarding the open world stuff, and in its attempts to switch it out with other genre trappings, narrowly messes up what should be the ultimate Spider-Man experience this generation. It also doesn’t hurt that the game literally lifts so much from the Batman: Arkham games that I half expected a Rocksteady logo to pop up somewhere while I played. Now those aren’t bad games to lift from, but for me I wished Spider-Man was able to do its own thing to separate it from the rest of the open world superhero video game crowd, and instead it swings into the usual foray of been there, done that clout.
Yet still, as I played the game across its 15-20 hour story, (a whole lot more for completionists), I still had the great sensation of sheer joy playing the game and a lot of that has to do with the near-perfect execution of the web swinging. You can cross the entirety of Manhattan in record time without ever once touching the ground and it’s all beautifully realized in-game. It is easily the biggest highlight and when you combine that with the combat, which borrows heavily from the Arkham fighting style, it manages to utilize the character’s powers in clever and interesting ways to feel unique and fresh. The movement and fluidity of Spider-Man is excellently captured and felt in this game and is the best thing Insomniac got right. At times you can see all the things they learned from their Ratchet and Clank series and how they used the action template in that game and upgraded it to fit Spider-Man and all the things he does that a spider can.
Early on as you go from story mission to story mission, the game elevates that feeling of friendly neighborhood Spider-Man with random street occurrences. A bank robbery may spring up randomly, a gang might crawl out and try to harm civilians and it’s just so rewarding to dive in on the crowd and hear them react accordingly. The innocent bystanders will cheer you on as you swing by and pose for selfies and the bad guys all react as they would if you come in plain sight or sneak up on them. Hearing shouts of, “Spider-Man,” as you swing by pedestrians and land on the street or a passing car is something I didn’t get tired of.
The story is a typical tried and true formulaic superhero plot, and there are only two instances that the game goes towards bold territory with the source material and both happen about the halfway point and the game’s emotionally deep ending. There is a lot to be said about Spider-Man’s ‘Great Power, Great Responsibility,’ angle and Insomniac does a masterstroke job building up to those key moments. Carefully balancing the super hero stuff with the alter ego, it’s an incredible journey of one man realizing he can’t always save everyone and sometimes people can’t be saved. It’s fantastic storytelling, marred only by poor pacing issues when dealing with anything in the game that isn’t Spider-Man.
Parts of the game have you play as Peter Parker himself or even Mary Jane and a third character I won’t spoil as it relates to one of those key moments I mentioned before. As Peter, you’re prone to hacking mini-games and the like and Mary Jane has stealth sections that can be a little tedious but it builds up to a wonderful moment when the two combine into one of the game’s finer moments.
However, after the first few hours the harsh realization begins to set in that this is all there is to do, and the missions fall into monotony and tend to skew towards repetition and boredom. As you progress and the various side missions make themselves known like backpack collecting and chasing pigeons, you start to realize the struggle Spider-Man games tend to have and that is giving the character something to do with his amazing powers. It doesn’t help that what should be individual set piece battles with his rogues gallery lead to typical action adventure boss fight stuff. For example, in a early sequence where you’re up against the Shocker, the chase itself is full of spectacle and flair but once the actual boss fight happens, its standard fisticuffs and memorizing patterns of attack. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the game throws two villains at you and those make up some amazing fights. Some villains aren’t given the proper shine though and it makes the encounters come off as messy and ultimately, disappointing. By having the narrative hold the good stuff too long to let anything develop, the game’s 2nd act comes across a little tilted despite its clever “moment,” and then when we head into the finale, it’s rushed to the finish line because the game wisely knows it can’t keep up with what it is trying to offer. Thankfully some of the encounters are worth playing through, and the game’s climactic battle is easily worth the price of admission alone.
I know that what you’ve read up until now makes it sound like I didn’t like this game, but I want to convey that the game is good and is worth owning if you both own a PlayStation 4 and are a Spider-Man fan. I did enjoy my time with it and it’s obvious that there was potential for more but what is offered is worth the experience to play through. There is a lot of love for Spider-Man in this game, but by relying too heavily on the character, Insomniac fails to elevate the world around him. When it comes to Spider-Man it is extremely keen that New York City itself is Spider-Man's greatest character. The city can be Spider-Man’s greatest ally or even his biggest enemy and I would have liked to see that done better in the game. The game runs out of steam before its amazing conclusion and finale and the ending comes across as rushed due to the nature of events that transpire, however, as a video game, it definitely does the super hero genre of games justice by not trying to fix what wasn’t broken to begin with as far as the playability goes. By sticking too close to the open world tropes and not offering anything new for the genre, it comes across as just another good open world super hero game, when with today’s technology and design we could have had the greatest Spider-Man game ever made.