Though it might be Insomniac’s first crack at a superhero game, their take on Marvel’s Spider-Man isn’t an origin story. This isn’t year one, this isn’t Peter Parker discovering his abilities and dealing with the death of Uncle Ben, this is a character that already has eight years of superhero experience under his belt. It’s refreshing and lets them, and you, jump right into the action.
The camera pans across Parker’s bedroom, the bare circuit board, the Spider-Man mask on the workbench, the laptop running code, the police scanner, and then Peter wakes up with a start. Kingpin is going to be taken down and he’s not going to go down without a fight. Obviously Spider-Man has to be on the scene, and it makes for a fun, bombastic opener that nicely disguises the fact that this is also a tutorial. It’s something the first two hours of the game do incredibly well; it’s teaching you the mini-games, introducing characters, showing you the kinds of set piece moments, and yet it’s not mollycoddling you.
Outside of some pop-ups and some relatively minor exposition in the story, it doesn’t really need to lead you into this game. Spider-Man as a character has become a major part of popular culture across various film and comic book iterations, and for gamers, chances are you’ve bumped into the style of fluid counter and strike combat, sprinkled with using gadgets and moments of stealthy play.
We’ve even seen Spider-Man swinging through Manhattan before, but that does nothing to diminish just how brilliantly Insomniac have captured that feeling in this game, going far beyond what previous games have achieved. There’s a real feeling that Spider-Man’s webs are attached to buildings, which is such a key thing to get right, and the way he looks when he swings captures a real feeling of controlled chaos. Reach the end of an arc and he loops and spins up into the sky, press cross for a Web Shot to fire ahead and pull him forward a bit quicker, and even just swing right into the side of a building and see Spider-Man effortlessly switch to running up walls until you decide to pull the trigger again and start swinging. There’s even just the moments of magic when Spidey seems to be falling head first into the corner of a building, only to quickly stick out his hands and use it to launch himself further. You’re both in absolute control and a passenger at the same time.
The Peter Parker and Spider-Man in Insomniac’s title genuinely feels like a veteran of the superhero game. He’s eight years into his career, finished off his time in university and got himself a sweet gig at an up and coming tech company that has more than enough gadgets and gizmos that he can continue to develop his suit and various gadgets. After his original suit gets torn up fighting Fisk, he takes the opportunity to improve it, leading to this game’s distinctive Advanced Suit with the while spider across his chest and highlights on his arms and legs.
One of the most important aspects of Spider-Man as a character is the complete absence of Peter Parker’s ability to balance the day job, the vague hint of a personal life and his real passion for fighting crime. That’s been a key point for Insomniac to try and capture, and they do so pretty well within the game’s opening. The bombastic way in which you take down Kingpin leads to spending time in the lab and completing puzzles, then it’s straight back to fighting crime, and back and forth.
Helping to spice things up further are moments where you get to play as Mary Jane Watson, snooping around to get a big scoop. In this game she’s an investigative journalist, as opposed to an actress or nightclub owner, and there’s plenty of other times that familiar characters either have different backgrounds or appear in new and even more foreboding ways. Insomniac have created an original story here that certainly draws upon the world of the various comics, but exists in its own bubble. Norman Osborne, as another example, isn’t just the head of a huge tech company, but the newly elected mayor of the city. Oddly enough, the Oscorp communication and surveillance towers that the police installed across the city have gone down and stopped working. Yes, Marvel’s Spider-Man seems to have caught a case of the Ubisoft Towers.
However, if the pace of the story keeps up throughout the rest of the game, that will be a minor blemish. Right away there’s Fisk’s thinly veiled warning that taking him down will unleash all the villains that he’s been keeping in check – and we’ve obviously already seen the unveiling of all bar one of the Sinister Six –there’s the personal interactions between Peter and MJ or Aunt May, the looming spectre of Norman Osborne, the collaboration with Yuri Watanabe in the NYPD, and on and on. Keeping all those plates spinning is going to be a huge task for Peter, and it’s almost certain that his separate worlds will collide and some of those plates will come crashing to the ground.
Through all of that, he’s sure to still be the smart-mouthed, quippy Spider-Man that we see throughout the comics. Turning up to a jewellery store robbery, he waves through the window at the perps before the fight begins, there’s a whole 5-10 minute section where he gets into character as Spider-Cop, and there’s still time and space to pull a few heartstrings when it’s appropriate. It really feels like Insomniac are nailing this character and getting the tone just right. Even the difficulty levels are labelled as Friendly, Amazing and Spectacular.
From swinging through the concrete jungle of Manhattan island to grabbing a brief dinner with MJ, Insomniac are trying to capture every part of Peter Parker’s dual life, which is such a major part of the character’s appeal. From just the first couple of hours, it’s easy to see how the game effortlessly drops you into Spider-Man’s rollercoaster life, and I can’t wait to see more.