It’s been a long time since there was a truly great Spider-Man game. Since the excellent Spider-Man 2 on PlayStation 2, Spidey fans have had to endure a lack of physics-based swinging, instead putting up with webs sticking to the sky and low speed, animated swinging in its place. Insomniac are known for creating games with smooth and stylish movement systems, with games like the Ratchet and Clank series and Sunset Overdrive seemingly making it the ideal developer to make Spider-Man’s web swinging and zipping a digital reality.
Their expertise really shows. The physics-based swinging around Manhattan is superb; it’s clearly had a lot of care and attention put into it. It’s not just quick and stylish, it’s filled with options too, from obligatory features like gaining height by jumping at the top of a swing or gaining speed nearer the bottom, to nice touches like web launching from the top or sides of a building after running along it. But for one or two supplemental abilities, the vast majority of these moves are available from the start as well. Within an hour or so you’ll be landing directly on top of mission markers like you’re Spidey himself.
Swinging is easy to pick up from the moment the game’s opening cutscene – short and to the point – shifts seamlessly into gameplay and you take your first few swings. Nitpickers like myself might point to shenanigans with web length when very close to the ground and being able to perform the swing kick in combat when there’s nothing to attach webs to, but they’re points that are easy to overlook. More importantly, it has the depth to still be fun even after many hours of gameplay.
In this game’s original take on the character, Spider-Man is already an experienced web-head with eight years under his belt and a few supervillians locked away through his exploits. In fact, the game opens with Peter Parker being woken by his phone alerting him to the police finally making a move on Wilson Fisk – the Kingpin. Parker quickly puts on his suit, jumps through the window and away you go, swinging through Manhattan towards Fisk’s offices for an action packed introduction to the game.
You can draw a lot of comparisons to the Batman Arkham series; Spider-Man also has combat and stealth sections, a large open world littered with tasks, and even a similar combat system, but there’s some important ways it differs enough to feel different. In combat, for example, when your spider sense goes off and you tap circle Spidey dodges rather than counters, leaving you to counter the attack yourself, and where certain caped crusaders tend to keep their feet on the ground whilst fighting, you’ll find that the web-head can go through whole fights barely touching the floor.
Combat is fast and hectic, particularly early on when you find yourself a little overwhelmed by enemies. Almost right from the off you’re dealing with multiple melee attackers, gunmen, rocket launchers, and brutes all at once. They don’t always patiently wait their turn to attack either, especially from range, and failing to dodge when three enemies with assault rifles are about to shoot you could very well spell Spidey’s demise. As a result, you’ll be dodging, swinging, and zipping all around, as staying still and letting yourself get penned in is a quick way to die. Crucially, you will need to make full use of your attacks, webs, and wide array of gadgets to quickly take care of enemies.
Giving you several inventive ways of incapacitating enemies, gadgets are very powerful, which is why they are also limited. You carry a certain number of each gadget and your stocks are refilled through defeating enemies, both in stealth and in open combat. The amount of each gadget you can carry and the gadget’s abilities can be upgraded using six different types of tokens, which are earned by completing the various missions around the city.
Swooping in to stop robberies or end car chases give you crime tokens to be used on gadget upgrades and suits, while enemy bases earn you base tokens. Bases start similarly to a predator mission in Batman Arkham, with you zipping around above enemies and taking them out one by one. An indicator will let you know if you can safely take out an enemy, but stealth is arguably the weakest part of the game. It’s still good, but your options are a little more limited than they are elsewhere in the game.
Some of your gadgets aren’t much use here, so you’re left with fewer options than in other areas, but you can still easily get absorbed in splitting up groups with diversionary web shots to take them out. Curiously, enemy bases will start out as stealth missions, but even if you take out all the enemies silently, reinforcements will appear and combat will begin. There are only a few situations where stealth is forced on you, usually involving hostages.
Suits are one area that the game really gives you a lot of options. Outside of a few that are unlocked via the story and side quests, they are purchased using tokens once you meet a level requirement. There are 27 suits in total to unlock, inspired by both comics and films, with the Homecoming one unlocking relatively early in the game. Each of them has their own special ability, such as the Spider-Bro that comes with the Homecoming suit, which will electrify enemies in combat for you for a time. There is a lot of variety, from Spider Armour through wrestling suits to Secret War, so there’s something for everyone, even the Spider punks out there.
As well as base and crime tokens, there are also research tokens earned from completing projects for Harry Osborne, who is out of town and needs Peter to check up on various Oscorp research facilities throughout Manhattan. The nice part of these is that, whilst there are quite a few, there is variety baked into them. The Oscorp research projects don’t repeat mission types too often, and even enemy bases tend to require different approaches. As a result, completing the side content doesn’t get old too quickly as it’s usually a different type of challenge rather than repeating the same thing over and over. Sometimes you’ll even play as someone other than Peter or Spider-Man in the story, engaging in a little light sneaking through a corrupt museum, for example.
But, as with the combat, you don’t have to look too deep to see familiar open world game foundations. They’re not intrusive, but you have
Ubisoft Oscorp antennae to reach, though climbing them is hardly a challenge for Spidey and neither is the mini-game to hack them, taking only a few seconds each time. There are also the odd Pipe Mania and stick positioning mini-games to complete, landmarks to photograph and backpacks to collect across the city, as well as timed challenges for swinging, stealth, and combat. QTEs are most prevalent when trying to stop a car chase, but also crop up occasionally in boss fights and story missions. These can sometimes feel a little cheap and the timing is occasionally a little out of sync with the graphics, but they do the job of keeping you engaged where regular gameplay would struggle and feature some serious spectacles.
There is a surprising number of supervillains to contend with through the game, though most of them are reserved for the final act. The story, which I certainly won’t be spoiling here, takes its time as it introduces its characters and even features some origin stories. Characterisation is particularly strong throughout the game and I find myself really believing characters, but for one or two contrived scenarios – impressive for a game of this length about a man dressed like a spider. I found myself sympathetic towards villains and heroes alike, thanks to some excellent voice acting, and even got chills from what must have been motion captured performances.
A couple of story arcs started during the game will extend into the expansions, which was a mild disappointment not because there isn’t enough story in the main game, but just because I was excited to see them come to fruition. I would advise reading the in-game character bios and delving into the history that the landmark photographs and backpacks reveal, just to get a sense of where everything stands in this strange new spider-world. This is particularly true when the game sometimes seems to gloss over the emotions that you’d expect from a particular turn of events or betrayal. Other than that, the story is an enjoyable one, mixing together a lot of familiar aspects into its own version of Spider-Man and managing to deliver some strong emotions at times.
Marvel’s Spider-Man does a spectacular job of making you feel like the ultimate Spider-Man. From swinging through the city at high speed to fighting off legions of enemies by zipping between them and pulling them into the air, its gameplay looks like a scene from the films. It’s remarkably well realised in terms of its world, design, and even technically, with short loading times and a rock solid framerate even on the base PlayStation 4. If Spider-Man is your thing then this is an essential purchase.
Version tested: Original PlayStation 4