The last time I played a Spider-Man video game was about 14 years ago when Treyarch (yes, that Treyarch) and Activision released Spider-Man 2 on the PC, GameCube, PS2 and original Xbox. It… wasn’t pretty and was probably at its worst on the PC version. At the time, however, there wasn’t exactly a glut of superhero video games, so Spider-Man 2 scratched an itch that had been around for a long, long time. A few years later it was followed up with the creatively named Spider-Man 3, which didn’t fare too well either. Treyarch wasn’t the only dev team to take a stab at putting out a decent Spidey game, but it’s safe to say that nobody has really managed to nail a Spider-Man video game in the same way that Rocksteady has nailed Batman video games.
Let’s just get this out of the way right from the start: comparisons between Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man and Rocksteady Studios’ Batman Arkham series are inevitable. It’s inevitable because Rocksteady’s work has become the benchmark for comic book character video games. Spider-Man hasn’t had a decent video game release in years, so with Rocksteady’s seminal Batman series still fresh in people’s minds, the hype surrounding Insomniac and Sony’s Spider-Man has become substantial.
Does it deliver? Absolutely. But it stumbles ever so slightly in the same area that many open-world games do as well.
At the start of the game, everyone’s friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man has been Spider-Manning for eight years already. That means no slow build-up as Peter Parker discovers his powers and develops his alter ego. Nope, you’re Spider-Man right from the word go, and right from the word go the pace is pretty relentless. A lot is thrown at you in the beginning, and the game world itself opens up right from the get-go. There are no gated areas tied to story progression or character level (Spider-Man does level up throughout the game, and you get to allocate skill points into three different skill trees) which means that you’re free to swing through New York right away. And swing though New York you will, because the web swinging traversal mechanic is a pretty slick affair.
If Insomniac games headed into development and made city traversal one of their key gameplay areas, then they nailed it. The amount of design and thought that has gone into ensuring you feel like Spider-Man as you swing, zip, and free-fall your way through the city can’t be overstated. The web swinging works very well despite taking a bit of time to get the hang of. Once you’ve got it, and unlocked a further few web traversal assisting skills, you’ll find yourself swinging from one side of New York to the other in record time – and you’ll look like a total badass while doing it.
Unfortunately, the heady opening moments come to a screeching halt as Parker resumes his normal “day job” activities of helping Dr. Otto Octavius in his prosthetics R&D lab. It’s here that you’re introduced to two of the more baffling “busy work” tasks that perpetually crop-up throughout Spider-Man. A lot of the narrative need for showing that Peter Parker is also this genius scientist whizz-kid is handled through shape-matching and flowchart-like mini games that are at complete odds with the fast-paced action of when you’re playing as Spider-Man. The mini games themselves aren’t exactly difficult, but they’re repetitive enough to become annoying.
In addition to boring old science mini games, Spider-Man’s biggest stumble is one that affects many open-world games: heaps of derivative side tasks and collectibles. That’s not to say that all of the open-world activities are bad; many of them are entertaining and masterfully woven into ordinary gameplay. Others, like the Harry Osbourne Research Stations, are dreadful. One such research station has you LITERALLY CURING INFECTED FISH as they swim around the New York docks. It’s so out of tone with the rest of the game it feels like Insomniac’s development B Team might have been locked in a boardroom to huff glue before being confined to develop just this one portion of the game.
The Research Lab tasks are definitely the worst open-world side task on offer, but on top of that you’ve got a host of the usual open-world tasks like towers to unlock and collectibles to find. Many people relish these side activities as it extends gameplay and allows completionists to obsess over another laundry list of things to do. If you fall into that category then these points probably won’t come as negatives, but if you’re tired of open-world games ticking open-world game boxes then you’re going to be a little disappointed. The good news, however, is that while being derivative, most of the open-world tasks are a lot fun to do. They also reward you with tokens that can be used to unlock new gadgets for Spider-Man, as well as entirely new suits (the cell-shaded Vintage Comic Book suit was my particular favourite) and suit mods. There are six different types of tokens to acquire, and different suits/gadgets/mods require different combinations of tokens to unlock.
Combat in Spider-Man has traded complexity for something that’s more fluid and flamboyant. Standard attacks are tied to the square button, and web-based attacks are tied to the triangle button. You use the circle button to dodge, and the X button to jump. During combat you charge up a Focus bar, and once full you can unleash a Finisher that will instantly knockout an enemy and remove them from combat. Alternatively you can trade your Focus bar progress for a health boost if you’re getting beaten to a pulp during a fight. If it sounds simple that’s because it is, but I don’t mean that in a negative sense. The combat is great and I would often hurl Spider-Man into a fight against massive odds simply because it was just such damn fun. Add in a bunch of gadgets (like Spider Drones, Electric Webs, Suspension Matrixes) that you can activate in the middle of a fight, and you really can create some spectacular fight scenes that would be quite at home on the pages of a comic book or in a scene from a multi-million-dollar superhero movie. I LOVED the combat in this game; from start to end it never failed to entertain me and it never once got frustrating. If I found myself dying it was because I did something wrong, and not because the combat system had let me down.
Of course, heading into combat with, umm, webs blazing isn’t the only method, as there is a stealth element to Spider-Man as well. The stealth approach is very reminiscent of the Batman Arkham series as you zip from perch to perch in order to get above a thug to quietly string him up. Unfortunately the enemy AI is not very good when it comes to detecting Spider-Man, so the stealth approach almost feels unbalanced. This is made even more evident during the handful of missions where you play as Mary Jane or Miles Morales. Both of these supporting characters’ missions are stealth-based affairs, and honestly they’re not very good at all. AI stupidity is on full show when you’re controlling MJ or Miles, but with dumb enemies comes easily completed missions, which means you’re just back to playing as Spider-Man sooner rather than later.
A host of Spider-Man characters make appearances, and the overall plot was surprisingly engaging. Humour is front-and-centre, and the game has some moments of exceptional writing and voice acting; the bumbling dialogue between Peter and MJ is endearing as hell, and the “Spider-Cop” dialogues with police captain Yuri Watanabe had me chuckling every time. Occasionally, however, the frivolity is brought crashing down by some surprisingly poignant moments in the narrative. There’s a very good balance between light-hearted comic book fun and scenes with a more sombre tone, and the result is a storyline that kept me engaged. For me that was possibly the biggest surprise with Spider-Man: I went in expecting some solid combat and open-world shenanigans, but I got a lot more than that thanks to some of the characterisations and pivotal plot moments. There are a lot of neat little touches that humanise Spider-Man, like pseudo live Twitter feeds and Spidey riding the subway to fast travel. An unexpected cameo had me audibly gasp and exclaim,“No ways!”, and the door has been left wide open for further Spider-Man games from Insomniac – watch the credits and you’ll see what I mean.
Insomniac’s Spider-Man is a solid entry into the superhero video game genre and one that is worthy of a lot of praise. In a lot of ways, the lasting impression I have of this game is that it’s a lot like the character of Parker/Spider-Man: having FUN as Spider-Man is the definite preoccupation, but there’s also the Parker side of being responsible and doing the right thing, no matter the consequences. Insomniac went out to ensure players will have fun being Spider-Man, but they also took responsibility and handled a beloved comic book hero with care and responsibility. It’s an authentic experience that has a lot of heart; enough heart and fun that the few shortcomings are easy to overlook.