Spider-Man has resonated with audiences for so long because he is more than just a red and blue onesie; he has amazing powers, a unique and spectacular mode of transportation with web-swinging, and he’s a human with relatable problems. Okay, and he has a lot of cool red and blue onesies. Developer Insomniac has nailed all of these, creating a deep, fulfilling open world experience that Spidey fans have only dreamt of until now.
This Spider-Man story isn’t based on any movie or particular comic, rather an original plot by Insomniac. Peter Parker has been Spider-Man for eight years and is ready to take a break after finally taking down the Kingpin in the opening mission. But this sets the stage for more criminals to take over and cause all manner of costumed villains to come out and get into shenanigans. One odd choice about this version of Spider-Man is he’s been in the suit for eight years but none of his biggest arch nemeses exist yet. Insomniac wanted to tell the story of an older, wiser Spider-Man, yet still tell the origin story of some of his most infamous foes; foes that define the character. A bit of a case of having your cake and eating it too. Giving away anything else in the story would be, well, giving it away. There are a lot of surprises to look forward to and it can get much more intense and emotional than you might expect. It’s a Spidey story to remember. This is helped by some superb acting, particularly by Yuri Lowenthal as Peter, and some amazing character animation. In a game where the protagonist wears a mask, you wouldn’t expect the faces to look so damn good.
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
Spider-Man is far from the first open world game starring the Webhead, but it’s easily the biggest and most alive New York has ever felt. The sidewalks are crowded with fans and critics of Spidey alike who react to everything you do, parks are filled with squirrels and flocks of birds, and protesters and street preachers hold up traffic. Insomniac went as far as making picture-perfect recreations of real life places in New York like Grand Central Terminal, as well as fictional places like Avengers Tower. All of this while J. Jonah Jameson’s radio show gives you his ridiculous takes on current events and a Twitter-like social feed highlights the public’s opinions on the story. This living breathing city is your playground and this version of Spider-Man who has been wearing the tights for so long is very comfortable moving through it.
Web swinging through the city is exhilarating and, once mastered, fluid and empowering. The emphasis is put on momentum and never stopping. Spider-Man gains speed through the arc of each swing, but running on walls, zipping to rooftops and bouncing off at the perfect time and diving off skyscrapers yields the real momentum. Holding down R2, Spidey will free run over or through almost any obstacle. JJJ says it best on his show, “He swings around like he owns the city,” and yeah, that’s kinda what it feels like. Web swinging feels so good, you’ll likely end up like me just swinging through the city for hours, but there’s much more to do in the the open world.
On the ground, crime runs rampant, naturally, and only gets worse as the story progresses. Random street crimes can keep you busy from simple muggings to high speed chases, gang hideouts can be raided, challenges can be replayed for high scores, backpacks are hidden around with relics of Peter’s past inside, landmarks to take pictures of, and tons of iconic suits from the films and comics to unlock. All of this creates a gameplay loop with plenty of variety that makes 100 percenting the game feel like less of a chore and more like an accomplishment. There are a handful of side quests to complete too, though some are better than others. I was much more interested in tracking down Black Cat than finding an old man’s lost pigeons.
By the way, the web swinging is really damn fun. Did I already say that? Oh well.
Action is his reward
Combat is strikingly similar to the flowing, crowd control fights of the Batman Arkham games. Of course, Spider-Man is much more agile than Batman and you’re encouraged to take advantage of that with air combos, wall bounces, and web swinging kicks. There are also an abundance of gadgets that add layers to your techniques. You can web a whole group with web bombs, set up traps with trip mines, or send in a drone to cover your escape. Different enemy types will force you to use different attacks and gadgets too, so you’ll always look cool beating up bad guys. Using gadgets and pulling off stylish moves fills your focus meter which can be burned to instantly KO an enemy or to heal yourself. This intense fight or flight mechanic forces quick decisions in the middle of a fight, adding more depth and strategy. All of this while Spidey is constantly throwing out quips. I’ve completed the game and I’ve only heard one repeat gag from Spider-Man. He doesn’t shut up, and that’s exactly how it should be.
Oh, did I mention that swinging through the city is an addicting adrenaline rush that you won’t want to stop doing?
Some encounters are better handled with stealth and these fights are where the Arkham influence is truly felt. Groups of armed guards can be lured away from each other and that’s when it’s time to strike. Though, unless it’s truly necessary, it’s usually much more fun to just jump in and do some flashy spider moves.
The action does suffer in other areas of the game. During the story and certain side missions, you’re forced to take control of one of Spidey’s non-powered friends, like Mary Jane, and sneak around enemy soldiers. This was clearly done to change up the pacing of the game but, when playing as Spider-Man is so fun, why would you want that? By the end of the game, these missions are more frustrating and boring than anything.
Let’s talk about web swinging a little bit more. The way the music swells as you go faster, the way you can run on buildings around corners and shoot a web to immediately keep moving, the way the controller vibrates as the tension on the web line straightens out. It almost makes you wonder why Insomniac even bothered putting in a fast-travel option when web swinging is probably the best form of transportation in any video game. Okay, okay back to the review.
Spider-Man has a boss fight problem. There’s a handful of classic Spidey villains to fight, but literally all of them have the exact same mechanic: wait for them to get tired or web them up, then web strike in and punch them a bunch. Rinse and repeat. Some of the fights take place in the air and in other unique areas but the strategy is always the same. This is a real shame because Spider-Man is known for handling his enemies in unique, improvised ways, not just zipping in and punching all of them. This is by far the biggest thing the inevitable sequel can improve on.
Insomniac was given great power when handed the Spider-Man IP, and that power came with a great responsibility. A responsibility to deliver a Spider-Man game fans have wanted and deserved for decades. What it released is an experience where the open world and combat feels so good that it far outweighs any shortcomings. It perfectly captures what it feels like to be Spider-Man from the swinging (oh my God the swinging), to the combat, to the emotional story and relationships, to the constant quips.
I’ve 100 percent completed the game and unlocked the platinum trophy, but I can’t stop swinging through the city and saving people. By the end, it really is your city with your people to help, your landmarks to admire, your jungle to swing though. This is the new benchmark for Spider-Man games and I can’t wait to see what Insomniac does next.