The announcement of a brand new, wholly original Spider-Man game being developed by Insomniac Games got a lot of people, including me, very excited. It had felt like it had been ages since we got something like this – a console super-hero game that wasn’t just a cash-grab tie-in to a new movie or TV show. Everything about it looked promising and I felt like this could herald in a new age of high-quality superhero games. And judging by this game’s success, I think it’s safe to say that might just be the case.
Unless you’ve just not been paying attention, it’s no secret that Spider-Man (or Marvel’s Spider-Man – they seriously needed a better name) has been positively received. What was expected to be a moderate success has become Sony’s fastest selling first-party game ever and its first month’s sales beat the likes of God of War and Uncharted 4. It’s a good game is what I’m saying.
Honestly, I probably don’t even need to write a review about it. I’ll tell you right now; all the positive reception you’ve heard is right. If you have a PS4, this is a must buy. But, you know what, this game is SO good that I need to gush about it regardless. So rather than posit the question “Is Spider-Man on PS4 a good game?,” let’s discuss WHY it’s good.
The game puts you in control of an older, experienced Peter Parker who has been Spider-Man for eight years, having already become a famous icon in New York. The opening segment/tutorial sees Spidey teaming up with the NYPD to finally take down Wilson Fisk AKA the Kingpin. But this winds up doing more harm than good as Fisk’s absence quickly creates a power vacuum, causing crime to go up and a new villain called Mr. Negative to enter the fray. As Spider-Man, it’s up to you to protect the city from this crime wave and foil whatever plot Mr. Negative has brewing.
Before I get to the gameplay, I’d like to compliment the effort that was put into crafting a new universe for Spider-Man. While it’s not entirely original and there are clear influences from other media, there’re enough differences to make it stand out and help it carve its own identity. The story, while a bit oddly paced in my opinion, is strongly written, managing to be funny and charming but also quite dark and emotionally hard-hitting when it needs to be. It strikes a good balance and it’s only helped by some stellar voice-work. Everybody hits it out of the park, with Yuri Lowenthal deserving a lot of praise for his performance as the web-head himself. I especially love the banter he has with his friend on the force, Yuri Watanabe (who funnily enough is voiced by Tara Platt, Lowenthal’s wife).
I also appreciate how the game very much throws you into the middle of things. Because Spidey has been operating for eight years, we already have a long established cast and setting to get accustomed with. No time is spent on having to explain who certain people are and how they relate to one another and, when they do, it’s nice and succinct. Not everybody may be familiar with the Spider-Man mythos but, sometimes, we don’t want to experience another origin story just so newcomers can get caught up. As someone who knows these characters, it was a delight to see how the likes of Mary-Jane and Norman Osborn are handled without much of an introduction. That’s not to say that the game’s impossible to understand if you’re a newbie. There’s plenty of backstory to uncover thanks to in-game dialogue and such; it’s handled very naturally. There is a lot about the story and characters that I could discuss, both good and bad, but I want to keep spoilers to a minimum and, plus, there’s a whole game that needs praising.
Like many triple-A games out there, Spider-Man has an open-world to explore; specifically New York City. Unlike some games, however, I don’t feel like this setting is too big for its own good. I mean, it is big (and apparently a near 1:1 accurate copy of the real NYC) but not overwhelmingly so and traversing it is never a chore thanks to probably the most impressive aspect of the game – the control.
While this game isn’t the first to perfect Spider-Man’s web-swinging abilities (the tie-in to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 still holds that distinction for some), controlling the character feels like a dream. He moves so smoothly as he swings through the air and web-swinging is almost deceptively easy to do. You just hold down R2 to shoot a web and swing before letting go and holding it down again to shoot another one. And depending on when you let go, you can keep Spidey’s momentum going. Pinpoint timing can have you blazing through the city in a heartbeat. And so long as you’re holding down the button, if you run into a wall, Spidey will parkour up and over it. Hell, just keep holding down R2 while running and he’ll flip over and through anything. Running alongside walls and jumping off of them into a web-swing is a particular favourite of mine.
Funny story, during my first hour or so with the game, I felt like the web-swinging would randomly not work, resulting in my momentum getting messed up and Spider-Man falling to the ground. But then I discovered that Spidey wasn’t firing a web because there was nothing to latch onto, which blew my mind since it meant I had to time and plan my route; you can’t just hold and release R2 whenever you want. Again, the Spider-Man 2 game did this first, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Insomniac took a lot of inspiration with that game, but it’s still a really clever way of handling the mechanic.
And besides, Spidey has other ways of navigating the city, like pressing L2 and R2 at the same time will have him zip to specific points like lampposts and the edge of buildings. Or you can hold down L2 to briefly slow down time, aim a cursor at a nearby wall and have Spidey zip to that. Crawling alongside walls and ceilings can admittedly get a little fiddly. The controls seem to get much stiffer when this happens and it sometimes feels like Spider-Man’s not moving in the direction you’re pushing, but I don’t think any Spider-Man game has managed to pull off wall-crawling perfectly. Plus, you very rarely need to do it anyway so it’s never too much of an issue.
But this isn’t the only reason why exploring the city is a blast. NYC is peppered with all manner of side-missions that see Spider-Man either stopping crimes or just helping people out, as well as various tokens that can be collected by completing various tasks. What’s really cool about the tokens is that there are in-story reasons as to why Spider-Man is doing these tasks. For example, you can find old backpacks that Spidey left around the city from his high-school days, which also contain memorabilia that flesh out the world and Spidey’s own past, like a drawing a child made for him or some old gear he made.
My personal favourites are probably the research stations, which Harry Osborn asks Peter to check in on and make sure they’re working to justify their use to Oscorp, like testing out some camouflage tech by sneaking up and destroying some drones without using any of Spidey’s web abilities since they deactivate the camouflage. Actually providing a story reason for these things gives you even more of an incentive to do these side-activities, as opposed to some games that make you collect a thousand eggs or something for no reason except for a poxy achievement. Though a few of them, particularly the street crimes, can get rather repetitive. The cinematic and intense car chases kind of lose their lustre a bit after the fifth time you do it.
The other incentive to get these tokens is that they go towards crafting and upgrading Spider-Man’s gear. At the beginning of the game, you only have access to his basic web-shooters (which I admittedly used the most since they’re still really useful even by the end of the game) but not only can these be upgraded to become more powerful, you can eventually make stuff like web bombs that detonate and web up whole groups of enemies or a little spider-bot that hovers around you and shoots nearby enemies. You can even swap between these gadgets during combat to either mix things up or to deal with a specific group of enemies.
The best stuff you’ll be building, though, are the suits. Having alternate costumes for Spider-Man to wear is already great purely for aesthetic reasons and there are a good bunch of them to unlock. Long-time fans of the character will be left grinning from ear to ear at some of them since they all come from Spidey’s history, and there’s a healthy mixture of recognisable and somewhat obscure ones, including Spider-Man Noir, the Scarlet Spider and even the Iron Spider outfit from the Infinity War movie.
Crafting a new suit also unlocks a new suit power associated with it that can be activated by clicking both analogue sticks. For example, the Scarlet Spider outfit will create a holo-decoy to distract enemies and stun them. Each power is completely unique but some sadly are much better than others. I didn’t really experiment with a lot of them because some just seemed a tad useless or too situational. On the plus side, the powers aren’t locked to their respective suits so if you particularly like one power but aren’t fond of the suit, it doesn’t matter – change your costume and keep the power. Insomniac clearly understood that some players care about aesthetics.
You can also equip up to three suit modifiers that act as passive buffs, such as one that reduces the melee damage you receive or one that increases how much experience you earn from defeating enemies. Basically, the game gives you so many ways to arm Spider-Man for different situations and, so long as you’re going out of your way to earn the tokens, you’ll feel the power increase as you progress. And these upgrades can make the difference as the challenges you face get tougher.
The city is constantly changing and I don’t just mean visually, when the sun begins to set and gives way to night time. Story progression will alter the city itself, with new criminal outposts popping up after Kingpin gets locked away and sometimes enemies will randomly ambush you. Not only that but if you go to ground level and walk about, you’ll overhear people reacting to your presence, asking if you can come to their kid’s birthday party or demanding you get out of their face. Some citizens can even be interacted with and it brings a smile to my face every time when I see Spidey take a selfie with them or give them a hi-five. Try pressing the attack button while you’re walking down the street if you want to see Spider-Man give people finger-guns as he jogs past.
Argh, there are so many cool, little details about the city itself that help make it feel alive. Aside from the citizens, the map screen also has a social media feed that regularly updates with either people reacting to events in the story or random chatter about being stuck in traffic, getting jobs and some people even trolling J. Jonah Jameson, who has his own conspiracy theorist podcast that you can listen to. I make sure to stop what I’m doing whenever it starts if only to hear his crazed ramblings. Not many open-worlds nowadays have this amount of life put into them.
OK, I need to move onto something else now before I give away every cool detail in the game. Let’s talk about combat. I’ve already seen a lot of people compare it to Rocksteady’s Batman games and, to be fair, there are clear similarities, with Spidey having a basic attack combo that can be performed by tapping the square button and a dodge on the circle button. His Spider-Sense is represented by a little icon appearing above his head but, unlike the Arkham series where it presented a counter opportunity, it’s more of a warning that an attack is coming and you need to dodge out of the way, which fits Spider-Man’s character and style of fighting. You don’t necessarily need perfect timing to dodge an attack but dodging at the last second can have benefits when you’ve unlocked certain upgrades.
And while maybe not as fluid as the Arkham games’ combat, pulling off long combo strings is immensely satisfying, especially when you get the hang of all of Spidey’s moves. He can use his webs to pull himself towards enemies that are far away and smack them across the face (it doesn’t always lock on to the enemy you want which is a little annoying but not enough to be a major problem), punch them into the air for air combos or to pull them down into the ground, he can grab and swing parts of the environment in a circle before throwing them, and if you fill up your Focus Gauge, you can pull off Finishers that instantly take out enemies or you can use any Focus you have to restore Spidey’s health instead by tapping down on the D-Pad. And all of this is only a handful of moves you have at the start. As you level up, you’ll get stat upgrades like increased health and swing speed as well as skill points that go towards unlocking new abilities that only make you more powerful and increase your level of enjoyment. I’m serious, this is one of those games that only gets better the more you play.
Combat isn’t always the way to go, though. Stealth is always an option and, again, while not as in-depth and layered compared to the Arkham games, it’s serviceable and fun enough. In some respects, it’s actually easier since Spidey can constantly stay above the non-suspecting heads of his enemies and I never got tired of webbing someone from up high while the other guards remain oblivious. That being said, they can still get rather tricky since Spider-Man doesn’t have a Detective Vision or something to show where everybody is at all times. Fortunately, if you’re not a fan of stealth sections, you can always decide to jump in fist first anyway, with there being a few exceptions where not getting spotted is mandatory like certain story sections and optional stealth challenges.
I can’t say the same for the Mary-Jane and Miles sections. Yes, you read right. During certain parts of the story, control will temporarily swap over to either MJ (who’s a journalist in this continuity) or Miles Morales (look him up if you don’t recognise the name) and, while technically harmless, these are the weakest parts of the game. The novelty of playing as them wears off very quickly and their lack of any superpowers makes their stealth sections a bit of a slog. A few of them don’t even seem necessary. Like, did we really need to play through a scene of Miles sneaking through a military outpost just so he wouldn’t be late for his first day working at a homeless shelter? They’re the equivalent of riding an exciting roller-coaster, only for it to stop every once in a while so you can do some algebra problems.
I almost wish these sections could be skipped entirely like the other puzzles in the game, because that’s totally an option. Spider-Man has some frankly fantastic quality-of-life features to make the game more accessible, and I don’t mean in a “it makes the game easier” way (though there are three difficulty options to choose from). There are the aforementioned skippable puzzles, you can change the QTEs so you only have to hold down a button rather than rapidly tap it and you can alter subtitle size. I didn’t need most of these features myself but it’s great to see Insomniac try and provide measures so people with mild disabilities can fully enjoy the game.
Spider-Man on PS4 is more than just another licensed game. It’s a labour of love. I know that’s an overused description but it’s true. Insomniac were clearly very passionate about the character and wanted to provide an experience that could be enjoyed by pretty much anybody; something that they’ve clearly succeeded in doing. While it’s not flawless and it still succumbs to the occasional triple-A game cliche (e.g. forced walking sections), it’s undeniably the best game made to star the friendly neighbourhood superhero. And as much as I hate sequel-baiting, I’m still excited to see where Insomniac takes Spider-Man next in the inevitable follow-up and upcoming DLC.