When Spider-Man hits its web-swinging peak it’s about as good as superhero gaming gets. Nailing a perfect, long arcing swoop between two buildings, or a hitting a split-second counter to one shot an enemy in slow-mo, constantly conjures up those ‘lost in the moment’ beats where you forget all about buttons and you just are what’s on screen. And the open-world New York this all takes place creates a perfect playground; a lively and beautiful looking backdrop to play out all those superhero fantasies against.
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Does whatever a spider can
It is a cookie cutter design - a well worn open-world template with a main story that crisscrosses districts full of challenges, side missions and collectibles - but when the core loop works so well, it’s easy to forgive. The systems are familiar, but the gameplay’s so smooth it’s impossible to resist. Combat is all about that hypnotically timed countering satisfaction, while its web swinging is always, always fun. Getting that building clearing arc just so, or skimming the tops of New York cabs never loses its thrill. Even now, some 35+ hours later (20-25 for completion, 10 odd for challenges, collectibles and the sheer hell of it) it’s not lost its shine. The word that kept coming out as I made notes during my review was ‘joy’. The fighting, the swinging, even the characters and story at certain points, is all just a joy to play.
This take on Spider-Man is an older character, eight odd years into his web-swinging career. So no origin story and, thank God, no need to watch Uncle Ben die again (sorry Uncle Ben). It means you’re thrown straight in, with an opening set piece that plays almost like a climax, while threading in tutorial hints effortlessly through the action. Within seconds of starting you feel like you’ve always been Spidey, and it just builds from there.
The core story - which I’ll stay away from in detail because it’s full of surprises and discoveries I don’t want to spoil - sees Peter Parker not just chasing bad guys but actually living up to that title of 'friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man'. Crimes pop up and things happen to keep you busy in a bustling, people-filled New York, with the city just as much a star here as any character. For all the villains, references and serious mission stuff, nothing more perfectly hits the spider-fantasy bullseye harder than jumping off a roof, diving to ground level and swinging at the last minute as surprised faces, car horns and street level bustle whooshes past in a blur. Those small random events like car crashes, assaults, store robberies and other ordinary crimes, only help to tie your efforts to the city and the people in it.
The city that never sleeps...
It’s a lovely looking game too, especially on PS4 Pro. New York stretches off in impressively crisp detail as far as the eye can see (with the fat, orange afternoon sun shining off rain dappled streets particularly beautiful to swing through). It’s rare to see something this big and detailed consistently look so good, with the very final story moments in particular, some of the most spectacular looking stuff I’ve seen in awhile.
Backing up the looks is a genuinely likeable set of characters across the whole game. Almost all the main parts are voiced and performed with a depth and charisma I wasn’t expecting. Yuri Lowenthal’s Peter Parker is instantly likeable and a worthy addition to the Spider-Man canon (which this game officially now is). He’s charming but human, and there are some actual laughs to be had at times when this really plays into the fact that, under the powers, he’s just a guy.
It’s the same for the rest of the cast, from Aunt May to Norman Osborne (now Mayor of New York), all brought to life on screen in an impressively tangible way. The writing, performance and facial capture is all top notch stuff, to the point where a tightened jaw or a frown is just as effective as saying something out loud. There’s funny looks, genuinely touching moments, and a couple of bits where Osborne chews the scenery with simmering Mayoral indignation. Just watching people react is a treat.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its dark moments. A few parts, and one section in particular, are potentially traumatic in a very real world way that might surprise those used to Spidey’s often lighter touch. I can’t decide whether it’s blunt shock tactics chasing a reaction, or an attempt to counter Spider-Man’s usually breezier adventures with a more grown-up feel, but it’ll likely split the audience. However, it says a lot that I cared in places I didn’t expect to. Like in the MCU’s Spider-Man Homecoming, when Tom Holland is trapped and crying under rubble, a sudden well placed reality check grounds things and stops it getting too cartoony. There are moments of carefully deployed gravitas here that elevate plot beats and story moments from video game cutscene to ‘forget where you put the controller down’ entertainment.
A tangled web
As the story progresses, the game grows in scale but in a manageable way. The collectibles, challenges and side missions that appear, do so in their tens, not hundreds. They also earn you various currencies you can use to buy new gadgets, suits and abilities, giving them more of a practical application than just pure gameplay filler. Mastering the new gear and skills you unlock lets the game continue to grow - early basic punching gives way to carefully deployed web mines, perfect counters and wall leaping attacks. As you get further in, Parker’s grab bag of toys grows to produce endlessly, satisfying combinations of ways to take down entire gangs at a time. Plus your traversal skill grows in a very natural way. I had great fun at the start crudely swinging, but my post-game fully kitted out Spidey is threading the needle under bridges at swinging speeds that would turn bones to dust if I missed.
It's well balanced in terms of scale, growth and achievability, although there are some bits that may potentially tire you. Parker’s day job as a scientist is filled with electric circuit and spectrograph puzzles that, while enjoyable enough, smack of an attempt to give him some gameplay purpose beyond playable cutscenes. Mary Jane fairs a little better as a playable character, with stealth sections that expand the story as she investigates stuff as a reporter. They don’t overstay their welcome too much and generally have a payoff that make them worth the effort (plus one of her later sections is a real highlight).
Spidey’s other non-plot activities do vary wildly. There are stealth, combat and drone chasing challenges lifted straight out of the Open World Side Mission Handbook and bases to take down, that are still fun all the same because of the well oiled mechanics behind them. While more narrative side missions and Research Stations (sciencey type things like collecting smog samples) are a mixed bag; some are enjoyable and interesting uses of mechanics, others are... okay.
One thing that’s hard to overlook, however, is just how closely this follows the Batman Arkham playbook. It’s not just that mechanics like the twin stick hacking are lifted wholesale, but entire beats and concepts from the Arkham games as well. I can’t specifically say what without spoilers but there were moments I was astounded how closely this follows the Arkham template - to the point where I almost expected to see Rocksteady flash up in the credits. There were parts where a thing would happen and I’d just think, “really?! You’re doing that as well?” As far as games to crib from go, it's a good choice and this is up there with that series in quality, but it still feels a little odd.
While we’re on negatives it’s worth noting that quick time events, when they appear, are oddly weighted. They’re so slow that it almost makes them harder; they lack the rhythmically obvious hit of something faster. XP is also handed out in such large amounts that character progress feels more story lead than by any effort on your part, with most main campaign missions guaranteeing a level increase. That abundant XP and glacial QTEs has a very casual games feel to it, somewhat at odds with the tougher challenges and fights you face later on.
Nonetheless Spider-Man is still a hugely enjoyable adventure full of great characters and moments, and just about one of the best videogame realisations of superheroing to date. Insomniac are a studio with nearly 25 year's experience of producing slick, tactile action adventures that feel great to play, and seeing that expertise turned to a licensed game has created an impressively, polished and crafted experience.
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