It’s hard to think of the last time a licensed game has been as hotly anticipated as Marvel’s Spider-Man. You’d likely have to go back to Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham City/Knight, with almost nothing else in the last decade coming close. Over the last 3 E3’s Insomniac have stirred our emotions with new footage, exciting us as we awaited the games release. That day has finally come, and with it has come one of the best superhero stories told in games, unfortunately framed by pedestrian open world design.
The game opens as Spider-Man is gearing up to assist the police in finally putting Wilson Fisk away for good. You’re almost immediately thrown into the action, tasked with swinging across the city to get to the tower where Fisk is holed up. It’s your first introduction to Spider-Man’s web swinging mechanics and for me, it was love at first swing. While it takes a little while to get used to the swinging, especially directional controls, once you’ve grown accustomed to how they handle they’re immensely satisfying and enjoyable. I have a habit of using fast travel liberally in open world games, but the web swinging in Spider-Man was such a joy that I only used fast travel to check out the little scenes that accompany it. Your web swinging prowess will grow as you progress, level up and unlock more skills, keeping the experience fresh as you continue your adventure.
Similarly, combat in Spider-Man is enjoyable, albeit with a somewhat frustrating difficulty curve. Early on, you’d be forgiven for thinking the combat is cloned from the Arkham games, with some extremely familiar mechanics prominent. There is a limited combo system of melee attacks, you dodge enemy attacks based on a spider sense notifier that pops above Spider-Man’s head, finishers and you stealthily dash around ceilings and fixtures to take out enemies. From there Spider-Man’s combat begins to diverge from its inspirations, with a range of gadgets, special suit abilities and web-based attacks that set it apart. There was nothing quite as satisfying as throwing a webbed-up enemy against a wall, sticking them there and removing them from combat, or using a concussive blast to send a group of enemies flying off the top of a tall building.
Combat quickly becomes dynamic as you balance your load out of moves and gadgets against the make up of the group of enemies in front of you. Your approach needs to change based on this, especially early in the game when certain enemies pose a massive threat. While most enemies are susceptible to gadget attacks, others are able to completely negate them, while others are immune to other types of attacks without first performing specific actions. As you progress through the game and engage in more combat encounters you’ll gradually piece together specific strategies and combos of abilities to meet any circumstance head on, but the game can be brutal in the early stages. With a low-levelled Spider-Man your health and abilities are pretty limited, so it can only take a few heavy hits for you to be down and out, and certain enemies are capable of utterly destroying you early on. This can be pretty disengaging at points, but you’ll pass that point within a few hours.
The real showpiece of combat in Spider-Man, as well as the showpiece for Spider-Man himself, is the range of Spider Suits you can unlock and the special attacks that come with them. As you level up or complete some special missions, you’ll be given the option to unlock new Spider Suits by spending in-game tokens unlocked from open world activities. Each Suit looks unique, is incredibly detailed and comes with a brand-new suit power, although you can freely change what suit power you have equipped at any time. The suits were a great motivator to complete open world activities and I often found myself going out of my way just so I could get the next suit I wanted. One issue, however, is that you’re likely not going to use most of the suit powers at all due to a somewhat frustrating design decision by Insomniac. Early in the game you unlock the Web Blossom suit power, which shoots a multitude of webs in every direction, taking out numerous enemies at once. Unfortunately, that power is so overpowered and unbalanced compared to other suit powers that after trying a couple of new ones I just reverted to it and never looked back.
While the different Spider Suits all look great and are fun to use, unfortunately the activities you have to complete to be able to unlock them aren’t quite as fun. In fact, I’d go so far as to say they are largely rote and quickly become boring. Spider-Man’s New York City is split into different districts, with each district containing a number of different activities that need to be completed in order to obtain tokens which are then used to unlock Spider Suits and upgrade your gadgets. These range from collecting backpacks that Peter has left around the city in his travels, to photographing landmarks, to completing research tasks and then onto completing the same basic crimes ad nauseum and destroying enemy bases in almost the exact manner over and over again. There are only so many times you can complete the exact same crime, destroy another enemy base with the same basic composition of enemies and web swing through clouds of noxious gases before it begins to get boring and mundane. Unfortunately, Spider-Man requires you to go just that far by locking your combat potential and more interesting Suits behind the completion of these activities. Some more variety and interesting design would have gone a long way here.
This sentiment continues somewhat into the game’s mission design, or more specifically, into the multiple forced stealth missions it contains. The game is at its peak when you’re playing as Spider-Man, swinging through the sky, beating up bad guys or investigating the bad guys, but you’re repeatedly thrown into missions as other non-powered characters. While this wouldn’t necessarily be an issue when taken into isolation, the problem enters when you consider the design of every single one of those missions. Without fail, every non-Spider-Man mission becomes a forced stealth mission at some point, and specifically, a forced stealth mission where being spotted is an instant failure. With no enemy sight cones, and a relatively open design at points, its incredibly easy to wander into the path of an enemy and fail before you can duck back behind cover. I quickly became frustrated at points, as I would move around a blind corner only to be instantly spotted and fail a mission. I would have loved to have seen these characters used in a better way than just continuously forcing me into hiding whenever I controlled them.
The activities and stealth missions might leave a little to be desired, but Spider-Man’s New York City itself certainly doesn’t. Buildings are all incredibly detailed, the city is dense with plants, cars, pedestrians and birds, and all character models are detailed and look great. This is especially noticeable during cutscenes, with the facial animation present up there with the best I’ve ever seen in a game. The animation in general is fantastic as well, with Spider-Man’s and enemies’ movements all flowing incredibly well from moment to moment and Spider-Man’s web-swinging animations being a thing of beauty.
The fantastic facial animation goes beyond just look great, however. It also helps sell the story of Spider-Man and its characters personal emotions. While Spider-Man’s story does include the standard ‘save the world’ tropes you would expect from such a game, its best moments come from character’s relationships and the surprisingly darker beats it sometimes hits. The voice acting is fantastic, combining with a well written script, and the earlier mentioned facial animation to create a believable and sometimes moving story that had me gripped until the end. If Insomniac and Sony decide to revisit Spider-Man in the years to come, which I’m almost certain they will, they’ve gone a long way to having me already invested and hungry for more.
Marvel’s Spider-Man has certainly lived up to its hype, with Insomniac delivering the best Spider-Man game since 2004’s Spider-Man 2. There is still room for improvement, with the open-world activities and forced stealth missions needing some work, but that’s not enough to stop the game from being fantastic overall. The combat is wonderfully varied, if somewhat difficult early on, and the story, animations, world and web-swinging are all top notch. If you have even a passing interest in Spider-Man or open world action games, than this is the game for you.
- Web-swinging is the best its ever been - Combat is varied and interesting - New York City is detailed and bustling - Facial animation is fantastic
- Open-world activities lack variety and quickly grow boring - Forced stealth missions are annoying - Web Blossom is overpowered