This review is part of OnlySP’s Spider-Man Week, celebrating the release of Insomniac Games’s Spider-Man.
Spider-Man games exist in a weird space in gaming history. Some fans remember Spider-Man 2 on PlayStation 2 with a fondness thanks to near-seamless swinging, while others can only remember hours of delivering pizza. For better or for worse, the famed wall-crawler has a place in the memories of most gamers for one reason or another. Spider-Man on PlayStation 4, however, is more than an evolution for superhero video games. Insomniac has managed to capture the essence of adventure, pure joy, and character with its iteration on Spider-Man, even if a few missteps are present along the way.
Everyone knows the story: Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, wakes up with incredible super powers, loses his uncle, et cetera. Peter’s story is worn out, and Insomniac knows that, which is why Spider-Man on PS4 completely skips the origin by throwing even newbies right into the action. The web-head has been putting sinister criminals behind bars for years by the time the game kicks off and has even already been in and out of a relationship with Mary Jane Watson. Spider-Man spins a narrative more adult and, as a result, is better for it. The fact that this story is just as much one of Peter Parker as of Spider-Man is what sells Insomniac’s tale so well. Peter is a witty role model both on and off the streets, and, thanks to high stakes, his well-being always feels as if it is hanging by a thread. The narrative does not exactly communicate any profound messages, but it still manages to be one of the better examples of superhero narrative in gaming history. That said, explaining the story without giving away too much is quite the task, and spoilers will not be discussed in this review.
Web swinging—the reason most gamers will pick up the title to begin with—is more beautifully complicated than anyone could have imagined. Long story short, Insomniac may have crafted the most engaging traversal system ever put into the hands of the average player. Swinging is bound to R2 but remains interesting because of the accurate depiction of the playground that is New York City. Going even further, Insomniac has created a world that is beautiful both day and night, making sure that every player gives the photo mode a try. Players can do tricks, zip, play with momentum-based swing physics, run on walls, and so much more. Insomniac made sure to create a flawless web swinging system specifically because 65 percent of the game is spent perfecting and enjoying the freedom of movement. Funnily enough, webbing across town is almost too much fun. Even with late game upgrades, traveling along the ground yields little to do. Spider-Man is slow and downright clunky on foot, so there is almost never a reason to enjoy interacting with the crowd. Some citizens will point Spidey in the direction of an item to collect or bad guy to stop, while others only want a quick high five. The traversal system is flawless, despite the fact that some of these fine detail moments are lost to the streets.
Unfortunately, although New York’s design makes for interesting chase scenes, the island does not hold up as well as an open-world environment meant to entertain. Side activities range from picking up backpacks with occasionally interesting contents to stopping criminals from robbing a bank. Sometimes the latter of these occupations will evolve into a car chase, but rarely do the encounters feel like heroic triumphs considering the amount of time players spend in the “friendly neighborhood” category. Archaic, PlayStation 2-era side quests and missions are a relic of the past and would have been better left to memory. A new coat of paint does not quite excuse how stale the side mission design feels at times. Thankfully, Spider-Man’s dialogue is well-written enough and swinging is exciting enough to make even the mundane feel exciting, though ignoring the possibilities is hard.
What stings a bit more than occasionally boring collectibles, though, is the idea of a bit of unoriginality. Those who have watched gameplay of the hand-to-hand combat will be able to draw the apparent similarities between Spider-Man and Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham trilogy. Punch, punch, dodge when the indicator pops up above the protagonist’s head, rinse, and repeat. Shockingly enough, though entirely unoriginal, Spider-Man may have the upper hand in terms of moment-to-moment combat. Every ability and gadget—with the exception of suit abilities—are unique and useful different own ways. Something new is always thrown at the player, and if Spider-Man does not think on his feet and use every web combination in his arsenal, then failure is all the more likely. Although combat is fun, the combo system could have benefitted from a more concrete scoring system (such as Spectacular, Amazing, and Brave for different levels of success) to spice things up, but overall the package does more than deliver.
Where Spider-Man on PS4 falters is in its occasional glitches. Glitches can cause Spidey to fall through the floor, glide across the streets in a t-pose, or even lead to a mission failure. Technical issues that manage to pop up as often as they do in Spider-Man are especially disappointing considering the level of polish the game has in so many other areas. Adding to the short list of issues are sections of the main campaign that occasionally see players taking on the role of a side character for some hindered stealth sections. The change from breakneck pace is needed, sure, but these missions are nothing short of unbearable and suffer from leaving little room for players to be creative. Egregious examples will see players auto-failing a mission simply because they took a route that the game did not expect. These sections only crop up a few times, but are a major annoyance nonetheless. Though the game’s soundtrack is soaring and filled with goosebump-triggering violins, relatively little variety is present. The theme that plays as Spidey travels throughout the city gets the blood pumping the first 10 times it happens, but after 20-plus hours of play, one starts to wonder if Spider-Man should invest in an iPod.
At the end of the day, most of the problems one will find with Spider-Man are nitpicks only a super villain would deem detrimental. No other game exists that offers the same experience that Insomniac’s Spider-Man does. Even the Batman: Arkham series from which Spider-Man garnered many of its ideas from does not implement a system that constantly injects a sense of wonder like web swinging. Peter is learning to stand as an idol for New Yorkers, and Insomniac manages to put players right in the driver’s seat. The LA-based studio knew it had great power when it was given the reigns to one of Marvel’s biggest faces, and every ounce of effort poured into this project shows that. Spider-Man on PS4 is not just a love letter to everyone who has ever loved the wall-crawler as a superhero; the game is a love letter to everyone who has loved his games too.