Thwip, thwip, boom!
Initially unveiled at Sony’s E3 2016 press conference to a deafening round of applause (Seriously, I think my ears are still ringing), the announcement of a new Spider-Man game being developed by the immensely talented devs at Insomniac overshadowed the news that Resident Evil and Kratos were both returning. Heavily rumoured for months to be a project being taken on by Sucker Punch, the pairing of the minds behind Sunset Overdrive and the most popular superhero in the world suddenly made a ton of sense. Swing forward two years and we’re on the eve of the launch of possibly the most anticipated title of the year.
The first thing that strikes you with the opening of Spider-Man (or, to give it the full title, “Marvel’s Spider-Man”) is that this mercifully isn’t an origins story. Much like Rocksteady’s first entry in the Batman Arkham series, this throws you into a world where Spidey is a known quantity, which immediately opens up a ton of fun gameplay. Within around 5 minutes of starting the game up, you’re already swinging your way through the streets of New York and narrowly avoiding the heads of awe-struck onlookers in an environment that looks unbelievably pretty.
Ah yes, the looks. The subject of many a complaint over the past few weeks, and the subject of more “downgrade” accusations than a cheap-seats ticket for a stadium sized rock concert. Honestly, if anyone can play through this game and think it looks bad, I’d like to peer inside their brain and try to work out just what they were expecting. I am genuinely scratching my head to find any flaws in the graphical presentation of this game. The sense of speed you get while thwipping your body through narrow side streets, the animations on Spider-Man’s movements, the way the water reflects off the pu… Actually, let’s not talk about that last bit. Puddle controversy aside (which, by the way is a complete non-issue), the game is added straight into the “How the hell did they do THIS?!” folder in the PS4’s library. Even on the base system, the game looks incredible, and during my entire playthrough on the PS4 Pro, I only noticed a couple of very minor frame drops during particulary intense combat scenes. I seem to be saying this more and more, but I am continually impressed at the level of graphical fidelity that’s being pushed out from the current generation of games, and whether you’re playing it on a 1080p TV or a bells-and-whistles 4K HDR set, this game is one that will show off the very best of what Sony’s box of tricks has to offer.
Narratively, Spider-Man is a game that will get people talking. Without going into spoiler territory, there’s enough on the table here to satisfy the most ardent Spidey nut, without going overboard. Peter Parker’s arc is fantastic, with a desire to do the right thing suitably punctuated with awkward relationship repairing scenes with MJ. There are enough villains in here to shake a stick at, and unlike the disastrous third movie adaptation, enough time is given to each one to flesh them out enough to where beating them feels like a substantial achievement. Mr Negative is a character that’s never previously really been thought of much outside of the hardcore fanbase, but the tale of Martin Li’s descent into evil is one that is told with the grace and delicacy that you’d normally associate with his friendly neighbourhood nemesis floating through the streets. It’s clear that the development team have put in a ton of effort to make sure that this is as authentic a Spider-Man story as you can expect, with enough cameos, subtle hints and collectibles to keep people engaged long after the final fight is over, without ever stretching to the lengths of the Arkham games. There’s so much to talk about with the story in the game that I don’t want to spoil things for anyone, but it’s safe to say that just when things look like they might be starting to wrap up nicely, something (and indeed, someone) comes along to spoil the party, making the third act one of the most enjoyably chaotic passages of gameplay that I think I’ve ever experienced.
Everyone wanted the traversal to feel like the PS2 games, and Insomniac have absolutely nailed it
In fact, “Enjoyably chaotic” is a phrase that could really sum up the majority of the combat in Spider-Man. Cribbing from the Arkham series, the combo-heavy use of the square button, coupled with an array of gadgets that wouldn’t look out of place in an Apple store, leads to some frustration in the early going, but once you’ve got your head round it, it feels free-flowing enough to be a great deal of fun. Once you’ve worked your way through some of the upgrade tree, you’ll find yourself launching enemies into the air, swinging to kick them off a building, pulling another enemy up and firing web gadgets all over the place before you know you’re doing it. My only real criticism of the combat is that, while it does pull from the Arkham series, it rarely feels like stringing together a combo gives you much reward outside of a couple of specific challenges in certain areas, and you can miss a few punches without ending the streak. It’s sometimes a bit strange, and can see Spidey flipping over and punching the air while the combo meter doesn’t drop at all.
The other downside that I really want to draw attention to is the existence of instant fail stealth sequences. These are often played out with other characters, as they don’t have the requisite skills that our main protagonist has. They can be a little bit frustrating, particularly ones later on in the game when you’re running from a villain and knock over a cardboard box which alerts them to your presence. Fortunately, these are well checkpointed and it’s rare that you’re pushed too far back in the sequence. Still, it’s 2018, and the inclusion of insta-fail sequences (despite them being few and far between) is an odd choice, particularly for a game that should be focused on action and traversal.
Said traversal is, thankfully, spectacular. Everyone wanted this game to feel like Spider-man 2 did on the PS2, and Insomniac have absolutely nailed it. This game has the most fun swinging since those parties that your parents never dared tell you about where everyone puts their keys in a bowl. Momentum is carried through at just the right level, with the option to propel yourself forward if you’re feeling a bit sluggish, as well as dive down from the highest of heights (yes, the Avengers tower is in the game) to pick up speed as you do whatever a spider can through the streets of New York. Streets that, as the game progresses, get more and more dangerous with the addition of people that are on the hunt for that dastardly Spider-Man.
I could go on for hours about so much more. How J Jonah Jameson’s frequent podcast episodes pop up had me howling with laughter. About the level of detail that’s gone into a multitude of Spider-Suits. About the delightfully absurd side quest that has you chasing after pigeons. About… Ah, about everything, really. But most importantly, about how a change in lighting and the relocation of a puddle didn’t affect my enjoyment of one of the year’s best games.