I cannot stop thinking about Marvel’s Spider-Man. From zipping through the sun-drenched streets of New York City to the epic boss encounters, to the incredible score, this game has burrowed its way into my consciousness like few games ever have. Spider-Man has a long history with video games, but precious few have ever been decent let alone truly great. The best of the lot is Spider-Man 2, not because the 2004 movie licensed tie-in it was a particular achievement in game design, but because that game best captured the elusive sensation of inhabiting the role of Spider-Man within an open-world New York City. Until now. There are elements about this new Spider-Man game that I can and probably should complain about. But when measured up against the mountainous list of things this game gets right, all those issues seem like remote molehills, because developer Insomniac’s take on this superhero cares about one thing and one thing alone: making the fantasy of Spider-Man tangible.
Becoming a Hero
The most surprising thing about Marvel’s Spider-Man is its gripping, thoughtful, and occasionally somber story. This is not a narrative simply about Spider-Man beating up a succession of bad guys. A number of the villains you face off against receive extensive periods of screen time, allowing the narrative to flesh out their characters with believable emotions and motivations. Their actions aren’t given justifications per se, but the game doesn’t simply cast them as evil people doing evil things. In some cases, they are even very good people doing very evil things. That level of complexity and maturity gives the emotional moments when Spider-Man confronts these characters a profoundly human resonance.
Every great Spider-Man story is also a great Peter Parker story, and Insomniac demonstrates a deep understanding of this. Peter’s scientific mind is emphasized in his day job at a startup lab, his relationship with Mary Jane is complicated (as always), but still manages to feel like a fresh take on the well-worn pairing, and Peter consistently struggles to balance his super-heroics with the difficulties of living in the modern world. Monthly rent and misunderstood text messages are just as threatening as criminal organizations and electric-powered supervillains.
Yet it is Peter’s inherent goodness, his desire to always do what is right, even when it is the most difficult and painful thing to do, that anchors this story and truly elevates it to a tier all its own. The final few moments of the game manage to somehow feel equal parts triumphant, soul-crushing, and inspiring, and each of those emotions is 100% earned. Being Spider-Man is a dangerous, heartbreaking, and burdensome responsibility, and Marvel’s Spider-Man makes you feel every bit of it.
Anything a Spider Can
If there is one word to describe how Marvel’s Spider-Man plays it’s fluid. Insomniac has fine-tuned the gameplay to encourage the gaining and maintaining of speed, giving the game a rewarding sense of momentum that bleeds into its every facet. Controlling Spider-Man in just about any situation is a breeze. I say “just about” because you will run into the occasional awkward interaction with the environment and, while running along the sides of buildings is smooth as silk, crawling on walls often feels janky and imprecise. It just goes to show that this game is designed to be played at a brisk pace.
Nowhere is this momentum better showcased than in the web-slinging. Insomniac nailed the sensation of acrobatically tumbling through the air by emphasizing the player’s positioning and anticipation of where they want to go next rather than their ability to press a sequence of buttons in the correct order. It’s the kind of traversal that seems daunting at first, but quickly becomes second nature and it is supremely satisfying to simply set the time of day to whatever fits your particular mood, pick your favorite Spider-Man suit, and just aimlessly leap from building to building.
Combat and stealth are a bit less successful. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with their implementation, in fact, they are both highly enjoyable and only get better as players unlock new skills and gadgets, but they aren’t top of the class either. Mechanically there’s an eerie sense of familiarity with a certain other superhero game franchise, yet Spider-Man’s take on the mechanics manages to feel unique and appropriate enough that you won’t think about it very often if at all. There are also a few stealth missions where you play as characters other than Spider-Man, and, while they sacrifice the breathless speed that the rest of the game so successfully maintains, their additions to the overarching narrative and differing pace ultimately make them a worthwhile inclusion.
However, it is the cinematic encounters with Spider-Man’s nemeses that are the game’s true highlights. While they do boil down to fairly simple pattern recognition and the occasional quick time event, their build-up and sense of scale meant that I never felt so distracted that I lost my sense of immersion. They feel exactly like you would imagine them to as if the battles came straight out of the pages of a Spider-Man comic.
Aside from the main story, there is plenty to do in Marvel’s Spider-Man’s virtual New York City. While at first glance the side missions and occasionally tedious extra activities may seem like dated game design, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Exploring the environment to find Spidey’s long-lost backpacks, taking photographs of landmarks, or thwarting simple crimes, really reminds players of the “friendly neighborhood” aspect of Spider-Man’s character. Performing these activities can fit just about anywhere in the story without taking away from the narrative momentum which is what makes them so successful. The important thing is that they each feedback into Peter or Spider-Man’s character in a very clear way so you never feel like you’re betraying the character’s principles. Rather, it’s as if you’re developing your own Spider-Man as you play, deeply connecting players to the virtual character without overt appeals to their emotions.
This connection is aided by sound design that makes New York feel alive and excellent voice acting from the whole cast, from Peter to MJ and Aunt May to JJ Jameson (who features in an always entertaining podcast that you can listen to while swinging through the open world). The music that accompanies your actions always feels appropriate, swelling to underscore a heroic moment or fading away as you perch atop the Empire State Building. The presentation is simply beautiful, especially Spidey’s graceful animations that make you believe a person could really accomplish the impossible feats performed on screen. Nothing feels out of place or unintentional. Everything fits, like dropping a jigsaw puzzle out of the box and the pieces just so happening to fall into perfect order. It’s a total and complete picture of Spider-Man. And the best part is you can touch it.
With Great Power
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Marvel’s Spider-Man. I thought it would be a fun game with a passable story, but I never expected it to consume me as much as it did. It isn’t a perfect game and it doesn’t really innovate, but it accomplishes everything that the game sets out to do and does so with flying colors. Up to this point, superhero games haven’t really focused on investing the player in the depths of a hero’s character, frequently using them as an archetypal jumping off point, rather than a dynamic character who grows and changes. Insomniac uses Spider-Man’s inherent relatability to draw players in and make both the world and character feel truly alive. It’s an excellent foundation for this fledgling series and a promising sign of things to come for the industry as a whole.