Insomniac Games' Spider-Man is a superb example of superhero storytelling done right. Set to the backdrop of a beautifully recreated New York City, Spidey's latest outing will keep you glued to the screen for the duration of its twenty-hour-plus journey.
It's clear that Insomniac has drawn inspiration from the recent slew of successful Marvel films, keeping the story action-packed, while still telling a wonderfully grounded tale. It also manages to frequently shine the spotlight on Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, as well as the pressures associated with being Spider-Man.
By now most of us have a solid understanding of Spider-Man. We've seen him in movies, games, comics and just about every other form of media imaginable. The Spider-Man franchise has had moments of greatness but has also been mired by more than its fair share of stumbles. Thanks to the recent Spider-Man: Homecoming, and now Insomniac’s take on the beloved character, I think he's about to get a bunch of new fans.
I don’t want to go too much into the story or some of the bigger gameplay moments here. We can save that for another day. Insomniac has done a great job keeping the lid on the story and this was a major factor in the enjoyment I took from the game.
There are key moments throughout, where players take control of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. These sections change up the pace and offer a nice bit of breathing room between the big set pieces, and never feel like a chore.
Mary Jane's missions offer some tense stealth moments and her character escapes the cliched "love interest in danger" story beats. In Insomniac's universe, she's tough, independent and more than capable of getting herself in and out of dangerous situations without relying on Spider-Man.
Peter's sections also offer some different gameplay in the form of scientific tests he can run at his lab, similar to the old pipe puzzles from Bioshock. I loved these little brain teasers, but I can see some fans finding them a bit dull. Luckily, you're never forced to do too many of them or for too long.
The main villain, Mr Negative is one of my favourite bad guys in recent memory. Witnessing his motives and the impact his actions have on Peter and those around him was enthralling. It's a wonderfully human story with genuinely sad moments peppered throughout.
There's also a great amount of variety in the various boss fights you encounter. One moment you'll be desperately trying to escape a burning building, while another will have you taken into Spider-Man's mind for some trippy dream-like sequences
The core foundation of any good Spider-Man game is always going to be the swinging. I'm happy to say, it feels fast and fantastic here. Things can start a little clumsy, but stick with it and you'll be zipping around the city with style in no time. Major props need to be given to the animation team at Insomniac – watching Spider-Man hurtle through the city with his iconic mix of parkour and web-swinging never got old.
Fast travel locations are unlocked as you progress but I never used these throughout my forty-plus hours with the game. That's testament to just how amazing the traversal feels here. You'll sprint up skyscrapers, flinging yourself over the top with a web vault, following up with a boosted launch off of a water tower to a web swing off the top of a crane. Everything just clicks together beautifully.
I did occasionally have moments where I wanted to make more precise moves but ended up dropping off the edge of a building, but anyone who's played an Assassin's Creed or inFamous game will be familiar with the minor hiccups associated with parkour and traversal. These moments are few and far between and it's always easy to just zip right back up so they never really took me out of the game.
While swinging around New York you'll tune in to J. Jonah Jameson's amusing podcast, which often gave me a little chuckle. He'll reference previous missions and activities you’ve done, with admirably absurd rants, blaming Spider-Man for everything that goes wrong in the city.
Much like returning to a childhood holiday home, Insomniac's version of New York City is immediately recognizable. I've only ever visited in video games but I lost count of how many times a familiar landmark caught my eye and had me making my way over for a closer look. The detail throughout is incredible. The sun will peak over the top of skyscrapers with glorious god rays aplenty. I played Spider-Man on my stock PS4 and it still blew me away. In the lead up to my review, I did get access to a few hours on a PS4 Pro with a 4K screen, and I can attest that it takes things to the next level. Regardless of what you play on though, Spider-Man PS4 is an absolute joy to play and look at.
As you progress, you'll unlock a wealth of new moves, suits and gadgets, offering a huge selection of options with special perks accompanying the majority of the suits. These can be mixed and matched freely, so if like me, you just want to play in the punk outfit, but want an ability associated with a different suit, you can just swap it out. You'll also unlock suit mods which allows you to further tailor your Spider-Man to your preferred play style. With over twenty suits to unlock, there is no shortage options for changing up your look and abilities.
Combat is fast and brutal, sharing DNA with the crowd control combat of Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham series. Once you wrap your head and hands around the controls, you'll be dispatching foes with the ease of a seasoned luchador. During one particularly intense encounter I managed to string together a 130 hit combo, and it’s moments like this where the combat feels truly rewarding.
The mix of enemies and the variety of their attacks, weapons and tactics will have you combining nearly every move and gadget in Spidey’s arsenal to make it to the end. You’ll leap from enemy to enemy in seconds thanks to the web strike, launching hapless foes into the air with a huge uppercut, yank an enemy's gun out if his hand, only to throw it right back at him. It’s hard to believe that none of the bad guys you face end up seriously maimed or dead, with the occasional piece of combat resulting in a hapless foe being swing-kicked off the edge of a 60 story skyscraper. But much to my surprise, he does manage to attach webbing to every bad guy taking the plunge, preventing them from falling to their death. I think the real hero of this game is the unseen figure that fetches these criminals from the various walls and ceilings throughout the city.
In addition to straight-up combat, there's a number of stealth sections, and they're a ton of fun. Spider-Man’s mobility shines in the more vertically open areas with these levels. The grace period between “hmm is that something over there” and “HEY! IT’S THE SPIDER-MAN!” is very forgiving, allowing you to escape line of sight with a quick web zip. You can web grab unaware enemies from below or boost in for a one-hit stealth takedown. The AI during these stealth segments isn’t perfect, where disabled enemies should often be visible to the rest of his team... but for some reason, these guys rarely look up much higher than two floors. You would think that with the knowledge of a vigilante that can climb walls, someone would at least send out a staff email advising them to periodically glance upwards. It's by no means a game breaker though, as it's gleefully fun to take out a whole gang without a single alarm being raised.
Outside of the main story, there's more than enough to keep you busy, with a variety of side-missions, photos of landmarks, items to collect and side-characters to encounter. These are great initially but can start to feel a little repetitive after completing the same activity for the tenth time, but aren't too much of a grind if broken up by a good dose of combat and obligatory web-slinging.
The complaints I had with Spider-Man were minimal, and only stood out due to the quality apparent throughout the rest of the game – it's so stunningly polished and an absolute joy to play. The few shortcomings stand out more but never really impacted my overall enjoyment. Insomniac has set up a rich universe and has laid the foundation for what I hope is the next major superhero franchise in gaming. The end credits cliffhanger will have you hungry for an inevitable sequel – it's going to be another long and painful wait.
Marvel's Spider-Man is the cumulative result of a rich and beloved franchise being handled by a world-class studio in it's prime. I can't wait to jump back in and check out new game plus this Friday when it launches exclusively for the PlayStation 4.