When it comes to depictions in media, Spider-Man is potentially among the most storied characters. In less than 15 years, we’ve seen three different actors portray the spectacular Peter Parker in six live-action films. In the same amount of time, we’ve had well over a dozen Spider-Man games, with even more appearances by the webslinger in additional titles. And yet, somehow, despite the media saturation, hype for Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac is at an all-time high. Spider-Man’s staying power is fueled by his relatability as the everyman’s hero while at the same time espousing that unique fantasy of zipping through a crowded city. That feeling is exactly what Insomniac tapped into so perfectly, even if the Spidey-suit is on an average open-world frame.
Previous Spider-Man games have leaned on the character’s powers, but Marvel’s Spider-Man puts a lot more focus on the man behind the mask. Of course you’ll still be able to swing through the steel and concrete jungle of New York, putting the webs to criminal thugs and super-powered baddies, but certain portions will have you removing the suit in a more cinematic presentation of Peter Parker. You’ll get a lens into his relationships, hardships, and life beyond being Spider-Man. Even when he’s wearing the skintight costume, frequent phone calls have our hero constantly juggling between things like a mad villain’s plot to kill innocents and making sure that he gets his rent paid on time.
This version of Spider-Man doesn’t actually shoot webs out of his wrists, instead using tech to make wrist mounted web shooters that augment the abilities he got when he was bitten. Traditionalists (myself included) will argue that this is the correct Spider-Man. Peter Parker is a brilliant mind, and he puts that brilliance to good use in designing his suit and various pieces of tech that help him take down the criminal element in New York City. We’re witnessing a 23-year old Parker, a hero who has eight years of experience, successes, and failures caught in his webs. Taking a look at Peter later in his career as Spider-Man helps to increase focus on the work-life balance struggle that many of us can relate to.
In order to humanize Peter Parker, Insomniac allowed the characters around him to share in the spotlight. Playable Mary Jane sections in particular serve to augment our understanding of the complications that would arise in their relationship. Peter, with his super powers, is always looking to protect MJ, while she just wants to do all that she can to help, without feeling stuck trapped in some apartment behind a computer. Spider-Man films have explored the dynamic of Peter’s relationships with other characters before, but it’s rare that a game gets the same kind of deep treatment. Even Spidey’s pertinence to J. Jonah Jameson is explored through Jameson’s radio talk show that periodically plays throughout the game, an Alex Jones-inspired conspiracy rant-fest that adds some political levity to the world.
Spider-Man, or Peter Parkour?
Everyone knows Spider-Man as a lighthearted character, as light with his personality as he seems to be while zipping through the air. Peter is always willing to break the tension with a joke or two, even at the most inappropriate moments. As Peter has grown older and come face-to-face with the struggles of adulthood, so too has his humor matured, thought it’s still there in spades. In fact, as he ages out of his carefree teenage years, the contrast between humor and seriousness grows. Spider-Man’s always had that kind of polarity (his origin comes right alongside his uncle’s death, after all), but it’s explored to a stronger degree with a Peter Parker that has more responsibilities as an adult.
Even exploring all of the deep intricacies of Peter’s life and relationships, Insomniac knew that how it feels to actually be Spider-Man would be the most important part of their game. Long web short? They nailed it. Swinging from building to building needs to feel fast and fluid, but there also needs to be a lot of player control. Insomniac managed to balance these two things, making transitioning from web to leap to building and back to web again feel absolutely seamless. Everything is momentum based, so if you start off with a slow swing, you’ll need to web zip to speed up. A long scooping swing will be slower than quick releases at the bottom. The controls for movement are simple enough that they are easy to pick up and learn, but filled with enough complexities to allow for a specific control of exactly where you want to go, especially as you continue to unlock new skills.
Similarly, combat is free flowing and utilizes all of Spidey’s skills. It’s not just about repeatedly punching enemies in the face, but managing groups using webs, gadgets, and even swinging onto walls to avoid getting hit (with a pretty powerful counter attack). Fighting enemies can be compared to the Batman Arkham games, though ever since Arkham Asylum, many games have adopted the same style. Marvel’s Spider-Man does have its own flair, notably by using different button inputs and contextual elements within the environment. Even with adopting how other games handle combat, Insomniac did it in such a way that it really feels like a Spider-Man game.
Various activities scattered throughout the open-world will both help you learn how to utilize additional skills in combat and traversal, and challenge you to string them together in ways that only the greatest superheroes can. The open world in Spider-Man isn’t particularly innovative. In fact, much of it feels directly influenced by other open-world and superhero games. Most notably, I can easily draw a lot of direct parallels to how Arkham City and Arkham Knight handle their open worlds and the optional activities therein. There are no frivolous missions, collectibles, or activities. Most all of them make sense in some way (like collecting Peter’s old backpacks that he has webbed around the city over the years), rather than just being some random collectible. There are also comparisons to be made to the inFamous series, in how the city is structured for traversal.
Love the Comics? Love the Game
For comic fans, Marvel’s Spider-Man is full of Easter eggs, callbacks, and references to Spidey’s storied history. Collecting the webbed backpacks scattered around New York reveals pieces of Peter’s past, some that will evoke an “I know that reference!” moment for many fans. The various Spider-Suits that can be unlocked as you progress through the story each give a small window into the various versions of Spider-Man that have graced the page and screen over the years, from Spider-Man Noir to the Iron Spider featured in Avengers: Infinity War.
Some of this fan service creates a problem of balance and tone in the story, leaving the narrative to feel lopsided. It’s most noticeable when the open-world activities and side missions are available while extremely pressing story missions await. The final third of the game also feels heavily loaded with villains, boss fights, and big epic moments, while everything before that tends to be quite a bit slower paced comparatively. If looking for the closest comparison, the Batman Arkham series managed its menagerie of villains in a way that felt more balanced throughout the duration of its story. That’s not to say the Spider-Man can’t handle the villains. It does quite well, but when it comes to working secondary and third-string baddies into the mix, their presence feels more convenient than necessary.
Marvel’s Spider-Man doesn’t innovate on the open-world genre, but Insomniac doubled down on creating a spectacular Spider-Man fantasy. It simply feels good to travel through Peter Parker’s New York as the webslinger, even if whatever Spidey-suit you choose is covering a competent and entirely expected open-world formula. Filled with more emotion, heart, and humanity than we’ve seen in superhero adventures before, Insomniac doesn’t need to reinvent the open-world wheel. Marvel’s Spider-Man embraces the man behind the mask and gives us the best interactive Spider-Man experience to date.
Marvel’s Spider-Man PS4 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.