Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018)
Insomniac Games | Reviewed on PS4
Flawed, but cleaning up so well…
This review contains mild spoilers, though no major aspects of the story will be discussed.
I have to begin by giving props to Insomniac Studios for presenting a strong, unique take on the Spidey narrative for personal reasons – namely, for converting me, generally apathetic towards the superhero genre, into a massive Spider-Man fan. I’ve gone back to read the comics, re-watched all the movies, and even started the classic 1967 animated Spider-Man series (absolutely hilarious – highly recommended). With that out of the way, let’s talk the Playstation 4 version, Marvel’s Spider-Man.
This game’s narrative is presented with perfect timing – Peter Parker has already been Spider-Maning for years, and they waste no time on the origin story we’ve all seen in multiple iterations of the franchise. Peter displays a sense of confidence and comfort in his abilities that makes playing much more enjoyable; being dropped in the middle of his life, in media res, with the characters and story being slowly revealed to the players, was a smart choice. This version of Peter Parker, already confident as Spider-Man, is muddling (not so confidently) through life as a young adult; when we see Peter down on his luck, or messing up with Mary Jane, it encapsulates his ‘everyman’ persona perfectly. It makes him heart-wrenchingly relatable – as Peter Parker should be. He was a genuine joy to play as. I can easily say that this version of Peter Parker (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal) is my favourite by leagues. In a lot of Spider-Man media I have the issue of feeling like the writers dropped the ball on either the Peter Parker aspect (i.e. Andrew Garfield in Amazing Spider-Man) or the over-the-top personality of Spider-Man (i.e. Tobey Maguire in Sam Raimi’s film versions). Insomniac however, absolutely nails both – we see Peter’s kind-hearted nature in everything from interacting with the residents of the F.E.A.S.T homeless shelter, to his interactions with Miles and Aunt May. We also see Spider-Man’s quintessential lighthearted approach to fighting crime, complete with signature (and often genuinely hilarious) quips. His desire to offer a helping hand (even to the supervillains) is showcased in countless scenes, and makes him all the more likeable.
Mary Jane is also given a lot more screen time in this version of Spider-Man – now an investigative reporter at the Daily Bugle, her character is much more action-oriented than ever before. The fact that she contributes to pushing the narrative forward is a refreshing change from her usual sidelined role (I’m looking at you Sam Raimi). Otto Ocatavius’ mentor relationship to Peter (father figure-esque) and the genuine bond they’re shown to have makes his descent into villainy all the more heartbreaking when it inevitably happens. You’ll even find yourself invested in the more minor characters, like Aunt May, Yuri Watanabe, and Miles Morales – while having comparably less screen time, they are well integrated and built up to be important elements of the story. I also have to say – I absolutely loved the way that they incorporated J. Jonah Jameson. I feel like this character never gets enough love, and I enjoyed every single second of his ridiculous conspiracy theory radio show/podcast (hats off to his voice actor). it felt modern and relevant. His tendency to comment on my recent exploits – after all, the people DESERVE to know why Spider-Man is swinging through clouds of smog – were always timely and hilarious. Peter’s banter with police captain Yuri was absolutely priceless. Please never retire, Spider-Cop. His mentor relationship toward new-comer Miles Morales was also built up throughout the story, and was one of the emotional highlights of the game.
Even the villains we’ve come to know and love (love to hate, anyway) are present. Norman Osborn, while remaining solidly in the background for the majority of the narrative, still comes across as both compelling and thoroughly unlikable. His post-credits appearance was possibly my favourite scene with his character. My only complaint in terms of character writing would have to be arguably one of the most important (yet weakest) villains: Martin Li. Set up to be the “main” supervillain in the game, he’s given relatively little attention, buildup-wise. We’re shown the incredibly generous, philanthropic side to him, and then abruptly introduced to him as Mister Negative – terrorist, crime lord, and villain extraordinaire. In my ever so humble opinion, they did a poor job of portraying what I believe should have been the Dr. Jekyll/Mister Hyde aspect to his character. It was hard to consolidate the two versions of him that the narrative presented, without giving any sense of how that leap should be made. It’s dismissive of his personality shift, and missed a big opportunity to showcase his internal struggle, and how that relates to his powers (which were also under-explained, but to a less critical extent). The brief scene that showcases his “origin” just didn’t cut it for me. Other villains, while fairly cookie cutter (though mostly comic book loyal) were equally fun to see and fight, with Scorpion and Rhino being my personal favourite. Overall, the well-fleshed out characters truly support what is otherwise a fairly stock superhero story. You know, the city is in trouble, crime is rampant, men in spandex and flashy suits are wreaking havoc. The usual. Truthfully, the game’s narrative is not especially strong in and of itself – it feels scattered at times when it’s frequently trying to juggle multiple villains or story threads. On my second playthrough, I was also more aware of the few “story” missions that exist only to set-up a myriad of side quests (i.e. bases or the crime towers). However, the main cast, along with the strong side characters and cast of iconic villains – highlights being Wilson Fisk and Doctor Octopus – prop up an otherwise fairly paint-by-numbers narrative.
Does whatever a spider can?
Now, how does Spider-Man play? Remarkably well, actually. The traversal, or web-swinging really, is the true cherry on top of this title. I cannot praise the swinging mechanics enough. The speed you can build up, the seamless transitions, from swinging to running up the side of a building are a joy to see and experience. The specific animations for running up a fire escape on the outside of a building, or sliding through a concrete pipe are remarkable. Trust me when I say people are not exaggerating when they are talking about being content to swing through this game for hours on end. Though it can be a bit difficult to get the hang of initially, you’ll soon be swinging and launching from New York City rooftops like – well, like you’re Spider-Man. There’s a certain rhythm to the traversal that will click after spending a few hours perfecting the timing of button-presses and releases that makes this system feel fluid and extremely satisfying. Ironically, the worst part of the whole thing is the slow-moving, wall-crawling – it feels a bit unresponsive and clunky, but as you won’t be using it very often, it isn’t as glaringly amiss as it could be. Overall, Spider-Man’s movement in this game is absolutely spot on – his perching animations, swinging, flips and free-running are all absolutely stunning. Fast-travel is introduced about halfway through the game, but you’ll literally never want to use it (though I recommend you do at least once, as the animations of Spidey on the subway are pure gold). This perfection of movement also extends to the combat system, where Spider-Man’s speed, agility, and unique abilities are on full display.
I’m told that the basics of the combat are heavily influenced by the Batman Arkham games, but as I haven’t played any of those titles (don’t yell at me) I can’t comment. What I can say is that the combat in this game is solid, and while fairly simplistic, offers a surprising amount of room for different approaches. Between the suit powers (most with a unique ability), suit mods, and gadgets (like electric webs and trip mines), you’re able to mix-and-match your version of Spider-Man until you find your favourites. For instance, I concentrated on suit mods that favoured building Focus (a necessary mechanic for healing and instant finishing moves) and regenerating gadgets quickly, which helped immensely during lengthy fight sequences. You could even focus more on defense (reducing different types of damage and increasing healing gained from Focus) if you’ve a tendency to simply square-mash your way through combat. Either way, you’re free to approach combat from a multitude of different angles, giving an otherwise simple system a decent amount of depth.
Another small element to the gameplay are the few stealth based sections where you play as other characters – I didn’t mind these segments, as they were generally a nice change of pace and held (for me at least) a high degree of tension. Mechanically there isn’t much to it – each character can utilize a gadget of some sort in order to make their way through a heavily-guarded area, but otherwise, they’re fairly run-of-the-mill, distract the baddie and sneak past. Stealthing as Spider-Man has marginally more variety, with “Perch” takedowns, gadgets like the trip mines, and instant one-shots if an enemy is unaware of your presence. Nothing revolutionary, but not unfun either.
New York, New York
In a lot of ways, New York City is just as critical to a Spider-Man story as creative supervillains, or well-timed quips. I’d say Insomniac did a fairly good job of bringing the big apple to life – certainly much better than any Spider-Man game in the past (low bar, to be fair). Everywhere you go, you can find people going about their daily activities, making the city seem alive; people playing instruments, picnickers in Central Park, and preachers on street corners are just a few examples of what you might see while swinging or walking around. Despite the relatively small map (Sorry Jersey, you’re out of our jurisdiction) compared to the new trend of ridiculously large worlds, I never felt restricted. There was always something to see, or something to do. Selfies to take, people to finger-gun at while strolling down the boulevard. Top shelf stuff, really.
I will say, the closer you look, the more aware you are of the façade. They’ve definitely cut some noticeable corners – I mean, the NPC’s look almost, very nearly like human beings. They also would not look out of place in a Rockstar game from 2010. Landing on the ground from any kind of height, for some reason, causes every person within a 60 foot radius to inexplicably drop to the ground and shriek. Another one that really bothered me was when you first enter the F.E.A.S.T centre – there are a pair of NPC’s playing chess, and you can even stop and chat with them. When you enter the shelter the next time, and even the time after that (which occurs in the middle of the night) they’re still playing chess. They’re always playing chess. If you talk to them in one of these instances, they will literally comment on the fact that they’re always playing chess. There are also the comments Peter occasionally makes, about how every thug he fights is inexplicably wearing the same outfit. It’s moments like these that the world starts to fray around the edges. You’re looking behind the curtain, realizing there is no Oz, and seeing the developers poking fun at old video game tropes. I’m still not sure if it works.
There were also some minor visual glitches/hiccups, like floating cars, or smoking chairs, but nothing game breaking. I won’t criticize Insomniac too much here, as these instances are only there if you’re really looking hard, and the amount of detail they’ve included in every street sign, and unique piece of graffiti should not be understated. The world they’ve created is truly something to marvel at.
Pigeons and pizzas
Now we come to the part of the review where I have to dedicate an entire section to the weakest part of the game: the side content. Sigh.
See, a lot of people would (and still do) make of Spider-Man 2 (2004) for those silly missions where you had to deliver pizzas and listen to that horrendously corny pizza parlour music. I would love to say that Insomniac’s version of the game has improved in leaps and bounds, but it really… hasn’t. To be fair, not ALL side content in this game is awful – I found the research stations and the Taskmaster challenges to be fairly enjoyable (except for those drone challenges – seriously, I nearly had an aneurysm getting ‘gold’ on that Financial District run). Even some of the dedicated side quests were genuinely good – my favourites included ‘Spider-Men’ and the Tombstone series – any quest that managed to include or reference another minor Spider-Man villain (my boy Chameleon!) were pretty solid. But there were many that simply weren’t particularly interesting, or otherwise did nothing to contribute to character development or bolster the narrative. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the quests by themselves were not always well conceived or executed. Like the numerous ‘Missing Students’ quests – with relation to the Mister Negative storyline – got extremely tiresome and repetitive. Like, guess what Philip? I don’t care that a bunch of your college mates are missing. I’ve already found 50 of them. Go to class and have a nap like everyone else.
A lot of side content is busy work – taking photos of landmarks, collecting backpacks (I’m okay with the backpack ones, as you get a small piece of Peter/Spider-Man’s history for each one that you collect) or activating map towers. The ‘hacking’ mini-games are Bioshock-esque. Take from that what you will. I did like the enemy bases (fighting waves of enemies) as I enjoyed the combat in the game enough to want to seek them out and complete them. There is also the infamous ‘hey-catch-these-pigeons’ side-quest. I can completely accept that Peter Parker would be willing to help a guy out by catching his runaway (flyaway?) pigeons, but from a gameplay perspective it was a bit silly. Though much of the side content feels weak, I can’t honestly say that I didn’t enjoy doing it – with the traversal and combat of the game being so strong, I went out of my way to see and do everything I could (100% of it, in fact). So despite all my gripes, it remains that I simply had a lot of fun doing whatever the game laid out for me – derivative or not.
I struggled a bit with the rating for this game – I feel like ‘Good’ might be more accurate given some of the weaknesses, but I just don’t feel like that encompasses the amount of enjoyment I’ve gotten out of this game. This game is just sheer, unabashed fun. Also, I truly believe this title has succeeded in what it set out to do: create an engaging and immersive Spider-Man experience. I blazed through this game in about a week – I was getting up early, and staying up late to play. Despite its shortcomings in side-content, occasionally undercooked villains, and New York City feeling slightly off at points, this is a phenomenal game. Easily the best Spider-Man title to date, Insomniac Studios has nailed what, in my opinion, are the most critical elements of any Spider-Man narrative. Most importantly, the struggle that Peter Parker experiences trying to find a balance between himself and his identity as Spider-Man. We’re right there with him every time his personal life careens off the rails, or a new crisis for the iconic hero crops up. Though the story took some risks in its dark turns, showcasing some truly hard-hitting moments, the characters are really what give this particular tale its resonance. I have to say, this game is Great for all of the things it does well, and what I perceived to be a great deal of loyalty to the Spider-Man universe. I’ve read that the Insomniac team are all huge fans of the superhero, and it really shows. I can’t wait to play the next one.