Marvel’s Spider-Man Review: The Ultimate Spidey Experience?

I have a long history with everyone’s favourite wall-crawler. Spider-Man has always been my favourite superhero. From his incredible 90s cartoon to the insanely influential Raimi trilogy (maybe not the third one), Spider-Man has been a massive part of my life. But there is one area in which Spider-Man has never really hit the mark for me; video games.

Now many people will argue, as will I myself, that Spider-Man 2 for the PS2, original Xbox and Gamecube was the web-warrior’s best outing, bringing innovative combat mechanics and web-swinging that would be copied for years to come. But, holding the game up to a modern light reveals many cracks in its once perfect surface. There was very little side content, the voice acting was often awkward and the city, despite its large and open area, seemed somewhat lacking in depth and character. There was only so many times you could rescue that kid’s balloon…

And since then there has never really been a game featuring the web-head that has gained both critical and audience acclaim. Despite some hits down the road, namely Web of Shadows, Ultimate Spider-Man and Shattered Dimensions, Spidey has never really had his time to shine, he has never had his Arkham Asylum. Until now.

A Truly Spectacular Adventure

Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man for the PS4 is one of the best games I have played this year. Titles like God of War, Uncharted 4, The Last of Us and now Spider-Man all go to show just how committed Sony are to giving players stellar first-party exclusives. The story of Marvel’s Spider-Man follows an older Peter Parker who has spent the last eight years being Spider-Man. Immediately from the opening cinematic we get the feeling that this is a fresh, yet similar take on the wall-crawler, newspaper clippings alluding to the many supervillains he has taken down over the years and post-it notes scattered all across his room suggest the existence of a larger Marvel universe.

Insomniac manages to perfectly capture the very essence of both Peter Parker and Spider-Man and constantly reminds the player that the two are linked in every way. While some missions see you go toe-to-toe with some of the best in the hero’s rogues gallery, other main missions see you play as Peter Parker and allow you to explore this bright and vivid world that Insomniac and Marvel have created from a perspective that has rarely been explored in gaming. The variety and perfectly paced nature of the main missions gives players a very definite connection to the title’s lead role.

Peter Parker from the opening cutscene
A perfect portrayal of Peter Parker by Yuri Lowenthal

Throughout the course of the story players will naturally become increasingly attached to the characters within the game and become more invested in their relationships as they learn more about their motivations and history. Thanks in no small part to the superb script-writing and very talented voice-work, the characters within Spider-Man spring to life. Yuri Lowenthal should be highly praised for his excellent portrayal of both Parker and Spider-Man. He perfectly balances the quippy nature of Spider-Man with the more responsible and realistic voice of Peter Parker. After a well-paced and thrilling 20 hour campaign, players are sure to leave the game feeling as though they have been emotionally sucker-punched in the face but in a way that is both surprisingly beautiful and thought-provoking, demonstrating that Insomniac have a very high level of respect for their playerbase.

Now for the question that was on everyone’s mind months before release; how is the web-swinging? Well, to put it bluntly, phenomenal. Insomniac have managed to take the physics-based system of Spider-Man 2 and improve upon it, making it more animation-based. Swinging is now easier than ever allowing newcomers to feel just like Spider-Man within seconds of booting up the game. Simply press R2 and release. The traversal system never ceases to amaze me and I constantly find myself logging back in to play “just another” 20 minutes even after I have fully completed the story, side content and trophies.

The combat system of the game follows the same structure of many third person action games in recent memory, namely that of the Arkham series. However, Spider-Man takes this system and adds its own unique spin on things. There is a much greater focus on aerial combat within Spider-Man, it will not be enough to simply press square repeatedly, especially not on the hardest difficulty. Gadgets can also be used effectively in combat and each one has its own unique use, although I found myself rarely using gadgets such as the suspension matrix or the spider-drone as they didn’t gel well with my particular combat style.

Both the web-swinging and the combat evolve in unique ways over the course of the game thanks to the inclusion of several skill trees. The three skill trees in the game offer various paths that allow for improved swinging and combat, increasing speed, agility, health and offering new abilities. The fairly expansive progression system provides a great incentive to complete the side content within the game as each type of side mission rewards the player with unique tokens that they can use to upgrade their own Spider-Man.

One of the most striking things about Spider-Man is its fully fleshed out world. Insomniac Games clearly have a strong love for Marvel and one of its flagship characters. From the many references to the comics littered throughout Peter’s backpacks to the many unique and iconic suits that can be unlocked in the game, Insomniac have shown that they have a passion for this character, and the quality of the game reflects that. Manhattan is one their biggest achievements. NPCs roam around freely, cars get stuck in traffic jams, police respond to crimes. The whole city feels alive and acts as the perfect backdrop to Spider-Man’s web-swinging antics.

It has to be mentioned that this is definitely one of the best looking games currently available on console. Even playing on the base PS4 I still cannot get over just how amazing Manhattan looks during sunset. I still find myself swinging high into the sky and accessing the neat photo mode just so I can capture the sheer beauty of the game one more time. I cannot adequately express how truly happy it makes me to see this much love, care and money go into a project that has been made for both fans and casual players alike.

Spidey swinging at sunset
Swinging through Manhattan at sunset

Spider-Man is not a perfect game though. While Insomniac have nailed the feel, look and essence of the character, there is still something lacking in the practical gameplay department. The main missions of the game are superb and perfectly demonstrate how a Spider-Man story should be told and presented, but where this game falls flat is in its side content. Generally speaking, every side mission boils down to a simple fetch quest. Go here, speak to the NPC, fetch the item and return. Some of these side missions are presented in a way that almost makes you forget their repetitive mechanics, particularly the Black Cat and Taskmaster missions. But many of these side quests do very little to hide their lack of gameplay.

Despite the repetitive nature of the side content it is still a welcome addition to the game, being completely optional and not necessary in order for the player to progress through the main story.  I found myself happily assisting the lively citizens of Manhattan after the main story was complete and I still yearned for more time as the web-slinger.

Another issue that I had with Spider-Man was its severe lack of villains both at the start of the game and at the end. Despite those seen in the marketing for the game there is very rarely any interaction with any characters from Spidey’s vast rogues gallery. Similarly, the boss fights are few and far between and range in quality quite a bit. There is a definite feeling, on completion of the game and its side content, that many villains have been saved for use in future DLCs or sequels. Fortunately, I personally have no problem spending more money on this fantastic game but I can completely understand why some may be wary of this and unwilling to spend more than the already fairly hefty price of entry.

When all is said and done, Marvel’s Spider-Man is a truly amazing experience which manages to give both long-time fans like myself and casual players a game in which they do truly feel like the wall-crawler himself. Spider-Man manages to hide its several shortcomings by presenting them in a fun and vibrant way, giving players a well-rounded and well-paced adventure that will not be forgotten anytime soon. Here’s to that inevitable sequel that they are no doubt already working hard on. I look forward to another three years of maddening anticipation.

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