Marvel’s Spider-Man, at its best, is an arach-utopia for webheads of all stripes, from comic nerds to Raimi diehards to MCU aficionados. The expansive playground of a (mostly) fully realized Manhattan is a thrill to explore, and Insomniac’s production values on things like voice acting, music, and high-quality visuals are unsurpassed in the superhero genre. But despite its level of overall polish, the game isn’t without a few hang-ups, if you’ll excuse one more Spider-pun (who am I kidding? This review will contain many more Spider-puns. Brace yourself).
Beginning with the good, the traversal mechanics in Spider-Man are deeply satisfying. The wish fulfillment of getting from Harlem down to the Financial District in a matter of minutes isn’t something I was aware that I needed so badly before playing this game. Moving from point A to point B through a series of swings, jumps, web zips, wall-runs and parkour feels great. After a fairly quick learning curve, the controls for the impressive, high-speed acrobatics become second nature. It may very well be the best mobility scheme ever in an open-world game. On a side note, it’s ironic given the speed and intuitiveness of Peter Parker’s movement that the game’s “fast travel” is the MTA subway system.
Things can sometimes start to get a little tangled (Spider-pun!) when Peter lands at his destination and gets into the game’s other mechanics. Combat, aside from web-slinging, is Spider-Man’s main activity. Thinning out crowds of bad guys with stealthy takedowns is fun, and fighting, when everything’s working as intended, is fast, fluid, and exhilarating. On occasion though, Spidey’s mobility, combined with the lack of a reliable targeting system, can result in an experience that feels flighty, and the camera can have a hard time keeping up with the action.
There’s also the issue of the typical open-world RPG power curve. For the first few levels, combat controls feel overwhelming in their variety yet somehow also sort of limited. Things open up nicely once Spidey has some new abilities and gadgets under his belt and the player has had a chance to breathe, but the first hour or two of tutorial after tutorial is a bit of scramble, albeit an action-packed, adrenaline-filled one.
The cinematic scope of the combat is also something of a double-edged sword. Action set pieces contribute to the spectacular feeling that Spider-Man is a playable version of a big-budget MCU movie, but reliance on contextual button cues and quick time events makes some encounters more frustrating than they need to be. Even with the game’s tentpole moments so impressively choreographed for visual spectacle, Spider-Man is at its best when it gives control back to the player to freely explore the open world.
Like any respectable open-world title, Spider-Man is packed with collectibles, side missions, and special challenges, but unlike many games in the genre, those secondary objectives never feel like chores to accomplish. It’s such a pleasure just to move around the city that mundane tasks like collecting backpacks and chasing pigeons would be rewarding even if they didn’t give out the resources necessary for upgrading gadgets and purchasing new suits with associated suit powers.
Plotwise, the game is a cavalcade of Spider-friends and foes: Yuri Watanabe, Silver Sable, Otto Octavius, Norman Osborn, Mary Jane Watson, Aunt May, Miles Morales, and more feature prominently in the main story, while other Marvel mainstays like Black Cat and Taskmaster are central to some of the side missions liberally littered across the game’s version of NYC.
Beginning several years into Parker’s tenure as Spider-Man, the plot kicks off with Pete rushing to take down Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of NYC’s organized crime, who he believes is his last great nemesis. At the start, a significant fraction of Spidey’s usual gallery of villains are already safely incarcerated at the Marvel universe’s supermax prison, the RAFT. Most of the front half of the story is devoted to building up a lesser-known villain, Mister Negative, with a host of other more mainstream baddies looming in the background. At a certain turning point, however, a few foes from Spider-Man’s past return and, along with some new actors, form an incarnation of the Sinister Six.
Spider-Man himself is well written throughout, and his snarky jokes and references feel on point for the character. He’s also, as he should be, refreshingly good and wholesome, despite a bit of moral cognitive dissonance that creeps in (Spider-pun?).
Any superhero story will feature its share of extra-judicial justice, but Spider-Man seems to miss some of the irony in calling out the excesses of an overenthusiastic mercenary police force just moments after Spider-Man himself has been hacking into corporate-run city-wide surveillance towers, conducting B&Es to perform searches and seizures, and kicking drug offenders off skyscrapers. It all gets a little sticky (Spider-pun!) if you allow yourself to think about it too hard, but the game, for the most part, encourages you not to, and that’s okay.
Speaking of issues with surveillance, Spider-Man’s mandatory, non-superpowered stealth missions are doubtless the weakest part of the experience. One or two slower-paced segments would have made sense. After three, four, five, six or more of these laborious levels starring MJ and another non-super character, the game’s momentum slows down to a crawl (Spider-pun!). The amount of time this Spider-Man game forces the player to play as not-Spider-Man is a little baffling.
These issues aren’t enough to pull the overall experience down though. When the explosive action sequences work, they really work, and the strength of the excellent swinging and on-the-fly crime fighting is compelling even in spots where the pace of the main storyline drags. Fans of any iteration of the Spider-Man franchise will feel their spider senses tingling throughout, and any PS4 owner who enjoys exploration and collectibles will find just as much to get excited about. B+