Spider-Man is hands-down my favorite superhero. Sure, Superman is virtually a god, Batman is a goth with cool gadgets and Iron Man has more swagger than a billion Beyonces. But Spider-Man has always been my go-to hero.
So when Insomniac Games announced it was working on an original “Spider-Man” game with the help of Marvel for Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation 4, I couldn’t have been more excited. Judging by the reaction from gamers around the world, I wasn’t alone.
And after spending hours swinging through Manhattan, fighting super villains and street-level crooks alike, changing my costume more times than I’d like to admit and screeching every time I saw a nod to the comics or greater Marvel Universe, I can safely say this is the best “Spider-Man” game ever made. What’s more, it easily rivals DC’s “Batman: Arkham” series as the best superhero game, period.
Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man
“Spider-Man” thankfully, mercifully isn’t an origin story. We’ve seen Peter Parker get bit by a radioactive spider more times than anyone should have to. Instead, “Spider-Man” opens on a Peter Parker who’s older and wiser than the geeky high school student turned superhero we’ve watched and read about a million times.
It’s been about eight years since Parker initially gained his powers, and at this point he’s just about ready to shut down Wilson Fisk for good. The opening act, which doubles as the game’s tutorial, sees you swinging through Manhattan on your way to Fisk’s tower to help the police arrest the Kingpin.
Throughout the opening mission, you learn how to webswing, web enemies, crawl through vents, use your spider sense to dodge bullets and rockets and, most importantly, how to throw a nasty haymaker.
From there, you’re off. You can tackle story missions and learn more about the mysterious group of seemingly super-powered masked criminals terrorizing the city, take down small time crooks, or do one of a seemingly endless number of collection quests.
Naturally, it wouldn’t be a “Spider-Man” story if things didn’t go sideways at one point. And oh, boy do they go sideways. “Spider-Man” hits all the right beats for the wall crawler, with only one or two narrative hiccups.
Swinging through the fantastically rendered concrete canyons of Manhattan, though, is easily one of the most impressive parts of the entire game. The way your webbing goes slack as you flick it at buildings before being pulled taut as you follow through on your swing is brilliantly executed.
Adding to this is the way Spidey twists his body as you swing around the corners of buildings or through tight alleys. Even the web-head’s voice changes so that it sounds like he’s straining while he’s swinging versus when he’s on the grounds.
Speaking of which, getting around on two feet gives you a chance to experience the living breathing world that Insomniac created on the streets below. This isn’t a sanitized version of New York, either. Homelessness is a real enough problem for the city that Aunt May actually works in a shelter.
But it also has the kind of everyday things you’d expect from the Big Apple like people walking around aimlessly on the cellphones — some will even ask you to take a selfie with them. Heck, there’s even a gay pride flag flying outside buildings in Greenwich Village.
There are so many little details sprinkled throughout “Spider-Man” that you’ll inevitably miss them at first blush, only to stumble across them hours into the game, at which point you’ll start to think Insomniac thought of everything while building this title.
Brawling with the bad guys
Of course, you’ll spend a good amount of time throwing hands with villains throughout “Spider-Man,” so it’s a good thing the game uses the same kind of stylized brawler combat popularized by the “Batman: Arkham” series. You’ll use one button to punch, one to dodge, one to web enemies and another one to use your various web-based gadgets.
Dodging punches and bullets requires you to pay careful attention to the spider sense icon that pops up over Spider-Man’s head while in combat. Dodging at the right time will automatically fling webbing at your attacker, temporarily blinding them. You can also launch enemies into the air with a beastly uppercut by holding down the punch button. From there you can perform an air combo.
During combat you’ll build up a Focus Meter, which lets you heal yourself by pressing the down button on the D-Pad. You also build up the ability to use gadgets with each hit you land on your opponents.
Pressing the R1 and L1 buttons at the same time lets you grab things like manhole covers, mailboxes — heck, pretty much anything not nailed down — with your webs and throw them at enemies to knock them back. There’s also nothing more satisfying than punching an enemy into the air and webbing him to a wall or the side of a car.
As you level up throughout the game, you gain the option to purchase new spider suits, each with their own powers. Once you unlock the suit, its power can be used with any of your existing suits.
To purchase suits you need to complete a specific number of “Spider-Man’s” side quests including collecting backpacks, photographing landmarks throughout the city, stopping crimes called in over the police radio or shutting down a gang headquarters. These quests also serve as a means of getting you to explore the city.
That said, over the course of the game, side-missions, like taking down enemy bases can feel a bit tedious. Throw in the fact that you end up having to beat up wave after wave of enemies, and you can quickly tire of these quests.
A feast for fans
Insomniac put so much love for “Spider-Man” into this game that even the difficulty levels are named after the characters in various comics. There’s Friendly, Amazing and Spectacular. Even Spider-Man’s quips will have you smiling. At one point, the webslinger slides upside down on a line of webbing, looks at a webbed up villain and asks “Is this where we kiss?” That’s clear callback to the famous scene in the first “Spider-Man” movie in which an upside down Spider-Man played by Tobey Maguire kisses Mary Jane Watson played by Kirsten Dunst.
Speaking of Mary Jane — she’s not just some redheaded love interest who exists solely for Spider-Man to swoop in and save the moment there’s trouble. In fact, you get to play as Mary Jane, who’s an investigative reporter, during portions of the game. Not being able to quickly zip out of trouble with a “thwip” of a web makes MJ’s levels feel far more tense than Spidey’s. I do wish they were more varied than sneaking around various bad guys’ bases, making noise to distract guards, but they’re still fairly fun.
Should you get it
Part of Spider-Man’s appeal has always been the fact that Peter Parker has to deal with everything from relationship problems, to grief and guilt, to trying to find time to make everyone in his life happy. Outside of his suit, he’s an average person.
The other part of his appeal though, though, most definitely has to do with the fact that he can climb walls and lift a freaking car over his head. “Marvel’s Spider-Man” largely delivers on both points, giving you characters you care about and alongside satisfying combat and exploration.
“Spider-Man” is sure to move plenty of consoles for Sony — it’s a PS4 exclusive after all. But more than that, it will make give every fan of the webhead the chance to feel like they’ve stepped into his red and blue leotard. Here’s hoping you wash it first.
What’s hot: A fun, frenetic original Spider-Man story; Smooth, beautifully animated webslinging action; brawling with Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery.
What’s not: Side missions can become tedious over time; J. Jonah Jameson’s loud mouth
More games coverage:
- New technology could upend the video-game market
- ‘Okami HD’ Switch review: The perfection of a classic