Spider-Man has always been a fantastic super hero to transition from comic books into video game form. Nostalgic gamers like myself will recall the joys of playing Spider-Man on the PlayStation, and of course the fabulous Spider-Man II; perhaps the best incarnation to date. Insomniac’s PlayStation 4 exclusive title, then, has had fans, both young and old, excited for years now. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine the developers behind Sunset Overdrive taking on the web-slinging protagonist, and since the game’s announcement at E3 in 2016, hopes have been high.
Spider-Man’s story skips the origins of the character and his angsty teenage years, instead of following the life and times of a 23-year-old Peter Parker. As such, Parker has been in the Spider-Man game for a few years at this point; boasting a roster of defeated villains, a good relationship with local law enforcement, and a solid grip of his powers. The character’s biggest challenge at this time in his life is his work-work balance.
Yes, you read that correctly. Parker struggles in Spider-Man to find time for his job as a Lab Assistant for the infamous Dr. Otto Octavius, instead of spending every moment he can swinging around the fabulous New York City fighting crime at every level. Equally, we find out early on that his relationship with Mary-Jane Watson has suffered at the hands of his pseudo-obsession as well. The mid-20’s aging of the character suits the game well, skipping all of the well-known and established story beats that fans know and instead attempting to show a different side of Peter Parker.
The action itself kicks off almost immediately, as Spidey is called in to assist the police in taking down Wilson Fisk; aka The Kingpin. The player is hit with the challenge of the game from the off, with mechanics being taught in an already high-pressure situation. Once you reach Fisk Tower, the game quickly makes you privy to Spider-Man’s miniature arsenal of combat moves and homemade gadgets before allowing you to make of them what you will.
As you fight your way through a small army of hired security contractors defending Fisk Tower, you soon ease into the controls and the way that the game plays. Just as you think you are getting it, however, the game drops you into your very first boss fight. The old-school mechanic suits the game perfectly, with bosses being challenging but certainly not easy. You have to pick up on their abilities and weaknesses before you can move to take them down, but a good grasp of Spidey’s options and a keen eye for the environment makes most of the antagonist fights in the game of a change of pace rather than a genuine struggle.
With Fisk’s defeat comes the end of the prologue and the beginning of the main event; but also a stern warning. As he is bundled into the back of an appropriately-large Police vehicle, The Kingpin exclaims that he was the only person keeping the city in check and that both Spidey and the Police would regret locking him away… This is some not-so-subtle foreshadowing, as will come to light, but it does make for a good opportunity for Spidey to throw out a witty line in response; a happy staple throughout the course of the game.
Importantly, web-swinging across New York City in another mechanic which becomes an easy feat with some practice. Always a favourite albeit crucial part of Spider-Man games in the past, the way that Spidey traverses New York City is what makes the character truly special and unique to embody. Once you realise that the mechanics of web-swinging in the game are neither physics nor really momentum based, the action becomes second nature. The game offers a subtle helping hand along the way too, ensuring that you never hit an obstacle and that there is always a way of maintaining the flow of Spidey’s movement. It is a smooth and refined system which feels more comfortable than those which have come before it.
As you swing your way around the city, you are never shy of something to do. The game is packed to the brim with additional challenges outside of the main story, each of which rewards you with the equivalent of crafting materials which you use to purchase new suits and gear. There is a good variety in these activities, from puzzles, to combat, to precision web-swinging and more. Impromptu events such as low-level crimes or citizens needing assistance keep the feeling of being a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man alive in a game which otherwise focusses on high-stakes and high-level destruction.
The variety of gadgets and suits in the game keep Spidey looking and feeling fresh, and are also the biggest homage to comic book fans that the game has to offer. With everything from MCU Stark suits to niche, comic book favourites, there is a suit for every situation, each with its own powers to bring to the table. This is a great way of allowing gamers to play to their strengths and model Spidey in their own way, whilst staying true to the nature of the character at all times. Combat and gadget upgrades allow you to feel a sense of progression, too. None of Spidey’s upgrades feel rudimentary; he has been in the game for some time at this point, after all. The aim, instead, is to make you feel like Spider-Man is improving as you are improving, and this system works well.
Swinging in and saving the day is only part of the Spider-Man experience in this game, however. There are two other playable characters in the game; Mary-Jane Watson and one character who has been kept quiet by developers ahead of launch. Mary-Jane’s sequences focus on stealth, as the avid young reporter seeks to investigate her stories in spite of the dangers which may befall her. The stealth system is very well developed given that it is not the core focus of the game. It is easy to get to grips with and is, again, a nice change of pace from the usual flow of the story. Scenes, where MJ and Spidey have to work together on a mission, are executed especially well, with the interactions and transitions between the two flow both smoothly and logically.
Every character in the game, from Spidey, to MJ, to Aunt May and the many villains you will encounter along the way, helps to bring the game to life. The way that characters interact, the way they look, even the way they move makes the game feel incredibly realistic and believable. Most notably, the way that Spider-Man’s voice changes on the fly if he is physically exerting himself during conversation is very impressive. The world itself is impressive too, with enough scale, scope and indeed colour to keep it feeling consistently fresh and exciting to explore. Easter eggs such as Avengers Tower and the Sanctum Santorum are an interesting nod to the MCU, too.
It is clear that the two core foci of Spider-Man are character building and player experience. Keeping these elements in mind at all times has made Insomniac’s imagining of this world a pleasure to play through and experience. Not-so-subtle nods to the MCU also suggest that further characters might appear in the future; on top of the impressive and exciting array of villains which this game boasts (no spoilers!). A classic Marvel post-credits scene reveals part of the potential future for this world, and it is fair to assume that, given the game’s success, this future may be closer than we expect. I for one thoroughly look forward to whatever the next installment might hold for fans. In itself, this game is a resounding success.