‘Spider-Man’ will swing right into your heart with well-developed story, fantastic mechanics
It doesn’t take long to notice something important in the PlayStation 4-exclusive “Marvel’s Spider-Man”: This is no origin story, one in which you have to watch Uncle Ben die, where Mary Jane Watson doesn’t know Peter Parker’s alter-ego, where you’re building your first suit out of scraps and junk hardware. That decision to center the story, one with multiple layers of conflict and triumph (and maybe a few too many puns), on a more mature, relatable Parker is what makes “Spider-Man” so much better than just its fantastic web-slinging mechanics.
While there are grand set pieces and epic boss battles, the heart of “Spider-Man” revolves around the smaller moments that are stitched into the main plot. The complicated relationship between Parker and Mary Jane (voiced by Yuri Lowenthal and Laura Bailey, respectively, both prolific video game voice actors) is well-paced and well-scripted — and entirely believable because there’s nothing simple about it. They have to figure out what their future will be, something almost everyone can relate to.
And the depth added to secondary characters, such as Aunt May, the villains and certain other characters I won’t mention here, is fantastic because each one is placed in the story to add to it, not just distract with fighting action. Each character’s addition matters, both in terms of overall plot and personal development for Parker. We’re reminded early and often that Parker is more than just his alter-ego, a depth not always explored.
But back to what matters: the web-slinging.
When it comes to traversal, “Spider-Man” is near-perfect with its high-flying antics. While it generally trades finesse for speed (it’s far too easy to overshoot or undershoot your landing), it’s easily overlooked as you swing through this gorgeous iteration of New York City. You’ll have to spend some time getting the hang of the mechanics, which require some amount of precision to master, but it pays off as you learn to to incorporate your aerial acrobatics into every aspect of the game.
The movement — the lunging, the leaping, the careening back down to earth as the skyline screams past you — feels so fantastically smooth and lightning-fast, much like Insomniac’s last game, “Sunset Overdrive,” that I generally preferred traveling manually than utilizing the game’s fast-travel system, which should tell you something about this open-world game.
As the game progresses, and you gain more abilities and gadgets, “Spider-Man’s” combat mechanics begin to take shape. When you start off, it’s all simple combos involving punching or dodging or the occasional kicking. But later on, you’ll acquire weapons and skills that make for some interesting combinations you can use to deal with almost any situation.
Take, for instance, hand-to-Spidey combat. Many basic enemies can be handled with a uncomplicated punch combo, but when more powerful brutes start taking to NYC’s streets, you’re going to want to utilize your incapacitating arsenal. Different webbing abilities allow for different approaches: You generally want to keep your distance (no matter your loadout, bullets still hurt something fierce), but you can play close or far away, aggressive or more stealthy, or your own mixing of punches, webbing and acrobatics, plus an ability every now and then to end the encounter with flair. (You’ll know the battle is done when the screen goes all slow-motion, one of the many aspects the game incorporates from the “Batman Arkham” series.)
When you enter the game’s stealth sections, you’re much more incentivized to use Spider-Man’s many neat toys. You can set traps and sneak around rafters and scaffolding, eyeing the perfect opportunity to ambush the baddies. The combination of gadgetry — stealth sections go much easier if you use your arsenal first and then your fists when that inevitably fails — and maneuverability makes for some interesting approaches that makes excellent use of the protagonist’s natural abilities.
Earlier I mentioned the game utilizes aspects of the “Batman Arkham” franchise, but that’s not the only series “Spider-Man” pulls from. In fact, for long stretches, I forget I was playing an Insomniac creation and instead thought I was in the world of an Ubisoft franchise, particularly “Assassin’s Creed.” With the amount of leveling and zone-completion activities in which you can partake, it’s not hard to see certain similarities between this game and “Assassin’s Creed: Origins” or “Tom Clancy’s Wildlands,” another Ubisoft franchise. (There are even little science-centric puzzles that reminded me of Animus puzzles from “AC” games or the pipe puzzles from “Bioshock.”)
However, much like in any “Assassin’s Creed” game, there can be too much of a good thing going on here. There are literally hours of side quests and mini-adventures to break up the lengthy story, almost to the game’s detriment. Stopping a speeding car full of thieves with your webbing and physical strength is pretty awesome to watch — the first half-dozen times. After that, though, it can become monotonous. And that extends to much of the non-story missions. You’ll want to complete them for the experience and tokens, but it gets old doing the same basic set of quick-hit missions in between the 15-hour main game. (“Spider-Man” also throws some longer side missions your way — one of my favorites involved tracking down a familiar burglar — and they add a nice bit of flavor to the main game.)
And you’ll want those tokens, which come in a variety of categories, and EXP because it’s how you unlock new suits, which in turn grants you new abilities. (The same cache allows you to upgrade your equipment.) It didn’t take long for me to favor a few — one that cleared the field around me in rockin’ style and one aptly named “Spider-Bro” — but there’s a variety to choose from that can help in particular situations. Of note: Once you purchase a suit, you get the power that comes with it; however, you can choose to attach any power to any suit, which is a nice touch if you like one suit but not its attributed ability.
The same works with modifications. Unlike the powers, which you have to charge up for and manually activate, mods are more passive buffs, such as granting you more defense against bullets or allowing you to heal more using the same amount of Focus.
If you’re playing on a PlayStation 4 Pro, you’ll be amazed as you zip through the skyscrapers of New York City (and perch at the highest point of Avengers Tower). The environment is most thrilling as you speed through, taking in a more birds-eye view, but it does suffer when it comes to some details. It’s clear plenty of love when into the creation of the main characters, but just about everyone else suffers from NPC “sameness” and the dullness that comes with it.
Technically, I found little to fault, but there were some moments of me getting stuck in weird positions or in mid-air. Nothing serious, but it was awkward to be suddenly dancing on someone’s head instead of flinging them across the room.
In the end, “Marvel’s Spider-Man” excellently reminds us that Spider-Man is also Peter Parker, and his life, somehow, is more than just saving the day from the creeps of New York City. But because of the fantastic mechanics related to both combat and travel, you’ll have plenty of fun cleaning up those streets regardless. A great story, grounded in as much realism as a Marvel superhero video game can be, will snare your attention throughout. A few hiccups aside, “Spider-Man” delivers with as much strength as Spidey’s webs.
Four “I have so many suits!” stars out of five.