First things first. Marvel's Spider-Man has excellent web swinging. Ever since the game's premiere, the only thing people could talk about is whether it would top Spider-Man 2. This is definitely the case, and it's not the only inspiration that Insomniac Games drew from during development. The combat mixes the rhythmic motion of Arkham Asylum with the gymnastics of Web of Shadows. Enemies ramp up in the open world like they do in Prototype, and the challenge missions feel ripped straight out of Infamous. Storywise, there are pieces from all corners of the webhead's canon, and the game's structure follows in the footsteps of what came before. After all, what kind of Spider-Man game would this be if you didn't fight Shocker in the first boss fight? Marvel's Spider-Man is an excellent return to form for the series, but I can't help but yearn for more.
Based in a new corner of the Marvel multiverse, this version of Peter Parker has been slinging webs for eight years. After graduating from Empire State University, he takes up work as a scientist alongside Dr. Otto Octavius. Good ol' J.J. has hung up his publishing pen and taken to the radio, espousing his hatred of the wall-crawler via podcasts. Mary Jane works as a Bugle newshound who's known for sneaking into places she doesn't belong. Aunt May is volunteering at F.E.A.S.T. alongside Martin Li, helping the homeless of New York. As the game begins, Spider-Man stands alongside the police for a final showdown with Wilson Fisk. With the Kingpin taken into custody, a power vacuum erupts in the city, and all sorts of familiar faces rise up to fill the hole.
What follows is a masterful fifteen-hour narrative covering everything you could want from a Spider-Man tale. Insomniac takes some risks with existing characters, but almost everyone is instantly recognizable in their new roles. Jameson might be an Alex Jones-esque figure now, but his conspiracies never stretch far beyond his normal tirades. As a longtime fan, it's impressive to me just how well Insomniac made Spidey's New York their own while also honoring the character's legacy. Moreso than any movie version, this feels like a Peter Parker I recognize from modern comics, and it's exciting to think about future stories set in this world.
Of course, I'm also excited to play more of Insomniac's open-world goodness. The team has more than proven that they can craft an expansive city to match any other. Swinging around and walking the sidewalk are both equally enjoyable. Darting too close to a taxi emits a swift honk from an angry driver. You can pose for photos and give finger guns to random passerby. There are plenty of small interactions with citizens that make this New York feel vibrant and alive.
It also helps that Spider-Man is never wanting for new responsibilities to tackle. Each section of town has a list of petty crimes to thwart, giving you ample opportunities to get into quick combat encounters as you go to and from main missions. You may hear a repeated quip or two, but there's enough variety that it was never a big issue. There are also enemy hideouts to punch your way through, a handful of side missions featuring lower tier Spider-baddies, and a few collectibles to chase down. Unfortunately, the latter categories never seemed particularly fleshed out. It was child's play to grab every backpack, spot every Black Cat, and chase down every escaped pidgeon. I found myself frequently wishing that there was a reason to go exploring beyond chasing down waypoints.
More attention has gone towards the challenge missions, reflecting on the ups and downs of the rest of the gameplay. Unlocking halfway through the campaign, these push you to your absolute limits. The combat trials shine, as that Arkham/Middle-earth/Super Soldier style of brawling never gets old. Cranking up the difficulty there lets you use strategies that the main game doesn't, which is great. Stringing together long combos from goon to goon without touching the ground is just spectacular.
Since Peter is a scientist, he has a whole host of gadgetry to help him in combat. You get to toy around with Scarlet Spider's Impact Webbing and Superior Spider-Man's Spider-Bots as well as electrified stun webbing and web bombs. There are also various suit powers that can either take out entire waves of enemies in a single blow or greatly enhance your existing powers. These include the Iron Spider's metallic limbs, the Spider-Drone from the MCU Spiderverse, and Hobie Brown's electric guitar. Even after twenty hours of fights, there were still abilities I hadn't fully mastered. Unless you're absolutely sick of this style of action, you're going to find a lot to love here.
That's good to know going in because Insomniac falters whenever they stray from that brawling. Take the game's stealth mechanics. As Spider-Man, there are rooms full of gargoyle-style perches and an assortment of guards to take out quietly. In the main missions, things never get too complicated, and the game doesn't punish you for jumping into a line of sight accidentally. Sure, you don't have as many options here as the Dark Knight, but it's a serviceable way to change things up.
The big problem comes from the many forced stealth situations. Whether it's the stealth trials in the open world or the story's civilian missions, these mechanics are PlayStation 1-era clunky. In order to properly execute, you have to slow down to a crawl, usually for several minutes. You can feel the loss of momentum in a game when you're usually bouncing around like a pinball. Guards have wide vision cones but can't hear footsteps unless you step on broken glass. Being spotted is an immediate death sentence that bumps you to a Game Over screen. This is how stealth mechanics were designed fifteen years ago and their presence here sticks out like Wolverine in The Avengers.
Since some of the challenges are based in this archaic stealth mold, you'll have to struggle through a lot of difficult guff if you want all the costumes. Outside of the outstanding storytelling, unlocking suits from across Spider-Man's history is one of the driving forces of the game. Reading up on suits I remember and suits I might have missed during a self-imposed exile provided hours of fun outside of my time web swinging. To have the last few unlocks hidden behind content that is solely for a niche audience is frustrating.
There are a few race challenges and time trials available in case you do need a few extra unlock points. It's the kind of stuff you've seen in this type of game for years and years. In fact, that's really the main strike against Marvel's Spider-Man in my eyes. It's a well-executed take on what Activision set up with the best of their Marvel games. If you've played at any point since Neversoft's PS1 title, you'll be right at home here. However, the Insomniac name, backed by a legacy of Spyro and Rachet, it comes with a certain cache.
Simply put, this doesn't feel like an Insomniac game. It takes ridiculous amounts of inspiration from the Arkham series, stretching the Spider-Man fiction to fit into the Batman mold. You'll see a Deathstroke-style mercenary and a Scarecrow dream sequence. You'll investigate crime scenes with the power of poorly defined holograms. Hell, you even chase after a cat-themed romantic interest that will be expanded on in DLC missions.
I'm not saying that Insomniac produced a low rent clone. Marvel's Spider-Man is a solid iteration on the formula with a masterful story. I'm eager to see where they go from here and what novel changes they'll make to beloved characters. The fact remains, this definitely feels like a Sony product rather than a labor of love. After what we got in Sunset Overdrive, I guess I expected something a bit more original. The combat has a few neat ideas, but it's a modern take on what came before with little to say on its own. With so many other PS4 exclusives pushing the envelope in so many ways, Spider-Man lives in the past. Just like the ride at Islands of Adventure, it's a thrilling journey, but it doesn't last long and it feels just ever so slightly out of date.
Our Marvel's Spider-Man review was conducted on PlayStation 4 with a copy purchased by the reviewer.
Marvel's Spider-Man delivers off the wall combat and a fresh take on the Spider-mythos that should have fans of all stripes pumped. However, if you've already tired of games in the Arkham mold, you'll find little reason to get excited.
- Flowing Combat
- Heartfelt Narrative
- Comic References Galore
- Derivative Mechanics
- Clunky Stealth Missions
- Challenge Tokens