Insomniac's take on Spider-Man is exciting, refreshing, and, in a word, spectacular.
It’s easy to be reductive about the state of AAA development these days. The idea that more and more big games are taking the approach of taking elements from this game and that, spinning them to fit the theme and narrative the developers are putting forward, and booting them out the door holds water at first glance. And at first glance, Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man seems to continue the trend. It’s an open-world game with towers that you check out to get map data, various collectibles and random events strewn throughout the world, and combat relying on a few attack buttons, various gadgets, and a dodge.
However, being that reductive hides the forest for the trees. The strengths of the best big-budget titles allow them to hone, polish, and refine the mechanics set forth by their forebears until they then become the standard by which future games are measured. It’s here where Spider-Man excels, offering its attempt at becoming a new standard by which future games will be measured, and succeeding on all counts.
The game begins as Spider-Man defeats his long-time nemesis, Wilson Fisk. Spider-Man thinks he can rest somewhat easier. However, after New York mayor Norman Osborn cuts funding for his job, a new gang of suited men with oriental masks tries to seize the New York underworld, and Peter’s ex-girlfriend Mary Jane Watson re-enters his life, not everything is as easy as he’d hoped.
While the plot isn’t anything special, just standard comic book shenanigans with some real contrivances later on, the game’s strength comes from the interactions between its characters. By skipping over the origin story that everyone knows, and setting this a few years into Peter Parker’s tenure as Spider-Man, the characters are allowed to have a bit more of a rapport with each other. The strong performances by just about everyone, be they hero or villain, provide a strong anchor to the world.
And what a world it is. The game’s approximation of the island of Manhattan is visually stunning and filled with details, pertaining both to the actual island and the greater Marvel universe. The general open-world assortment of collectibles, enemy bases, and towers are meted out over the course of the story, preventing it from being an overwhelming amount of distractions all at once. It also never feels like there are too many collectibles, as whenever it started to feel tiresome stopping street crimes or collecting a bizarrely large amount of backpacks, they mercifully require no more.
Navigating the world is extremely painless, and the sense of speed the web-slinging has is exhilarating. Spider-Man joins the ranks of games like Titanfall 2 or Mirror’s Edge, where the simple act of moving the character just feels natural. It makes the fact that the game has a fast travel system almost seem bizarre, as Spider-Man is quick enough that crossing the map takes a few minutes at most, and it’s enjoyable just to take in the sights of the city.
Combat, though derivative of the Arkham series, is still quick enough, and most importantly customizable enough to stand on its own. Spider-Man’s suit grants him the option to select 3 different perks, ranging from simple things, like the ability to take a hit without dropping the combo or taking less damage from explosions, to more specialized options like causing Spider-Man to zap enemies who get too close to him automatically or essentially Witch Time from Bayonetta. Additionally, each unlocked suit grants Spider-Man a choice of a special move that can be activated on a cooldown.
All these options intermingle in a way that provide generally whatever you want in terms of building your Spider-Man. As you sock, thwip, and pow your way across the assorted gangs of New York, Spidey builds up focus that can then be spent on either instantly finishing particularly tricky enemies, or healing in case the villains get a little too close for comfort. Spider-Man isn’t the most resilient of heroes, so the various ways to incapacitate his enemies allow you to work your way through a crowd using speed, smarts, and various gadgets developed along the way.
The game also offers some light stealth, both playing as Spider-Man and in segments featuring supporting characters Mary Jane Watson and Miles Morales. As Spidey, the game is nice enough to let you know whether or not taking certain enemies down from a distance will result in the rest of the enemies being alerted, but punishment for being caught is generally just “now fight the rest of them.”
The MJ and Miles sections, in contrast, are a bit more specialized, as both characters lack Spider-Man’s combat capabilities. This does mean they require a bit more finesse than sneaking around as Spider-Man, as being spotted does result in an instant failure. I found the MJ sections to be more enjoyable than the Miles ones, given MJ’s stealth-helper being a throwable distraction as opposed to Miles’ ability to hack specific objects. Overall, they serve as solid diversions to break up the gameplay of Spider-Man.
The overall plot does feel like the weak link in the package, but it isn’t enough to distract from just how much fun it is the swing around New York, how well the character’s interact with each other, and how much fun it is to punch super-villains in the face. In addition, the writing for the moment-to-moment character interactions is so spectacular that it more than makes up for the predictable plot. Just because you know the destination, the journey is still well worth the time.