Note: This review will attempt to avoid any major plot spoilers, but read at your own risk.
Treyarch’s Spider-Man 2 released in 2004 to rampant acclaim. The title pioneered the open-world video game concept by adding a strategic angle to exploration: entertaining traversal. Few titles can boast such an entertaining movement mechanic. Web-swinging made exploration enjoyable, and therefore, it made the open-world video game concept enjoyable. Now, at a time where countless games force players to explore their worlds with “boots on the ground,” a new Spider-Man game arrives to set players free once more.
Insomniac’s Spider-Man on PlayStation 4 presents a brand-new adventure into the Spider-Verse, loosely based on various comic books but completely separate from the continuity of film and TV. The story begins with a day in the life of Peter Parker, the friendly neighborhood millennial balancing his superhero life with volunteering at the local homeless shelter with his Aunt May and working at a prosthetic limb development lab with Dr. Otto Octavius.
After eight years of protecting New York City, an experienced Spider-Man is able to take down Wilson Fisk, also known as the Kingpin. However, a new threat soon arises, and a mystery unravels that pushes Parker to his limits in one of the best adaptations of the classic story so far. The game’s narrative is truly excellent, balancing moments of silliness (including a cutscene in which a masked man actually points a gun at someone behind a computer and barks “Enter your password!”) and moments of drama (you might cry a little bit by the story’s conclusion).
As aforementioned, the game’s best selling point is its movement system. It has been said a million times, but Spider-Man’s web-swinging truly feels spectacular. The animations are fluid, and the physics are refined. Transitioning from technique to technique is seamless. There is no better feeling in the game than simply traversing the New York skyline. Spider-Man is at its best when it puts you in control and lets you run free.
In addition, the combat is executed beautifully. In a moment’s notice, whether it takes place during the story or during a side activity, players can instantly switch from movement to combat, where they battle crime with a freeflow combat system. A base mix of striking and dodging is garnished by special attacks, finishers, air combat, and gadget attacks. The wide variety of enemy types help complicate combat encounters, but while it’s difficult to master, it’s easy to learn.
Most aspects of Spider-Man’s fighting system work like a charm, but there are some issues. Namely, many of the gadgets feel overpowered, and others are completely out of place in Spider-Man’s arsenal. He often resembles Batman as he deploys attack drones and “Electric Webs” (whatever that means). At one stage in the game, Spider-Man gains “Suspension Matrix” and “Concussive Blast,” which cause enemies to hover in the air and get pushed away from him, respectively. These gadgets practically grant Spider-Man telekinesis, which is just bizarre.
The two most troubled aspects of Spider-Man’s mechanics are its puzzles and its stealth sections. The two most prevalent puzzle types are arranging a gridded path of wires to reroute electricity (a la Bioshock, minus the tension), and matching a pattern of lines. You read that correctly: players are asked to pick a set of lines that look like another set of lines. These puzzles are insultingly simple. Similarly, the stealth sections of the game–starring either Spider-Man and/or two other characters which I will not spoil here–kill the momentum of the gameplay. These sections are paced far too slowly for an action game with such vigor. Some of them have neat gimmicks, but for many players, the linear restrictions could get annoying.
In terms of the game’s atmosphere, the visuals range from serviceable to stunning. Many of the textures are flat, but as a comic-book video game, the less-than-realism style is passable. Conversely, the game’s lighting and color palette both pop off the screen, bringing New York City to life wherever they can shine. Sound design is also extremely effective; the bombastic music and the meaty sound effects are fantastic at supporting the immersion of both exploration and combat. The voice acting is brilliant, especially from lead actor Yuri Lowenthal (Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate). His joke delivery can be hokey, but he strikes a relatable chord as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man.
This title’s version of New York City is ripe for exploration. The main storyline, side missions, boss fights, base raids, petty crimes, skill challenges, and easter eggs will take Spider-Man all over the city, stuffing the game with at least 35 hours of content. From time to time, some of the jobs become tedious, such as when the enemy waves never stop coming, or when Spider-Man is tasked with a strange objective (did you think that Spider-Man would have players testing air quality or vaccinating fish? Neither did I). Regardless, the entertainment value here is respectably high.
Perhaps Spider-Man’s greatest shortcoming is its dependence on derivation. So much of the game is ripped straight from the Batman: Arkham series. The escape route/secret entrance is usually an air vent. Some of the exploration puzzles are solved by sending electric projectiles at circuit panels. One of the side characters hides collectible trophies. There are not one, but two villains that create nightmare realms for players. It all feels extremely familiar, and the cause is clear: Marvel Games vice president Mike Jones confirmed in an interview with GameSpot that the Arkham games inspired Spider-Man in multiple ways. The influence is impossible to miss. This is admittedly a highly subjective point, but the uncanny rehashing of concepts from another iconic video game franchise could ruffle some feathers. In these specific areas, the game wins no points for originality.
Insomniac’s Spider-Man operates best as a revamped version of 2004’s Spider-Man 2. During its high points, the narrative, the mechanics, and the atmosphere of the game unite into a theme about the interplay between the concepts of power, freedom, and responsibility. Despite its flaws, Spider-Man is an exceptional AAA game because it reminds its audience why they fell in love with both a comic book character and a video game genre that–in the right hands–can absolutely soar.