I’ll make this blunt. Marvel’s Spider-Man is the best video game you will play this year. That sentence is said with no added qualifiers. I don’t care if this is normally not your kind of game, if you think the premise of a man swinging through Manhattan on spider webs is dumb, or that comics are just lame and we’re drowning in a sea of superheroes. If you play Spider-Man, and I have never said this about any game, you will love Spider-Man.
Honestly, I don’t think that statement is a far reach either. Picking and choosing their way through Spider-Man’s history, Insomniac has done what only Rocksteady had managed to do previously with Batman, and that is to take a character that’s so ingrained in popular knowledge and present him in a way that’s not only relatable, but that raises the character itself to another level. The reason I bring up the Batman comparison is that Peter Parker’s story, as a whole, is just as well known as that of Gotham’s Dark Knight. Everyone knows that he was bitten by a spider and got superpowers, that Uncle Ben dies, that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Whether by way of the comics books themselves, Sam Raimi’s mostly excellent movies from the early 2000’s, or even the newer Marvel fair, we all know who Spider-Man is.
Jumping off of that knowledge, Spider-Man starts with an adult Peter Parker, trying desperately to juggle life as an adult and life as a superhero. Life as a superhero is going just swingingly, with the game opening on an NYPD raid of the office of one Wilson Fisk, the real name of the villainous crime lord and all around bad dude known more commonly as The Kingpin. Turns out that enough evidence has finally been amassed to put Fisk in jail, and our friendly, neighborhood wall-crawler wants a front row seat as one of his larger villains gets set to Rikers Island. As you can imagine the raid doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, and Spider-Man ends up going in after the Kingpin himself.
Insomniac uses this raid as an opportunity to introduce the player to Spider-Man’s mechanics by having you swing through downtown to the scene of the raid. As a general aside, no game has gotten Spider-Man’s web swinging right since 2004’s Spider-Man 2. There was nothing that quite compared to the physicality of its movement, and most of that was a result of forcing the webbing to attach to a building rather than the sky, as well a generally nailing the feeling of speed and momentum that movement brings with it. Marvel’s Spider-Man brings down the king, ending its reign while declaring itself the king of swing.
It nails the swing, capturing the general movement while placing you in control of just how fast you want to go. Should you run into a building while swinging, Spider-Man effortlessly shifts to a wall run, which itself can either continue around the buildings or explode into a launch when he hits roof level. Not quite within range of another building to swing from? Spidey can also web zip, which simply grabs on to the closest target, quickly allowing you to adjust and hold on to any momentum you may have built up, or he can essentially double zip to an aimed location, choosing to either stay put as Spidey will auto perch at the location selected, or explode off the point forward, either right into another swing or another aimed pull. It’s an easy enough system to get into, but it’s not until a couple of hours into playing with it that the true beauty of the system really starts to shine. In fact, the greatest success of the movement system is that, when presented with an easy fast travel system, I, in all cases but the one time they make you use it, chose to swing to my destination. Every. Single. Time.
Upon Spidey’s arrival at the Kingpin’s downtown highrise, the situation quickly escalates, prompting more than a couple instances of combat before the big man himself makes an appearance. Combat in Spider-Man works a lot like the aforementioned Rocksteady’s Batman games, in that it incorporates a few buttons for a wide range of options. One button punches, one button webs/travels, and the third dodges, the need of which is signified by Spidey’s white squiggle Spider Sense going off. Despite starting simple, the combat scenarios Spidey finds himself in grow exponentially, adding in thugs with bats, stun batons, guns, rifles, grenades, and even eventually jet packs. As you might expect, Spider-Man’s fighting style is all movement based, with the web/travel button being mainly used to both sling across the battlefield towards ranged enemies, and, once upgraded, disarm, snag, and spin his foes.
As satisfying as Rocksteady’s free flow combat is, Spider-Man offers a level of web hijinks that I was unprepared for. Dipping under, diving around, and dodging punches, kicks, and bullets looks great and feels even better. While performing, Spider-Man builds up a combo meter, leading to some slick, slow-motion finishers, and offering a bank of energy that can also be used to replenish his health meter in dire situations.
And given the seemingly random placement of enemies in some of the random encounters possible across The Big Apple, dire situations will happen. Unlike the kind AI in Rocksteady’s Arkham series, baddies in Spider-Man have little compunction about trying to attack in mass, and I found myself, though thankfully not often enough to be super annoying, landing in the middle of a rooftop drug deal to find every single weapon immediately discharged in my general direction, a scenario that, I am not ashamed to say, led to my death more than once. The game also forces you to utilize your gadgets, from impact webbing, which hit baddies so hard the slam, trapped by web, into the closest wall, to web bombs, which explode and tie up a whole room worth of opponents. Each gadget can also be upgraded to allow for more uses or greater range.
Those gadget upgrades, as well as the bevy of additional suits that Insomniac included in the game, are all unlocked using various tokens gained by completing the multitude of side activities. From stopping random crimes, to help Harry Osborn fulfill his mother’s dream of saving the world one research station at a time, the city is just chock full of extra stuff to do, with more opening as you progress through the story. I enjoyed just about all of it, though there are one or two that seem like time sinks more than anything else, but they stand out, especially against the high quality of the other activities.
All the activities add life to the world. The island of Manhattan, as presented in Marvel’s Spider-Man, is a city that alive, as opposed to the Gotham presented in Arkham Knight. Traffic flows or doesn’t, and pedestrians walk or run to wherever it is they are going. They scream when shootouts break out, cheer when Spider-Man swings in to save the day. The city itself is also riddled with other call outs to Marvel’s franchises and heroes, like Avengers Tower or the Sanctum Santorum. It’s fun to know that these places exist, but it's also a little jarring as the story plays out, knowing that the Avengers are based in the same city that Spider-Man is literally trying to drag out of mortal danger. In fact, so far I’ve stayed away from anything story wise passed the introduction, and that’s only because I really don’t want to spoil anything for you.
Barring Mark Hamill coming back as Batman’s personal Joker in Arkham Knight, Spider-Man may actually be my favorite video game super hero story. It touches on familiar tropes in the Spider mythos, like Peter’s general inability to adult, his constant need to save everyone in his life, and the weight of responsibility he feels every time he fails. It takes all of these and works them into that narrative, working in members of his rogues gallery with the deft touch of a master seamstress working a needle and thread. Super villains make their appearances, others are created in heartbreaking fashion despite foreshadowing clear enough to light a room. For once, Mary Jane Watson is allowed to make her own choices, becoming an actual partner to Peter despite all his attempts at sabotaging his relationship because of his overbearing need to protect those he loves. The ending is also damn near perfect, and I know I am sap, but I am starting to tear up just writing these words with how wonderfully it captures the very essence of every character in the story and how it captures the highs and lows of what being a hero means.
There’s a ton more I could write about this game. I could describe how perfect Spider-Man’s voice acting is, and the hilarity of all of his banter while simultaneously kicking jetpacks amounts of ass. There are not enough words to describe how beautiful the game looks, or how despite the huge number of alternate costumes you have access too, nothing feels as right as the new suit Insomniac created. I could spin webs about the excellent boss fights that liter the back half of the game, and how they manage to test your skills without resorting to just packing the screen full of enemies and story-wise. I could do all these things, but I won’t because you need to play this and experience it for yourself. Again, with no qualifiers, Marvel’s Spider-Man is the best game you will play this year. It most certainly has been the best one I have.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!