Control is something we too often take for granted in video games. Even exceptional games usually require the player to get into the meat of things before they get truly engaging. But every so often, a game comes along where it’s thrilling as soon as you pick up the controller. It’s rare that you find a video game where the simple act of moving the character is a joy unto itself. Super Mario has continuously won us over by setting the standard for platforming controls in both his 2D and 3D iterations. Sonic the Hedgehog dared us to see just how fast he could go, bouncing around stages like a pinball. Alucard traversed the haunted halls of Dracula’s castle with a sense of grace worthy of Ayami Kojima’s beautiful illustrations. And Link paved the way for 3D combat with the likes of Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker.
Thanks to Insomniac Games, Marvel’s Spider-Man now enters these hallowed halls. Although there’s plenty to enjoy about Insomniac’s take on the iconic web-slinger, its single greatest joy is found simply in moving Spider-Man around New York City. From swinging on skyscrapers to running up walls, Marvel’s Spider-Man succeeds in making players feel like they’re the one behind Spider-Man’s mask. It’s that rare kind of game that just feels right. This is how Spider-Man should play.
Insomniac puts their own spin on the Spider-Man mythology. Mercifully ignoring the origin story we all know, this version of Peter Parker has donned the Spider-Man name for eight years, frequently butting heads with the forces of William Fisk (AKA “The Kingpin”), and putting away super villains like the Vulture, Rhino, Shocker, Electro, and Scorpion some time ago. When he’s not fighting crime, Peter works as the assistant to an down-on-his-luck Dr. Otto Octavius (who has yet to become the villainous Doctor Octopus), giving up his job as photographer at the Dailey Bugle (though his lady-friend Mary Jane Watson is now a reporter for that very newspaper). Meanwhile, Norman Osborne has not become the evil Green Goblin, instead having been voted as the (corrupt) mayor of New York City some time ago.
This unique take on the Spider-Man universe gives the game a fresh slate to build on. With Spider-Man being a veteran at his spider-duties, and his two most iconic villains yet to take up their mantles, the story and setting of the game definitely stand out in the franchise.
The game begins with Spider-Man taking the fight to Fisk himself. But after the Kingpin gets put behind bars, a new, more vicious mob begins to overrun New York City, the Demons. That’s a brief summation of the setup, though without spoiling anything, it does get a lot heftier than the simplicity of its setup would suggest. The story is split into three acts, with the final act almost feeling like a full-on sequel to the rest of the game. Overall, it’s probably my favorite Spider-Man story since Spider-Man 2.
Though the story is progressed one mission at a time, various side quests can be found around New York City, which not only give players plenty to do at their own leisure, but also provide numerous means to build up Spider-Man’s abilities. By completing side quests and meeting certain objectives, the player can unlock new gadgets – which give Spidey different web-based moves – and even new spider suits (many of which pay homage to Spidey’s past), with each suit providing its own bonuses and abilities. Spider-Man can also gain experience points and level up (it seems like every game requires RPG elements these days), which allows you to unlock new moves and upgrade the gadgets and abilities you already possess. Thankfully, not only does Spider-Man gain experience by traditional means (combat, completing missions), but doing things as simple as performing stunts during your web-slinging travels will inch you ever closer to the next level.
It’s actually surprising, how deep Spider-Man’s abilities go. With so many different play styles between Spidey’s moves, suits, gadgets and abilities, there’s no shortage of options for those who want to tackle the game their own way. I personally preferred trip mines that lassoed enemies together in webs, and throwing baddies to stick them to walls. But others may prefer explosive webs and the suits’ special weaponry. Or they may just love throwing environmental objects at enemies. There’s all kinds of ways to enjoy the combat of Marvel’s Spider-Man.
Speaking of combat, you will be doing much of it throughout the game. Mechanically, it works a lot like the combat system of the Batman Arkham series, though it flows more fluidly and feels more polished. And as stated, you have a lot more options to work with here, so no matter how many times you get in a scuffle, you can always try out different abilities and combinations to see what you like best. Unfortunately, there is one drawback to a number of combat sections that lives on from the Arkham games, and that’s that many combat sections just drag on and on. Again, the combat is never bad, but there will be numerous occasions when you’ll feel like the waves and waves of enemies feel unnecessary and redundant. It’s not a major issue, but while the sheer joy of swinging across New York City may never lose its luster, you may feel that many of the combat sections overstay their welcome.
The game’s other downside is that many of the side quests will become repetitious after a while. Almost every optional objective is part of a series of similar objectives (conducting research for Harry Osborne while he’s away in Europe, performing quick challenges for the Taskmaster, etc.). In small doses these side endeavors can be entertaining detours in their own right, but for those aiming for either one-hundred percent completion or maximizing Spider-Man’s stats, you may grow weary of doing the same objectives over and over again.
These elements ultimately prove to be minor complaints, however, as the main story is filled with fun twists and turns both in terms of its narrative and in its gameplay. There are even sections where you can play as Mary Jane Watson or Miles Morales which emphasize stealth (given their lack of super powers). Admittedly, the Miles Morales sections lack variety, but the MJ segments find ways to keep building upon themselves in fun ways.
Of course, the biggest appeal of the game is Spider-Man himself. The Arkham titles were previously considered the benchmark for super hero games for the way they made players feel like Batman. But I don’t think even the best entry in that series quite captured the essence of its titular hero the way Marvel’s Spider-Man puts players in the role of Spidey. The combat is fun and always evolving, but it’s the simple act of motion – the speed, the momentum, the physics – that provides the game’s greatest triumph. The game even features one of the most robust photo modes you will find in a game, a totally unnecessary but greatly appreciated feature that really hits the point home of all the crazy scenarios and actions Spidey can find himself in.
The side quests and other character sections aren’t always winners, and sometimes the game may not know when enough waves of mobsters are enough, but they’re small prices to pay for how well Marvel’s Spider-Man realizes its story and characters, and for how exhilarating it is just to travel around New York City as everyone’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.