Spider-Man is finally here.
After a long, long, long string of not awful, but just above average at best interpretations, the trepidation has been immense. Would this be just another funnish title for the stack, or could it be something more? Could it be greater? With Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham series coming to a close after Arkham Knight, we’ve all been ready for a new great superhero adaption. Many of us have probably wondered why there weren’t more games of that caliber long ago. After all, Arkham showed time and time again that it was very possible, so why not? Superheroes are more popular than ever. Where was the Iron Man or Captain Marvel? Where was the Superman to finally wash out the bad taste of Superman 64? While we could speculate that it’s because movie tie-ins are cheap and easy, good for a quick buck, that never stopped Arkham, so it seems unlikely.
Then, E3 2016 arrived and with it, along came a Spider.
The first teaser was amazing. The 2017 gameplay was spectacular. With them, the hype grew and grew. It was going to be almost impossible to live up to. Not to mention the inevitable comparisons it would draw to Arkham Knight as an open world, superhero action game. Through it all, my internal monologue just kept chanting “Please be good. Please Be good.”
Peter Parker And His Amazing Friends
From a long and overbearing study of demo footage, trailers and developer interviews, I had little worry that the gameplay was going to be enjoyable at the very least. Along with that, I have faith in Insomniac Games as a studio to put out a quality product. However, I’m what you might call ‘invested’ in Spider-Man, Peter Parker and his supporting cast. Another Arkham City with a Spider-Man skin on it was not going to cut it, no matter how tight the gameplay was.
Right from the get go, literally 10 seconds in, I could tell that they got it. A blast of pop rock as the camera pans over Peter’s apartment, complete with low budget, homemade inventions. This holds up throughout every story scene. There are these little touches to show off the research and understanding that went into writing for both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. This attention carries over into the extended cast. Miles, Mary Jane and Aunt May have all been done a great service, and none are simply sold off as plot devices.
Not only are the characterizations bang on point, but the entire narrative is good. It’s really, really good. It was important for Insomniac to nail the humour of Spider-Man, but this story goes beyond that. Don’t get me wrong, the plot is fairly predictable. As predictable as any major superhero media adaption. However, the delivery is superb. Spider-Man can be plenty funny during his scenes or in open world soundbites, but Parker, et al get to have their own introspection with interesting and at times even dark and emotional scenes.
Learning to Crawl
Getting into the mechanics, it is impossible not to draw comparisons to the Arkham series. Although the bread and butter are very similar, Spider-Man manages to set itself apart enough that it does feel like its own game. Before long, you’ll be swinging around New York boroughs without ever thinking of gliding through Gotham.
Getting around can be as simple or as stylish as you like. Holding onto R2 Spidey will sling a web onto a nearby point (provided there’s one there to latch onto) and swing into the air. Even with just that, the freedom of this feels phenomenal.
While this will get you where you need to go, there’s way more to it than that. You can choose to sling a fresh web and time how you build up momentum, or directly web zip to force yourself in a new direction. Finally, you have the option to slow time, take aim and latch onto a specific point. The physics in action are a marvel to see as you build up momentum, fling yourself around a corner and immediately start wall running.
It can be quite overwhelming to pin it all down, simply because it’s all given to you right at the get-go instead of being locked behind perks. That said, it doesn’t take too long to get to grips with and feels entirely natural once you do. After you get going, it really sells this feeling of being totally free to travel how you like. It’s light and acrobatic, just as Spider-Man should be. Even after a solid 50 hours I was still choosing to swing rather than fast-travel. When I finally did fast travel I was greeted by another neat transition. I ended up letting myself travel more after that, just because it was a nice touch.
Go Down Swinging
Spider-Man‘s freeflow combat draws yet more comparisons to Arkham. As with movement, it can be overwhelming at first. Although gadgets and perks will enhance the abilities available to you, even the basic and web attacks give you a wealth of options to choose from. The basic fisticuffs follow the same punch and dodge shtick you’d expect. What I didn’t expect was that all of those stylish dodges, grabs and throws shown off in the trailer would become part of my regular combat repertoire. In Arkham I really only made much use of gadgets and fancy footwork during challenges. In Spider-Man, again, after getting comfortable with combat, I was using them for every fight. Not a single battle passed without tossing around enemies or interacting with the environment.
Another thing I was surprised to find was that most of my combat was airborne. I could web enemies up in the air, then either hop up for a regular combo, or swing them down to glue them to the floor or wall. Unlike Arkham, pulling it all off doesn’t require learning 16 different button combinations. Everything is done with just a few combos in either a long or short press. Not only that, but these are all natural extensions of the motions used for web slinging through the city.
To close on the Arkham comparisons, combat for Spider-Man is a lot faster and more hectic. Spidey himself also feels a lot lighter. Whereas Batman combat almost felt like slow motion, with enemies running in one at a time, Spider-Man sees many attacking at once. Rather than patient choreography, this requires a lot more thinking on your feet. Who do you web where, and what to you throw at who? This continues service towards making Spider-Man feel light, athletic and acrobatic.
I Want Pictures! Pictures of Spider-Man!
So, Spider-Man gets the core of Spider-Man down, but what about his world? While it doesn’t do anything to innovate on building a wide cityscape, what it does do is well implemented. As someone who has never been to New York, this minimized version of the city is mostly believable. Even with a ton of both real world and fiction Marvel locations slipped in it never feels cramped. Insomniac’s ways of getting you to explore the world are also more enjoyable than most open world collectathons.
Peter Parker has a history of photography. This means the most obvious way to get people to explore these details of world building is to add mechanics for photography. Thankfully they’ve prevented it from becoming a chore by loosening the rules for just how clear a photo needs to be. By far, my favourite touch for these usually menial tasks was the Backpack collecting. These are the most numerous of all collectibles, dotted all over the map. Inside each one is a tiny tidbit of Spider-Man history with a short narration by Peter. It was a small thing, but I couldn’t help thinking that collecting 200 Riddler Trophies would’ve been a lot more entertaining if they’d each had some significance.
These well delivered tidbits help to overcome the game’s one weakness: Its brevity. This seems strange to say, since ~15 hours of core story is more than most action games have to offer, but it felt like less. When it was finally over I wanted a lot more. I wanted a lot more backpacks with their history. More photos of interesting places. Even just more random street crime.
With Great Power…
That’s Insomniac’s tagline for Spider-Man and they’ve really managed to live up to it.
Spider-Man is more than just another sandbox action game. It is even more than an almost perfect example of a sandbox action game. Spider-Man is an interactive ode to Uncle Ben’s famous quote and the things our superheroes should command of us. Through the story, dialogue and world building, Spider-Man shows us what it is to behave like a hero. Being Spider-Man is about more than using violence to prevent theft. It is also about being Peter Parker. It is through Parker’s eyes, rather than Spidey’s that Spider-Man shines brightest. Helping Aunt May at FEAST is almost as rewarding as stopping a mugger. It’s Peter’s attitude towards justice and just acting like a decent human being that will completely immerse you in the world Insomniac have crafted.
When all the other quests were done, I found myself just walking through Central Park, thinking “Y’know, just saving kittens from tree or a tall ledge wouldn’t be out of place here.” That’s what Spider-Man wants to sell you on. The power fantasy isn’t getting a reward for helping people. Helping people without reward is the power fantasy. Without going into detail; Peter will comment on what he sees and throw out some statistics. After a bit of Googling, I discovered that these numbers were fairly accurate for New York. It’s these small things that make the difference. Insomniac aren’t telling us that Spider-Man is a good guy. They’re showing us that Peter Parker is, through his empathy. That’s what sets Spider-Man apart.
Amazing. Spectacular. Does Whatever A Spider Can!
This is the quintessential Spider-Man experience. Insomniac aren't just delivering another great Kratos or Talion, they're delivering the first great Peter Parker. Enough to tick all the boxes for long time fans and fresh enough to introduce new ones.