Throughout the duration of Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man, it is reiterated to you time and time again that this story is as much about Peter Parker as it is the costume wearing avenger that swings through New York’s skyline. While you will begin your story as Spider-Man, you also play much of the game as the humble Peter Parker – currently working as an assistant in a science lab, for someone who can be a bit of a handful to say the least.
Insomniac’s original story kicks off with you heading to the lair of gang boss Wilson Fisk (a name Marvel fans are well acquainted with) to finally take him down once and for all. You have been Spider-Man for eight years when the game starts, and as such your spider-powers are well seasoned; no Uncle Ben origin stories here. Swinging straight into a boss fight is a great ‘adapt or die’ way to get a quick grasp of the controls, too, which are relayed through a short in-game tutorial. You are guided mostly by Yuri Watanabe of the police force, but you’ll occasionally have to do some work for Aunt May at the homeless shelter, owned by Martin Li. He seems like a nice guy. Once Fisk is behind bars, you’ll have the mysterious Devils Breath to deal with, and you must get to the bottom of their nefarious plans before the entire city comes undone. “The best Spider-Man stories are the one where his and Peter Parker’s worlds collide,” and that’s definitely at play here. Expect to see some familiar villain faces, too.
Your very first action in Marvel’s Spider-Man is to press R2 and swing through the city, and thank god the mechanic is so satisfying, as you’ll be doing that a lot. Insomniac have adapted a real ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ approach to webslinging. If you so desire, you could simply press and release R2 to your heart’s content, and that will get you around the city just fine. If you want more of a challenge, you can press X to propel yourself forward or ‘point launch’ off a perch, and even use a combination of aiming and point launching to spring around the town like a different kind of scarlet speedster. The shorter jumps using X are a much easier way to get over low-lying buildings and get places quickly, but it’s always nice to slow down and just swing around skyscrapers too. R2 is also your run/parkour button, that you can use to jump over objects or run up the side of buildings. It also seems that Insomniac have taken a leaf out of Santa Monica Studios’ book, giving you J. Jonah Jameson’s radio show to listen to while you swing your way around, not unlike our running commentary from a severed head in God of War.
Once you’ve got to where you need to go, chances are your next move will be to take out the bad guys. Time and time again, the game’s combat has been compared to the Batman Arkham games, but there are a lot of differences too. Spidey can’t take as many hits at Bruce, for one, so it’s best to take on enemies one by one rather than in large groups. Basic combat is square to punch, triangle to use webs to pull enemies closer, and circle to dodge. Of course, all of these can be chained and upgraded, so by the end-game you really are the acrobatic improviser Spider-Man was bitten to be. Stealth gameplay is also simple; by webbing up enemies from perches, you can distract them by shooting webs nearby and single each of them out for individual takedowns. It’s down to personal preference, really.
You find out pretty early on in the game that MJ and Peter have broken up about six months ago, and yet he runs into his ex at a Fisk Estate sale, where she is ‘covering’ the case in her new job as a reporter for the Daily Bugle. Where it gets even more interesting is that you can actually play as Mary Jane, too, though her mechanics revolve mostly around stealth and puzzle solving – she’s not quite as athletic as Peter.
All this without mentioning the wonderful gadgets you have at your disposal. Peter’s habit of tinkering where he perhaps shouldn’t meshed with Insomniac’s brilliant gadget design (hello, Ratchet & Clank) means gadgets were an inevitable inclusion. You start the game with a simple web shooter (that does what it says on the label) and can then discover more interesting toys later, like web bombs and drones. All of these can be upgraded as you progress through the game and earn experience.
And you will be doing a lot of upgrading. As you play through the story, you’ll earn experience points that then level you up and grant you skill points to use in your upgrade tree. The tree is divided into three disciplines that translate loosely to traversal, combat, and tech upgrades; for example you can upgrade some of your web slinging moves to get around a bit faster. Levelling up usually also unlocks a new suit, but you need to collect tokens throughout the world to actually purchase (and wear) them. Each suit has an individual ability that is also unlocked when purchased, but you can swap abilities between suits to pick one that looks nice and also wreaks havoc on your enemies.
If you don’t fancy taking part in the main story (or you’ve finished it), you can instead check out happenings around (huge) New York – which is, of course, Marvel’s New York, so don’t forget to swing by Avengers Tower, the New York Sanctum, and the Wakandan Embassy, just to name a few points of interest. Syncing with local surveillance towers will let you tap into the network and discover nearby points of interest. As the game progresses, you will unlock different types of instances, but you can expect to be able to do things like photograph landmarks, take out buildings full of remnants of Fisk’s gangs, and pick up old backpacks of Peter’s that he’s left lying around the city. Different types of events will reward you with different tokens that can be used for upgrading suits or gadgets. As you’re running around, chances are you will also reach ‘benchmarks’; things like swandiving a certain distance and reaching a certain speed while swinging, so there’s always something new to work towards.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is so gratifying thanks to its dependence on style. Whether you’re gallivanting around the city or taking on the biggest of bad guys, you have to look good doing it, and thankfully the devs really want you to look your best. The animations are so smooth, whether you’re leaping from one building to the next, or sliding under a riot shield to very nicely tap a bad guy on the shoulder from behind. It might not be something many people touch on, but even a slight lag in animation can rip you right out of a game, and we never once experienced that. You truly do feel as though you are Spider-Man, and have been swinging around New York saving lives for the past eight years. Playing the game as both Peter Parker and Spider-Man (as well as some other familiar faces that you’ll encounter along the way) meant that the gameplay was never stale; not that there was ever any danger of getting bored of swinging around Manhattan. Peter’s work in the lab and the minigames that come with it are enjoyable and just the right level of intricate, and just one of the many ways you can find yourself spending hours at a time in Marvel’s Spider-Man.
At the core of the game’s allure is Spider-Man’s charisma. Fair warning – if you aren’t a fan of Spider-Cops or awful puns, you might have a hard time listening to Peter’s every quip, but as a perfect reflection of the comic book character we’re so happy they made it in there. Parker is a genuinely likeable character, and in the story’s more touching moments you genuinely feel for the lad.
Hearkening back to the golden days of Spider-Man 2, Insomniac Games’ Marvel’s Spider-Man is easily one of the webslinger’s best outings yet. Whether you’re a Marvel fan, just a Spider-fan, or simply just need something to play before we get bombarded with an avalanche of games between now and March, Marvel’s Spider-Man is a testament to the remarkable devs at Insomniac, and will undoubtedly be remembered as a genre-defining superhero game, and a monument to what an exceptional video game can be. Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man now sits alongside Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn and Sony Santa Monica’s God of War as an indisputable reason to own a PS4.