Not Very Early Impressions: MARVEL’S SPIDER-MAN (PS4)

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The amazing, spectacular, sensational Spider-Man has been my favorite superhero for as long as I can remember. I haven’t really kept up with any comic books since the turn of the century, but that doesn’t stop me from still enjoying the classic Spider-Man stories from Stan Lee and Gerry Conway in the 60s and 70s, as well as the grittier fare penned by the likes of J.M. DeMatteis in later years. Of course, there are also the various movies and animated shows starring the friendly neighborhood wallcrawler, some of them excellent and others, shall we say, less so.

As is the case with most superheroes, however, video game success has mostly eluded the webhead, and he’s starred in his share of mediocre and downright terrible game adaptations. 2000’s Spider-Man for the PlayStation, N64, Dreamcast, and PC was a fine effort from Neversoft, but they never got another shot at a Spider-Man title as Activision wanted them to make Tony Hawk (and later, Guitar Hero) games until the end of time or at least until they stopped bringing in huge profits.

“What about the Spider-Man 2 movie game, you useless bum?!” you yell at me accusingly as you zip by on a physics-enabled webline. And yes, you’d be right to bring it up. Before Treyarch was sent to toil down in Activision’s Call of Duty mines, they made a few decent Spidey games, and 2004’s Spider-Man 2 is generally considered the highlight thanks in large part to its in-depth, physics-heavy web-swinging system. In prior games, Spidey’s webs didn’t attach to any buildings or objects, and his movement was basically just flying with a different animation, but Spider-Man 2 changed all that and is still considered the gold standard when it comes to realizing Spidey’s movement in video games. The actual game around the swinging mechanic left a lot to be desired, though, being a fairly by-the-numbers movie tie-in of that era but with an open world with nothing in it to do.

After Spider-Man 2, Treyarch developed a few more titles starring the character, but eventually Beenox Studios took over and created a number of mostly subpar games. Activision finally lost the Spider-Man license in 2014, and Marvel went to Sony (who, of course, have held the Spider-Man movie rights for many years, and those rights are still a tangled mess despite Sony’s current agreement with Marvel Studios) with the plan to redeem Spider-Man as a video game hero, much like DC, WB and Rocksteady Studios had already done to Batman with the Arkham games. The development itself would be handled by Insomniac Games, the people behind several quality titles such as Ratchet & Clank. Four years later, we have the results in our hands.

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Don’t mind the trophy notifications. I haven’t taken that many non-Photo Mode screenshots while playing, so these automated screengrabs the PS4 takes when you unlock trophies will do for now.

As many a video game reviewer has already stated, Marvel’s Spider-Man for the PS4 is the wall-crawler’s Arkham moment. Hey, it might not exactly be an original comment at this point, but it’s true. Never before has a video game starring the character managed to nail the style and feel of the comics and other Spidey media, and unlike Spider-Man 2 there’s actually a damn fine game around the impressive tech. There are flaws we’ll get into in a bit, but the overall experience is quite simply an overwhelming success. In a way, the game feels like 2018’s version of Horizon: Zero Dawn – a big open world blockbuster that does nothing particularly new but is so incredibly polished and enjoyable to play that it doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

Instead of basing the story on any existing comic or movie, Insomniac has decided to put their own spin on the Spider-Man universe and create a completely new continuity for this game. Yes, familiar characters from other Spidey media do still show up, there’s plenty of nods to the comics and other media and Peter Parker is still Spider-Man and all that, but not sticking to any established canon gives Insomniac more freedom to craft their story and world as they please.

Thankfully, Insomniac has decided not to tell yet another Spider-Man origin story with Peter Parker as an awkward teenager navigating his way through a bunch of high school drama. You know, now that I think of it… combining Spider-Man with the life sim portions of Persona actually sounds kind of intriguing, and I’m selling this idea to Marvel and Sony for the low, low price of one million euros. Uh, where was I?

Ah yes, the story. In Marvel’s Spider-Man, Peter Parker is 23 years old and has been Spider-Man for eight years, so he knows what he’s doing when it comes to being a superhero. In his personal life, Peter works as an assistant at a science lab, earning approximately nothing for his efforts. He still struggles with money and relationships, and comes off as an endearing dork with a silly sense of humor that comes up particularly often when he’s fighting crooks as Spider-Man. You know, just like Peter Parker should be. Peter’s voice actor Yuri Lowenthal does an excellent job bringing the character to life, as he really should because voicing goofy dorks (Yosuke in Persona 4, Matt Miller in Saints Row, etc. etc.) is kind of his thing.

I’m not going to go into any plot spoilers, certainly not anything that hasn’t been in the trailers, and that is for a very good reason – I haven’t completed the story yet, or even finished any of it beyond the first act (about a third of the game). Yet, I have been playing for at least 20 hours! That is not to say the story is massively long, it’s just that I have spent most of my time completing side content and simply web-swinging across Manhattan, doing nothing in particular.

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The web-swinging in Marvel’s Spider-Man doesn’t adhere to the laws of physics quite as strongly as Spider-Man 2. The controls are extremely similar (press R2 to shoot a web, analog stick to swing, X to jump at the right moment), but there is less of a learning curve here as you rarely if ever lose momentum while swinging, and dropping all the way to the ground is very rare unless you’re specifically trying to do so (and when you do, the pedestrians react to your antics. You can even walk down the surprisingly detailed streets and greet random people, giving them high-fives and posing for selfies). The physics may not be as realistic as Spider-Man 2, but the swinging mechanics feel involved enough and you can still pull off some extremely impressive tricks when you master the traversal. If you know how to use the environment to your advantage, you can cover a lot of distance and get a ton of airtime without ever swinging from a webline!

As you explore Manhattan, you have plenty of open world content to check out between story missions. Stopping street crimes, beating up thugs in their hideouts, and picking up collectibles is rewarded with different types of tokens that can be used to upgrade Spider-Man’s skills or gadgets or even unlock new suits with unique special abilities. The open world content is perhaps the weakest part of the game, because fixing radio towers or collecting backpacks just feels like generic Ubisoft-style busywork. The backpack collectibles at least contain fun references to Spider-Man’s past, and he makes amusing comments about each of the 55 items. There’s even an explanation why he has so many backpacks!

Street crimes and enemy bases are more fun to take on, as the fighting system in Marvel’s Spider-Man is rather excellent and the animation for Spidey’s moves is wonderfully fluid. The combat has been compared to the Arkham games, but I don’t think that comparison really holds up on anything beyond the most basic level. Yes, you punch and kick guys and utilize gadgets to build up combos, dodge attacks when your spider-sense flashes and so on, but the combat is not about counters like Arkham. There isn’t even a counter button, you’re supposed to dodge the attacks instead, and dodging also isn’t a magic teleport with invincibility frames unless you absolutely nail the timing (which also slows down time for a brief moment). Even if you dodge an attack, you can still get hit by something else because the enemies here don’t stand back and wait their turn like the thugs Batman faces. Oh, and guys with guns and rocket launchers appear in the first mission of the game.

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In exchange, Spider-Man has amazing maneuverability and can dodge anything including bullets in an instant, even if you’re mid-combo and/or in the air. If you’ve leveled up and unlocked certain skills, you can also use your webs to yank weapons off enemies or even stop rockets in mid-air and throw them back (they don’t explode if you do this, naturally). Flashbangs and stun grenades can also be thrown back at enemies, and so can anything in the environment that isn’t nailed down. Clobbering a far-off thug in the face with a manhole cover is very satisfying, and so is beating up enemy reinforcements with the doors of their own car.

Spider-Man isn’t really known for using lots of gadgets aside from his web shooters, but here you have a selection of toys including electric webs to stun enemies; impact webbing (the old Scarlet Spider favorite) and web bombs to instantly web up goons; laser wire web traps for stealth takedowns, and so on. Only Spidey’s default web shooters auto-regenerate, though; in order to replenish your other gadgets, you must take down enemies in combat or stealth. As you pummel and web up your foes, you build up Spider-Man’s Focus meter, which allows you to pull off slick finishing moves or heal up if you’ve taken a beating.

Speaking of dishing out and taking beatings, one minor gripe I have about this game is that Spider-Man kinda should be stronger. This is a guy who, when fighting his school bully Flash Thompson in a boxing match back in the 60s, pulled his punch as much as he possibly could and still knocked Thompson clean out of the ring! More recently, when Dr. Octopus was possessing Peter’s body during the Superior Spider-Man storyline, he literally smacked the Scorpion’s jaw off because he didn’t realize Peter was always pulling all his punches. Some thug whose only power is being kind of fat (aka this game’s version of the damage sponge “brute” enemy) shouldn’t take a million hits to go down. Spider-Man also loses a lot of health whenever he gets hit, which certainly does a decent job incentivizing NOT getting hit but it still feels odd at times. Then again, I guess it wouldn’t be much of an action game if Spidey could just clobber all non-superpowered foes to submission with ease.

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The original Spidey suit is in the game, along with almost 30 other ones. So, if you don’t like the new Advanced suit with the white logo, you have plenty of alternatives to choose from. Almost every suit has its associated special ability, and once you unlock them you can use these abilities with any suit.

I briefly mentioned stealth in a previous paragraph. Spider-Man’s power set is well suited for Arkham-style silent predator action, and indeed the stealth mechanics are very similar here. Perch on top of a vantage point, take down any hapless punk that walks beneath you, web-zip to another bit of scaffolding or what have you, and repeat. One very nice quality of life feature seen here is the ability to see exactly when taking down an enemy causes you to be detected by his buddies. You can use distraction tactics to lure a guy away from a group for a nice safe takedown, even if you opt for the louder Web Strike maneuver. Sometimes, it has seemed like I’ve been detected even though I should’ve been safe, but perhaps an enemy just turned around at the wrong moment. Besides, Spider-Man is so good at dodging that stealth isn’t really required for survival like it is in Batman’s predator rooms. It’s more of a fun way to thin out the enemy numbers before you go loud.

While Spider-Man can rely on his powers and not be bothered with stealth if you feel like it, a few story missions feature mandatory stealth sections where you play as other characters. The ones I’ve played through so far have been extremely easy, linear and short, and I’ve seen that later you can even work alongside Spider-Man and tell him to pick off enemies in your way. Basically, these stealth segments are as inoffensive as forced stealth goes, and I can take or leave them.

Another thing I can take or leave are quick time events. The more action-packed cutscenes in Marvel’s Spider-Man feature plenty of QTE action, but they can thankfully be set to auto-complete in the options menu. Even if you choose to leave them in, the timing appears to be very forgiving and you don’t lose much progress if you screw up. Still, I don’t mind sitting back and watching Spidey kick ass in a cutscene every once in a while. There will still be the occasional QTE-style button prompt during gameplay even if you disable them from the cutscenes, but those are rare and not very difficult. You can also change button-mashing QTEs to button-holding QTEs, which is always welcome as well.

I think that’s enough rambling about Marvel’s Spider-Man for now. As I said, I am still quite early in the game, and the story is only now starting to pick up. I know things are going to ramp up big time as we get closer to the finale and that there will be more enemy types and factions being introduced later to spice things up, so I’ve only really scratched the surface here. That being said, I am thoroughly enjoying my time with this game, and if you have ever been even a casual fan of Spider-Man, you owe it to yourself to play it. ‘Nuff said! (That reminds me, there’s even a Stan Lee cameo appearance in this game!)

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I think I might have broken that guy ever so slightly.

 

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