Marvel's Spider-Man Review
You seriously think I'm a cop?
Spider-Man is arguably one of the most popular superheroes from the Marvel universe. Few other characters have received quite so much exposure over the past few decades, until the more recent Marvel movie explosion. There have been 3 film reboots of the character in the last 15 years, with varying degrees of success. The hero has also been a staple in video game realm, with over 10 games in the same time span. However, most of the recent game efforts have been lackluster, and many fans remembering the early 2000s entries as the best experiences. Sony, with the help of Marvel and developer Insomniac Games, have set out to break the mold and create a game that's worthy of the name. A PlayStation 4 exclusive, Marvel's Spider-Man manages to shake off its recent rocky past to create a fun and engaging adventure for the web-slinger.
In this game's version of our hero's universe, we find an experienced Spider-Man who is well versed in protecting his beloved New York City, keeping crime at bay and casually taking down local villains. He keeps in touch with detective Yuri Watanabe, creating a link to the NYPD when crimes need to be reported and foes jailed. When not in costume, the young Peter Parker works as a science lab intern, helps out his Aunt May at a homeless shelter alongside Martin Li, and hopes to find ways to reconnect with Mary Jane Watson after their apparent breakup six months ago. MJ still works at the Daily Bugle as a reporter, while the always critical J. Jonah Jameson hosts a radio show where he criticizes the web-crawler for his antics. Norman Osborn is the city's mayor, running for re-election.
Of course, it doesn’t take long before some nefarious events begin to unravel in the city. Spider-Man crosses paths with Wilson Fisk, a criminal overlord that's been causing trouble, and promptly puts him away behind bars. With him in jail, however, the Fisk territories face a hostile takeover by a new gang called the Demons. These mask-wearing foes go beyond the basic guns and utilize mysterious energy weapons. Peter, Yuri, and MJ become involved in trying to stop this ongoing turf war, and just when they think they have it figured out, we learn that Martin Li is actually Mister Negative, seemingly hell-bent on inflicting pain on Norman Osborn. Our webbed superhero and his two close allies set out to stop the villain from inflicting any more damage to the city and its civilians.
The main characters are well realized and likeable, and there is plenty of good humor that works naturally in the dialog and feels trademark to the hero. The voice acting is excellent throughout. It certainly doesn't hurt that all cutscenes and in-game interactions are superbly animated, and dialogue between characters uses great facial tech. The writing is exactly what you'd expect in a superhero film, for better or worse. Sadly, there are only a handful of interactions to speak of; the vast majority of the game only sees Peter interact with his allies, while the likes of Silver Sable and a new crew of the Sinister Six act as glorified cameos. There are too few truly memorable encounters, and not many exciting scripted action set pieces. There's another villain as well, but the game makes their identity pretty obvious from the opening hours.
While the story seems promising, there are some major drawbacks that prevent this tale from being all that great. Aside from a great opening and closing few hours, the middle section drags, as Spidey keeps following up on clues and trying to prevent Demons from wrecking havoc on the city, but more often than not he is late to the party. This investigation-focused middle chapter sort of brings the pacing to a halt and doesn't live up to the promising opening. There are also jarring changes in tone; certain events lead to the rather brutal deaths of civilians that are uncharacteristic of the typically lighthearted atmosphere. Without going into spoilers, there's some seemingly significant terrorist acts that cause/have the potential to cause a very high bodycount, but Peter and MJ just don't seem as concerned as they should be. The game saves another few dark events for the final hour as well, leaving you with a rather conflicted feeling about if this was a typical happy Spider-Man adventure or something unnecessarily dramatic. The post-credits scenes leave little to the imagination on where the sequel is headed, and who will be making new/returning appearances.
When you get to pick up the controller, Marvel's Spider-Man begins to shine. The first thing you do is get familiar with the swing mechanics, a unique and arguably very important part of the experience. By simply holding R2, you will swing in whatever direction you're facing, as the game more or less accurately uses the structures around the city where your web would feasibly attach. A few other moves flesh out your mobility options; pressing X web-zips you ahead, and you can seamlessly enter and exit wall runs, and swing around buildings; you can also press L2/R2 to zip to a nearby UI-marked ledge as a perch, or press X just as you land in order to use it as a boost point instead. With all that said, the movement and web-slinging controls are rather excellent. They are fun to execute, and require just enough effort while also being very accessible. The sense of speed, catching big air, swinging between buildings, and the excitement of performing movie-like pirouettes in the middle of Manhattan combine to create a purely enjoyable experience. While fast travel is unlocked later on, the dynamic traversal mechanics remain fun for the entirety of the game's 20+ hour campaign, and are bound to still bring a smile to your face many hours later.
It doesn't hurt that you'll be swinging through the fairly large and very detailed virtual recreation of New York. The great movement mechanics combine with the large city to create a great sense of freedom, a desire to explore and visit various landmarks, and just hang around (and upside down). From Times Square, to Central Park, Wall Street, and even the Avengers Tower, this is a well realized world that feels lively and atmospheric. There are varied times of day, and although they only change with story progression, it still adds another layer of diversity and unique feel to this urban environment.
The city map is broken up into districts, mostly for the sake of tracking the various activities and your progress. The map is initially hidden, and you must visit a number of Oscorp surveillance towers to restore them to working order and reveal the map, though you can also use a pulse to make all nearby activities light up. Straightforward collectibles see you finding backpacks and photographing landmarks across the city. Randomized crime events ask Spidey to swing in and beat up some bad guys that are robbing a store or shooting at the police. Research stations have you perform a few tasks to help prevent Oscorp from causing damage to the city's human and animal populace. Enemy bases offer the chance to practice stealth and combat skills through multiple waves of foes. You later also meet the Taskmaster, who offers scored time limited challenges, such as defusing a few bombs in time, chasing a drone dropping security cameras, clearing out all foes in combat as soon as possible, or taking down all foes without being spotted. There's definitely no shortage of activities to undertake, and many even offer optional objectives (such as eliminating foes in a certain way) for additional bonuses and replay value.
All of these events double as the game's crafting resources. Clearing events earns corresponding Tokens - Base Tokens, Crime Tokens, Challenge Tokens, and so on. You'll need these in order to craft and upgrade Spider-Man's gadgets, suits, and suit mods. This means you'll definitely have to complete a number of these activities if you want that next cool suit or gadget upgrade, but it strikes a decent balance of not forcing you to do too many of them. Plus, most of these activities are also quick to do, so they don't feel like a grind for materials.
The game offers over 20 different Spidey costumes to purchase, inspired by many of his character's iterations over the years, and they unlock as you progress the story. Buying a new suit not only gives you the look, but it also grants you that suit's special power. These powers recharge overtime and help momentarily turn the tide of battle - they range from electric punch, to a web blossom that traps all nearby enemies, to some more devastating area attacks. The cool thing is that you can use any of the powers you have with any of the costumes, if there's a certain look you prefer to stick with. The suit can also be enhanced with passive mods (which remain in place regardless of your attire), such as reduced incoming damage, faster gadget recharge times, extra XP from defeated enemies, extended time slow after dodges, and so forth. These too need to be purchased with Tokens, as do gadgets. The 8 gadgets are used in combat to help control the crowds of foes, and include impact web, electric web, web bomb, concussive blast, and so on. They can be swapped on the fly with a weapon selection wheel, and have limited ammo; upgrades can be purchased to expand their capacity and functionality.
Despite so much to do and so much content on offer, Marvel's Spider-Man is one of the more limiting open world experiences in recent memory. The time of day is static and cannot be changed (until beating the game), though perhaps that's a narrative decision. New suits, gadgets, and mods only become available with story progress. The game also takes its time revealing all activities - however, you'll have seen all that they have to offer within the first half; future activity unlocks are simply different spins on the same thing. Although these late reveals make sense, because they are somewhat story related, it sort of adds to the feel of the game's sluggish pacing. And as mentioned, the open world activities are sort of optional and sort of not, as they double as resources. There are also times when the game says now is the time to do some side content while you wait for the next story mission - an unnecessarily bossy instruction, and one that feels futile when the next story mission is revealed minutes later anyway.
A modern action game wouldn't be complete without an experience system. You get experience from defeating foes and completing missions, which in turn is used to unlock new abilities in three skill trees. The Innovator tree helps perform combat moves, such as swinging around enemies and objects, ripping guns from enemies, and so on. Defender skill tree improves dodging, health recovery, and lets you keep the combo going after being hit. Lastly, Webslinger tree skills helps aerial movement, both in and out of combat. This is one area where the game doesn't restrict you, as you can unlock any skills you'd like at any time.
With such an overwhelming amount of side content, including a few brief optional standalone story missions, you'd hope that the game's main narrative missions would be memorable. But sadly, much in the same way that an endearing cast of characters can’t save the sagging middle section of the story, the main missions during the middle act aren't overly impressive. For the most part, you'll be doing the same things you've already done - swing here, beat up some bad guys, interact with evidence, and perhaps solve one or two extremely simple puzzles. There are occasional exciting set pieces, and cool unique mechanics in some missions, but you'd certainly wish there were more.
Some missions have you control Peter Parker or other characters, from a traditional behind-the-shoulder perspective; these moments are meant to be more grounded, but instead feel rather boring. They often also involve forced stealth, but these linear sections don't provide any tension or require player skill. Boss battles are infrequent and brief, which is surprising giving Insomniac Game's pedigree for memorable and multi-stage encounters. Each battle follows the same formula - either wait for foe to get tired and attack, or spam your gadgets to stun them, and then attack. Rinse and repeat, and it's over all too quickly. It's disappointing because it doesn't even matter what gadget or skills you use - the entire game can be completed using the basic web shooter.
The regular foes feature the same vulnerability to all your web gadgets, but at least they come in a few different types. Regardless of the faction you're fighting, enemies will have whips, shields, rifles, swords, and so on, each needing a specific combat approach. The action in Marvel's Spider-Man plays out similarly to the Batman Arkham series on a basic level, with some melee combos to put foes down. But the combat system goes way beyond that, with plenty of focus on web moves, and being able to swing freely in and out of battle, which is refreshing. Use of the environment is also very important - you can web up and swing around a variety of objects and debris, knocking down foes. You can also bring down scaffolding, smack down a crane weight, fling back grenades, and even yank weapons away from foes. You can also attack from the air, and bring the enemies on a ride with you. If foes are further away, you can zip over to dish out some punches. Landing blows builds up your focus meter, which not only lets you perform instant takedowns when filled, but is also crucial as it is your only way to heal. Dodging is a key part of combat, as enemies can hit hard, plus it lets you slow time and re-orientate yourself. Combining web abilities with the smooth action and animations leads to a very satisfying combat system, though one that can get a bit chaotic sometimes when plenty of gunfire is involved. Still, it's fair and with a little practice, you can dish out some seriously stylish damage.
When you don't want to go in fighting (or the game requires you not to), Spider-Man shares some further similarities with Batman. You zip around the upper areas of the level, and can perform takedowns from above that knock out and zip up enemies out of view. You can also descend and dish the damage directly. Foes have a suspicious state, though it's rather simple, as they won't see you from just a few meters away. The enemies can also be separated by distractions. Stealth is rather easy overall, as you can pulse scan and highlight all nearby foes, and this also displays a status if they are safe to takedown without anyone noticing. All of the stealth missions, be they main or optional, feature rather basic designs with typically flat or just a couple of levels of elevation, so you can work your way down from the snipers to the ground foes. It's satisfying, but not as varied as the Arkham levels.
A couple of downsides to the action and stealth are the AI and the camera. As mentioned, enemies have inconsistent field of view, and you can sometimes fail stealth by no mistake of your own. In some scripted fights, AI sometimes gets stuck pathfinding, requiring you to swing over and finish the encounter. Some enemies even disappeared inside a vehicle, but thankfully an area attack still knocks them out. As for the camera - it is too close to webslinger when he is fighting on the ground. This limits your field of view, so you'll be most often relying on the visual "spidey sense" indicator around his head to dodge unseen attacks. There is no enemy lock-on, so manually orientating yourself can be annoying at times, but thankfully never frustrating.
The game always impresses with its attention to detail, even on the base PS4. In gameplay, the excellent animations smoothly chain together web swinging, parkour, and combat. Enemies you knock off buildings end up webbed up on the side, instead of just disappearing. When running up the side of a building, Spidey will automatically use his webs to climb over balconies that are non-flat surfaces. Falling into water does not spell doom - you simply float around and can jump out and away at the earliest opportunity. When walking around the streets, pedestrians will use random (but often repetitive) dialogue to exclaim their excitement, ask for photos, and offer high-fives. Besides the great facial animations and cutscenes mentioned early on, there's also an excellent soundtrack that accompanies the adventure, one that could easily belong in a Marvel movie. It even cheekily kicks off each time you start web swinging, adding to the immersion of the moment. Loading times are brief and only occur during missions. The only presentation blemishes are low-resolution copy-pasted interiors of buildings that you can see inside some windows, a few ragdoll bugs of fallen enemies, and an occasional minor stutter when accessing the menu.
Marvel's Spider-Man has so much potential to be amazing, but it only ends up being great. The excellent movement mechanics, from parkour to the web swinging, make traversing the well-realized New York City a pure joy. A deep combat system offers plenty of variety, and stealth mechanics work most of the time to a satisfying degree. The presentation is excellent throughout, including during cinematic moments with the well-realized characters. It's just too bad that the story feels poorly paced, and the villains get so little screen time. Story missions also leave a little more to be desired, though the optional content offers tons of gameplay hours to flex all your Spidey abilities. After years of subpar games, Marvel's Spider-Man delivers on the superhero experience that most everyone should check out. It's not perfect, but it's perfectly satisfying for fans of the web-head.
A digital code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.