So it seems I’m qualified to talk about three things on this site: Kingdom Hearts, superheroes, and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Well, KHIII isn’t coming out for a few months and Vento Aureo only just started, so it’s time for me to talk about Spider-Man!
Now, in my last superhero article, I made it a point to try and be fair and balanced. Not here, though. I am a Spider-Man fanboy. I have been for literal decades at this point. The webslinger is my favorite superhero of all time. So when I heard that Insomniac, the studio behind Ratchet and Clank, one of my favorite video game franchises, was handling a brand new game about my favorite superhero, I thought it was a match made in heaven. But could Insomniac really do the character justice? Could they really create a rich, rewarding experience? Was Marvel right to trust this studio with their most popular character?
Spider-Man has never had a game like this. A game that not only creates a fully realized, unique world not tied to a movie or ongoing comic, but also hits surprisingly emotional beats and character development. This isn’t just a superhero game. It’s a game that fully embraces the character’s long-standing legacy and different iterations throughout the decades. It’s as much a game about Spider-Man as it is a tribute to him.
SPIDER-BATMAN: NEW ARKHAM ASYLUM… CITY… KNIGHT
Now a lot of other reviews have been doing comparisons to the Batman: Arkham series, and I feel a little mixed about that. I think it’s a little disingenuous to just say that Spider-Man PS4 is the Spidey equivalent of Arkham City, but I will say that I believe Insomniac approached the hero and his friendly neighborhood with the same design philosophy that Rocksteady approached the Dark Knight with.
For a while now, Spider-Man has been plagued with movie tie-in games, and while the Amazing Spider-Man games weren’t necessarily bad, they were still hampered by being tied to the somewhat mediocre ASM movies. Spidey PS4, like Arkham, takes from multiple incarnations of the characters and blends them together to create a new, distilled incarnation of them. There are elements of 616, Ultimate, the Sam Raimi trilogy, the Amazing movies, and the MCU scattered throughout the game. Just like how the Arkham games pull from the DCAU, modern comics, and the Dark Knight trilogy.
Similar to Arkham, Insomniac decides to drop us several years after Spidey’s origin story. No need to show the hero learning the ropes, we’re far past that. We see the webslinger in his prime, armed with eight years of experience and upgrades to his equipment. He’s well established in the city, his rogue’s gallery has all been locked away, and J Jonah Jameson has retired from the Bugle to work on his anti-Spider-Man podcast. We’re dropped into the prime of his life. This is brilliant because it gives the player full access to tons of moves right off the bat, and your skills only grow from there.
Finally, while the combat isn’t a one-to-one parallel, there are a handful of similarities. Both games utilize a freeform combat structure with soft lock-on and a reliance on clearing long distances to reach enemies without breaking the flow of combat. Enemies will swarm both Batman and Spider-Man, and the heroes can use their fists and gadgets on the fly. Batman has a counter, while Spider-Man has a dodge. Batman will flip and dive to an opponent automatically, but Spider-Man has a dedicated web zip button to get to distant foes. At a glance, the games look comparable, but once you get your hands on them, they’re anything but. You might have some basic muscle memory if you go from one to the other, but you won’t get very far without learning the massive differences in the systems.
DO WHAT A SPIDER CAN
Boy, this game is big. There is a LOT to do crammed into one title. You have collectibles and challenges and sidequests and ongoing crimes to stop. And doing these helps you unlock new suits with new powers and new gadgets and upgrades for those gadgets and skill points to unlock new moves. There are podcast episodes to listen to and photos to take and SECRET photos to take and… Yeah, you get the idea.
Now, I’ve played games with a lot of collectibles before. With some of those games, the minute I saw the world map full of little icons, I could feel the energy draining from me. But Spider-Man is different for a few reasons.
For one, you can easily glide across the entire map immediately. The whole appeal of an open-world Spider-Man game is that you don’t need a fast-travel system in this game! You are the fast travel! One of the first things the game prompts you to do is activate the beacons to fill out your map. This can be done in about 20 minutes and then it’s crossed off the list forever. Once that’s complete, you can go and collect every available collectible without the need for skills to unlock them. For instance, there’s never a backpack locked behind a wall that you need a specific gadget for.
The sheer number of goodies is also aided by the way they’re introduced. You clear a story mission, and then a new set of stuff populates on the map. You make more progress, another wave of stuff unlocks. And so on and so on. And because Spider-Man is so mobile, there’s no reason you can’t literally depopulate your map before moving on to the next story beat. I never felt overwhelmed by the number of icons to clear off of the world map. There was never a collectible tucked away in a corner that would take me so far out of my way to pick up that I didn’t even want to bother. And because there are so many, even if you aren’t deliberately aiming to get them all, you’re still going to just stumble across so many of them just going from mission to mission.
If you listened to episode 54 of my podcast, The Gorge, you’d know that one of the reasons I loved Super Mario Odyssey so much is because the Power Moons were so easy to collect and so plentiful that they became less of a reward for doing a difficult task and more of a target for using your acrobatic skills. That’s what Spider-Man feels like. Granted, you actually can use the collectibles in Spider-Man to unlock new things, but they’re so dang easy to get that it doesn’t feel like a chore. Imagine how trivial things like scaling towers in games like Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry would be if you could just stick to walls.
Now here’s the interesting thing: As far as gameplay mechanics go, especially with your movement options, Spider-Man PS4 doesn’t… do a whole lot of NEW stuff. What it does, instead, is build on the foundation of previous games and incorporate those lessons. You’ve got the momentum based webswinging from Spider-Man 2, the wall-crawling and wall-running that feature in a number of games. Web zipping and launching and aerial combat and of course, webbing enemies up to immobilize them. All of these were first introduced in other games, but they’ve been refined and blended here to provide something truly rewarding.
Where the game really does shine gameplay-wise is the gadgets. If you’ve played a Ratchet and Clank, then you know how this works.
Hold down a shoulder button to freeze the game and select a cool combat gadget to mix things up. When I first started playing, I was hesitant to use them, opting more for webbing enemies up and knocking them out with my fists. Eventually, I started to get curious and it was then that I discovered how versatile they are. Every gadget has multiple purposes and is great for a variety of situations. Can’t get the timing right to slide under shielded enemies? Throw a Trip Web at their shield and wait for them to get too close to a wall. Brutes giving you trouble? Spider Drones can keep them busy while you get some distance. Getting swarmed? Throw down a Suspension Matrix and lock everyone in the air with plenty of time to smack them around. Once my muscle memory took over, I could swap gadgets within a second and keep the flow of combat going.
And that’s to say nothing of the suit powers. Unlocking new suits will almost always come with a bonus suit power. There are tons of them to pick from and while they can’t be switched as easily as your gadgets, you’re never locked into one. At any time, you can go to the pause menu and swap powers. Some of them are great for blasting enemies off roofs (who are then safely web-zipped to the nearest wall), some are good for stealth segments, and some are good for just making yourself stronger. And the best part is you don’t even need to equip the suit to use the power! Insomniac had the brilliant idea to keep the suit and power separate, so if you want to use Web Blossom, but really like the Noir suit, you can equip both! It’s GENIUS.
Alright, so it’s not all flawless momentum-based webswinging and smooth combat. The game has a few things for me to nitpick. For starters, we’re burdened with some rather boring stealth segments featuring MJ and Miles Morales. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got no problem with a game giving me a ton of abilities, and then yanking them all away for a mission or two and going: “Alright, buddy you figure it out now”.
The trouble with the MJ and Miles segments is that they’re just… not very complicated. When you do stealth work as Spidey, you’re given dozens of ways to approach your takedowns. You can distract enemies and throw off their patrol cycles, you can use instant takedowns that leave an unconscious body behind, or you can use longer web takedowns that remove an enemy from the line of sight. You can utilize your gadgets, scan which enemies are safe to pounce on, and zip to safety if you’re in danger of getting caught.
MJ and Miles don’t have any of that. MJ has devices that can lure enemies away. Miles can disrupt electronics with a hacking app. That’s about it. The vast majority of their segments are simply hiding behind waist-high cover and waiting for the enemy vision-cone to pass by you. They’re ridiculously easy and there’s really only one path you can take to get through them. If you’re going to strip away my abilities, you need to at least give me a challenge. There are later MJ sections that allow you to go on the offensive, which is nice. But by then, it’s too little too late. Hopefully, if these sections return in the sequel, they’ll be a bit more fleshed out.
The next big flaw I have is probably more of a personal problem, but dang those Taskmaster challenges are STRICT! Especially the drone missions that turn the game into a hi-res Superman 64. Momentum-based webslinging is good for getting from one place to another quickly and creatively. It’s not so good at the precision. Trying to jump through rings is a pain, especially when you have to do it quickly, without much time to plan out your moves. Too often I’d overshoot or undershoot my swing. Then I’d have to decide if I should go back and hit the ring, wasting valuable time, or move ahead and try to make up the points later. Drone challenges are the only collectible in the game that I had to force myself to do.
Oh yeah, and hey game devs, you can stop putting Pipe Dream in your games. We all know what Pipe Dream is. We don’t need to keep playing it. No one’s favorite game is Pipe Dream.
So a lot of reviews are echoing that this game really makes you feel like Spider-Man. I don’t think that’s necessarily accurate. This game didn’t make me feel like I was the webslinger. It felt more like I was playing Spider-Man in his purest form. Like I mentioned earlier, this game draws inspiration from all over. Now, there have been Spider-Man games in the past that weren’t fully based on a movie. Web of Shadows, Shattered Dimensions, and Edge of Time are all fairly recent examples of that. But those didn’t explore their worlds as much as this game does. While Web of Shadows had us working alongside crossover characters like Luke Cage and Wolverine, it didn’t do much diving into the world it built.
That’s what sets Insomniac’s game apart. Normally, if a Spider-Man game advertises juggling roles as Peter Parker and Spider-Man, what it really means is “Aunt May might show up once” or “Peter might take his mask off at some point”. Heck, some games have you in-costume literally the entire time. Insomniac made me feel like there was a person underneath the mask. In this PS4 version, a significant part of the game is spent as Peter Parker talking to friends and family. It helps build up the relationships between the characters and make them more real.
Insomniac strikes a perfect balance of relying on the familiar and throwing a few curveballs at longtime fans of Spider-Man.
Not being based on a movie or ongoing series gives them the freedom to explore and try new things with their version of the character. Like I said earlier, this Spider-Man is eight years into his career, and he’s put away or had encounters with classic villains like Kingpin, Vulture, Electro, and the Lizard. Kingpin, one of Spidey’s most dangerous recurring foes, is reduced to a tutorial boss and is removed from the playing field within hours of starting the game. Sure, the effects of his removal lay the groundwork for the rest of the story, but he’s no longer an active player.
The curveballs aren’t just tied to the villains. Peter’s friends and family also provide a good blend of familiarity and something new. Insomniac chose to focus more on the girl-next-door aspect of MJ, changing her from a supermodel to a reporter, allowing her to get more involved with the action, and tying her more to her Ultimate universe portrayal than her 616 self. Aunt May, too, takes more of a page from the Amazing and MCU movies, portraying her as slightly younger and more active. The introduction of FEAST gives her a chance to live her own version of “with great power comes great responsibility”. And of course, there’s Miles, who is made more tech-savvy and a major Spider-Fan, allowing him to more easily bond with both Peter and Spider-Man.
All these deviations from the norm help establish these characters as more than just appearances in a game. In games like Web of Shadows or Shattered Dimensions, villains exist to be boss fights. MJ exists as someone to rescue. Insomniac goes the extra mile to make these characters into… well, characters. With actual motives, personalities, thoughts, and opinions. MJ getting a more active role in Peter’s superheroics isn’t just a way to give her gameplay sections, it’s used as a way to explore her relationship with Peter. The lack of communication between the two of them, the inability to compromise is a struggle they have to go through and overcome by the end of the story.
This is also aided by the fact that there is a TON of dialogue in this game. Cutscenes, banter, and phone calls while swinging around town. There are ample opportunities to further develop these characters and build their relationships with Spidey and Peter. If you’ve ever played Spyro or Ratchet and Clank, then you know Insomniac has a sharp sense of humor and are well-versed in snarky protagonists. It’s no surprise that the dialogue in this game is beautifully written and the humor is non-stop. Captain Yuri plays the perfect straight man to Spidey’s jokes, Aunt May adds a perfect, endearing honesty in her conversations with Peter, and of course, Spidey’s quips absolutely infuriate his enemies.
Now, the snappy dialogue is also aided by the brilliant voice acting. Everyone in this cast is phenomenal, but Yuri Lowenthal is absolutely a stand-out. His performance as Spider-Man is nothing short of jaw-dropping. He has perfect comedic timing with his jokes, and the emotional levels he hits during the serious moments feel so real. And of course, I have to mention that all of his incidental dialogue, like the phone calls you get during the game, were recorded twice. Once if you’re just standing around and again if you’re swinging around the city.
All this to say that a major part of the game’s appeal is the story and cinematic qualities. Which is why I want to mention that with all these twists on established canon, Spidey has yet to encounter two of his most dangerous foes: Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin. And this is where the game’s story really shines.
**Alright, here’s the part of the review where I dive into end-game spoilers. If you haven’t beaten it, now’s your chance to skip ahead.**
Norman still plays an antagonistic role in the story, the sleazeball mayor of New York with tons of shady business deals going on behind the scenes. His Green Goblin persona is absent, although there are plenty of hints scattered around that green is in his future. More important is the development of Dr. Octavius into the villainous Doc Ock. The establishment of Octavius as a mentor to Peter, the focus the game puts on their shared struggles of wanting to help people despite multiple setbacks, and the development of Otto as a sympathetic character suffering from a debilitating illness is what turns the final confrontation from a standard bombastic battle with a dangerous foe into a heartwrenching conflict rooted in tragedy.
The story of Doc Ock, a brilliant scientist who went mad, is a tragic story in of itself— a man going from wanting to help humanity to swearing vengeance against it. But tying his downfall to Peter directly is what rockets it forward in terms of storytelling. Despite being Spider-Man, Peter is helpless when it comes to watching Otto’s frustration and repeated failures consume him. Norman’s influence, first shown when he snatches Peter and Otto’s victory away from them and then later when it’s revealed how he was responsible for Martin Li’s transformation, plays out directly before Peter’s eyes and, by extension, the player’s.
Otto’s downfall isn’t a problem that Spider-Man can handle. The tragedy lies in the fact that the only time Spider-Man can intervene is when it’s too late and Otto is too far gone to be saved. Web of Shadows ends with a climactic battle with a giant monstrous Venom. Shattered Dimensions ends with all four Spider-Men teaming up against a magically-charged Mysterio. Big, fun, bombastic endings full of excitement, requiring you to use all your skills and spider powers to beat the foe at their absolute strongest. Here, the final battle is a duel in the rain, both men stripped of their gadgets and technology, exhausted, beaten down, the friendship and respect they shared broken beyond repair. There isn’t a triumphant victory here. Just a tragedy that Otto started and Spider-Man couldn’t stop.
The tragedy is further driven home in the game’s final major cutscene, and before I get into that, I want to talk about a mechanic that is surprisingly absent from an open world game: player choice. Most modern open world games allow users to make some kind of narrative choice. Games like Deus Ex or Dishonored will allow you to pursue things non-lethally or violently. A game like Horizon might let you pick dialogue options. They don’t change much but they allow players to more imprint themselves on the player character. Spider-Man is no stranger to this as well, with Web of Shadows using the symbiote as a way to establish a morality gauge. It gave players the freedom to choose good or evil actions with the narrative excuse of the symbiote corrupting Spider-Man. But this feels artificial in the context of Spider-Man. When WoS came out, morality choices were the new hotness, so it ends up feeling tacked on here. Just a bonus mechanic that was present because it was popular at the time.
Insomniac’s Spider-Man is devoid of those kinds of choices, not even allowing for dialogue prompts. You cannot make Spider-Man deviate from the morality and honor that makes him Spider-Man. And this is directly tied to the game’s finale with Aunt May.
In the latter half of the game, Doctor Octopus unleashes a virus onto New York that infects a majority of the population, leaving them hospitalized with little time before it turns fatal. One of the victims of the virus is Aunt May. The finale becomes a race against time to obtain the only remaining sample of the virus that can be turned into a cure. However, it’s a race that Spider-Man ultimately fails. The virus sample is delivered on time, but it is the only dose available. Peter is faced with a moral dilemma. He can either use the only sample of the cure on Aunt May, and leave the city without a chance, or he can leave the sample to be replicated for everyone else, which takes time May doesn’t have. Ultimately, he can’t bring himself to give her the cure, and he’s forced to let her die to save everyone else.
I saw a user’s post on Reddit that perfectly sums up why the finale hits so hard, and why Insomniac was both brave and smart enough to go there.
“When I was happily bubbling about the ending to a friend he understandably thought the Aunt May v City was a little player choice bit, to which I replied instantly ‘There’s no choice there, are you crazy? This game is about being Spider-Man’.”
In a game where we have full access to Spider-Man’s abilities and free roam of his city, we aren’t in charge of his morals. The choice between saving Aunt May or saving the city isn’t a choice, because Spider-Man would never condemn the city like that. It’s not in his nature. Insomniac understands this, and that’s what sets this game apart from other Spider-Man games. It’s one thing to make a fanservice-heavy game like Shattered Dimensions, which stars a huge roster of fun, obscure villains and allows you to equip all four Spideys in a variety of classic costumes. But removing what would, in another game like, say, Mass Effect or Fallout: New Vegas, be a choice that would affect a possible ending, Insomniac shows that they have a much stronger grasp on what makes Spider-Man such a great and interesting character in the first place.
FINAL THOUGHTS **SPOILERS ARE OVER**
Overcoming deep, personal hardship is the foundation of Spider-Man. The death of Uncle Ben is what motivated him into being a superhero in the first place. But it’s an aspect of the character usually reserved for movies and comics. Most superhero games, barring the rare exceptions like Arkham, exist to either be a quick cash-in for a new movie, or a fun action game full of cameos like the Ultimate Alliance series. Story, drama, emotional beats don’t really factor into superhero games that often. Insomniac’s Spider-Man is an exception. One that ultimately elevates it to pretty much the best Spider-Man game that could possibly exist. Insomniac didn’t just want to make a Spider-Man game. They wanted to tell a full-fledged Spider-Man story. There’s a reason this game doesn’t have a subtitle. Because this game is Spider-Man, as much Spider-Man as you can get.
Insomniac’s Spider-Man isn’t just the best Spider-Man game to exist, it very well may be the best superhero game to come out, period. It’s filled to bursting with lore, the combat and traversal mechanics have been refined over and over into near perfection, and it has such a great respect for the characters and for the Marvel universe as a whole.
With the lingering hooks the game leaves behind, it’s clear Insomniac has big plans for the future. I look forward to seeing what comes next, and seeing how they could even possibly improve on a game that’s already almost flawless.
Also, photo mode is tons of fun, all video games should have one.
Okay so if you want to hear me talk about other kinds of games I love you can go ahead and listen to our podcast, it’s The Gorge Podcast: With Ben and Sara, or you can follow me on twitter at @thegorgepodcast where I’m way more snarky about stuff. Or if you wanna e-mail me directly you can send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org alright that’s all my plugs thanks for reading byyyyyyyyeeeeee