Marvel's Spider-Man PS4 Review: Amazing Fantasy
You can’t go past Spider-Man’s best stories without a good duality–the awkwardness of Peter Parker versus the confidence of his alter ego, the relatable humanity of his adversaries versus their heinous deeds, and the age-old ditty about juggling power and responsibility. Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man juggles dualism too, not just in its narrative themes but its mechanical execution. Intense boss fights are balanced with leisurely exploration. You’ll make the most of Spidey’s acrobatic abilities in the open world, but also the mundane abilities of his less super-powered allies in linear stages. Dualities usually suggest there’s a poorer trait, but they’re often integral in characterizing the whole. That’s Insomniac’s Spider-Man–it’s a fantastic experience that completely absorbs you into its unique slice of the Marvel universe, and while that’s partly defined by a slew of menial tasks, it becomes easy to forgive, because they’re part of what helps complete the fantasy of becoming a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
It’s obvious to point out that a lot of the ideas in Marvel’s Spider-Man have already appeared in a number of existing video game interpretations of the character–surely one of the pitfalls of revisiting something so perennially popular. But where Insomniac’s version elevates itself, and where it makes an immediate impact, is in the slick presentation that neatly wraps major parts of the experience. It’s obvious that the last decade of Marvel Cinematic Universe releases has had an effect here–its photorealistic slant shies away from any overt association to comic books. Bright, saturated colors and stirring orchestral hooks are ever-present, and sweeping angles with camera effects majestically frame Spidey’s signature combat style and acrobatics around the city, emphasizing them as the hyperreal feats they are.
But it’s the story that has benefited from Marvel’s popular cinematic formula the most. Insomniac’s interpretation spends a lot of time focusing on the human side of the tale, and Marvel’s Spider-Man features some solid understated performances. Peter Parker is an experienced Spidey, but still suitably dorky, and his relationships with the important people in his life have a major role to play. The game spends ample time dwelling on supporting characters, a move which aids later narrative developments in producing more effective impacts.
There’s always an interesting dynamic with superhero stories–you’ll likely be able to accurately predict the fates of characters you’re familiar with, but going along for that ride regardless and watching with bated interest to see how things unfold this time around is where the value lies. Marvel’s Spider-Man takes inspiration from an Amazing Spider-Man storyline penned by Dan Slott, who is credited as a writer here. Peter’s elderly Aunt May works at a homeless shelter run by Martin Li, an entrepreneur with a selfless heart of gold, but also a more negative side. Needless to say, things get complicated and worlds collide, but Insomniac takes multiple hard detours from the source material.
Li and other antagonists also benefit from a generous amount of time devoted to exploring their humanity, through both cutscenes as well as environmental storytelling. Marvel’s Spider-Man features segments where you explore key locations as Peter Parker, observing spaces, finding audio logs, listening to Pete’s self-narration, chatting with characters, and playing minigames passed off as “scientific research.” You’ll also occasionally step into the shoes of other characters like Mary Jane, a Daily Bugle journalist in this timeline, as she dives into a more involved investigation using her own unique sets of skills.
Mary Jane’s stages feature rudimentary stealth mechanics on top of regular exploration, and her clandestine skillset becomes more diverse as you continue to revisit her side of the story. These mechanics aren’t particularly demanding and you don’t use them enough to wear out their welcome, but these supporting segments do feature some memorably tense scenarios and as a whole do help create a stronger attachment to the characters. It’s easy to find yourself feeling more involved.
All this narrative build-up pays off in a big way, too, and when the game does reach its tipping point, it’s shocking how devastating the events can feel–even if you can predict what’s coming. Marvel’s Spider-Man is very good at making its stakes feel sky-high, evil actions genuinely villainous, consequences actually upsetting. The story is emotionally charged and effective at spurring you into action–late in the game, there’s an urgency that builds up and succeeds in creating the superhero’s dilemma of being pulled in multiple places at once, each option a dire situation, and the circumstances make you feel helpless despite your supernatural abilities. It’s an incredible feeling, and the major beats of Spider-Man’s story missions are certainly one of the game’s highlights.
The high bar set in the main plot shines a harsher light on the rest of the game’s activities, though. The game features a number of side quests, most of which branch off the main story, but these don’t have the same narrative energy as the main throughline, which makes them much less compelling. There are also a number of other optional activities, all ostensibly moderate tests of skill asking you to exercise your abilities in combat, traversal, or stealth. These challenges can be unique, but the dressing on them can also be uninspired, making them strange at best (curing avian flu in pigeons) and menial at worst (three different kinds of horde mode-style challenges).
Dealing with trivial matters are all part of being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, of course. Randomly occurring crimes, as well as two different collectible-hunting activities that encourage you to explore the city, are the activities that best embody this idea, despite becoming repetitive. But when tasks like backing up computer data, relieving the city’s steam pipe pressure, or catching pigeons suddenly become Spidey’s number one, life-or-death priority when there’s some pretty serious stuff going on in the main story, it’s hard not to be a little bewildered.
The best incentive to complete activities is tied to progression–each type offers its own unique tokens as the reward, used to purchase new suits, gadgets, and upgrades. Oddly, the most exciting activities are the ones plainly labeled as “Challenge Missions.” These ask you to push yourself in time trials to break a series of benchmarks records for bonus tokens. Completing challenge missions are surprisingly the most motivating and rewarding of all the activities, even containing some special surprises.
The strangest part about the game’s activities lies in the use of a trite open-world mechanic: tower reveals. You begin the game with a blank world map, and it’s necessary to make time to traverse through each of Manhattan’s neighborhoods to find and reactivate a number of towers in order to uncover the map and pinpoint optional activities. There is some light narrative justification for this (Spidey needs to get access to local police radio for info on crimes) but it doesn’t address the puzzling nature of a veteran Spider-Man not innately knowing how to get around New York City.
However, for all the bewildering mundanity, the optional activities do provide some welcome relief in pacing from the more intense episodes of the main story. In fact, the game at times will give Spidey (and by extension, you) dedicated time for breaks in between missions to clear your head with some silly, low-stakes activities. And in the end, despite their obvious flaws, they are undeniably irresistible to seek out and complete, purely because they act as a satisfactory enough reason to get out there and play with Spider-Man’s sensational web-slinging mechanics.
Swinging around New York as Spider-Man is endlessly fulfilling. It’s a relatively straightforward system that isn’t overly demanding on inputs, but the minor adjustments and variables in terrain you need to consider while in motion (webs require tangible attach points), as well as the weighty feeling of Spidey makes the process feel satisfyingly manual–there’s just enough effort required to make you feel as if it’s all on you. During a big swing, you may decide to hold on for just a little longer so you can leap higher and gain elevation. Then, while mid-somersault, you scan the environment and assess that a water tower atop a building you cleared is the best next option, so you accurately shoot a web to zip to its vertex, but when Spidey makes contact, you perfectly time a jump and push off with a bonus burst of forward momentum.
The fluid animations, visual effects, and controller rumble play a big part in selling the intensity, the speed and the giddiness of flinging yourself through the air. Spidey transitions between different movement techniques seamlessly in most cases, and there’s also a slowdown mechanic that assists in helping you make more accurate and graceful traversal decisions. Holding L2 will slow down time to a crawl and let you manually aim a zip-to-point maneuver, but also let you initiate surprise attacks on enemies or perform other tasks–taking a photo of an iconic NYC monument to complete a challenge mid-swing, for example, can give you a wonderful feeling of competency. Because it’s such an involved task, swinging around is Spider-Man’s greatest joy. Despite its simplicity, every move you connect feels like a small victory, and the pace is rhythmic enough that putting in the effort to move elegantly becomes an absorbing experience.
There’s a similar gratification to be had from Spider-Man’s combat. The Arkham Asylum-inspired crowd fighting system suitably characterizes Spidey’s acrobatic nature, and like web-slinging, observing the enemies and environment to find your next best move makes it a satisfying puzzle. It only takes a few hits for Spidey to go down, so picking the right gadgets and powers for the job, using the right techniques for different kinds of enemies, being proactive in using your skills to manage overwhelming groups, and working to earn buffs and long combos by focusing on hitting your attacks and dodges with perfect timing keeps even relatively unchallenging encounters interesting.
Combat-specific challenges also encourage you to mix up your technique, but it’s the fluid transitions between attacks and the appearance of a natural flow that again sell the excitement. Spidey’s flashy finishers and their over-the-top camera movements work to add some pizazz in addition to being an excellent tool in their own right, though you’ll see these animations countless time throughout the course of the game, and they do start to lose their impact. This also true of the optional stealth mechanics which, while effective, will often see you watching the same stealth takedown animations again and again if you choose to go down that path.
What helps curb the monotony of combat later in the game are the story’s boss battles. These fights are intensely chaotic affairs, featuring unique takedowns and bombastic set pieces. Though the solution to beating them doesn’t take much to figure out, your opponents attack relentlessly, meaning you’ll have to constantly stay on your toes, moving and dodging around while waiting for an opening–a dynamic that feels very true to the character, which goes a long way in making these moments memorable.
Minor shortcomings don’t detract from Insomniac’s achievement in creating a game that feels like an authentic interpretation of a beloved creation. The feeling of embodying Spidey and using his abilities is astonishing, and the time spent on exploring its major characters help make its story feel heartfelt, despite superhero bombast. There have been open-world Spider-Man games before, but none so riveting and full of personality, none that explore and do justice to this many facets of the universe. Insomniac has created a superior Spider-Man experience that leaves a lasting impression, one that has you longing for just one more swing around New York City, even after the credits roll.
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