Swing when you’re winning
Hello New York City, how I’ve missed you. The city so good they named it twice, and then set a gazillion games in its griddy streets. Marvel’s SpiderMan puts the gaming mecca back on the map, and it’s a triumphant return. Not only is this a vibrant space to swing through, it’s a beautiful one too, with sunsets piercing its concrete canyons while traffic buzzes at your feet. It’s a Spider-Paradise of random crimes, psychotic supervillains, and quick costume changes. And you won’t want to leave. Let’s get right to it, you will love webbing your way around this city. The swing mechanics are perfect. Yes, better than you remember SpiderMan 2 being. There’s a physical momentum to Insomniac Games’ web system, and it feels controllable – there’s a tangible connection between you and the buildings Spider-Man links to. Holding i and releasing anywhere in the arc sends Spider-Man forward in a smooth motion; you can hook and swing around pylons, and spin in mid-air to stall the swing or make quick turns. When wall running, tapping e enables the Spidster to hook and swing around a building’s corners to maintain speed.
Web-swinging is pure joy, one of gaming’s simple thrills, and in Insomniac’s hands it’s better than ever. This largely comes from the new Zip Points feature. Tapping q sends Spidey to markers on buildings. It’s contextual too, so he’ll double-web and catapult between close skyscrapers, giving him a speed boost, or he’ll cannon-ball through concrete pipes hanging from
“CANNON-BALL THROUGH CONCRETE PIPES HANGING FROM CRANES AND BETWEEN SCAFFOLDING STRUTS.”
cranes and between scaffolding struts – when you master this it feels like you’re really in Spider-Man’s snug-fitting suit. If you dab p and i you can web to Zip Points, and a timely tap of q sees you power-boost forwards with a burst of speed. Combined, this setup ensures you can float, arc, and boost through New York City’s skyline better than in any previous game.
It can take time to adjust and learn to use Zip Points to drop onto precise areas of the city, and in the heat of battle remembering to juggle between swings and Zip Points can be a handful, but when you get the timing right no game comes close to emulating the gymnastic thrill of the comic strip quite like this one.
MILES HIGH CLUB
The visuals sell the speed and agility, and the joy of swooping through the city. While it’s disappointing the game is locked at 30fps, that doesn’t detract from the pace of the action. The upshot of restricting the framerate is a beautifully photo-real world. The skyscrapers shine in the sun, and the streets bustle with cars and pedestrians, who react to your presence, pointing and heckling, asking for selfies or hurling abuse.
It’s a cinematic world, where every street corner is a film set dressed for an epic fight, where the game cuts seamlessly from sky-high high jinks to brawls on moving trucks. It looks spectacular. And Insomniac isn’t afraid to mess with its city. Over the course of the story it devolves from a glittering, comic book paradise into a war zone controlled by Silver Sable’s paramilitaries. Laser sights scour the skyline, fires burn below, and police lights reflect in the distance – just swinging to the next mission becomes an event in and of itself.
The web-swinging joy and arresting visuals wouldn’t mean a thing if the story didn’t hook you in, and in Insomniac’s hands Spidey’s tale is a rollercoaster of emotional notes and dramatic clashes. It’s a drip-feed of fan-baiting teases, a story of questions and tipping points, and the developer handles the pace perfectly.
The ebb and flow of the main story arc is even more marvellous given this is an open world game full of side-missions, skill challenges, and hidden goals. One moment you’re revelling in the reveal of Martin Li’s evil persona, Mister Negative, or dealing with the harrowing events in Miles Morales’ life, the next you’re chasing down Black Cat or going sword-to-webbing with Taskmaster, or a hidden backpack catches your eye (collecting these helps unlock new suits). At no point do you feel overwhelmed, as the game pulls its threads into a taught, ahem, web of intrigue.
Much of the fun comes from the variety on offer. The plot arc breezes through different ways of playing. Like Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series, Marvel’s Spider-Man never lets you rest and get comfortable, feeding you a steady mix of horde fights, stealth takedowns, puzzle minigames, and crime scene investigations. There are even a couple of missions that put you in control of a SpiderBot scurrying around the feet and car wheels of everyday New Yorkers on the trail of spilled chemicals and other criminal activity.
It’s not just about SpiderMan either. The story lets you experience the world as Miles Morales, whose stealth missions enable him to hack drones and machinery to create distractions, and as Mary Jane Watson, who is adept at skulking behind handily placed furniture and crates. It’s Mary Jane who steals many scenes. She’s split from Parker and the pair are struggling to find common ground. “I’m fed up with always being the one who gets rescued,” says the fearless reporter, bringing her character into the 21st century.
It’s an approach to the characters reminiscent of the Arkham series, but it also draws on the real nature of what makes Spider-Man a great character and comic – the existential doubts and conflicting desires he has about who he is and where he belongs in this world permeate much of the game. This Spider-Man is web-weary; after eight years of battling supervillains Peter Parker has lost his girlfriend, his job, and maybe his home. He’s a hero tired of heroics, who has little to show for his tireless defence of the city he loves.
The cinematic presentation sells the emotional complexity of the story. The pairing of actor Yuri Lowenthal and mocap performer John Bubniak perfectly captures the equally smart-mouthed and agile Peter Parker/Spider-Man, while Laura Bailey does a great job of imbuing Mary Jane Watson with a light determination. But the scene stealer is William Salyers as Otto Octavius. He manages the tragic arc from well-intentioned science genius to supervillain with a believable subtlety – you can feel the rage in every lip quiver and vocal inflection in later scenes.
You’d be wrong, too, if you think playing as the support cast is padding to extend the story’s run-time (which comes in around 20 hours), because MJ has one of the standout moments of the entire game. Not to be too spoilery, but for once we get to experience Spider-Man’s powers as his voyeuristic accomplice, and directing and watching him stealthily take down his enemies is a game-changer.
“SWING AROUND, UP AND OVER ROOFTOP SNIPERS AND CAMPS, CIRCLING YOUR PREY.”
It needs to be said, the spirit of Rocksteady’s Arkham series hovers over much of Marvel’s Spider-Man, and that’s a good thing. Combat is counter-based, and your Spider-sense tingles to reveal the perfect moment to repel, vault, and cartwheel from attacks (when well-timed you can stun enemies with webbing) which enables you to continue your combos, raising your Focus meter to launch finishers and suit attacks. Mods unlocked with new costumes can be hot-swapped on the go, and include the area affect Web Blossom, temporary armour, and – a personal favourite – the power to hurl witticisms at enemies, which achieves nothing but makes you feel like Spider-Man. All very Batman, but done in a Spidey way.
What turns Sony’s metoo game into a must-have is Spider-Man’s freedom of movement. Holding r launches enemies into the air for extended combos, handy for escaping crowds. But it’s more than that: you can web to enemies, and swing around, up and over rooftop snipers and camps, circling your prey and diving in to finish them off.
Some enemies can only be hurt with air attacks, others must be worn down with webshots. You can web-pull weapons from enemies’ hands, and employ Peter Parker’s guerrilla science to aid your fight. Holding o brings up your web menu, offering stun shots, drones that fire electrical charges, web-bombs, and more gadgets to buff your combos.
There’s enough give in the combat to enable you to feel
like a superhero, while still leaving room for you to perfect the timing of your counters, punches, and kicks.
You’re rewarded for improving, too, with every fight you engage in featuring bonus goals – ‘throw five enemies off a roof’ or ‘disarm ten villains’, for example – ensuring you’re motivated to experiment with the systems. All these goals feed into the XP system, enabling you to unlock new abilities and combat moves.
SIX OF THE BEST
Unlocking new gadgets, suits, and combos is part of the driving force behind the game. The story will engage you, but these abilities and mods enable you to playfully tackle the many objectives that spring up across New York City.
Every time you complete a side-mission or challenge, prevent a street crime, clear an enemy base, discover a backpack, or take a photo of a landmark, you’re awarded Tokens to spend on developing new gadgets, unlocking suits, upgrading abilities, and progressing through Spider-Man’s skill tree. There’s plenty to work through and everything you purchase has a direct affect on how you play the game and approach each mission.
You’ll need all of it too, once the third act arrives and the Sinister Six – comprising notorious scoundrels Doctor Octopus, Mister Negative, Scorpion, Electro, Vulture, and Rhino – descend, and New York City goes from playground to battleground. Essentially this is a series of cinematic boss battles in which you need to employ every skill and gadget in your arsenal, for example using the environment against Rhino or aerial agility to better Vulture. While early boss fights, particularly against Kingpin, fail to match those of the Arkham series, by the time the credits roll you’ll have sweated through six of SpiderMan’s best villains, using every tool in Spidey’s box to swing, web, and science your way to victory. And yes, there are some QTEs in here, but they’re used sparingly and seamlessly to add drama.
Once the main campaign is over the game continues. New York City remains a living space, and as you read this New Game+ will have been released as a patch, along with the game’s Photo mode, so there’s plenty left to do. You can mop up any remaining side-missions, but there are also random crimes to solve and innocents to protect.
While New York’s not as large as recent open world maps – Horizon Zero Dawn’s is roughly three times the size – the random events certainly offer more variety than Aloy’s simple hunt quests. There are muggings to break up, drugs busts to intercept, car chases to swing onto and stop, bombs to track and disarm, and kidnappings to trace. Life’s
“YOU’LL KEEP SWINGING LONG AFTER THE TEARS DRY ON THE MAIN STORY.”
hectic even with the main story wrapped up.
In a nice touch the game remembers recent crimes you’ve prevented, too. Listening to John Jonah Jameson’s radio show while scooting between skyscrapers, I hear the wife of a man I rescued being interviewed; to JJJ’s chagrin she praises my actions.
If I were to be overly critical I could say the game borrows too heavily from the Batman Arkham series, and it lacks the same level of playfulness and depth to the map as, particularly, Arkham Knight. But that shouldn’t detract from what an achievement Marvel’s Spider-Man is: a dramatic, open, dynamic comic book adventure with enough depth and systems to keep you swinging long after the tears dry on the main story.
As for that map? This is New York City, the landmarks are there to be crawled over, and in a tease for what may come we get to hang outside the Avengers’ building, Foggy’s Gym, and other places from Marvel’s wider universe. This fan-baiting dovetails into one of the game’s hidden goals, to photograph 50 secret sights, some of which only die-hard Marvelistas will spot. And that’s the real joy of playing Marvel’s Spider-Man: there’s a clear passion for the source material at play, where every character is treated with affection. Even the unspoken tradition of New Yorkers stepping up to support their Spider-Man is here. It’s a laser focus that lifts the game above its Arkham inspirations.
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Below There’s more to Spidey than swinging.
Above Yuri is your cop contact; the pair have some fun banter.
Left Webswinging feels just right, and there’re plenty of challenges to complete.
Above Your Spider-senses enable you to see when to take down enemies.
Right Puzzles! The Arkham comparisons keep coming.
Above Miles Morales and MJ are more than set-dressing for the story.