Reviewed on: PS4. Copy supplied by publisher.
With so many super hero video games released to the masses, and comic book characters’ unparalleled suitability for the transition to gaming, it’s unfortunate that so many of these releases end up ranging from poor to average. Only Rocksteady’s Arkham series has managed to truly do the subject matter justice in recent times.
Spider-Man has had a very turbulent time of it in gaming, with a huge array of titles ranging from beat ’em ups and platformers to the early 3D incarnations that brought us the almost unanimously agreed best Spidey game ever, Spider-Man 2. Not since this 2004 title from Treyarch have we seen a better Spider-Man game released, at least, until now.
Insomniac have done with Marvel’s web-slinger what Rocksteady’s Arkham did for Batman video games – they’ve taken the comic book character and delivered all that makes them so popular into game form for us to take control.
Taking the form of a totally new universe, and not being overly-influenced by the MCU, this incarnation of Spider-Man adds a whole new take on the hero, whilst obviously retaining all that makes the comic book so great. Peter Parker is still the titular hero, of course, and all of the other expected characters are in there, including familiar friendly faces, and recognisable villains.
Here, though, there are various changes to the world. Peter, for example, is in his prime here. Still young, but no longer a newbie ‘boy’ super hero. He’s 23, experienced, and is a genius-level scientist. He doesn’t work for the Daily Bugle as a freelance photographer, but instead is an assistant to Dr Otto Octavious. Aunt May isn’t the traditional old dear sat at home baking cookies, but helps out at a local homeless shelter. J Jonah Jameson isn’t the editor of the Bugle, but hosts a radio talk show in which he constantly rebukes Spidey fans, insisting that Spider-Man is a fraud, and is the reason the city’s criminals are so prevalent.
It’s familiar, but different, and it works well, delivering a take on Spider-Man that’s fresh, and not bogged down in the overly righteous “Great power, great responsibility” dirge we’ve heard so may times since the MCU became so popular. The world here feels brighter, more fun, and more alive. In short, it’s much more like the comics, and that’s good.
The game is obviously a large-scale open world affair, much like many of the games that preceded it, but this time is a far more polished and stunningly detailed one. Spider-Man’s New York is not made up of copy/pasted city blocks, but is instead a meticulously crafted urban sprawl that accurately mirrors the great city itself, only with the obvious comic book touches such as Avengers tower, Oscorp, the RAFT prison, and other fictional landmarks.
The map is huge, much larger than any previous Spider-Man game, and so getting around needs to be fast, and enjoyable – a feature Insomniac hasn’t only delivered, but I’d say over-delivered, in a good way.
If you thought the nigh-on hypnotic swinging system seen in Spider-Man 2 was good, just wait until you try this. The developer has managed to create a digital Spider-Man that’s just so much damn fun to control, you’ll have a blast just swinging around the city and doing little more.
The controls are excellent, and although more complex than many other games, with various button combinations and a raft of pop-up tutorials to wade through, it doesn’t take long at all to master the art of web-swinging, wall-running, web-zipping, and so on. And, unlike some previous games, here Spidey has to have a nearby structure to latch on to, meaning swinging through city streets is easier than trying to zip through Central Park, which is sans tall skyscrapers.
Most games this size would have a fast travel system you’d quickly be reaching for, but not so here. Even long distances are not a problem, as it’s always fun just swinging through the streets. Not only because the web-swinging is so good, but also because the game is packed with diversions and side missions/tasks to do, all of which are enjoyable, if occasionally repetitive. There are collectibles to find, landmarks to take photos of, and crimes to stop, all of which are fun, and grant important XP and items to use to level up and build new gadgets to enhance Spidey’s already impressive skills. There are also a ton of Spider-Man suits to collect, taken from various past comics and stories in the hero’s long-running existence.
Don’t worry, though, as there is a fast travel you can utilise once you unlock it, so if you still prefer to skip right to the action, you can, but swinging around the city really allows you to get the most out of the world.
Of course, it’s not all swinging and commuting, and a large part of the game will see you fighting all sorts of bad guys, from street-thugs to super villains. It’s here where I felt previous Spidey games were lacking in various ways. Insomniac has nailed it here, though, and the fighting mechanics are just great. With more than a little Batman Arkham influence, combat involves Spidey’s usual acrobatic attacks, well-timed dodging, and use of his many web-slinging powers. You can shoot webs to wrap guys up and hold them in place for a while, swing kick foes, yank weapons out of people’s hands, smash them into the air, only to web-sling them back into the ground, and much, much more. Executing some of Spidey’s more advanced abilities in previous games was often very tricky and hard to pull off in a chaotic fight, but here it’s not the case, and it’s not long until you really do feel like Spider-Man, effortlessly blending kicks and punches with web shooting, grappling, and swinging, to create a blur of red and blue teaching the criminal underworld crime doesn’t pay.
This general attention to detail and skill of development makes its way into every facet of the game. I’ve already mentioned the superb controls and detailed city, but the story here is great too, with a real rogues gallery of foes to contend with, and a great performance as Peter/Spidey by Yuri Lowenthal. And the overall level of polish to every aspect of the game is steallar, right down to absurd little details like actual readable text on inanimate object safety labels, and some of the best window effects I’ve seen, which you’ll notice as you swing around the city. The game’s soundtrack is also pretty spectacular, and it perhaps the biggest nod to the MCU, with that familiar MCU sound of swelling, heroic movements, and powerful hits.
Although this isn’t a high point I thought I’d ever have to talk about in a game review, I should also point out the lack of microtransactions or other ugly BS that’s become so standard in big budget games these days. There’s some upcoming DLC, sure, but it’s so refreshing to play a game that doesn’t want you to shell out real money for extra cosmetics or other in game items. It really shouldn’t be a thing to talk about, but in today’s gaming world, it’s notable.
There are some criticisms that I would make of the game, though, and these are more problematic than they may usually be only due to the obvious level of effort that’s gone into the game as a whole.
For a game so polished and lavished with love for the subject matter, some elements are just far too generic and tired. Having to locate and activate radio towers to reveal points of interest and the map, for example, is a trope that’s just been flogged to death at this point, and I couldn’t help but groan as this mechanic was shoe-horned into the game’s story in a pretty clumsy way.
Random crimes are always fun, but also repetitive and predictable, and they don’t really vary in terms of series of events, and the extra activities in general don’t really do anything new, simply pulling in tasks we’ve seen in so many other open world games. Surely a character like Spider-Man could be a perfect platform for more innovation in open world mechanics, but instead Insomniac played it safe for the most part.
Luckily, the story more than makes up for this, and coupled with the excellent controls and beautiful visuals, Spider-Man for the PS4 is just superb, and another top notch exclusive for Sony.