Insomniac Games has been given the opportunity of a lifetime with Spider-Man for PlayStation 4. Not only is it an enormous IP known the world over, it also happens to star a character with abilities perfectly suited for a video game. Insomniac’s Spider-Man is far more than just a web-slinging simulator, however, with an absurd amount of love and effort being put into every inch of this game from its exhaustively-detailed rendition of New York City, to Spidey’s abilities, gadgets, and suits, as well as the surprisingly emotional story. Insomniac has undoubtedly borrowed more than a few elements from the Arkham games, as well as the genre of open-world games in general but this does not get in the way of Spider-Man being an extremely polished and enjoyable romp.
Insomniac’s version of Peter Parker is a little older than we’re used to. By the start of the game he’s been Spider-Man for around eight years which means he’s already fought – and put in prison – a lot of supervillains. It’s a refreshing spin and allows Insomniac to really play around with franchise conventions. Peter and MJ were a couple but are no longer in a relationship, Uncle Ben died many years ago, and Peter is living in a tiny apartment and has no money because he spends all his time beating up bad guys.
Some of the best character moments stem from these changes, like a mission that has Spidey chasing down garbage trucks to find his stuff after he gets evicted, or a cutscene where he frantically tries to resolve an awkward texting miscommunication with MJ all while swinging from buildings and hanging upside down from cranes. These little moments really ground Peter in the world and make him feel like just a regular dude trying to get by in New York… He just happens to also have superpowers.
Swinging around New York feels perfect. Insomniac has crafted a traversal system that is natural, simple, seamless and utterly Spider-Man and after five seconds I felt in total control. It feels so good to swing from skyscraper to skyscraper, arcing downwards, dangling gracefully mere metres from the city streets only to fling yourself back up, soaring through the air. The sense of rhythmic momentum is enhanced by the sound of rushing air, and the nice touch of the controller rumbling in line with how fast or deep the fall is. It makes getting from A to B for a mission enjoyable in and of itself and I only used the quick travel function a handful of times.
Combat is similarly smooth. Spider-Man utilises the Arkham games style of combat, focusing on a limited amount of button inputs to actually attack, but then gradually ramps up the number of enemy variants, forcing you to use every dodge, air launch and gadget at Spidey’s disposable in order to emerge victorious. A focus bar will fill up as you land hits and dodge, which allows the use of finishers (one-hit takedowns), but it’s also how you heal. By pressing down on the D-pad whatever focus you’ve built up will be used to fill up your health. Holding off on using a takedown to ensure you have enough focus to heal in a tight spot, is a common trade-off.
There are also powers unique to each suit which can be used after filling a separate meter. These are essentially an ‘ultimate’ ability that can be attached to any suit you like once you’ve unlocked the suit it originally belonged to. The powers can be boring stuff like increasing the rate at which you gain focus or making you temporarily bulletproof, but then there are others that grant you a stupidly overpowered area of effect attack or makes your punches and kicks unblockable. The spectacle of fights is always a blast, flinging dudes through mailboxes or webbing them against walls never gets old.
Graphically, Spider-Man is truly incredible with an unprecedented level of detail at great distances when compared to other open-world games of this scale. Perching atop some of the taller skyscrapers looking north towards Harlem is jaw-dropping. The sheer number of buildings and streets that are clearly visible – and knowing that you can go to each and every one of them – it boggles the mind. More than just draw-distance, the lighting adds a huge amount to the atmosphere and realism. Swinging through a narrow city street with an orange sunset blasting light in between tall buildings on either side, it’s stunning.
Just as impressive is that when the focus shifts to interiors and cutscenes there’s no drop in the level of polish or detail. The texture work on Spidey’s suit is gorgeous, facial animations avoid the uncanny valley and environments you can explore as Peter or MJ are thoroughly fleshed out with plenty of objects to take in or interact with. Voice acting is of a similarly high quality across the board, with each character giving commendable performances. Spidey’s lines even have two takes, one for if he’s just standing around and one for when you happen to be swinging around.
We’ve covered the good, now it’s time to go over some of the low points. The most important thing to know about Spider-Man, apart from the swinging being essentially perfect, is that it is well and truly a conventional open-world game. New York is split up into districts, each with a completion percentage and a radio tower that, when unlocked, will display various activities on the map. These activities range from clearing out enemy bases or outposts, combat, stealth or traversal challenges, backpack collectibles, landmark photo opportunities, side quests and then there are the more generic ‘crimes’ that crop up dynamically as you move through the city.
Now, none of this stuff is bad per se it’s just par for the course. If you’ve played the Arkham games, Assassin’s Creed, GTA, Saint’s Row or any open-world game made in the past 10 years, you know exactly what to expect from Spider-Man’s list of activities. Completing them will earn you different kinds of tokens that are used to unlock different suits, upgrade your gadgets and so on. Some of the side missions are directly tied to B-tier villains while they tend to be the most enjoyable, they are way too few and far between.
To their credit, Insomniac has done their best to make some of these activities as varied as possible. The research stations, for example, involve you checking up on some of Harry Osborn’s side projects. You might have to swing through smog clouds in order to take pollution readings or spread a vaccine to some pigeons. These were a nice change of pace and involve some mechanics not seen in the rest of the game. It also feels very Spider-Man to do something so charmingly mundane every once and a while.
Another element of Spider-Man that is “just ok” is the cast of supporting characters. Peter, MJ, Miles, and May all have their moments, and there are definitely some powerfully emotional scenes, but their arcs are out of balance. Some of them have really interesting things going on when you first meet them, but then they take a back seat for several hours after that. Some fit the role you expect them to play for the entirety of the game, and then all their best character moments happen right at the end. This created a disconnect for me and occasionally made it hard for me to care when I was clearly supposed to.
The same can be said for the villains, with some being way, way, more intriguing than others. Part of this is just the nature of comic book bad guys, but even when all the cards were on the table, and the motivations behind their evil deeds were made clear, I was left scratching my head. I couldn’t help but think, “Really? This is why you’re destroying the city and killing people?” Again, the story isn’t bad, it’s just familiar, and there’s undoubtedly room for improvement in a sequel.
Similarly inconsistent are the sections where you play as someone other than Spider-Man. These usually take place in large interiors and involve rudimentary stealth gameplay: sneaking past guards, disabling security systems, that sort of thing. While these sections can be deeply immersive and a nice way to bring the focus back down to street level for a while, they could also be tedious, bringing the plot to a screeching halt just when things were starting to ramp up.
Spider-Man’s open-world is built upon an extremely familiar framework which is elevated by the fact that you’re playing as goddamn Spider-Man. Swinging around a virtual city this gorgeous as Spidey is such a blast, that the occasionally lackluster supporting characters and story, derivative combat and progression systems, and repetitive side content fail to mar the overall impression left. If you were hoping this game would be a) a solid but standard open-world game or b) an exceptional web-slinging simulator, then you’re in luck because Spider-Man is a laboratory-tested web formula comprised of both.