Marvel’s Spider-Man has a trophy for using the fast travel system five times. In any other game with an open world map as large as this one, I’d be popping that trophy in the first few hours. Therefore, it’s a huge credit to Insomniac Games that I had to go out of my way to get this trophy after spending around twenty-five hours with the main campaign and side content. The traversal system is so fast, fun, and satisfying that seeing a waypoint marker in the distance never had me looking for the nearest fast travel point. Instead, I would simply leap up, throw out a web, and continue swinging through the New York City streets listening to rants from J. Jonah Jameson, stopping occasionally to collect backpacks or stop robberies.
The swinging mechanics are undoubtedly the star of the show. The first thing you do in the game is press R2 to initiate a swing after Spider-Man jumps from his bedroom window. It’s exhilarating then and it continues to be many hours later. By pressing X at the peak of your swing, you let go of the web and launch into the air until you can grab hold of something else. R2 acts as a throttle in a racing game—you hold it down most of the time and make the odd tweak and turn to maximize your speed and head in the right direction. You can also dodge in mid-air or pull yourself along for extra bursts of speed, although if you do hit a wall you’ll automatically start running up it or along the side. It’s so intuitive that the only difficult part is stopping.
As you progress through the campaign, you unlock extra web-slinging skills to get around the city faster such as more air-zips and the ability to quickly bounce off of anything you land on. At the risk of looking stupid in a couple of years (if not sooner), I genuinely can’t think of any ways to materially improve the swinging system. Any improvements in the inevitable sequel are bound to be as incremental as the changes between FIFA titles. The foundations laid here are simply that solid.
Spider-Man‘s combat system doesn’t reach the highs of its traversal, but it’s still entertaining and better than most open-world games can muster. Basic attacks and combos are performed by tapping and holding the square button, with your spidey-sense letting you know when to dodge incoming attacks. You can web-zip towards enemies with a quick tap of the triangle button which makes it easy to rack up combos. The environment plays a big role too. There are loads of items to pick up and swing at enemies and you can perform attacks directly off walls. Best of all, if you cover an enemy in webs and then kick them into a wall he gets stuck there and is out of the fight.
There’s the usual assortment of enemies which all require different methods to take down. I usually find it a chore when games force you to mix up your moves for the sake of it, however in Spider-Man it usually felt like I was being nudged towards having a better time. Enemies with melee weapons have to be knocked in the air or they block your attack. This can hardly be considered a nuisance when it offers the chance to do flashy aerial combos (gravity is more a suggestion than a rule). If an enemy has a shield, you’ll need to web-zip towards them and slide between their legs. Again, it looks and feels great, so you’ll want to do it anyway. The one exception is the large guys who need to be webbed up before you can attack. They’re a pain, especially since one round of attacks usually isn’t enough. Spider-Man also has a habit of shooting his webbing at every enemy except the one I want to web up, so I ended up sighing every time I saw one of those large guys in the crowd.
Most fights feel more like a rhythm game than an action one. Spider-Man bounces between enemies with little regard for gravity or what direction you press. When everything goes to plan this feels sensational. It’s not difficult to web-zip towards an enemy, slide under his legs, uppercut him into the air, perform a mid-air combo, swing kick him off the building, and then use another web-zip to bring you back onto the building next to another enemy for you to repeat the process. The ease with which you can chain attacks makes those opening hours feel incredible, however, the excitement gradually wears off once you realize that there’s a low skill ceiling without room for significant improvement.
Despite this, you have a huge degree of flexibility in how you fight. There’s so much to unlock and buy that you can barely play for ten minutes without acquiring something new or upgrading an existing skill. In addition to a three-tier skill tree, you can also buy around 25 new suits each of which unlocks a new suit power. Then there are gadgets like impact webs or electric webs, and finally a bunch of mods you can apply to each suit. Despite playing for around 30 hours and getting the platinum trophy, I barely tried out half of the suit powers, didn’t acquire all the gadgets (let alone upgrade them all), and forgot about the mods entirely.
The lack of variety in my playthrough was due to a lack of incentive to change things up. The same moves that take out early enemies also deal with the superior ones you face later on. One of the first suit powers you’re given is web blossom which has Spider-Man spin 360 degrees throwing webs everywhere and removing nearly every enemy from the fight. Why would you use anything else? Mods give small advantages, such as restoring extra health, but it’s not enough to have you regularly making adjustments. Gadgets include small drones that keep enemies occupied for a bit, but it’s nearly always easier to have basic webs on hand because pulling up the gadget wheel slows down combat and takes you out of the flow.
Spider-Man‘s combat does feel overly familiar at times, but it’s one of the best implementations of this style I’ve ever played. The way Spider-Man bounces from enemy to enemy looks and feels a hell of a lot more natural than Batman doing the same thing, and Insomniac wisely opts for fun over realism when necessary.
While the combat might be a touch familiar, the story certainly offers a few surprises, especially for those who only know Spider-Man through the movies of the last fifteen years. We start with Peter Parker already in his eighth year as Spider-Man as he takes down the Kingpin. You’ll know it’s Peter’s eighth year doing this because it gets mentioned about five times in the first hour. Taking down Kingpin leaves a power vacuum which the Mr. Negative is only too happy to fill. Mr. Negative is unfamiliar to all except the most hardcore of fans and he’ll be fairly unfamiliar by the end of the game as well. To be honest, I’m still not entirely sure what his powers are.
The first five hours do an excellent job of establishing the main cast of characters which is pretty important given that we’ve missed eight years of Peter’s super-hero career. For starters, MJ already knows that Peter is Spider-Man. They used to date but split up a few months ago, leaving a healthy dose of tension between the two. The more mature versions of Peter and MJ make a refreshing change from the nervous teenagers we’re used to. Peter’s constant quips are the usual mixture of funny and cringy and I would never want anything else. There are even a few new characters that leave a lasting impression, especially Yuri, a detective who is on strained terms with Spider-Man’s alter-ego Spider-Cop.
After a slow but promising introduction, the story loses its way slightly in the middle third. Mr. Negative is poorly handled and the story is more concerned with setting up a cheap twist than developing the characters it introduced at the beginning. Being a twist, I obviously can’t talk much about it here. I will simply say that in my opinion a good twist is about subtly misleading the audience, not directly lying to them. That’s the difference between a satisfying “oohhh!” and a disappointed “really?” There’s also the odd inclusion of a military police force that takes over the city with surprisingly little consequence.
Still, if you put the awkward middle aside, you can enjoy a glorious third act with some spectacular boss fights. They verge on glorified quick time events but you have enough control that they feel satisfying to play. One fight had me dealing with two bosses in the air while never touching the floor. The fight is structured in such a way that this is easy to achieve and yet it never feels overly forced because you use Spider-Man’s standard skill set instead of contrived moves designed for that one encounter. The fights strike a friendly balance between looking and feeling spectacular.
The campaign’s biggest problem isn’t the storytelling—it’s the huge number of tedious missions it throws your way. You spend a ridiculous amount of time as Peter wandering around a homeless shelter or solving puzzles in his lab, or playing as MJ in instant-fail stealth missions which mainly require you to just press forward the entire time. It’s baffling how often Insomniac takes you away from Spider-Man after mastering so much of his core attributes.
Fortunately, there is plenty to do as Spider-Man outside of the main campaign. Maybe a little too much. Let’s start with the positive. Dotted around the map are over 60 backpacks that Peter left stuck to walls for unknown reasons. Each backpack contains a memento from Peter’s past such as a dumpling recipe he used to cook for MJ or a handheld gaming system that helped pass the time on stakeouts. The backpacks are easy to find so long as you have activated a nearby radio tower—yes, there are radio towers. There’s also a lot of classic outfits for fans to swing around in, although be warned, these suits also show up in cutscenes as well so be prepared to look incredibly stupid during heartwarming moments.
The side quests have moments of greatness, but they’re watered down by filler like chasing pigeons and finding missing students. Each category of side quest feels like it would have been better if there were half as many activities to do. For example, there are a set of challenges to complete for a bronze, silver, or gold medal. The bomb disposal challenges are a decent test of your ability to move around the city quickly, however the drone challenges require more precision than I could manage. Stealth challenges would be vaguely entertaining if they weren’t so on rails. It’s easy to remain unseen, so the challenge is restricted to doing it quickly which essentially means finding the exact order to take out all the guards.
The list of side activities goes on. Peter can access research stations belonging to Harry Osborn and solve problems that all conveniently require his web-swinging ability, such as falling from a certain height or swinging through poison clouds. Again, it’s not all bad, but if you cut the number in half, few people would complain. There’s also an odd set of quests where you have to take pictures of clues left behind by Black Cat. It’s as pointless as it sounds and does little more than tease the upcoming Black Cat DLC.
This pattern of excess extends to the combat arenas. You start by clearing out Kingpin’s warehouses and Mr. Negative’s goon hideouts with many many more added as you progress through the story. The hideouts provide you plenty of chances to practice your stealth takedowns. You can grab enemies and hang them from the rafters, pull scaffolding down on top of them, or set web traps and lure them into them. This freedom makes completing these areas without being spotted more satisfying than the restrictive stealth challenges which are much more contrived. It’s a shame then that, regardless of your efforts in clearing out the hideout quietly, you will always have to face five more waves of enemies in direct combat. You can’t be stealthy for these waves which makes you wonder why you bothered staying out of sight for that first set of enemies. With all this extra combat in the side content, it’s a surprise Insomniac didn’t shift some of it to the main campaign, especially in that slow middle act.
Insomniac included a generous amount of accessibility options including the ability to change button taps to holds in QTEs and skip puzzles entirely. None of the puzzles are especially difficult but they also aren’t all that interesting so I wouldn’t blame you for skipping them. It’s always nice to see this flexibility offered for those who need or want it.
Spider-Man‘s web-swinging is without a doubt the most memorable part of what would otherwise be a typical open-world game. However, Spider-Man is no one-trick pony. The combat doesn’t have a high skill-ceiling and yet it can be as fun to play as it is friendly to look at. The story has moments that capture the magic of the comics and provide some superior boss fight encounters. All of the major characters are captivating and I can’t wait to spend more time with them in the sequel. Nearly every open-world cliche is present and accounted for, but the traversal system makes it stand apart in an otherwise crowded and somewhat stale genre. Ultimately, Spider-Man is one of those games that you play with a constant smile on your face, even when you’re doing the same thing for the hundredth time.