Spider-Man video games have a long history, but not a good one. There have been a lot of movie tie-ins, awkward camera and control systems, and rehashed stories. Not all of them have been worthless, but even the least bad ones owe more to the Spider-Man license and his built-in popularity than the product itself.
Insomniac’s “Spider-Man” finally breaks that barrier. The mark of its success is that it doesn’t rely on fandom or nostalgia or being 12 years old. You don’t need to have read the comics, watched the movies, or played the games; you don’t even need to like Spider-Man in the first place. When the brief opening cinematic transitions into web-swinging through a gorgeous Manhattan, the game is immediately so much fun to play, you don’t need rose-tinted glasses.
The two pillars of gameplay are traversing the city and fighting criminals, and both are satisfying. That opening trip through the city leads to a set of tutorial battles where death can come surprisingly fast. “Spider-Man” does have three difficulty levels, but easy mode is not story mode — Spider-Man’s lifebar is always short, and you need to actively avoid most incoming attacks.
The combat at first might feel like a worse version of the “Batman: Arkham” series. In those games, enemies take turns, and pressing the “counter” button when prompted guarantees that you elude damage even in a huge crowd. “Spider-Man” uses a similar dodge mechanic, but enemies don’t take turns, and there is no guarantee of escape. Making things worse, many common enemies block punches from the front, meaning your basic combo gets you nowhere.
But when the combat clicks, Spider-Man will be taking down groups of bad guys fast and fluidly, often taking little damage along the way. You have a lot of tools in your toolbox, and the combat feels hard at first because it’s teaching you not to over-rely on just a few of them. So if enemies would block your punches, you mummify them with webs. If someone pulls a gun, you shoot a line to the nearest trash can and whip it into him for the knockdown. When that mob comes to surround you, you bound into the the air as they watch helplessly. It’s a good combat system that rewards you for using the right tools together.
You can swing from your webs like Tarzan, but you can also catapult yourself directly to a water tower or antenna. Hit X as you land, and Spider-Man will launch off with momentum, essentially using the rooftops more like a trampoline than a trapeze. To string all of this together, you have the “web-zip,” a short, horizontal connecting move that lets you change your route without touching down. If you pause while swinging or fighting, you can see that nearly every frame of Spider-Man is taken from his history in comics.
Generic NPC design isn’t astounding, but Spider-Man, New York, and its resident supervillains all look great. There are over 20 costumes available, and every part of them is obsessively detailed — each suit has its own unique eye-holes, distinctive materials, armor plates, right down to the soles of Spidey’s feet. The map of Manhattan isn’t a 1:1 reproduction, but it’s beautiful. A variety of real and Marvel landmarks are included, and loading times are remarkably short on PS4 Pro.
The detail on Spider-Man himself is matched in other areas. The story is accessible without knowing Spider-Man’s lore, but there are plenty of Easter eggs and references in case you do. Peter Parker has been Spider-Man for eight years, and he’s already made his rookie mistakes and defeated most of his rogues’ gallery. All kinds of call-backs to his early adventures and the wider Marvel universe are tucked away. You can even listen to Spidey-hating conspiracy theorist J. Jonah Jameson rant on his podcast as you swing through the city.
The story is the only place where Insomniac falls short. Much of the plot is delivered through stealth sequences that put you in control of supporting characters Mary-Jane Watson or Miles Morales. It’s a fine idea: Give players some easy gameplay to keep them leaning forward while discovering plot points. Lots of games do it. Lots of players prefer it to a static cutscene. But here, you will instantly fail if you are spotted, something that is almost never acceptable and kills the fun of the game. It’s especially frustrating with Miles, because his stealth missions deliver next to no plot and are essentially only an advertisement for the sequel.
Mary-Jane is also disappointing from a character standpoint. She’s a nosy reporter who goes unarmed and untrained into situations involving supervillains and armed factions committing bioterror, gets saved by Peter, then gets mad at Peter because he doesn’t want her to do that again. This happens repeatedly. Her entire plotline is like something rejected by the writers of “24.”
That’s not to say “Spider-Man” has a bad story. Things happen for a reason. Dialogue and voice work are good. The overall conflict develops well and has a strong ending that sets up great sequel possibilities. Mary “Lois Lane” Jane aside, it’s a classic superhero tale, well told, by people who obviously care a lot about the characters.
It’s also an unambitious story. There is no player choice. Peter Parker has been committing violent acts on a daily basis for eight years, but he’s written with an almost childlike goodness, never confronted by a hard moral decision until once at the very end. No one was expecting “Taxi Driver” in tights, but these characters could have told a more nuanced story with a more “I’m walkin’ here!” New York attitude. Insomniac’s work is sort of like hitting a ball out of the park in batting practice: good execution at low difficulty.
But to be fair, this game was never going to be saved or ruined by anything that happens while the player is not directly controlling Spider-Man. Its worth comes entirely from the time you spend swinging, fighting, and occasionally sneaking as its title character, and by that measuring stick, it stands as the best Spider-Man game.