Roll +Cool to Act Under Pressure
Insomniac’s Spider-Man is exactly the game I have been waiting for since I played Spider-Man on the original PlayStation nearly 18 years ago. Had I known, as a child, that when I grew up I would be playing another Spidey game that would blow my mind as much as the original, I would’ve been absolutely stoked. I have wanted nothing more than to play this game since it was revealed at E3 2016, and as soon as I picked up my copy, I barrelled through the campaign in about two and a half days — which isn’t a complaint about the campaign’s length. I legitimately played non-stop. Everything about Spider-Man is addictive.
If the web swinging doesn’t feel right in an open world Spidey game, the whole game feels off. Thankfully, Insomniac absolutely nailed it with Spider-Man, building perhaps the best web-swinging system of any of the Spidey title. Spider-Man 2, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Spider-Man: Web of Shadows are all some of my favorite games because they’ve got amazing open world traversal, and Spider-Man manages to nail every aspect from those three games that makes the swinging incredible, and then build from there to create the best high-speed web-swinging possible.
The web slinging controls are simple, with R2 being your “go” button. Holding it while running allows you to freerun, showing off Peter’s parkour skills. When airborne, the same button is used for basic web-swinging; it’s been mentioned dozens of times by Insomniac that they knew the webs had to attach to buildings, and while they do seem to attach towards a building, they definitely feel a bit fast and loose in that regard. Some swings go much longer than should be possible – but this helps achieve that feel they were going for with the traversal, and it feels amazing. Along with the swinging, R2 can be used for a wallrun, which Spider-Man will fluidly switch to if you bump into a building mid-swing. There’s also a general web-zip with the X button for gaining some forward moment, and R2 and L2 together can be used to zip to a specific point. These four options keep the movement very simple, but incredibly stylish at high speeds – though slower and more precise traversal suffers a bit as wall-crawling feels finicky.
I actually handed the controller to my friend, who hadn’t touched the game before (and doesn’t play too many video games to begin with), gave them a brief rundown of the controls, and let them swing around New York – and it only took a couple minutes before their swinging was as stylish as mine. It’s such a simple system that transforms the usual monotony of simply going from point A to point B in an open world to one of the most fun aspects of the game. It manages to somehow be both exciting and oddly zen – part of the reason that I spent the entirety of release day playing non-stop is because I spent several hours swinging around and nabbing the collectible backpacks. I actually ended up collecting all 55 of them in my first day of playing, which is unheard of for me. I almost never go out of my way for collectibles!
Simply getting to these collectibles was definitely a huge factor in my desire to grab every single one of ‘em, but another was the items in said backpacks. Each one has an item from Spidey’s past eight years superhero-ing – a vast majority of which are callbacks to older pieces of Spider-Man media, like the old school under-arm webbing wings Spidey wore back in the 60s. There is clearly a ton of love for the character from the writing team at Insomniac, as the game is packed full of references to Spidey’s past adventures in comics and on the big screen. A personal favorite of mine is a bit where he attempts to stop a runaway train using his webs to hold it back, before his webs snap and he remarks that, “that worked last time,” referencing the runaway train in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.
With the sheer vastness of Spider-Man’s history, it’s almost necessary to respect just how many costumes the web-slinger has donned in his 50+ years of comics. The game features 26 suits (27 if you include the battle damaged variant of the classic suit, which is roughed up in the very beginning of the game) from throughout Spidey’s history – three of which are original suits, designed by Insomniac. The suits range from ones recognizable to casual and newer fans, such as the three MCU suits used in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Avengers: Infinity War, and the wrestling costume from the early days of Pete’s superpowers (Which fans may recognize from the Sam Raimi films, even though this specific costume is actually the design from the Ultimate Spider-Man comics), to designs that – as Stan Lee would put it – true believers would immediately recognize such as Ben Reilly’s Scarlet Spider suit, Spider-Man 2099, or the the Electronically Insulated suit Peter designed to defeat Electro in Amazing Spider-Man #425. There’s even some pretty deep cuts, like the Spirit Spider or the Last Stand suit. It’s clear that Insomniac dove deep into Spidey’s long history to pull costumes that could cater to any level of fan. Each suit has an associated special suit power (such as the AOE Web Blossom, a stealth field, or a power that briefly makes Spidey bullet-proof) and in an effort to let you be the Spider-Man you want to be, once a suit is unlocked, any suit power can be attached to it, allowing you to mix and match suit powers you like to the costume you’d prefer to be looking at, which is an invaluable feature.
The script is full of excellent quips from Spidey, which is an ever important aspect of Peter Parker that has in the past proven to be difficult for some writing teams. While not every line is a banger (and a handful are even a bit eyeroll-y), plenty of moments are genuinely very funny, like a moment where the Vulture disappoints Spider-Man by not understanding his Rocky reference – only for Electro to hit him with his best Ivan Drago impression, all in the middle of a boss fight. It’s such a fantastic piece of banter that really makes Spidey feel like the loveable, talkative hero that he should be.
Where the line-to-line writing excels, the story falls somewhat flat. Now, don’t get me wrong – the story as a whole is great. But there are some elements of the story that feels like “this has been done before.” The entire latter half revolving around The Devil’s Breath (which I won’t elaborate on, because spoilers) feels a lot like some Spidey stories in the past – even the plot of some of the games, such as the video game tie-in for The Amazing Spider-Man and, to an extent, Web of Shadows. Along with this sense of déjà vu, many of the villains feel pretty two-dimensional. Martin Li/Mr. Negative’s motives feel a bit half-baked, and the secret villain, who was hinted at towards the end of the E3 2018 gameplay demo (No spoilers!), feels as though they didn’t receive the character development to properly lead into villainy. The motives are there, but the descent into becoming a villain feels incredibly rushed. Even their plots feel absurdly quick. Everything that happens involving them becoming a villain, and all of their villainous deeds happens almost overnight.
While some characters feel rushed, the supporting cast sometimes feels as though they are better written than their comic counterparts. I love Miles Morales. There’s plenty of potential for his character, and a lot of writers just can’t do him any justice, writing him just as Peter Parker 2. Mary Jane falls into a similar situation in the comics, typically being written literally as “Peter Parker’s wife,” with no substance behind her character. Where the comics (usually) fail to do anything interesting with these two, Insomniac’s Spider-Man does a fantastic job with them. MJ’s a take-no-bullshit photojournalist who will bluff her way out of any situation she sneaks herself into, and Miles finally feels like his own person. He idolizes Spider-Man, but when he’s in a dangerous situation he doesn’t fall back on the mantra of “What would Spider-Man do?” It’s a small step, but a great one. The stealth sections for these two characters are definitely fun – even intense at times – if a bit dry. They don’t leave a lot of room for creativity for your approach to sneaking. Sneak here, hide behind this box, push over this toolbox to distract the goon with the machine gun, rinse, repeat. Later, lures and a Watchdogs-esque hacking feature are introduced, but the sneaking portions still feel very railroaded. Maybe I’m spoiled by dedicated stealth games like Metal Gear Solid V allowing a free-form approach to sneaking, but I definitely prefer stealth portions to be a bit more cerebral.
Meanwhile, stealth as Spider-Man is excellent. The web-zip with R2+L2 allows a lot of creativity with your approach, letting you fly around the top of a room with ease, webbing up bad guys while no one’s looking. With a click of the right stick, you use Spidey’s lenses to enter a mode similar to Arkham’s detective mode – highlighting guards and interactive objects. This mode also includes a vital feature: If your target is within eyeshot of someone else, the HUD will mark them with “DANGER.” When it’s safe to take them out, it informs you with “SAFE.” With this, taking out guards one by one becomes much less stressful.
Alongside the excellent stealth, combat is near-perfect. Spidey’s attacks are fluid and acrobatic, and controlling him as he zips from goon to goon is the most fun I’ve had in an action game in some time. Utilizing his entire toolset feels simple, without breaking up the flow of combat. By holding L1, you slow time to access a weapon-wheel for Spidey’s eight unlockable gadgets, all fantastic for keeping encounters feeling fresh. Each of these gadgets is a different style of web shooter – all firing off something to incapacitate or stun baddies – such as the web-bomb’s area of effect webbing, the web-tripwire that sticks to a surface and pulls anyone who passes by, and the electric web, which fires what is essentially a taser bolt to stun opponents – which chains to nearby foes as well. Using these gadgets in conjunction with the acrobatic combat does wonders for putting the player in the shoes of a more experienced Spider-Man. Switching web shooters and sticking to someone to a wall in the middle of a combo with a heavy hitting impact web is quick and easy, and almost comical. The “focus bar” that builds as you deal damage is a nifty addition, as it allows you to either dole out intense finisher-moves, or to heal yourself, allowing you options for defense or offense. It’s a great system for keeping combat flowing even when you’re at low HP. Instead of having to retreat a fight to regain health over time or find a pickup, you can just heal in the middle of a fistfight. Yes, it can make encounters a bit on the easier side, but it’s excellent for keeping combat flowing during the entirety of a fight.
One of the biggest charms to Spider-Man is the amount of little details Insomniac poured into it. When you knock baddies off a roof, they fall a bit before being zipped to the nearest wall, saving them from splattering against the ground (I haven’t noticed if Spidey actually attaches a gadget to do this or if it’s just convenient excuse, but the sentiment is there and I greatly appreciate it.) On his radio show, J. Jonah Jameson reacts to not only story beats, but to the random events and side stories you complete, and even has a bit about the Spider-Punk costume if you wear it long enough. (I’ve yet to see if this happens with any other costumes, but I was so excited when he started complaining about that one in particular.)
Along with these little details, there’s one of the most incredible uses of voice acting I’ve seen in a video game in some time: Yuri Lowenthal – the voice actor for Spidey – recorded two takes for any phone conversations that take place in the overworld. One, for when Spider-Man is at a standing position, and one for when he’s swinging about, exerting himself. It’s a little detail that really helps sell the immersion of the game, and it’s a testament to Yuri Lowenthal as both a fantastic Spider-Man, and an amazing voice actor in general. He’s easily one of my favorite voice actors of all time, and I can wholeheartedly say that this game may be one of his absolute best performances. He absolutely knocked it out of the park as Peter Parker, delivering some intense emotion towards the endgame. Alongside Lowenthal’s spectacular Spider-Man, the supporting cast deliver strong performances all around, with industry veterans Travis Willingham and Laura Bailey as Wilson Fisk and Mary Jane Watson, and relative newcomers to larger roles like Nadji Jeter as a perfectly anxious Miles Morales, and Steven Oyoung as an enraged Mr. Negative. It seems like every voice is directed and performed excellently, without any real weak points to be found in the supporting cast.
Spider-Man is everything I could have hoped for. It’s not perfect – no game is. But there’s so much appreciation for the character poured into this game, and it truly feels like a love letter to the beloved hero, and to Stan Lee and the late Steve Ditko. Since I was a child, I’ve wanted to be Spider-Man. And right now? Insomniac’s Spider-Man is as close as it possibly gets.