2018 has been a good year for video games. From blockbuster epics to smaller indie experiences to inventive takes on VR, the breadth and variety of games that came out over the last 12 months is astounding. To celebrate, Verge staff members are writing essays on their own personal favorite games, and what made them stand out above the crowd.
For me, the modern superhero video game starts with Batman: Arkham Asylum. The 2009 game from Rocksteady Studios that took a clever story inspired by comic books and infused it with an effortless blend of stealth combat, melee attacks, detective work, and lively gadgets. Punctuated by a series of memorable set pieces, Arkham Asylum created a template I would have been happy to see almost any superhero occupy.
That was nearly 10 years ago, and while plenty of franchises have remixed the basic elements of Arkham’s gameplay over the years, no superhero on the level of Batman has received the same treatment. At least, not until the arrival of Spider-Man on PS4 — a miraculous reimagining of the franchise that, more than any other game this year, had me playing until there was almost nothing left to do.
The first thing anyone says about Spider-Man is that it makes you feel like Spider-Man, which is to say it captures the vertiginous thrill of leaping off a tall building, only to catch yourself at the last moment with a web slung from the wrist. Nearly every review I read mentioned this quality of the game, and yet it still doesn’t quite capture Insomniac Games’ achievement here.
The fictional Spider-Man has a mastery over his movements that a humble video game player can only imagine. The genius of Spider-Man is that, by making web-slinging both incredibly forgiving and visually spectacular, it transfers Spider-Man’s fictional mastery of his universe to our own playing of the game, with only the faintest hint of a learning curve. As a result, for the first time in personal open-world action game history, I actively avoided using the game’s fast-travel features, choosing instead to hurtle through block after block of skyscraper canyons.
The rhythms of web-slinging have a pleasingly meditative quality, but they are also productive. As you move through the city, various low-level crimes break out at random: a drug deal gone wrong; a jewelry store robbery; a criminal attempting a getaway in a speeding car. Delivering vigilante justice rewards you with tokens, which can be spent on new costumes and upgrades to your various gadgets.
I actively avoided using the game’s fast-travel features
They also offer ample opportunity to master the game’s pleasing combat, which leans heavily on the combos and quick dodges pioneered by the Arkham series. Like those games, Spider-Man offers an adequate mixture of enemies, and your ability to keep them at bay will grow as you learn to use your gadgets — especially in combination. (A late-game challenge tasks you with defeating enemies using only a combination of a sonic blaster that knocks everyone back and a web bomb that traps them in sticky nets; this trick effectively turns you into a mushroom cloud of webs, and once I mastered it, I began using it in every encounter.)
Movement is the most distinctive aspect of Spider-Man, and the area in which it most improves over its predecessors. But that’s to take nothing away from its charmingly familiar story, which finds Peter Parker eight years into his career as the webslinger, working for the comically suspicious scientist Doctor Otto Octavius and dealing with the fallout of putting the Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, in jail.
A large ensemble cast offers plenty for longtime fans of the characters to enjoy, while never feeling overly crowded. (I wouldn’t have minded a few more bosses to fight, myself.) One of the game’s smartest moves is to regularly pull you out of Peter Parker’s worldview and drop you into the perspectives of his ex-girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson, and his young mentee, Miles Morales. The Mary Jane and Miles sections of the game are intentionally slower, focused on stealth, and let the game’s designers vary the pace along the way to the game’s climax. They also build a world that tantalizes us with sequel possibilities in which both characters are likely to figure strongly.
Spider-Man offered us a rare blockbuster game that is relentlessly upbeat
In a dark year, Spider-Man offered us a rare blockbuster game that is relentlessly upbeat, gorgeous to look at, and — if we’re being honest — extremely easy to beat. Some might read this as an insult, but I appreciated how incredibly understanding Spider-Man is of our failings. Plunge headfirst off the Empire State Building and you will take no damage; punch an enemy even once and you can restore a not-insignificant bit of health. I routinely find myself murdered by bosses in other games so often I turn to YouTube for hints; I managed to dispatch the big bad in Spider-Man in a single (thrilling) try.
Other games this year found more inventive ways to push the medium forward. It’s probably even fair to dismiss Spider-Man as a particularly good riff on an old hit song. And yet nothing else I played this year so reliably put a smile on my face — or made me as impatient for fresh episodes of downloadable content to arrive, even if they mostly just offered a ho-hum new set of tasks to check off my list.
Anything to be back in my suit making the neighborhood just a little more friendly. Anything to once again run up the side of a skyscraper, leap, and swing.