If you want to successfully web-sling across New York City, you need to embrace the idea of nearly plummeting to your death — nearly being the operative word, of course.
It’s all about momentum. Spider-Man spends a lot of time swinging between buildings, and he typically needs to do so quickly. Muggers and supervillains won’t wait. And in order to get to those necessary high speeds, you need to be a bit reckless; bigger swings mean faster movement. This means that in order to hit maximum velocity, you’ll need to descend until you just about hit the pavement before shooting out your webs and reaching an incredible height, soaring high above the city’s skyline. It’s a beautiful view that’s made even more lovely by the touch of danger. Even after spending dozens of hours swinging across Manhattan, that drop made my heart jump every time.
How much you enjoy the new Spider-Man game on the PS4 will depend quite a bit on how much of a thrill you get from zipping from one building to the next. The game really nails what it feels like to be Spidey (or at least what I imagine it would feel like). Twisting through the air and tossing out a line of webs at just the right time never gets old. That’s good because, aside from the lead character, Spider-Man feels a lot like every other sprawling open-world action game — for better and for worse. It can be bloated and repetitive, with a story that feels at odds with its structure.
But damn, does it feel good to be Spider-Man.
Mercifully, the game doesn’t force you to witness yet another Spidey origin story. Instead, it starts with the webslinger as a known quantity. At the outset of the game, he has fierce rivalries with Scorpion and Rhino, J. Jonah Jameson hates him, and he’s going through a rough patch with Mary Jane. His alter ego Peter Parker, meanwhile, is a new graduate working for an ambitious and inspiring Doctor Octavius. Developer Insomniac has created a slightly new iteration of the iconic hero, but he also feels instantly familiar. This version of Spider-Man is equal parts lovable, tragic, and annoying, someone who will drive a joke into the ground one second before making a tough choice that will impact a city of millions.
In typical comic book fashion, the story gets convoluted. It starts out with a seemingly simple mystery — a gang of masked robbers are on a crime spree — before becoming much more complex. Spider-Man pulls in a huge range of characters and villains from the character’s mythos, and mixes them together with some new ones, to create a narrative that keeps pushing forward with an exciting momentum. It’s never very subtle or surprising, but it’s exceptionally well-done. It took about an hour before I predicted the main villain’s identity, but that didn’t make the reveal any less satisfying.
The timeline is also a perfect fit for a game. Spider-Man is at a point where he’s a skilled crime fighter, but he still has lots of room to grow. At the very beginning of the game, you can pummel bank robbers with acrobatic moves and nimbly scamper across buildings while using webs to swing across huge chasms. But as you progress, you’ll unlock new abilities that really open up the game. You can use webbing to grab a machine gun and toss it right back at a bad guy or hide on lamp posts to stealthily capture criminals in web cocoons. Skill trees aren’t anything unique, of course, but Spider-Man’s works particularly well, slowly revealing new skills and abilities while ratcheting up the complexity in a way that feels natural and not overwhelming.
The key to this is that being Spider-Man is a lot of fun. The swinging is a highlight; this might be the first open-world game where I didn’t use fast travel because it was just so thrilling to get around. The same goes for combat, which feels different than just about any third-person action game, thanks to Spidey’s unique abilities. You can toss enemies in the air, quickly push or pull yourself toward bad guys, and use your Spider-Sense to avoid fatal attacks. By the end of the game, you’ll be able to catch missiles midair and throw them right back at your attackers. The amount of space you can cover in a short period of time makes you feel powerful.
Playing Spider-Man reminds me a bit of the original Batman: Arkham Asylum. While the games are very different, they manage to pull off something similar: both star an iconic hero with a lot of expectations, which they somehow exceed. This is exactly how I want to feel playing as Spider-Man.
As remarkable as the main character is, the rest of the experience isn’t nearly so inventive. In fact, for the most part, Spider-Man follows the same core structure as just about every other open-world action game, from Assassin’s Creed to Far Cry. Outside of the core story missions, which are typically a nice blend of stealth, combat, puzzles, and bosses, the rest of the experience is very formulaic. You even have to liberate towers across the city to open up the map, much like in every Ubisoft game over the past decade.
While many open-world games of late have started to move away from the bloated structure that has plagued the genre, Spider-Man fully embraces it. Your map is littered with things to do, most of them tedious busywork. There are drones to race, stuffed kittens to find, and at one point, you’ll even have to stalk pigeons across the rooftops. In another example: for some inexplicable reason, Peter has left 55 (!) bags hidden across the city, each with a different memento from his past inside. It makes no sense whatsoever. It’s just another thing to do with no real reason behind it.
You don’t have to collect every single backpack or pigeon, of course, but the game is much easier if you do. Completing this side material lets you unlock new suits and gadgets that make Spidey more powerful and flexible during the main missions. (Some of the suits also look incredibly cool and feature plenty of fun nods to Spidey’s history.)
The paint-by-numbers structure is also disappointing because there are hints of good ideas hidden in some of the side missions. One particularly cool quest asks you to find a lost college student with only a single photograph to assist you. It reminded me of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; the task forces you to closely observe your surroundings with little in the way of guidance. The structure also interferes with the story. There were plenty of times when I was racing to reach the next major narrative beat, excited to see what happened next, only to get pulled into yet another conflict with low-level criminals that completely kills the story’s momentum.
At its best, Spider-Man might just be the finest superhero video game ever made. It uses relatively simple and intuitive controls to make you feel like a powerful hero, bounding across a vast city with ease, using spectacular skills to defeat evil. The epic boss battles in Spider-Man rival anything you’ve seen in a Marvel movie, including an absolutely incredible final encounter. I just wish that core wasn’t bogged down by a tragically mundane open-world structure. It’s a game that manages to do one thing really well, but it does it so well that it elevates the whole experience.
In any other game, I would’ve ignored the tedious backpacks completely. But in Spider-Man, they’re an excuse to do some more swinging, and I can’t say no to that.
Spider-Man is available on the PS4.