If you have a certain point of view and reasons that you think are valid, then whether it’s pro or anti, you can only and should only express those views you honestly hold.
-Steve Ditko, in a letter to the fanzine Fanzation #3, 1969
The traversal system is AMAZING!
Hokay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s web-sling into the finer details of this latest open-world superhero outing. Can Marvel’s Spider-Man successfully stave off both open-world and superhero fatigue? How much does Spider-Man move the conversation forward in game design? Tune in… well, to the next paragraph the find out. SPOILERS ahead!
Spider-Man opens with our friendly neighborhood titular character swinging into action during a takedown of the notorious Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, a master crime daddy entrenched in Fisk Towers smack dab in the heart of New York, New York. Players are treated to this version’s Spider-maneuverability and Spider-combat as the wallcrawler climbs the floors of the Kingpin’s skyscraper, battling back thugs, rescuing innocents, and facing down dirty cops on the crime lord’s payroll (yes, the NYPD isn’t as black and white in Spider-Man as Kotaku would have you believe).
Spider-Man overcomes every hurdle, faces down the rotund rascal of the criminal underworld himself, and apprehends the furious Kingpin in an action set piece that immediately encapsulates all of the spectacle, the humor, and the protagonist-accuracy which form the three main strengths of this game: catching Kingpin in his webs, both Spider-Man and the villain hang upside-down, and Spidey (never short of something to say) quips “Should we kiss now?” A Sam Raimi Spider-film reference? Brilliant.
As the Kingpin is ushered away into a police vehicle that can accommodate his girth, he roars something-something about creating a power vacuum in the city. Ah yes, the power vacuum: remove one figure and another fills its place. This has played out before in superhero-dom. Turns out, though, he was right.
Some time later, we meet Peter Parker, the man behind the mask. This isn’t high school Peter, boy Peter, or specs-wearing 60’s nerd Peter. This version of the wall-crawler is not tied to a film franchise, specific comic book story arc, cartoon tie-in, or previous video game series, or the MCU (thank heavens). It’s a separate interpretation of the character and his world. It is able to take the most familiar and traditional aspects of the superhero and set them within a new, modern, fair grounded state of existence.
This Peter Parker is no longer the photographer for The Daily Bugle (his boss, J. Jonah Jameson, is now an angry talk radio host, so perfectly 2018, although I can’t believe J.J.J. would still rock that mustache in 2018). Also, this Peter is neither wed nor wanted by Mary Jane; apparently they had some kind of break up prior to the events of this story. Thirdly, this Peter is a research assistant at the side of Doctor Otto Octavius, whose name will be infamously familiar with fans, irresistibly so. Finally, this Peter analogously “calls his mother every weekend” by helping out his Aunt May at a local homeless shelter called F.E.A.S.T.
The story develops while spread across these loose plot threads: research assistant, ex-boyfriend, working at the shelter. As the game progresses, these threads begin to tie together into one web where each line makes sense and comes toward an impending center, with forced busywork (sidequests) about the city interposed between the main story beats. Doctor Octavius grows increasingly obsessed with his work in neuro-receptive prosthetics, Mary Jane Watson comes back into Peter’s life, and F.E.A.S.T. introduces us to a less famous Spider-Man villain.
Now that “Willie” Fisk is out of the way, this less famous villain finds it’s time to strike. Mister Negative appears leading an urban-terrorist group called the Demons, who quickly establish themselves by occupying the cops and entering into a gang war with Fisk’s remaining operatives. Spider-Man, who is working alongside the police chief Yuri Watanabe, finds himself with more than his hands full as things begin to escalate. Oscorp has inadvertently developed a doomsday bio-weapon, the Demons are closing in on it, the supervisor of F.E.A.S.T., Martin Li, falls under Peter’s suspicion, several supervillains make their appearance, and Dr. Octavius’ sanity is spiraling ever downward.
The principle fun to be had in Spider-Man is founded on the fact that this game gets the powers right. Given how many possible uses Spider-Man can get out of his web-shooters, there was a lot for the developers at Insomniac Games to consider and implement. The result, however, couldn’t be better, more fluid, more versatile, and more efficient. Of course, good old-fashioned web-slinging between buildings is here but there’s a better sense of physics and weight than there ever was before.
All of the hype you’ve undoubtedly heard regarding the sheer joy of web-slinging through the entire island of Manhattan is not overstated. Spider-Man can swing, run across walls, pull himself forward with ropes of webbing, cut corners quickly… only a dash of unpredictability in his rapid movements and direction must be overcome by new players, but it’s not that bad. After a bit of practice, I could land pretty much exactly where I wanted on a flat plane, though higher, smaller landing positions (like spires) were occasionally difficult. The precision and fluidity that is accomplished within this game is remarkable, though, considering Spider-Man’s very unique abilities.
Another thing this game gets right is, as I mentioned, protagonist-accuracy. It gets the character of Peter Parker right, namely by highlighting his overwhelming sense of guilt, almost past the point of caricature in some scenes. Next to teasing opponents, guilt is the defining trait of this superhero. It plays a huge part in why he decided to fight crime after his Uncle Ben’s death at the hands of a mugger he let go mere hours earlier (if that story is canon in this game universe). Of course, Peter blames himself for helping Octavius build the mechanical prosthetics that later allow him to run riot.
Oh and Peter gets evicted. Stan Lee wanted to create a superhero with real-life problems. This is he. While Spider-Man sees high-flying crime fighting, Peter wrestles with worrying about everything, paying his bills, showing up to work on time, keeping up with his real life responsibilities. Peter is a character who can’t be Spider-Man all the time. He has to be Peter Parker.
Spider-Man is sensitive toward the importance of the true hero, in this case, Peter Parker. Spider-Man is the mask while Peter is the inner person, the real identity, the one that frets endlessly about his Aunt May and Miles and MJ and his next door neighbor’s cat. This game even goes so far as to portray Peter’s concern for his loved ones’ safety as being suffocating toward Mary Jane (a portrayal that’s hit or miss and occasionally transparently typical of today’s storytelling sensibilities).
Peter may indeed be much less interesting than the immediacy and spectacle of Spider-Man and his adventures, but Peter is the lifeblood of the character. Without Peter, there is no Spider-Man. Otherwise, you’d just have an action game with no story, no heart.
I would be doing this game a disservice if I didn’t resoundingly applaud the best part about its story, though, which is the Doc Ock plot thread. Early on in the game, I noted to my kid brother who was watching me that I knew already that Doctor Octopus would be the last boss. We’ll address the issue of predictability with this game later on, but for now, I can say that while Doctor Octopus is so high profile that his character arc here can be seen from miles away, it’s presented as a moving tale of obsession that tears down a brilliant mind. The downfall of a character isn’t always handled with care; sometimes the descent into insanity is so swift and so decisive over such a tiny slight against the descending character that it’s laughable. Not so here.
This is because the story portions plenty of time to the relationship between Peter and Otto. It grants multiple cutscenes and lots of dialogue to the interaction between the characters. We’re allowed to grasp why a scientist would ever design mechanical tentacles that could be controlled directly by the human brain. We’re given the opportunity to understand what drives Octavius and what relationship he has toward other characters in the story beyond just Peter. We’re presented with how much Otto treasures Peter as not just an assistant but a friend. These things make Otto a real character and not just a throwaway cliché villain, and these things make the inevitable ending all the more tragic and full of real loss. We lost Octavius with Peter.
We care about Doc Ock as a character because we’re allowed the time to.
In contrast with Mister Negative (pun only indirectly intended), Li shares barely any meaningful scenes with Peter before he begins to fall under suspicion. Since he becomes a villain much earlier in the story, there’s almost no emotional attachment to him compared with Otto. Of course, Spider-Man pleads with him to step out of “the darkness” and come back to “the light” like a Kingdom Hearts cutscene, but we didn’t have opportunity to see what that light meant for Li. We know that he served at F.E.A.S.T. for a while but we didn’t get to see that or understand the man’s inner struggles; did he really care for the homeless or how much of it was a useful front, biding his time before unleashing the Demons?
It’s later revealed, rather briefly, that Martin Li was experimented on by Oscorp and that’s how he received his powers, although those powers also led to the accidental deaths of his parents. This tells us why Mister Negative is out for revenge against Norman Osborn but it’s not enough to create a sympathetic villain. That’s because it’s a case of telling instead of showing. Show don’t tell, Doctor Octavius versus Martin Li, respectively.
But that seems like advice held only for literature yet (surprisingly?) not for video games.
As it stands, Mister Negative seemed to be a significant part of the story based on marketing and gameplay footage put out before the game’s release, but as one of our mages astutely put forth in private conversation, he was evidently just a red herring… but I’d add for a villain that’s even more obvious. Sure, nobody expected him to be the central villain (I don’t think), and I hesitate to call him a throwaway character so much as he seems like a mere afterthought.
Still, that contrast made this player appreciate Octavius all the more. Without him, this would just be an exercise in typical villain backstories and behavior rather than a presentation of the drama between Peter and Otto. Heck, I don’t even know the nature of Li’s powers… and I did my duty in the main areas scouring for the optional fluff, especially as it pertained to the villains.
This scene is the reason I bought this game.
One bit of praise I consistently see popping up is “This is easily the best Spider-Man game ever”. I agree with that because really it’s not in the best company. Can you name that many Spider-Man games off hand? Of those, how many are truly great? Did you know that a new Spider-Man game was released every year from 2004 to 2014, two in 2007? That decade-long streak ended in the whimper that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (the movie the game). It also saw a couple other movie adaptations and some muddled Spidey storytelling. Ultimate Spider-Man would be my pick for the best from that ten-year span, though Spider-Man 2 is remembered fondly. Before that, you had a handful of decent to notable action games (beat ’em ups and platformers) in the 90’s Spidey-splosion… absolutely not including Return of the Sinister Six.
Now is it the best superhero game ever? Well, that’s a harder question to ask and I’m going to play the skeptic: the critic and not the puff piece reviewer. Yeah, yeah, I’m a martyr blah blah blah something-something self-aggrandizing journalism.
Having spent most of my space so far praising the game, let me get down into the actual criticisms I have against it. To my mind, Marvel’s Spider-Man does several things really well and a few things rather poorly, and even then a few more things somewhat… averagely.
The 8-bit Review
Spider-Man is a AAA exclusive for the PlayStation 4 so we should expect its graphics to be top notch, the best they’ve ever been. The sense of spectacle in Spider-Man is off the charts, but there’s more to the game than action sequences.
Something has to tie it all together.
When trying to establish a high-end baseline for visuals, the best graphics of the PS4, I think immediately of Arkham Knight, The Last of Us Remastered, and Horizon Zero Dawn. I hold that these three (and potentially more: I’m thinking of Shadow of the Colossus on PS4) look better than Spider-Man in different ways and I’ll break down the specific reasons why: weather and lighting, facial animations, and environment. What’s notable here is the three games I mentioned came out in 2015, 2014, and 2017, respectively.
When I saw the opening scenes of the game, a slow camera-crawl across Peter’s bedroom toward his bed where he wakes with a start, I entertained the passing thought that this was actually going to be a cartoon-stylized game. I have absolutely nothing against that. I only bring it up to say that something immediately looked off. The hand that grasped the phone, the first facial expressions. The Spidey mask later hides most of that but there are prolonged scenes with human characters talking with each other, and clearly not all of them saw the same attention as others: several have a dull, over-pocked skin texture.
Peter “Puffy-eyed” Parker, the star of the show, hovers between nuanced performance and robotic staring between scenes.
There’s better rendition for Stan Lee’s 2-second cameo than there is for Mile’s father.
Doctor Octopus is yet again an example of the game’s finer work, here specifically with animation, as is Norman Osborn, Aunt May (though facially one-note), and Mary Jane Watson. Miles Morales looks like a botox’d mannequin. Elements like that put the gaminess of Spider-Man front and center and risk distracting the player from the immersion of the plot.
There is an early moment when criminals attack Spidey and the cops show up; the criminal front and center looks great (wrinkles, stubble, glistening sweat) and then there’s the cop that looks as like he’s on loan from Grand Theft Auto IV. This jarring juxtaposition between character models that obviously received TLC and others which did not is just that, jarring. NPCs never have the same degree of detail as the main cast but here the chasm between them is astounding. It’s surprising given the status, budget, exclusivity, and impact of this game.
Oh but the photo mode is great! Perfect for irreverent Spidey selfies!
What is wrong with Kingpin’s head and face?
Then there’s the “Puddle Controversy”, which I might endearingly refer to as “It-Doesn’t-Matter-Gate” if that title wasn’t so widely applicable across the gaming industry already. Why are we sticking “Gate” after everything? Anyway, it appears as if the loudest voices aren’t ever willing to address the points of the other side without stooping to strawmen so here’s the thing: The game does not look precisely the same as it did at E3. Is that grounds for controversy, yelling, and angry YouTube rants? No. In fact, that’s not unheard of from E3 presentations. End of story. It’s not grounds for infantile tantrums neither does it warrant labeling all gamers as manchildren: in other words, it’s more than screaming about a puddle (it’s concern over video game quality) but it’s also much less than a massive defamation toward anyone who is passionate about video games.
Even without the presence of a mere puddle, Spider-Man features a richly detailed and dynamic rendition of New York City. The setting is exquisite and it portrays the drabbiness, the dirtiness, and the architectural diversity of the densely packed real world metropolis it emulates. Daylight shifts to sunset and then to night as the story progresses and these periods offer unique opportunities for Spider-Man to demonstrate its lighting effects. Sunset hours are the most dramatic, amber colored rays piercing through Spider-Man’s urban jungle.
I’m not a fan of all the white on the new suit. Reminds me of a sneaker.
Many direct comparisons have been made with Rocksteady’s Arkham series and I intend to do the same here. Batman: Arkham Knight is now three years old yet its rain effects, artificial lighting, reflective surfaces, and the variations within its setting each, to my mind, remain a step up from Spider-Man in the visual department.
Arkham Knight did not feature an inhabited city, so in the interactive dynamism department Spider-Man has Knight beat, but the actual presentations of Gotham and New York are set at different tiers entirely. Is Spider-Man’s world bigger? Is it just that it is more inhabited? Is it because they opted to focus on other areas? Whatever the reason, even when it rains in Spider-Man, it’s not as awe-inspiring as the sleet we’ve already seen. Spider-Man is not Batman, though, so we shouldn’t expect the same kind of visuals, but the specific points I pointed out remain.
If I just graded Horizon Zero Dawn a 10/10 for its visuals, even noting the occasional stumble in its facial animations, then that’s going to represent the high tier for my grading purposes. Spider-Man isn’t as beautiful, diverse, intricate, realized, or dynamic, that much ought to be apparent. Therefore, I’ve taken the score a few steps down.
Spider-Man is still a great looking game with a fun photo mode and wonderful lighting at 8/10, despite the occasional cartoon, PS3 remnant, or mannequin. More polish needed. At least it’s not as ugly, flat, and uninspired as Shadow of the Tomb Raider…
My favorite screenshot.
For me, this was the best part of the game. Spider-Man boasts stellar voice work. The performances given by the cast are consistently great (despite the usual video game dialogue from bosses).
Yuri Lowenthal produces a tremendous range throughout the game and none of the emotional beats feel falsely manufactured. His worry, his anger, his in-character facades are believable. Notably, he included inflection in his performance when web-slinging or remaining still. You can hear him grunting as Spider-Man exerts himself pulling his own weight high in the air between skyscrapers, but the same conversation can demonstrate a change in inflection if Spidey remains still. Lowenthal brought a lot of innocence and warmth to his voice here, perfect for a usually brighter superhero.
Other vocal work is great with not a single mainline performer audibly phoning it in. MJ and Miles by Laura Bailey and Nadji Jeter feel natural, and Nancy Linari’s frail strength as Aunt May is convincing. Chief Yuri Watanabe by Tara Platt is expressive and Mark Rolston’s Norman Osborn has all the oniony layers of a politician. J. Jonah Jameson is so completely spot on you might be surprised to learn it’s Darin de Paul and not J. K. Simmons. Even Mister Negative and Kingpin by Stephen Oyoung and Travis Willingham, respectively, find their characters despite not having much to do, and the other sub-villains are as we would expect them. The stand out performance for the baddies is again Doctor Octopus, played by William Salyers, given the time spent with that character’s arc.
The only two performers I thought over-did their parts were Nichole Elise as Silver Sable, who sounds like she’s doing a voice, and Erica Lindbeck as
Catwoman Black Cat who pours on the sexy a little too thick. Maybe she thought she was playing Jessica Rabbit? Our more red-blooded readers will need to be informed that Black Cat will make her first appearance in “The Heist” DLC coming late October.
Both characters are more caricature than cast. Fortunately, Black Cat is restricted to a sidequest and Silver Sable only ever appears as an unlikeable antagonist, anyhow. Da, comrade.
Spider-Man’s excellent soundtrack by John Paesano grabbed me with its pitch-perfect tone for the character right from Insomniac’s logo before the title screen. I felt it immediately channels the proud work of Spider-Man scores before it while still remaining distinct and separate. It’s more like Raimi’s Spider-Man than the 90’s animated series. Haha, could you imagine?
Mmkay. Gameplay takes us closer to Arkham comparisons, enough for other writers to point out similarities at every level of written exposure. To my mind, these comparisons are fair, though the entirety of the Arkham quadrilogy makes the most sense.
The free flow combat featured in Spider-Man was popularized by (not invented by) the Arkham series. The initial seeds of the system did not begin in Treytarch’s Spider-Man 2 back in June 2004, as has been suggested elsewhere; that game did include dynamic combat with visual cues about our hero’s head but we have to go back even before that to February 2004 to Jet Li: Rise to Honor to find the deepest roots of the concept. Still, both Spider-Man 2 and Jet Li: Rise to Honor can’t be credited with making the free flow combat system a mainstay gameplay mechanic in gaming. That had to wait for Arkham Asylum and the brutal precision of the Batman. The Arkham series went on to further develop, deepen, and streamline free flow combat, to the point of it becoming practically a Batman trademark.
This, among other things, explains why some have called Marvel’s Spider-Man an Arkham reskin. I’m one of them, though I admit the comedic or controversial value in playing up the hyperbole of that statement. Spider-Man doesn’t take the concept too much further but there are two things I have to say about its differences. The agility of the free flow combat system fits the nimble Spider-Man much more than it does the superpower-less human we call Batman. I always thought it was somewhat ridiculous for the Dark Knight to leap 30 feet across the screen to punch someone in the face. Batman excels at martial arts and can engage multiple armed thugs at once but silliness is still silliness, excused as it is for comic books and video games. So the speed and range of the fighting is more appropriate for Spidey.
Another difference is there’s now an emphasis on air combat. Whereas Arkham emphasized the fluid martial prowess and gadgets on-the-fly with Batman, Spider-Man emphasizes the wallcrawler’s speed and aptitude for the air. Spidey can swing-kick, pull enemies into the air, throw objects from the air, and remain aloft to build up his combo meter focus to access special abilities sooner. There’s a greater degree of environmental interaction than there was in Arkham and the combat seemed much faster without Arkham’s fetish for slow-mo, but there’s also appropriately less magnetic precision. Spider-Man is not a highly trained hand-to-hand fighter. He’s a nerd and a scientist on his downtime, with some photography skills for good measure. Nothing but his powers and Spidey-sense foresight give him an advantage in battle. As such, I immediately felt that Spider-Man’s combat felt clumsier, not as accurate, but set at a much higher pace.
Does anyone enjoy crouch-walking, insta-death stealth mechanics? Why are these such a staple? The presence and prevalence of stealth in Spider-Man was disconcerting to me, and there are two things to mention here.
Spider-Man himself doesn’t strike me as the kind of character that would operate in the shadows like Batman, yet there are plenty sequences where the player is forced to rely on Batman-esque stealth takedowns (though there is a de-emphasis on instigating fear). In some ways, the stealth mechanics felt tacked on, to me, a necessity born out of the fact that this is a huge monetary investment designed to play upon the most successful features of the best-selling games of our time. This is the gaminess of the game influencing the interpretation of the character, not the other way around as it should be.
My suspicions were roused by Spider-Man’s stealth combat that ends up being much less versatile or complex as in Arkham with its changing enemy attitudes, positions, groupings, and multiple takedowns. It’s a step backward here. Sound design in regards to stealth is also barely present: Spidey can shoot webs to distract enemies with noise but there’s no distinction between a silent takedown or a faster, louder alternative, not meaningfully since Spider-Man can more easily dispatch enemies hand-to-hand than with stealth anyway. Stealth takedowns are possible but limited to a few modes, such as perch takedowns or walking up slowly behind someone, and over-relying on them actually makes engaging enemies more boring rather than diving in and enjoying the free flow activity. With larger groups of enemies, I found myself avoiding stealth entirely since there was no reason to pick off enemies or drive them apart. Groups of them won’t hunt you down, booby trap your hiding places, or even remain on alert for very long.
These distinctions do fit the nature of the two superheroes in question: the Dark Knight relies on fear tactics and sudden swift strikes because he isn’t fast enough to dodge bullets, and as a master martial arts expert the degree of precision relied upon in the Arkham games is fitting; the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, on the other hand, relies on witticism over terror, throwing off his opponent’s concentration with characteristic banter and quipping (the Marvel character that should be doing all the quipping), so it makes sense that his fighting style presents the character thinking on his feet, moving quickly, albeit occasionally clumsily. So then why include so much stealth in Spider-Man at all? Only a few story beats actually demand using it, hostages being one good reason.
Then there are the MJ/Morales stealth sections… gotta get that GOTY-bait crouch-sneaking in there somehow, I guess! These were the worst parts of the main storyline, ditching the best parts of the game when you’re Spider-Man slinging through the city, dropping down on bad guys, and thinking on your feet for fun, fast, and interesting ways to knock them all out. In the place of all that, the highlight of the game, you get two human characters who can move at just below the speed of an afternoon jog, who have to spend their time avoiding being spotted while moving from one map icon to the next in an all-too-transparent and unnatural obstacle course manned by the absolute worst and most gullible guards imaginable.
Typically, when the game forced me into the roles of MJ and Morales, that was when I called it quits for the night. MJ and Morales have about a gimmick or two each to make things interesting. Rushing through these sections is a good way to get a quick game over and start depressingly over again like your own personal Groundhog Day; impatient as I was to get to the end of them, I bumped into more than a few insta-deaths and had to listen to the same grunt dialogue over and over. Little else will deflate the tension or impact of a story more than that, and it’s uniquely a trait of video game storytelling. Imagine if a book forced you to re-read the same page aloud if you mispronounced a word. I just wanted to get back to the Spider stuff without having the game force me to like Miles or empathize with Mary Jane thrusting herself into constant mortal danger to prove a point to Peter about partnership and equality.
Ultimately, these tacked on beats were met with many a groan from this writer. I especially disliked when the game cut to “30 seconds earlier” or some such segueway and I knew what was coming… more of the stealth-walking simulator.
Okay how about a plus, next? Everyone loves collectibles, right? Sure! Spider-Man includes a collection of suits and gadgets alongside Peter’s skill trees to keep the gameplay energetic and fresh. The skill trees grant access to different combat techniques, the gadgets are technological, typically web-based apparatuses, and the suits are good for a cosmetic change of pace as well as coming with their own special power which Peter can unleash by spending some of his focus bar (which is built by linking attacks together for combos, though the tradeoff is the focus bar is also consumed for healing).
The gadgets include things like more powerful web-blasts that knock enemies backward and stick them to walls, drones that can seek and destroy with lasers, and electrified webbing that can paralyze multiple foes in close proximity. The suit powers include abilities like faster focus accumulation, AOE blasts, and augmented attack powers.
However, it’s the cosmetic natures of the suits which I found most appealing. As mentioned, I didn’t care for the new suit. Thankfully, it seems Insomniac anticipated that reaction and so the classic Spidey suit was included. I used it for most of the game while playing around with a few of the others just for a change of pace from time to time. The suit that really wowed me is the one you get for completing the main storyline, the vintage suit which looks as if it leapt straight off the pages of a comic book!
Ultimately, Spider-Man can’t climb out of the open-world rut. Its main storyline is surprisingly short and so the game must be padded with busy-work. What’s funny is that people complain that retro games were padded with extra difficulty to extend the playtime of an otherwise short game and justify the purchase price, yet we’re seeing the same thing here.
Spider-Man is $60. It’s much more if you want to get that custom-skinned PS4 with it. Perhaps some of the hype is associated with attempting to parade a game that validates spending that much money on a fairly brief story, and that’s where the busy-ness of the open-world comes in. You can complete the story easily but you could drop much more time doing chores throughout the city, many of which have absolutely no bearing on the character or the tale at hand, as boring as pigeon-catching is. Sprawling New York is home to hundreds of individual experiences, most of which are isolated from each other and from the heart of the game, though I’m on the fence about how important hunting down Black Cat’s cameras are in advance of a DLC I’m not sold on, considering its based on said camera-hunting.
The game even shunts you into mucking about aimlessly through its open cityscape at specific points in the story when there’s nothing to do. It doesn’t last long before the next plot thread picks up, but it is remarkable how acceptable it apparently is for a game to say “Let’s pause the story here. Go and waste some time.” This, as far as I know, can be called ludo-narrative dissonance, the game getting in its own way in regards to story and delivery.
Taking pictures of landmarks, helping ordinary citizens, cleaning up barrels from the bay are each represented by open-world map icons indicating every important interactive object while eliminating the drive to explore on one’s own and experience the joy of discovery a la Breath of the Wild. In many ways, Spider-Man seems to me to be the normative open-world experience. Now it’s not that open-world games themselves are bad, that’s not my point here; my point is Spider-Man doesn’t do anything to move the conversation forward in a genre that has already been developing fatigue for years; I just wrote about whether video game quality is improving or not and this is one instance where status quo and safety are the words of the day over change and improvements, and unless consumers are vocal about wanting fresh design, mechanics, and structure then we might as well just be playing games like this which aren’t all that different from games 3 or 4 years ago. If that’s alright by you, then that’s fine. The great thing about games is they can be a very casual hobby. For myself, I’m passionate enough about gaming to want to see it move forward, if I’m going to play new releases at all.
However, what you do get out of Spider-Man’s gameplay is good open-world gameplay. Good, not groundbreaking. Good, not innovative. Good, but nothing new. Good, but nothing to write home about considering all the great to better open-world experiences over the last half a decade. The amount of open-world fatigue within your heart of hearts will decide how okay you are with Spider-Man meeting the status quo so well.
I forgot to mention the puzzles but I don’t want to.
While I praised Doctor Octopus’ presentation earlier, I won’t pretend this is earth-shattering storytelling. It’s got the plotting of a Saturday morning cartoon. Not even Doc Ock avoids falling into tired old villain fluff: out for revenge. This also happens to be Mister Negative’s motivation as well. What about Norman Osborn, who we all know better as the Green Goblin whether he dons the Halloween mask in this universe or not? He’s out to cure his son, so he’s the end justifies the means trope in a green suit.
GR-27? That’s a little on the nose, don’t you think? Note the issue number.
In fact, I can think of only one character who isn’t a predictable two-dimensional bullet point or merely underdeveloped. Peter is the only person who faced a decision that was truly difficult and which left me, as the audience member, unsure of how he was going to proceed. It’s in the final moments of the story when the game has the juevos to kill off Aunt May (a remarkable achievement considering the stakes-less-ness of the MCU film counterparts). Peter has the cure in hand and must decide between the kind of hero he wants to be. Does he save Aunt May by using the cure and thereby preventing it from being engineered for a cure for the city, or does he save the cure for those faceless citizens and watch his own mother-figure waste away? He has to choose between the Garfield Spider-Man (a self-centered jerk who’ll do anything to get what he wants) and the Maguire Spider-Man (who frequently gave everything that he had for the people of his city). Fortunately for heroism, this Spider-Man chooses old Tobey.
This moment single-handedly explains the uptick from 5/10 to 6/10 in my scoring here. Not only does the game have the balls to put Aunt May in the ground, which is all the more surprising considering the absolute inevitability of a sequel, but it also demonstrates that heroes have to care for more than themselves and their immediate interests, for the classic virtue of saving as many lives as possible. In an age when superheroes are more humanized than ever and anti-heroism is at its edgy, Hot Topic-ey peak, it’s refreshing to see a superhero make the most difficult choice: the right choice.
So I’ll say the story is mostly unoriginal to the end, while still arguably feeling classic. Its conclusion can be seen from miles away thanks to the not-so-subtle foreshadowing in the Octavius thread. The game is representative of the core of the Spider-Man character but there’s no deviation or moving Spidey forward from the norm, the common consensus and common knowledge regarding the character. This balance is remarkable considering there’s no attachment between this game and other Marvel projects, but in execution it’s unimpressive. That is until the very final scene which possibly suggests that Harry Osborn will become Venom. I’m not sure how I feel about that change, though change is usually good, and here’s why: People typically think of Venom as Spider-Man’s archenemy but Venom even becomes an anti-hero eventually. The Green Goblin is classically positioned as Spider-Man’s archnemesis and it is the Green Goblin who has wounded Peter Parker more than any other villain.
With Harry Osborn, we’re thinking of Green Goblin, occasionally identified with “II” after his name. The most interesting things about Harry are his ties to both Peter and his dad, and once Norman dies and Harry finds out and believes Peter killed him, it creates this great dilemma within him about who to remain faithful to. This was a central point in Raimi’s first Spider-film but it’s also rendered in one of the most haunting comic book stories I’ve read: The Child Within.
Harry canonically chooses his father’s legacy and that relationship with Peter makes the Goblin legacy villains those which hit closest to home for Peter. Gwen’s death is one instance. The point being that the Goblins never go away and the Goblins mean something in the Spider-Man mythos. So if Insomniac can figure out how to maintain that dilemma within Harry where he chooses between father and friend, then great, but that could be contingent on whether we see Norman become the Goblin or not.
What worries me about Harry becoming what is classically referred to as Venom, versus becoming a different villain, is it sets a weird precedent for combining villains and erasing others who have had an impact on Peter in different ways. Would it have been weird if Martin Li was Doctor Octopus and Octavius was Green Goblin? Yeah, and it also would’ve limited the possibilities for the story and the characters involved. Removing the Goblin legacy villains to sneak the symbiote in through the back door would at least make the sequel less predictable if it deviated to such an extent, far more than this first game, but it would wipe out entire characters and arcs to pull from and adapt. No more jealous Eddie Brock and no more Harry slipping in and out of insanity. Brock isn’t Peter’s best friend turned evil and Harry isn’t Peter’s worst rival infected with an alien. At best, I could hope for Harry’s condition introducing the symbiote into this universe but I hope it doesn’t latch onto him.
Spider-Man is one of the most iconic superheroes there is and I sincerely hope they don’t mangle the characters by mixing them together. The best thing about this Spider-Man is that he has no ties with films or comics, specifically, but at the same time, this remains a Spider-Man story.
Having already cut into the busy-work of this open-world title, I will say that that generates a large degree of replay value for those interested in everything Spider-Man has to offer. Swinging through the city, you’ll never be short of things to do: there are always active crimes to stop, car thieves to apprehend and terrorists to capture, citizens in need of a savior or a pigeon might fly out of nowhere, compelling you to forsake all other responsibilities to catch it.
How is this not parody?
Something which occupied my interest was the landmarks. I’ve never been to New York City and I’ve always wanted to go to see the sights and get mugged. I could wish I had more opportunity to explore rather than just follow waypoints, and put my limited knowledge of NY to the test, but I did spend a good chunk of an evening trying to find ground zero and the 9/11 memorial. Spider-Man taking place in a real world city has allowed for unique storytelling in his books but I was curious to see how this version of Spidey and NY handled it.
Turns out, I couldn’t find a memorial but I did find this Easter egg: the Towers reflected in the mirrored windows of a nearby skyscraper. When you turn to look, they aren’t there. Only the reflections in the glass remain. I thought this was an elegant, honest, and honoring way to include the Towers without trivializing what happened.
I found Spider-Man hard early on and then easy as pie in the late game. This is almost entirely due to Spidey’s skill tree and level ups. At the start of the game, his combat options are limited and he has very low health and damage output. Battles can seem to drag on and it’s easier to get overwhelmed right away. In the earliest parts of the game, I saw several game overs and Spider-Man’s combat clumsiness was hardest for me to get a grip on. By the final boss fight, it was like watching a long scene of quick time events.
Because the game is at its most difficult in the wrong places, harder early and easier toward the end, it forces you to find backpacks and collectibles for gadgets and gear right away, instead of easing you into the story and gameplay (which I think is one reason why some others have complained about the narrative being slow at the beginning). It’s not the worst balance of its kind and overall the game itself is only moderately difficult.
Bruce Wayne is an ex-photographer and scientist gifted with spider-like superpowers, he maintains a shaky relationship with his girlfriend Vicki Vale while also chasing the tail of another girl across the city, Catwoman, as well as occasionally stopping for the challenges of the Riddler. Seems like something’s up with Mayor Quincy being suspicious but there’s no time for that! A madman is after a chemical-based force of destruction but while attempting to stop that madman, a sequence of events occurs in which the city becomes a prison island overrun with criminals. Utilizing his wide array of custom-built gadgets and counter-dodging combat capabilities, this superhero needs to take down the mastermind that’s united some of his greatest supervillains against him: there’s Scarecrow and his hallucinogen-poison tipped cybernetic tail, Bane and hiding from his almost mindless rampage, Ra’s al Ghul and his swordfight showdown with his army of ghost clones, and… eh enough of that, you get the point.
Is Spider-Man lifted wholesale from the Arkham series? Probably not, but it could have been. Hahaha maybe a more important question is: Would that be a bad thing? Not really. It could make for a great game but not a unique one. Could you blame them from borrowing heavily from Rocksteady’s Batman? I actually said aloud at one point: “Mary Jane detective mode? Really? We’re doing this?“
I was just waiting for a villain to appear on the black Game Over screen and say something like “You just couldn’t swing it this time… detective.”
My Personal Grade: 6/10
So what’s the final verdict? This is a mostly pedestrian outing both in regards to the history of Spider-Man and the evolution of open-world games.
To dispense of a whole line of argumentation: do I just hate open-world games? Well, no. I recently gave extremely high marks to Horizon Zero Dawn, and before that to Breath of the Wild. Even Final Fantasy XV, which I consistently make fun of, received a great score from me despite my misgivings. Do I just hate Spider-Man because it’s popular? Again, I put the aforementioned titles up for your consideration, though I do believe Spider-Man has been very much over-hyped.
Borrowing elements and being inspired or influenced by what’s popular is a long-standing tradition in the entertainment world. It’s how creators get their fuel, by consuming pre-existing material, so it’s understandable that Spider-Man would lift much of its design from the last wildly successful superhero games… Or maybe it’s just yet another example in the long history of Marvel copying DC. I don’t want this entire review to be shrugged off as a mere exercise in sectarian fanboyism, so I’ll indicate that that was just a joke, a dig but a joke. How angry it makes you may indicate your level of entrenchment within fanboyishness, though I say that with apprehension, as well.
I’m not out to intentionally offend. I don’t write click-bait articles unless I’m parodying them. I believe that game reviews are valuable either as consumer reports (informing the consumer as to whether they should buy a game or not) or as critiques (identifying key areas in which the game design or presentation could have been improved for the sake for future game design and presentation). I typically focus on writing the latter. Having just questioned whether game quality was actually improving or not mere days before playing this game, I’m struck most by the lack of innovation beneath the fun that is Spider-Man. Because yes this game is fun but it evaporates quickly and there’s little underneath but the same old busy-work. The absence of innovation will impact players differently, but it’s undeniably there despite how much it disappoints you or not.
Marvel set out wanting to create a first-party title video game for one of their IPs, and that’s exactly what they did. The initial intent was never to break any new ground. It was “make a video game, Sony”. To that extent, Spider-Man fits into a mold. It doesn’t break one. The question hangs in the air whether it needs to or not.
With great hype comes great responsibility?
As it stands, knowing what I know now, I’d wait for a sale rather than buy it at launch again. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d already done this all before and I was merely following the developers down their checklist. It’s a good checklist but it’s a checklist, nonetheless. Ultimately, you may disagree with me, you may agree with me, but to echo the co-creator of Spider-Man once more:
If you have a certain point of view and reasons that you think are valid, then whether it’s pro or anti, you can only and should only express those views you honestly hold.
Aggregated Score: 7.0
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Categories: Game Review