From a generational standpoint, this blog combined with the Snatch Gaming podcast should give you a pretty good idea of what games I’m interested and from what time periods: I’m interested in pretty much anything from the 8-bit era on up to now. I can generally appreciate and sometimes have a little fun with Atari games, but they’re not something I tend to seek out, and I have little to no interest in the Magnavox Odysseys of the world that came even earlier. Other than that, everything is pretty much fair game. More important, at least in the context of this review, is that I think I can appreciate the appeals and recognize the faults in games from any era. With all of that in mind, I can honestly say that Spider-Man for the Playstation 4 embodies everything that I love and dislike about current-gen gaming. Thankfully, it shakes out to be a really fun experience regardless.
The story is a semi-reboot of Spider-Man lore that I thought was a great way to go. The characters are all established, meaning that we don’t have to endure Spidey’s origin in the way that superhero movies always seem to gravitate toward (with a nauseating sense of deja vu to boot). Much of Peter Parker’s general life in and out of the costume is already established. The story begins right about at the jumping point that any superhero story should usually take off from. There is a lot to still transpire though, and much of it is already known to even casual fans of Marvel’s wall crawler. The game does a great job of laying a lot of groundwork for fans but also exploring certain plot points in its own way though, and I think it works well. You won’t be bogged down with too much redundancy in the story but still get to experience a fresh script that doesn’t disrespect the cannon. When it comes to putting old characters into new stories, it’s easy for a finished product to either be unoriginal or too detached from what we know and love. Thankfully, Insomniac toes the line effortlessly here, so the story shouldn’t grate on long-time fans or those with little prior knowledge that simply want a good video game.
The gameplay itself should be especially pleasing to those that have waited patiently for Spider-Man to finally get a game that is true to the character in all facets. In the past, some games have come close, but technological limitations were usually the culprit that prevented the delivery of a complete Spider-Man experience. As a PS4 exclusive though, this latest attempt at web-swinging glory more or less succeeds with flying colors. Swinging around a reasonably accurate model of Manhattan feels fantastic, and while past games cheated a bit by allowing Spidey to stick his web and swing from thin air above your TV screen, Spider-Man uses logic that makes sense but still allows for as much freedom as you would want or need. If Spidey is near and below any surface, he’ll attach a web and swing. You may have to wait a second to get underneath something you can swing from as you’re descending, but again, this makes sense. You can still get around this and keep moving with another smart feature: you can also press X any time in mid-air to shoot a straight web that you can pull on and propel yourself directly forward. This means that there are no dead moments where you have no choice but to torque yourself in an undesirable direction to find a swinging point. Apart from swinging, you can also use those straight webs to zip to objects and immediately vault off of them, creating some incredibly satisfying momentum. Once you grow comfortable with the controls and put it all together, you can make headway from any direction (and change directions) with ease. Yes, they finally nailed the swinging for Spider-Man, and it’s possibly the most satisfying thing in the game. The aforementioned model of New York should be mentioned in more detail: It complements the swinging beautifully, and if you’ve ever been to NYC, you can find a ton of recognizable real world landmarks (and some Marvel ones too!).
Now I am not someone who lives or dies with graphical quality, but I’m most definitely open to the fact that they can enhance a game greatly. Such is the case here. This is the best looking game that I personally have played on a current-gen console. Normal gameplay may not register as anything revolutionary, but the weather changes and sprawling cityscape look great. The cut scenes really shine though. Facial modeling is about as good as it currently gets on consoles, at least for the main characters. The heroes and villains look astounding in costume and up close. The game looks superb, and it really does elevate the story elements in my opinion. A PS4 Pro and a 4K TV only enhance the experience.
So now that I’ve explained some obvious high points for Spider-Man that couldn’t have come without the hardware we have now, I have to come full circle from the intro written above: The one glaring problem with Spider-Man is a sore lack of originality. Swinging is a hell of a lot of fun and everything looks great, but that’s a good thing because there just wasn’t a lot of creative gusto put in to what you actually do once you get to where you’re going. The obvious comparison (made in many other places aside from here) is the Arkham series. Spider-Man plays EXACTLY like Arkham City. I mean, it is literally a Spider-Man transplant of Rocksteady’s 2011 game. There are, of course, story missions. Then you have a smattering of side quests and bases to infiltrate. Some of those infiltrations will be combat-focused and some will be stealth-focused. You can entrap enemies from a perch above them. They all seem willfully ignorant of the fact that you’re there. There are objectives where you have to line up images for photographs. There are puzzles where you use the joysticks as kind of radio knobs in order to unscramble a signal.
Any of this sounding familiar? How about all of it? If you’ve played Arkham City or any Arkham game since, it’s the same exact formula that goes as far as to directly rip off some puzzles and general design. I understand that there are only so many ways to skin a cat, and that Insomniac is trying to design a game with a wide appeal. On the other hand, it almost seems like this game relies far too much on what new consoles can do in order to prop itself up due to a dearth of ideas. Also, not having played those Arkham games for quite awhile, I would still wager that they never felt like busy work, and Spider-Man often does. Collect 50 backpacks. Run pointless errands. Perform tasks for a villain whose only motivation is to see if you can perform said tasks. Fight thugs and stop runaway cars dozens and dozens of times, to the point of boredom (okay, Arkham definitely had that first one). I love the meaty stuff in Spider-Man, but there is a crap load of fat, make no mistake.
There are a lot of unlockables to gain access to, which is nice, but developers these days are always treading a fine line between value and bloat. As mentioned, the journey towards those unlockables isn’t always exciting, and why must we have a number of different currencies for unlocking things? Base points, Challenge points, Crime points, XP. These can all contribute to unlocking new Spidey suits, gadgets, and skills along three reasonably sized skill trees. What unlocks what? It seems to all depend. Can’t we just have one currency? Maybe slim down the number of gadgets too considering I completed the game only using about three of them, which is a signal that you’re being given stuff to do strictly for the sake of having stuff to do.
Games are not always equal to the sum of their parts though. Despite the above, Spider-Man is almost always engaging, and some aspects are purely a thrill to experience. The answer to the question of “Does it make you feel like Spider-Man?” is a resounding “yes”. Everything pulled from those old Arkham games is better here, and from a technical standpoint the game looks and performs like an up-to-the-minute console experience, as all new releases should.
Everything here is done well, regardless of whether it’s new or borrowed, and that’s worth something. Fighting is smooth and measured, but fast. New York feels vibrant and alive as you use the blissful swinging mechanics. The characters are all done justice in my opinion, in a story that feels legit. Other than a few times where there is no story mission to pursue and the game basically tells you “go do stuff”, you’ll always be enjoying yourself, and maybe during those moments too. If I were to make a list of pros and cons, Spider-Man may have a few more of the latter than you might expect. It’s a very good video game though, and while it certainly doesn’t re-invent the wheel, it perfects what came before it, all while making everything else its own.