Review: Spider-Man is the Game 12-Year-Old me Wanted...
…And the Game 25-Year-Old me Got! A Spoiler Free Review of Spider-Man
I’m 25 now, and very much a stereotype. Have I stayed up until two in the morning playing video games? Sure have, pal. You should try it. Really gets the adrenaline going knowing that the proceeding hours are going to be a caffeine haze! Frankly, you’d be cowardly not to try it.
I have been a big Spider-Man guy forever, which meant being disappointed a lot in the drivel that movie and game studios put out for us to “enjoy”. Until recently the Spider-Man movies were mostly garbage, featuring 40-year-old men like Toby Maguire playing what is supposed to be a teenaged superhero. The recent reboot of the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was vastly improved, capturing much of what made the comic book hero so great by not turning the damned thing into a soap opera.
Now dorks like me have even more reason to be fired up, with the release of Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4 on September 7. If you were to ask a 12-year-old me to make a video game, this would have been it.
Spider-Man allows you to be, well, Spider-Man. You swing off various buildings and kick various asses and make terrible jokes and you get to have fun, which is something that modern video games forget about sometimes. That’s the basic premise of this game. It asks you to have as much fun as possible and rewards you for doing so. I have never been the kind of person who just has to hit that 100% completion achievement, but Spider-Man has me chasing down every random street crime and side mission I can find. I can honestly say that a video game has never before asked me to track down pigeons belonging to a stranger, but now I almost wish they had thought of it before. Leaping off the Empire State Building and then swinging into Manhattan in order to web up a stray bird is oddly exhilarating, and it’s those moments that make the game so special.
The main story, which took me about 20 hours to finish – maybe I could have cut that in half if I had not spent so much time doing my best Simone Biles impression between rooftops – is strong in its own right. There are great emotional moments that make the Peter Parker side of the story just as good as the Spider-Man end of things, which is something that has always been a staple of the best Spider-Man stories. Making Peter Parker’s personal life such a big part of the story raises the stakes of the action, which makes the narrative that much better. As this is a spoiler-free review, I won’t give anything away, but I will say that you would be wise not to skip a single cutscene.
The story is so strong, that I actually found myself already pining for the next installment. Just as in the comic book universe, Spider-Man leaves just enough loose ends untied so players will feel that immediate need to know what happens next, and it wraps up enough of them to make it a satisfying story. While the emphasis is on gameplay, the story is as good as any narrative in the MCU.
The only drawback for me was the tedious nature of some of the side missions. As Coley from Barstool put it, “Spider-Man is like 90% the most fun game of all time, 10% science homework.” One side mission has you swinging around the industrial area of a virtual New York, collecting smog samples to take down the auto industry or something, while others have you fixing circuit boards in a lab. I don’t mean to be a meathead about this, but more city-wide showdowns with supervillains, less environmental activism would have gone a long way. The game is set up so that unlocking upgrades is tied to completing these tasks, and the payoff is worth it, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was a bit of a slog at times. The simple solution is to complete the one-off side missions bit by bit as you progress through the story, but the real solution would be to make some more interesting and less vapid side quests next time out. Many, most in fact, of the side quests are engaging and at very least allow you to do some cool Spider-Man shit like tracking down Kingpin’s army of thugs, but there was just a bit too much of the former for me.
That said, even at its most mundane Spider-Man is a triumph. Insomniac Games does what Activision could not do and make Spider-Man’s traversal of the city fun yet simple. Previous efforts have seen a swing system that is literally just holding a button to lamely swing from building to building, but Insomniac found the perfect balance. Getting around is pretty easy, but as I played I found more ways to swing, zip, jump, roll, and bounce all over New York. The system is based on timing and momentum, so while it’s easy to get started, the minor learning curve is extremely rewarding. The variety of ways to simply get to where you’re going is amazing and makes brilliant use Spider-Man’s abilities, turning the normal boredom that comes from trekking across a map into one of this game’s greatest strengths.
The combat system is also heavy on variety, allowing players to alternate between stealthy takedowns and more conventional, Arkham style fighting. Much like the swing system, the game rewards good timing and creative thinking, giving players a multitude of ways to clear a room of goons. I started out bum rushing bad guys, kicking them across the room, webbing them to walls, but after a few hours, I was finding new ways to bounce around and stay in the air, looking cool as hell. Looking cool is roughly 98% of the appeal with Spider-Man, so it makes sense to emphasize that.
Even with a few quibbles about the side missions, Spider-Man is pretty close to perfect. The game runs smoothly, the emphasis is on having fun, and the story is coherent and emotionally affecting. The game really shines when you just step back and let the joy of being a spider/acrobat hybrid take over, all while the melodrama of Marvel’s New York plays out in the background. It’s exactly what a kid who grew up on Spider-Man would want, and that’s why the game is such a triumph.