At its core, Insomniac Games’ new adventure strives to make you feel like Spider-Man. And, thankfully, Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4 succeeds at nearly every swing across Manhattan’s rooftops. I was left delighted at nearly every step of its 15-hour adventure thanks to a surprisingly deep tale that mines the plights of both Spider-Man and Peter Parker to great emotional success. Underpinning that engrossing narrative is an excellent set of webswinging mechanics, which — combined with fun gadgets and plenty of puns — makes for thrilling action in both the massive setpieces and in the quiet, confined corridors of tense sequences. Insomniac’s first foray into the realm of Marvel superheroes is a continually exciting adventure whose open world and combat are only occasionally caught up in a web of overly familiar trappings.
Swinging around feels, quite simply, spectacular. There’s a small learning curve, but after getting comfortable with the basics, it’s nearly effortless to make Spider-Man look graceful in every swing, leap, and lunge. And man does it feel good to find the right mix of jumping, crawling, web zipping, and wall running.
I’ve spent hours just soaring around the skyscrapers of New York City, testing the momentum of my swings to find just the right point to gain an extra boost of speed, or leaping off the Avengers Tower to test how close to the ground I could fall, just to swing out in the nick of time. Similar to how God of War’s Leviathan Axe felt so good to throw around, Insomniac has found web-spun gold with Spider-Man’s swinging mechanic, enhancing it with additional moves like a focal point webzip that allowed me to turn any ledge, beam, or satellite tower into a jumping off point to continue my non-stop movement. Open-world traversal hasn’t been this smooth since Sunset Overdrive (which, not coincidentally, Insomniac also developed).
Doing What a Spider Can
And, happily, no aspect of New York’s architecture can really stop Spider-Man. Discovering how a powerful, but nimble, Spider-Man tackles fire escapes, both vertically and horizontally, or watching him slip through the metal grating of a water tower is endlessly entertaining. His animations are so detailed that no matter the obstacle, I got the sense that I could truly do whatever a Spider-Man could.
That was surprisingly true of indoor locations, too. The main story missions often took me into large-scale interiors, sometimes for light puzzle solving, and occasionally for stealthy takedown scenarios. For anyone who’s played the Batman: Arkham franchise, the framework is largely the same: enter a room, avoid being detected, and use a mix of gadgets and (relatively) quiet web takedowns to take down the crowd.
Insomniac has found web-spun gold with Spider-Man’s wonderful webswinging.
These stealth scenarios perfectly highlight Spider-Man’s talents — especially his love for designing gadgets. There’s a methodical thrill to plotting out the order I wanted to web up enemies, whether luring an enemy out toward me for a stealth takedown or by firing off a web trap that would stick them to a wall. There’s enough enemy variety (some react differently to your webbing than others, like big brutes that can’t be taken down as easily) that I always enjoyed the light bit of strategy these sections demanded, and would happily work my way through a dozen more.
Of course, Spidey gets up close and personal with foes a lot of the time, too, making for combat that’s equally fun, if a little slow to show its true depth. At first, I found myself pretty much just punching and dodging, occasionally webbing up a foe so I could focus on a more powerful baddie. But as I unlocked more skills from Spider-Man’s skill trees and gadgets, combat became an improvisational delight. After some leveling, I could pull an enemy’s gun away and smack him in the head with it, while a previously planted web trip mine strung two other enemies together. I’d then web-zip my way to a floor above me to smack an enemy off a railing while simultaneously sending a spider drone after two more foes. That balancing act consistently delivered on the powerful and fun fantasy of being Spider-Man. To be fair, Spider-Man’s combat owes a lot to the aforementioned Arkham franchise, right down to the slow-motion crunch when you take out the last baddie in a bunch, but that template is sped up dramatically in order to take advantage of Spidey’s nimble nature.
That feeling of fluid movement only falters during boss battles. Insomniac throws in some big and exciting boss fights full of tense action. They’re sparingly involved, as many of the more fascinating setpieces of the story don’t involve one-on-one fights. But because the adventure is both front and back-loaded with boss fights, there’s an odd lull devoid of huge bouts right in the middle of the story. That’s not inherently bad, especially as a lot of great character work is done in the second act alongside those blockbuster action sequences. But because the first couple of bosses boil down to round-based pattern recognition, they felt a bit simple and rote. Unfortunately, that becomes pretty noticeable with the huge gap in major villain encounters. Still, there are some smart and fun twists in boss battles toward the end of the campaign to look forward to.
The combat and gadgets fulfill the fun and powerful fantasy of being Spider-Man.
The variation in Spider-Man’s fighting style and inventive gadget arsenal — which is hardly a surprise given Insomniac’s knack for wacky weapon wheels in series like Ratchet & Clank — is also extended to Spider-Man’s wardrobe. His portable closet of unlockable Spidey suits all come with their own powers. Each power can be used independently of the outfit once unlocked, which is a godsend. It’s a joy to swap among some of the unexpected late-game duds, though I’ve become quite fond of this Spider-Man’s new main suit.
That said, I largely relied on the first couple of powers for almost the entire campaign. The singular power to fill out your focus meter for special finishers or to restore health from Peter’s white-spider costume was so consistently useful that I didn’t want to give it up, and I never felt like the world encouraged me to use the others. Swapping between mods to adapt to specific side challenges — like one that could prevent my combo counter from immediately resetting with each hit — was always more useful than swapping between different abilities.
Spider-Man’s New York is an absolute blast to swing around, in part thanks to how gorgeous the shiny skyscrapers of the city look. Spider-Man does have its graphical hiccups — for example, the faces of Peter and other key characters are spectacularly animated while less notable characters are flat and often out of sync with dialogue. But its New York City is undeniably gorgeous, particularly on a PS4 Pro. Swinging around at dusk as the calm oranges of the setting sun hit the reflective glass of New York’s skyscrapers at just the right angle evoked some of the most calming, zen-like gameplay sessions I’ve experienced in awhile.
Marvel’s Spider-Man doesn’t offer a a 1:1 recreation of New York City, but most of the key landmarks — including my old apartment — are recreated faithfully. Neighborhoods have distinct enough character to be discernible as I swung from one to the next. Yes, certain aspects of the city, like water towers or certain building fronts, can start to feel repetitive. But Insomniac has done a pretty great job of capturing the city’s look with the sheen I’d expect for a world full of superheroes and super science.
That feeling is only magnified by the score. Spider-Man’s main theme recalls the triumphant horns of the MCU Avengers score, rising at just the right moments as I raced to stop a crime or to save some locale from a villain’s evil plot.
Outside of the main campaign, there are dozens of other side objectives scattered throughout the city, which add another 15-20 hours of exploring, though my enjoyment of them varied greatly. I was never outright bored by any task, but some were reused so often that I found myself running through the motions of scenarios I once found exciting. The fourth or fifth time you figure out how to take on a horde of enemies committing a crime or fend off waves of enemies at an outpost is still entertaining — the fortieth is much less so. It dilutes what starts as a fun, heroic act into a repetitive, going-through-the-motions activity that often had a knack for popping up just as I was making my way to a major story mission.
Outside of stopping those optional crimes, Taskmaster’s tough combat, race, and stealth challenges kept me coming back for better scores. And though finding landmarks and backpacks encouraged me to hit every corner of the city, the activity itself was pretty easy. Peter outside of his suit can also engage in a couple science minigames, one of which is essentially the pipe challenge from the original BioShock. I have a soft spot for that type of puzzle activity, but their inclusion contributes to some of the campaign’s odd pacing issues. They’re introduced just after your first real taste of being Spider-Man, and then interrupt the action anytime Spider-Man needs to do something science-related within the story.
The brilliance of what the world could have been can be seen in a handful of brilliant side missions. One tied nicely into the main story, culminating in an optional boss fight. Another suite of tasks forced me to actually have a good sense of New York’s neighborhoods. These sidequests helped bring the world of Spider-Man and its open New York City to life — I just wish a few more of them cleverly gave the world and my actions more significance.
Update: A day-one patch for Spider-Man has introduced a wonderful photo mode to the experience. It feels like the next evolution of photo modes before it, being so bespoke to Spidey himself. Being able to create comic book covers or panels is a delightful twist, and effectively allows you to create your own Spider-Man comic books should you want to.
Thankfully, the story consistently delivers that sense of weight and impact, albeit after a somewhat slow start. Insomniac’s Spider-Man is one who has a history in this world, and it feels earned thanks to smart integration of familiar villains rather than throwing them at the screen for the sake of fan service. The script allows time for the central villains (and Peter’s relationship to them) to believably develop, making for some emotionally powerful scenes toward the end that definitely had me misty eyed on a couple of occasions.
I appreciated Insomniac’s surprising amount of restraint when it came to villains, but I loved the focus it put on Peter Parker and his relationships even more. I played Spider-Man to be Spider-Man, but I’m so happy I got to be Peter, too.
I played Spider-Man to be Spider-Man, but I’m so happy I got to be Peter, too.
Peter’s story is one of mentorship, smartly showing how he can simultaneously look up to one mentor, while becoming one, too. That dichotomy offers Spider-Man voice actor Yuri Lowenthal a chance to convey Peter’s various facets, and he does so with an emotional honesty that made this version of the Spider-Man one of my favorites on screen. Peter is someone who can succeed while he makes mistakes, and that juxtaposition offers a wealth of relatable material that carried me through much of Spider-Man’s story.
I won’t spoil Miles’ part in the adventure, but I enjoyed his inclusion and, thanks to a charming performance, I was as endeared to him as I was to Peter.
Spider-Man’s story is as captivating as anything the MCU has offered
Perhaps most of all, though, I loved Peter and Mary-Jane’s relationship. It’s well-trod territory, but Insomniac injects new life into it, in part thanks to Spidey and MJ actors Lowenthal and Laura Bailey’s performances. These are two people who have a history together, and watching them try to figure out what future they have, if any — as friends, coworkers, or more — is an absolute joy to watch.
A number of Peter and MJ’s scenes feel instantly relatable, from the two having their first dinner in months together, navigating whether they’re comfortable with one another, to Peter trying not to lose his cool over a misinterpreted text. It’s one of my favorite romances in a game ever, and contributes to a story with personal stakes as captivating — and often much more — as anything the MCU (and most superhero movies) has delivered.
I wanted Marvel’s Spider-Man on PS4 to make me feel like Spider-Man: To sail between the highrises of New York City, to nimbly web up hordes of enemies, and tussle with familiar, animal-themed villains. Insomniac Games’ first foray into the world of Marvel handily delivers on all of that. But what I didn’t expect from Spider-Man was to come away feeling just as fulfilled to have inhabited the life of Peter Parker. Aside from a few odd pacing issues, which momentarily took me out of the experience of being a superhero, and a world of optional missions that don’t always quite live up to the heft of the main story, Insomniac has delivered a Spider-Man story that both surprised and delighted me, coupled with gameplay that made me feel like Spider-Man nearly every step of the way. The Wall Crawler’s open world doesn’t consistently deliver the thrilling moments of its main campaign, but the foundation laid here is undoubtedly a spectacular one.
TechDomes Score: 10