When Sony Interactive Entertainment and Insomniac Games announced Marvel’s Spider-Man, the game immediately shot to the top of many gamers’ most-anticipated lists. That’s not surprising, considering how dearly loved Spidey himself is as a character.
Interestingly, the developer was allowed to go with its own version of the franchise, basically creating a brand new canon that isn’t tied down by this or that comic series or movie. While this experiment was daring and maybe even risky, it turned out to be a resounding success: Marvel’s Spider-Man is familiar enough to still feel like Spider-Man but fresh enough that it can be surprising even if you have read every printed page there is to read, and have seen every movie. I do believe this to be the perfect approach to make a game based on an established franchise.
The story starts simple, with the arrest of Wilson Fisk, also known as The Kingpin, creating a power vacuum in the criminal underground of New York, which many are eager to fill. While this has been shown a million times, so I don’t consider it a spoiler, I won’t say a single word further. Why? Because this is obviously a story created by people who really love the Spider-Man comics, for gamers who really love Spidey as well. Even small surprises will make you smile, so I’ll keep them that way.
Suffice it to say that things are a lot more complex than they appear, and you’ll be kept on the edge of your seat all the way through. Many open-world games sacrifice storytelling for freedom, but Insomniac Games demonstrated once more that this tradeoff isn’t necessary.
Much like in traditional Spider-Man media, the pillars of the story are its characters. It isn’t only about heroes and villains, but also about those who don’t have super-powers, all the way down to the common bystander in New York.
Marvel’s Spider-Man embraces this in a way that is absolutely masterful. While I can’t tell you exactly how (because it would be a massive spoiler), it’s really striking and adds a lot of value to the story.
This is not to say that Spidey and the many villains have been neglected. The villains themselves are awesome, both in the way they fight and how they contribute (in various ways and measures, some bigger, and some smaller) to the story. Just to make a spoiler-free example, I think Insomniac nailed the best Kingpin in the whole Spider-Man universe.
I especially enjoyed the depiction of Peter Parker himself: while he’s an older and more confident Spider-Man (don’t expect an adolescent or an adult trying really hard to play the role of an adolescent; I’m looking at you Tobey Maguire), he’s still very much human and prone to being goofy and screwing up. Yet, his maturity gives him great nuance, which filters through in spectacular ways in his dialogue with Aunt May and more.
Aunt May herself is absolutely adorable in her hard-earned wisdom, and Mary Jane is probably one of the very best renditions of Spider-Man’s traditional female lead. She may not be “super,” but she certainly is a “heroine” in this game.
I could pour gallons of virtual ink into this article singing the praises of basically every supporting character, but again, it’s better if you discover them yourself.
While comedy plays an inevitable role in the story, and things like the banter between Peter Parker and Yuri Watanabe will make you smile wide every single time, it certainly isn’t all bright and happy. The balance between comedic relief and dramatic storytelling is pretty much perfect, and this game will spark an extremely wide range of emotions. I don’t dare say more, but be ready for a rollercoaster.
Masterfully-written characters would still fall short if they weren’t supported by great acting, and this is another thing that Marvel’s Spider-Man nails. The cast, spearheaded by Yuri Lowenthal, did a fantastic job in portraying characters that definitely don’t fall short of their Holywood counterparts, and in quite a few cases they exceed them.
Voices aside, the audio is also spot-on, from sound design to the soundtrack, which feels like it comes straight out of a Spider-Man movie, and it helps to set the mood of narration, fighting, and exploration effortlessly and without missing a beat.
The graphics of Marvel’s Spider-Man are in most aspects amazing. The game’s rendition of Manhattan is breathtaking, whether you’re swinging around just above street level, or you climb to the very top of the Empire State Building to perform a swan dive that would terrify Ezio Auditore.
The main characters are also beautifully rendered, with extreme facial detail that wisely mixes realism and stylization in a perfectly balanced concoction. Their expressiveness matches the aforementioned lovely acting to a T, and you’ll find yourself smiling at every wrinkle in Aunt May’s face.
Spider-Man’s many suits deserve a special mention, because the work Insomniac Games did on materials and details is nothing short of fantastic. As you swing around New York City, you’ll look at Spidey a whole lot, and he never fails to impress.
Of course, this is an open world game, so certain tradeoffs are necessary simply to make it run consistently. Normal pedestrians tend to be rather underdetailed (and this becomes very evident when you have to interact with them for a sidequest), and the implementation of Spider-Man’s own reflections on skyscrapers’ mirror windows is a bit spotty. That being said, you’ll spend so little time stationary that both are justifiable sacrifices.
If you want to see just how beautiful this game looks, you can simply glance at the screenshots on this page. If you exclude the image at the top which was provided by Sony, all of them are simply gameplay or cutscenes with no further aid. Photo mode has not been implemented yet (it’ll come with the day one patch) and as such it’s not factored in this review. From what we’ve seen, I’d say it has the potential to be good enough to add another half point to the score, but we don’t give 10.5’s here at DualShockers…too bad.
While the narrative is (in my opinion at least) a critical factor in every good super-hero title, gameplay certainly doesn’t take a back seat to it. Marvel’s Spider-Man is one of the most joyously fun gameplay experiences I had in a long time. I played the game at “Amazing” difficulty, which is actually a very flattering way to say “normal,” and I really enjoyed the balance between challenge and the sensation of being a powerful superhero who can lift a truck.
One of the game’s most welcome design choices is that it very often provides solid distractions from its main gameplay loop, including stealth sections, puzzles, and bespoke areas in the story in which you have to take a completely different approach to traversal. Add to that a great variety of challenges and side activities scattered on the map, and you’re definitely not going to get bored.
Incidentally, most of those side activities are actually a lot of fun to partake in. In a lot of open-world games, they tend to be rather tedious and they get stale fast. This certainly wasn’t the case in my playthrough of Insomniac Games’ labor of love.
Swinging is the real king of Marvel’s Spider-Man. If you want to read more about it, I actually have a dedicated article, and all of what is said there still stands. You’ll get into it as naturally as walking, with no tutorial necessary. It’s just that easy and intuitive. Yet, since it’s based on physics, there is a ton of room for mastering your technique and challenging yourself to be better and better at it.
For instance, the moment in which you switch from one swing to the next doesn’t just determine your vector, but also your speed and altitude. If you press the button near the bottom of the swing you’ll trade height for speed, while doing so at the end of your trajectory will bleed speed, but let you soar higher.
There is pretty much always something new to learn while swinging around between the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and most of this doesn’t come from new mechanics introduced later in the story, but simply by trial, error, and discovery. When you find out a new way to control your traversal, often purely by chance, it’s exciting and rewarding.
Swinging is such a delight that I spent the first several hours of gameplay just traveling around the map to find all the collectibles I could. It never got boring and I was smiling and making silly sounds with my mouth the whole time. Thanks for sending me back to preschool, Insomniac. This is perhaps the best testament to the quality of the swinging mechanics, because I never, ever, gather all the collectibles in open world games, and it normally becomes extremely tedious very fast. In this game, not only I gathered them all, but it wasn’t boring at all.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is one of the very few games in which simply traversing the environment is one of the most relevant sources of pure, unadulterated fun. In some ways, it’s like a walking simulator, but in a much more exhilarating way.
If swinging is the king of the game, combat is the queen. In many situations, you’re offered the possibility to soften your enemies with stealth or to dive in with webshooters blazing. While the stealth gameplay is far from sub-par, enhanced by Spidey’s exceptional traversal abilities, it’s when your enemies have detected you that Marvel’s Spider-Man really shines.
Normally, I’m much more of a stealth-oriented player. I tend to try to remain undetected for as long as possible, or even for the whole time if given the chance. In this game, I was much more eager to jump into the fray. Pretty much like swinging, combat is a positively joyous experience.
Spider-Man’s own abilities are extremely fun to use, especially thanks to the wise balance between proactive and reactive skills that let you hold onto the initiative while masterfully turning the enemies’ attacks against them. To that, you can add traversal and the wide variety of gadgets that come straight from Insomniac Games’ heritage, and you get one of the most exhilarating combat systems I have played, ever.
The pace is especially frantic, even more so when facing large numbers of enemies. Even groups of goons are provided with a wide variety of melee and ranged attacks, which makes keeping track of everything that happens around you a challenge. Yet, Insomniac Games implemented your Spider-Senses just right, and perfect dodges will slow down time just enough to keep the momentum going and make you really feel like that awesome acrobatic improviser that Spider-Man is.
If you manage not to get hit, you never really stop, and that feels amazing.
The game also comes with a deeply-satisfying progression system: by earning experience, you can unlock new skills in three different trees, and some of them really change rather radically how you approach combat and traversal, keeping both fresh through the whole experience. Gadgets and suit powers are unlocked and improved by completing various kinds of challenges and collections in the open world and through the story. They expand your arsenal in many ways that are really fun to unleash on your opponents. The good folks at Insomniac are masters of gadgets, so this shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Yet, considering how fun both combat and traversal feel from the very beginning, this is mostly additive instead of making you feel like a weakling who gradually turns into an invincible being. You’re plenty powerful from the get-go, especially if you make the effort to master your many initial tools.
This balance is actually rather difficult to achieve in game development. Often, if you start too powerful, progression feels meaningless, and if you start too weak, you don’t really feel like a superhero. This works only in origin stories, but there are plenty of games in which you play seasoned heroes that feel surprisingly soft until they get some levels under their belt. In Marvel’s Spider-Man there is no such issue.
New suits are one of the most exciting things to unlock. You’ll notice that the screenshots and video review feature only some of those that were already revealed through the game’s promotion. It’s really fun to unlock new suits, and some of them are quite meaningful, so I consider their existence a spoiler. Insomniac Games actually made a very welcome choice by decoupling each suit with its suit power. Once you unlock the suit, you also earn the power, but that can be used regardless of what you’re wearing. This means that you can have your personal Spidey dressed however you want, without losing the ability to equip the powers that you most enjoy.
When you’re done swinging around, fighting, and progressing, you can relax simply by enjoying how packed the game is with lore and with pure love for Spider-Man and the Marvel universe. Manhattan is filled with meaningful landmarks that are just a pleasure to discover, and collectibles come with voiced descriptions that will make fans of the comics smile from ear to ear.
Ultimately, Marvel’s Spider-Man is most definitely Insomniac Games’ masterpiece. The game combines the studio’s heritage and strengths with one of the most beloved franchises of all time in a way that never feels forced or out of place. You could easily say that Insomniac was the perfect choice for a Spider-Man game from the get-go.
Whether you’re just swinging around the city searching for the many landmarks and collectibles, or fighting crime by flexing Spidey’s amazing super-powers and gadgets, Marvel’s Spider-Man is a really a pleasure to play at all times. I can say with absolute confidence that this is by far the best superhero game I ever played.