Marvel’s Spider-Man is the Spider-Man game we’ve all been waiting for. Yes, there have been good games featuring the wall crawler. Shattered Dimensions was a focused, linear take on Spidey, but lacked the freedom and exploration that you’d expect from a Spider-Man game. Ultimate Spider-Man saw its strengths in its comic book roots, featuring other Marvel characters besides Spider-Man’s typical friends and foes, but was criticized for its short length and lackluster side content. And of course, Spider-Man 2 absolutely nailed the web swinging and traversal, but the combat just didn’t reach the same heights, and there were only so many times you could get that kid’s balloon back. But now, Insomniac Games has put their own spin on the web slinger, and they definitely deliver.
One of the important aspects of capturing the feeling of being Spider-Man is the web swinging, and Insomniac Games put an incredible amount of care into it. Webs attach to buildings this time and the physics feel just right. An interesting addition to the moveset is a dive that you can initiate at any time in the air, allowing for a burst of momentum if you catch yourself with a web at the last second. You can also web zip to maintain altitude while airborne, and you can zip to a point and boost off it with a well-timed button press, giving you a huge burst of speed. That, in combination with wall running and other small touches like being able to pull yourself over a building as you reach the top, creates an incredibly polished and exhilarating swinging experience. The game does feature a fast travel system, but I didn’t use it once during my 20 hours with the game’s main story. Insomniac Games put so much love and care into the swinging, making it my favorite form of traversal in any game ever.
What enhances the traversal in a way I didn’t quite expect was the game’s recreation of New York City. Manhattan is gorgeous, and the lighting and reflections create breathtaking views, and sometimes you’ll want to zip to a rooftop ledge and just perch there for a second, taking in the sprawling urban environments. Each window also features an interior that you can look into, thanks to some clever visual tricks. The game is absolutely stunning in motion, and each of the game’s nine districts feels unique, both visually and mechanically. Swinging through the smokestacks of Hell’s Kitchen feels very different from the skyscrapers of the Financial District, and I found myself using every part of Spidey’s moveset to navigate the concrete jungle.
Another aspect Insomniac Games nailed is the combat. On the surface, it’s mechanically similar to the Arkham series, but it has its own intricacies that make it feel uniquely Spider-Man. In Arkham, Batman is powerful, but grounded. Spider-Man heavily focuses on aerial combat and tool usage, resulting in acrobatic combat and creative gadget synergies. For example, you might toss a web bomb into a group of enemies and then throw them into a wall and stick them onto it. Yes, enemies do stick to walls if webbed near them, which, when combined with contextual environmental takedowns, requires you to be aware of and utilize your surroundings at all times, just like the web head. Enemies also pack a punch and come in numerous different archetypes. I found myself dying more times than I thought I would, but not enough to frustrate me. Spider-Man’s combat is challenging enough to be engaging, but not difficult enough to make me want to throw a controller.
What did let me down, however, were the boss battles. The spectacle of these fights is definitely there, but mechanically, they were a bit of a let down. Most of the boss fights feel the same. The enemy throws some hits at you, you dodge until you see an opening, and then you attack. This happens three or four times and then the fight’s over. I really would have liked to see some more variety in the encounters, although there are a couple that are more interesting than the others.Of course, Spider-Man is an open world game, and you can’t have an open world game without collectibles. Unlike most open world games, however, the collectibles in Spider-Man are a blast to find, for the most part. The game features 55 backpacks that Peter left all around the city, each of which contains a piece of Spidey memorabilia that comes with its own voiced lines of dialogue that help to fill in the blanks of Spidey’s career. There are also tons of hideouts for multiple factions that you can clear out. Crimes randomly happen as you swing by, too, and if you neglect to help out, you might end up being criticized on J. Jonah Jameson’s podcast, which plays while you’re out exploring or after a noteworthy story beat. Later in the game, challenges start to appear on the map, ranging from combat, to stealth, to swinging. All of these side activities are fun, but can get a little repetitive if you choose to do them all, but luckily the game’s fantastic combat and traversal break up the monotony. Each side activity rewards tokens that can be used to purchase gadget upgrades as well as suits, of which there are 28, each featuring its own unique suit power. One activity I didn’t like so much are the research stations. They all feature dull and sometimes repeated missions like swinging through some clouds or getting somewhere without swinging. Some were entertaining, but nine times out of ten they were a slog. They do unlock fast travel stations, so there is some incentive to complete them, but in a game with movement as fun as this, I neglected them until much later in my playthrough.
Narratively, the game is superb. It skips over the overdone storylines like the spider bite or Uncle Ben’s death and instead lets us take control of a more experienced Spider-Man, one who has worn the red and blues for eight years. This is the best Spider-Man story told in recent years because it’s not just a Spider-Man story; it’s also a Peter Parker story. Peter’s arc grounds the otherwise spectacular comic book tale in unexpected ways, and I found myself eagerly anticipating my next trip to the FEAST shelter just as much as my next Demon hideout or Fisk construction site. Everyone is well-written and likable, and I especially adore the changes made to Mary Jane and Aunt May. They’re not just plot devices here, they’re their own characters with their own ambitions, and they’re at the forefront of this story. The dynamic between Mary Jane and Peter also never failed to be entertaining, with the two engaging in very real arguments that had me on the edge of my seat.What I didn’t like about Mary Jane were her missions. Mary Jane is a playable character, but she’s featured exclusively in stealth missions that instantly fail if she is detected. These are short and aren’t very difficult, but they are not fun to play through. There is one that stands out where she and Peter work together, but I won’t spoil that for you. Stealth missions aren’t the only non-superhero gameplay in Spider-Man. Peter Parker is also playable during a good portion of the game. You won’t perform feats of heroism or swing around stopping crime while not in costume, but rather participate in puzzles at a lab. The puzzles aren’t mind-numbingly difficult, but they offer enough challenge to not let you switch your brain off. I enjoyed them, and there are more challenging optional ones that have their own rewards if you really want to scratch that scientist itch. Sometimes they find their way into the Spider-Man parts of the game, which I wasn’t too fond of, but they don’t overstay their welcome.
Despite its shortcomings, Marvel’s Spider-Man is not only the best Spider-Man game ever made, but the best superhero game ever made. It takes a foundation first laid out by Rocksteady in 2009’s Arkham Asylum and expands upon it with its own unique touch. The open world is rife with activities and detail. The main story gripped me the entire way through. Everything about this game feels deliberate. With its spectacular traversal, engaging combat, and stellar writing, Spider-Man has raised the bar and set a new standard for superhero games.