A Review

So, this blog stays mostly dormant, only really updating those of you that read it on when we’re taking breaks, or when there’s new merchandise, and I don’t really want that to be the transaction between us. So I’m going to endeavor to write more stuff here, treat it more like a blog. Talk about life, stuff I’ve been up to, etc. I’m going to encourage Jimmy to do the same.

So lately, as in for the past month, basically, in between the comic and wedding planning, I’ve been playing the new Spider-Man game. I actually used to review games “professionally” for a penny-per-click website way back in the day, and I really enjoyed it. Spider-Man kind of inspired me to do this again. So I did. It’s rambly, and maybe incoherent, but I did it.

When I read some of the preliminary reviews of Marvel’s Spider-Man, out now on PS4, almost all of them say in some way that “you feel like Spider-Man.” Which seems to be the least you should expect from a game centered around the wall crawler. But having now done literally everything in the game, it’s an apt if cliche statement. Beware Spoilers.

Spider-Man PS4 does a lot of things right. Skipping the origin story we all know and getting to Peter Parker 8 years after he got his powers is a good starting point. He’s already had tussles with Vulture and Shocker, and other members of the Spidey rogues, and he’s pretty competent in his abilities. He’s still down-on-his-luck, still loves his aunt, and still has an on-again-off-again relationship with Mary Jane Watson. Uncle Ben’s still dead too, thanks for asking. Much of the framework of Peter Parker/Spider-Man remains the same, and that’s great.

But it trades one origin story for a few others. First, Martin Li, the Negative Man, who has been all over the game’s marketing as the main antagonist of the game. His origin is completely different in the game, given through flashbacks as the campaign progresses. They’ve also changed Norman Osborn, who still owns Oscorp, but his green, pumpkin bombing persona never makes an appearance. Instead he’s the Mayor of New York and plays a Mayoral role in a few things. Finally you learn (early enough in the game that I don’t think it constitutes a spoiler) that Peter has been doing science with a certain well known scientist on ground-breaking mind-controlled prosthetic arms. Anyone who’s seen Spider-Man 2 knows where this is going. Doctor Otto “Doc Ock” Octavius is your science pal, mentor, father figure, and lab partner. You’ve been working with him for some time now, but progress has been slow, and your funding is in danger of being pulled. When I got to the “reveal” about a half hour into the game, I said out loud “oh, you’ll be evil before this game is over.” I wasn’t wrong.

This is one of my two biggest gripes with the game, in changing some aspects of the spider-mythos, the story winds up being fairly predictable. The changes they’ve made to characters feel mostly like they’re so you can have a few shocking twisty moments that are supposed to have weight to them, and subvert expectations. But instead feel telegraphed and obvious. Like the introduction of Octavius as not only not-a-villain, but close to Peter is supposed to make his obvious heel turn more gut wrenching. But instead you spend the game waiting for it. I respect that they took liberties with the mythos to change things up from what everyone already knows about some of these characters. But Doc Ock is right up there with Venom and Green Goblin as one of Spider-Man’s most well-known villains. This was Chekhov’s Octopus. You can’t put Doctor Octavius in a game, with all the toys to make his trademark arms, and not use him by the end of it. But this is a somewhat nitpicky critique. It’s a more unique plot than any previous Spider-Man game, and even in its predictability, the plot still has moments that shine through.

Spider-Man does so many things well that it doesn’t seem accurate to label its shortcomings as failures. Instead it feels more like they had opportunities to innovate that they either ignored, or didn’t see. For example, the controls feel like they’re tuned for speed above all else. So swinging around, running, that all feels great. But anything requiring a modicum of finesse can wind up feeling clunky.

Running through the game world you can hold R2 to clamber over anything in your way, which is great for getting to an objective, or running through set pieces. But if you’re trying to snag one of the many hidden backpacks in the world, you’ll occasionally need to maneuver into a weird place. Sometimes that’s the underside of a bridge, and others it’s just on the other side of a normal sized wall. Using the R2 button will often catapult you over the wall, and in my case it started swinging me away from where I wanted to be. But just walking up to the wall and jumping didn’t initiate any kind of “vault this wall” action for me to use to easily get over it.

So you wind up having to do a 15-story super jump just to get over one 7 foot wall.

The camera also routinely gets confused anytime you’re slowly crawling on walls instead of sprinting up and around them using that R2 button. It seems to be based on the camera orientation, rather than character orientation, which can sometimes be confusing.

Combat is fun, and nuanced, but it has its problems. Ultimately it’s just the Batman: Arkham combat system reskinned in red and blue. But if it ain’t broke? You can absolutely just beat dudes up, but the gadgets you’re able to use bring some variety to how you handle encounters. Using web tethers to stick goons to walls (or each other,) or web bombs to web everyone up so you can focus on a heavy enemy are a lot of fun. The attacks that utilize Spider-Man’s webbing really help push the combat past its Arkham roots. Being able to web someone up and then swing them around, damaging all enemies involved, or being able to zip to a nearby enemy, or yank enemy weapons from their hands and fling them back into their faces are all nice, Spider-centric combat touches.

But aside from that, it’s the pretty standard Arkham control scheme. There’s an attack button, a web attack button, a “shoot webs/use gadget” button, and a spider sense (read: dodge) button. To use gadgets you have to pull up the Trademark Insomniac Games Gadget Wheel, pick what you want, and the “shoot webs” button will use it. This often results in you forgetting you’ve switched from standard webs to a gadget, and you wind up using all of your gadget charges at once on accident trying to web up a regular goon. It is nice that if you tap the gadget selection button you can swap back and forth between your last two gadgets, though.

The other big problem I have with Spider-Man is the way it handles stealth combat. Like the Batman games you’re given plenty of opportunities to handle combat encounters quietly. There are strongholds throughout the city that you’re able to clear out. These are typically open-air areas, with plenty of cross beams and light poles to perch on, which practically beg you to take goons out quietly. But I’ll tell you right now, don’t bother trying to get everyone using stealth. Once you’ve cleared out the requisite number of enemies, quietly or not, a “Wave 2” appears, and more goons flood the area. These new enemies also somehow know exactly where you are, even if your last takedown was off the side of the building where no one could possibly have seen you. Now you fight through 5 more waves of ever-escalating goons to clear out the base.

What’s the point in giving me the stealth option if it’s gone after six bad guys are unconscious? It just feels like the “Wave” indicator should have been put up front at the beginning of combat, and not a “surprise!” moment where you think you’re done, and you’re proud that you did it completely without being seen, only to have that ripped away by Wave 2.

One really nice touch, that I really like but might annoy others is that Spider-Man feels like a glass cannon, which is how I’ve always seen him. He’s strong, and quick, and his Spider-Sense helps him avoid being hit, but when he gets hit, it still hurts. He’s not Wolverine or the Hulk, who can just keep getting hit and coming back. He’s just a kid from Queens with spider-powers and a bullet is still a bullet. It helps inform the way you fight, and why dodging is so important. But it does also make getting hit by a Rocket and not dying immediately seem a bit ridiculous.

But while much of this can wind up feeling a bit like repetitive busy work, I have to give Insomniac credit. There are a lot of repetitive side activities you can do, but they’ve cleverly been woven into the framework of the game. You have to get a variety of tokens from these side activities in order to upgrade your gadgets, and unlock new suits. This creates a pretty satisfying gameplay loop during the campaign where you swing around doing stuff that comes up on the way to each objective, and the rewards for completing them are tangible and have an effect on gameplay. But the things you wind up stuck with at the end of the game are often the most tedious, and feel the most like busy work because you wind up doing most or all of them all at once. I’m looking at all of your research stations, Harry. Getting through the last of the Challenges, or aimlessly swinging around waiting for crimes to pop up becomes a little boring after the meat of the game is completed. During the campaign Pete will prompt you a couple times to go do some side quests, which is smart, but is also just another way of saying “we want to pad this out so you can’t just go to the next story mission, go do other stuff for a few minutes and then we’ll open it up.” But in between every objective, on your way to each hidden backpack or crime, the one thing that holds the entire experience together, the make-or-break feature of this game is the swinging.

Insomniac got the swinging exactly right. Swinging in Spider-Man feels incredible. It’s fast, it’s fluid, it has weight. It’s downright therapeutic to just swing and zip around New York. If the swinging in this game was bad, it could have had the best story, the shiniest graphics, it could have been free, and all anyone would have to say about it is how bad the swinging was. So much of the game is spent swinging around the city that nailing this was absolutely crucial to the success of the game. You probably spend more time swinging than doing anything else and Insomniac really nailed it. While they did add a fast-travel option to all of the different sections of Manhattan, swinging is more fun. Swinging is the glue that holds this whole thing together. Swinging is the thing that makes up for so many of this games shortcomings for me. The webs always seem to know exactly where to stick to for where you’re trying to go, they always actually stick to a real building, or tree, or piece of construction equipment rather than just the sky. It’s really top notch. 

Spider-Man does so man things right, and feels so satisfying to play, that it’s successes easily outweigh its shortcomings. If I sound overly critical, it’s because these are the only areas I feel I can really criticize. The game is gorgeous. The world is big and fun to zip around in. The characters, for the most part, behave believably and with agency. It’s not a game of the year contender at all, as far as I’m concerned.

But I can’t say I didn’t enjoy a game that I played until I had completed 100% of it. Solid 9 out of 10.