by Matthew Thompson
To me, Insomniac’s take on Spider-man succeeds mostly on the back of its core mechanics. Swinging around New York City is fluid and fun. There is enough depth to make the task of keeping your momentum interesting even if the game rarely requires you to push your skills to the limit in this area. Combining everything at your disposal from swings to wall runs to point launches makes traversing amid the Big Apple’s towering skyscrapers a blast even when you are just wandering around between missions.
Along with this fun movement system, Spider-man delivers what I feel is the new high-water mark for the oft-imitated Arkham-style of combat. At first, it felt a bit too derivative of Batman’s brawls, but before long it really won me over. I’m a total sucker for aerial combat and Spidey’s high-flying melee maneuvers really help this stand out from games with similar fighting mechanics. Little tweaks like how you manage the space between you and your opposition as well as how the combo meter works serve as further improvements. Meanwhile new gadgets and suit abilities help keep things fresh by near-constantly giving you something new to try out during fights. And bosses act as a nice change of pace from the typically large crowds of baddies – I was particularly taken with one air-based battle against a pair of villains late in the campaign.
Not everything in Spider-man shined as brightly as these core aspects did. The level design didn’t impress me often. My favorite open-world games usually have well-designed linear segments outside of the game’s sandbox area. There wasn’t much to write home about in that regard here. New York City doesn’t really offer a lot of variety in scenery on a macro level either. Beyond the web-slinging and beat-em up action, there are also some stealth and puzzle segments. As Spider-man, the stealth is competent. The game will occasionally task you with controlling some other characters in these portions as well. When this initially popped up, I thought it was really neat and complimented the plot and narrative of that mission, but these bits end up feeling like a chore by the end of the game. While I get what they were going for with the puzzles, they largely feel forgettable. Spider-man also suffers from a lot of common open-world issues, most notably its repetitive side content. On the plus side, a lot of that side content has you using the laudable traversal and combat mechanics which makes the optional missions enjoyable a lot longer than they might have been otherwise.
My anticipation for this game was based more on Insomniac’s involvement than any affinity for Spider-man. I’m not much of a superhero guy. Much like the Batman games, I went into this one with only a passing knowledge of the source material. Still, this was a well-told story. I loved the interactions between Peter and MJ. Same with him and Yuri – Spider-cop was hysterical. Seeing the beginnings of Doc Ock was intriguing as well. I think as someone who was not all that aware of both franchises previously, I was more drawn into Batman universe. Hard to say exactly why, but I think I just dug Batman’s villains more. Still it was fun to learn more about the Spider-man lore and I look forward to seeing where they take things in a sequel.
The gameplay foundation of Spider-man is excellent. I love both the traversal mechanics and combat system. These alongside the enjoyable tale that Insomniac has spun in this universe make for a quality open-world game. With some improvements to its level and mission design, it could surely join the elite titles in the genre, but as it stands Spider-man falls short of its best contemporary competition. Given the game’s incredible success commercially, a sequel is inevitable and I look forward to seeing how one of my favorite developers builds upon their first outing with Marvel’s legendary superhero.
Some of my favorite things from the game (mild spoilers to follow):
- Favorite Gadget: There were some awesome gadgets, but I found myself using the Web Bomb the most often probably. This is a tough call as I really bounced between a lot of them.
- Favorite Unlockable Suit: I actually loved the default suit with the big white spider and used it for most of the game, but damn if that cel-shaded Vintage Comic Book Suit wasn’t dope as hell.
- Favorite Suit Ability: I kept returning to the Web Blossom. It was great for getting out of trouble when the crowd overwhelmed me or just hitting it right at the beginning of a fight to give myself an upper hand and a jump-start on my combo meter.
- Favorite Mission: I think the most exciting mission is probably the prison break one at the end of Act 2. It was unfortunately shown at E3 earlier this year. I get why they’d do that – you want to show your game at its best – but I wish there were more linear missions that I loved as much as that one. It was amazing!
- Favorite Boss Fight: As I alluded to earlier, I really liked the Vulture/Electro combo fight in the final act of the game. Just swinging around and taking on these two in mid-air was super cool to me.
- Favorite J. Jonah Jameson Rant: The JJJ radio bits that pop up throughout the game can be hilarious. My favorite was the one about why Spider-man is snatching pigeons that is prompted by one of the game’s side quests. “PIGEON-NAPPING!” So funny.