BY NICK McCOY
Superheroes and video games go together like peanut butter and jelly. Numerous superheroes have been featured in a variety of games going all the way back to the 80s. The number of great superhero titles has only increased through each generation of consoles and as technology has drastically improved.
Just as superheroes have appeared in numerous titles over the years, they couldn’t be any more of a mixed bag. For every amazing title such as Batman: Arkham City and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, you get games like Catwoman and the much-maligned Superman 64. It’s easy to tell when a superhero game is made with passion and appreciation for the source material, and when it’s nothing but a sleazy cash grab.
Spider-Man is up there with Batman in terms of possibly the most video games he has been featured in. And much like his fellow hero, Spider-Man has a rather varied and mixed history in terms of quality. He has had some absolutely amazing titles, including Spider-Man 2 and Ultimate Spider-Man, as well as some underappreciated but still excellent titles, such as Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions, and Spider-Man: Edge of Time. However, there are also titles like Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which left a lot to be desired from both Spidey Fans and video game fans in general.
And unfortunately, following the expiration of Activision’s licensing deal with Marvel, many of these Spider-Man games are no longer available on digital storefronts. Thankfully, Sony’s new deal with Marvel meant the inevitable creation of another Spider-Man title. This title was developed by Insomniac Games, and the resulting game, simply titled Spider-Man or Marvel’s Spider-Man, was released. The question is, did this new title featuring the iconic web-slinger give longtime fans what they wanted?
The answer? Yes, yes it did. Marvel’s Spider-Man is easily one of, if not the best, video games featuring Spider-Man. It also has been considered by many as one of the best superhero games ever made, which I am inclined to agree with.
Marvel’s Spider-Man was first released on September 7th, 2018, as an exclusive for the PlayStation 4. Developed by Insomniac Games, best known for Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet and Clank, and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, the game was later re-released for the PlayStation 5 on November 12th, 2020, and for PCs on August 22nd, 2020.
A DLC expansion, entitled The City That Never Sleeps, was released monthly through October and December of 2020, expanding the story of the original game. Spider-Man is the first in the series of Marvel Games produced by Insomniac as part of a deal with Marvel and Sony. The spin-off, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, focusing on the titular character, was released in 2020, with Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 set to release in late 2023. On top of that, Insomniac is currently working on a game starring fellow Marvel superhero Wolverine.
The main story of Marvel’s Spider-Man follows a veteran Spider-Man eight years into his superhero career. No longer a shy high school nerd, Spidey is now an experienced crime fighter, still dealing with issues in his personal life – mainly his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Mary Jane Watson – and trying to pay his rent. You know, mundane things superheroes still need to worry about.
The game starts with Spidey apprehending his long-time enemy Wilson Fisk, better known as the Kingpin. Shortly following Fisk’s incarceration, however, a new criminal organization known as the Demons begin to take over his turf, and unleash terrorist attacks on New York. Eventually, Spider-Man must face off against several of his classic foes, including Electro, The Vulture, The Rhino, Scorpion, and in a tragic twist of fate, Doctor Octopus.
While the story isn’t anything innovative or new for Spider-Man, it is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. The writing, characters, and plot development are all exceptional, made even better by some amazing setpieces and voice performances. The story also has some dark twists and turns, and a shockingly emotional ending there’s guaranteed to get you choked up. These story moments are helped considerably by the voice acting.
Veteran voice actor Yuri Lowenthal delivers an amazing (no pun intended) performance of Spidey himself, with the rest of the cast bringing some great work to the table as well. In particular, Laura Bailey, William Salyers, and Travis Willingham deliver memorable performances to Mary Jane Watson, Doctor Octopus and Kingpin, respectively. Even though I mainly highlighted those performances, I must reiterate that there are no bad voice performances to be found here.
Now, as entertaining as the story may be, there is one thing that is for sure going to keep you coming back: The open world.
When it comes to Spider-Man games, there are three main things, I think, that it needs to nail: The world, the writing, and the web swinging. Marvel’s Spider-Man nails all three. The game features an incredibly detailed, beautifully rendered version of Manhattan, the keyword being beautiful. This game is drop-dead gorgeous, especially at night and at sunset/sunrise. I always make it a mission to perch up on a high building before I log off, just so I can take an extra second to appreciate the gorgeous visuals.
Even though it may take place in a virtual world, Manhattan in Spider-Man feels like a real, living and breathing world. Each of the nine districts – Midtown, Upper West Side, Upper East Side, Hell’s Kitchen, Financial District, Greenwich, Harlem, Chinatown and Central – are all incredibly detailed and have their own unique geography. What makes the city feel alive is the people; much like the real-life New York City, the streets of each district are crawling with several NPCs, all of which go about their daily lives in the game world. Each will react to Spider-Man swinging through the air, either positively or negatively.
Players even have the option to high-five and take a selfie with a random pedestrian. Just to add even more life to the city, players have the option to fast-travel using the Subway: This results in several different cutscenes of Spidey just riding the subway, and interacting with other people in the car. It’s a nice touch that really goes to show how detailed and lifelike this virtual version of Manhattan is.
Now we get to the most important part of a Spider-Man game: The web swinging. Now, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Marvel’s Spider-Man has the best web-swinging mechanics of all of the different Spider-Man games. Swinging around New York, going from building to building is so incredibly satisfying. This gets to the point where you might not even want to take the subway; as fun and quick as it is, it doesn’t beat swinging to your next destination. Spidey has a good feeling of weight to him, making each arc and swing across the skyline feel great. There are various other tricks players can use to get around, mainly the web zip which allows players to quickly zip to a certain perch point.
There is also a certain sense of realism; Spider-Man can only successfully swing if there is something to swing off of: Swinging through Central Park and over water, where there are fewer buildings and structures to swing off of, means you’ll have to make use of your other tools. All of the mechanics involving web swinging and traversal are incredibly satisfying and fun, and Insomniac has hit the nail on the head 10 times over with this game.
While exploring the open world, you are inevitably going to be distracted from the main story by the numerous different side activities you can participate in. Aside from standard crimes that the player can stop, you can take on combo and stealth challenges, do side missions with various NPCs, raid and destroy gang hideouts, take pictures of both real-life and fictional landmarks around the city, and pick up backpacks Spidey has left around the city. These backpacks act as time capsules for various points in Spider-Man’s career and are nice nods and easter eggs to please Spider-Man fans. Each of the nine districts has its own amount of activities to complete, in order to achieve 100% completion.
There are also various costumes that Spider-Man can wear during the course of the game. These suits are both original to the game and come from various other Spider-Man media, mainly comics and movies. Aside from just looking amazing, each costume has its own unique ability the player can use in combat. These range from a shield protecting against bullets, a supersonic blast, a holographic decoy, and a buff/nerf which makes everyone go down in one hit, including Spidey himself. While each ability is unique to a certain suit, you can use whatever ability you want regardless of what suit you have equipped. This adds a nice level of customization for the player.
Combat in Spider-Man is what combat in any superhero game should be: Fast-paced and fun. You fight various enemies, using a variety of punches and web-based attacks, trying to get a decent combo. There are a few different variants of enemies that you will encounter: Normal enemies, brutes, enemies with melee weapons, sword enemies, ninjas, and of course enemies with guns. Players dodge whenever the Spider-sense symbol of his head goes red. Over time, you will fill up a focus meter, which when full, allows you to unleash a powerful finisher that knocks down enemies in one hit. Players can also use their focus meter to heal, which is important in certain situations. There is also stealth, although it doesn’t go beyond just zipping around and taking out enemies when no one is looking.
The combat is made even more interesting through the use of various gadgets. Spidey unlocks new tech and weapons as the story unfolds, and each gadget can have a drastic effect on gameplay. There are, of course, the standard web shooters, which can cacoon enemies and stick them to walls. Then, there are electric webs, which shock and stun enemies. You have web mines, which instantly web enemies to walls when they get near. That’s just a few examples, by the way: there are web bombs, spider drones, and my personal favorite, the suspension matrix. That’s basically a fancy way of saying gravity grenade, as it hurls and suspends enemies in the air making for quick takedowns. Whatever gadget you decide to use, you’re in for a fun time.
Now, there are sections in this game that I thoroughly dislike, and they all involve Mary Jane and Miles. Mary Jane Watson and Miles Morales are excellent characters, don’t get me wrong; they are written and performed superbly, and they really add a lot to the story. At the same time, they are guilty of one of my biggest pet peeves in video game-level design: Forced stealth sections.
While stealth is an option for levels in Spider-Man, that’s all it is: An option. Being caught while trying to be stealthy just means you now have to deal with a large swarm of enemies, and the worst thing that could happen is that you lose a challenge. MJ and Miles’ sections, on the other hand? The only thing you can do is stealth. Get caught once, and you go back to the nearest checkpoint. These types of missions are up there with water levels and escort missions as, in my opinion, some of the worst types of missions ever. If you’re going to force me to use stealth, at least give me a chance to run away when I get caught. Don’t make it where I have to start over.
However, all in all, this game is great. Dare I say, amazing. Truly, Marvel’s Spider-Man actually makes you feel like Spider-Man; swinging around New York City, fighting bad guys and helping New Yorkers out any way you can. With an entertaining story, immersive open world, fun combat and incredible web-swinging mechanics, this is easily the best Spider-Man game and one of the best superhero games ever.