‘Marvel’s Spider-Man’ Hands-on review

'Marvel's Spider-Man' nails the feel of Spidey’s web-slinging antics

The latest ‘Spider-Man’ game nails Spidey’s web-swinging antics.
The latest ‘Spider-Man’ game nails Spidey’s web-swinging antics.
The latest ‘Spider-Man’ game nails Spidey’s web-swinging antics.

Highs

  • Web-slinging and swinging feels awesome
  • Combat can be fast and improvisational
  • Playing as Mary Jane is a great option
  • Cinematic, character-driven story
  • Tons of costumes and upgrades

Lows

  • Open world seems a little generic
  • Owes a lot to the "Batman: Arkham" games

Is it fun to web-sling and swing in Insominac’s new Spider-Man?

Yep. It’s awesome. Thanks for reading!

Okay, okay. We have more to say…but fans of Spider-Man games inevitably start by talking about how it feels to swing. Protagonist Peter Parker’s ability to fling himself at high speed through the city of New York must be both realistic and responsive, fun and functional, for any game about the superhero to feel right.

The gold standard of Spider-Man games, Treyarch’s Spider-Man 2 (released in 2004), proved the importance of web-slinging. It was a fun game overall, sure, but what most players remember is the joy of swinging between skyscrapers.

Insomniac seems keenly aware that the essential Spider-Man-ness of its web-swinging has clearly been a major focus. After playing the first two hours or so of the game at a press event in Los Angeles, we think it’s clear that focus has yielded some strong results. Spider-Man is a game that knows what fans want and is ready to deliver. Yet the focus on Spider-Man’s acrobatics mean other parts of the game feel rough around the edges.

Navigating New York

Let’s get back to the swinging.

Even in its opening moments, Marvel’s Spider-Man lets players cut loose across the island of Manhattan. The game starts with a quick opening cinematic, establishing an older Peter Parker who’s been the superhero game for eight years. Peter leaps out his apartment window, falls a few feet, and boom! You’re swinging away.

Spider-Man’s web-slinging is a mini-game unto itself. Peter starts out with some moves, like the ability to run straight up vertical surfaces or fire off a zipline of web to give himself a speed boost. Learning to master even these basics can take time. It’s all about conservation of momentum. Swings take Spidey up high, and he then falls toward the street. After a second of freefall, he starts to dive, picking up a ton of speed. Hitting the swing button at the right time carries all that speed into his forward motion, whipping Spider-Man back upward again.

Traveling an open-world can often feel like a chore, but in Spider-Man, it’s an adrenaline rush.

Swinging commands your attention in Spider-Man. If you want to go fast, you need to go high so you can build up speed from falls. If you want maneuverability, you’ll need to plan your swings to slow yourself down and be more careful about the nearby buildings your webs hit. Depending on the layout of the city, the sizes of nearby buildings, or the speed you’re going for, you can employ a few other moves in Spidey’s repertoire, like a “point launch,” in which you zip yourself to a spot with webs and then spring off it for serious speed.

Using all of Spider-Man’s moves together makes you feel like you’ve been working as the wall-crawler for, oh, roughly eight years. It makes the world of Spider-Man more interesting than just a big pile of icons on a map. Traveling an open-world can often feel like a chore, but in Spider-Man, it’s an adrenaline rush.

Linear lessons

While Insomniac’s web-swinging feels clever and fresh, other elements of the game feel more familiar. The introductory level quickly becomes a more traditional, linear action sequence complete with cutscenes and a couple of scripted events. Spider-Man sometimes feels like a cinematic action-adventure game, akin to God of War. That gives Spider-Man’s story the weight it deserves, without those moments just feeling like momentary cutaways from more open-world wanderings.

The first mission is a police bust of Wilson Fisk, otherwise known as the Kingpin, where Spider-Man has to join in to beat a load of gunmen as he and the cops ascend Fisk’s Manhattan high-rise. Fights are interspersed with explosions in the building, story cutscenes, and a few moments where Peter must save innocents. It all climaxes in a boss fight with Fisk himself.

Insomniac told journalists at its preview event that Spider-Man‘s story, one of “mentorship and partnership,” is a focus for the studio. It investigates Peter Parker’s life at a time when he starts to wonder if he might do more good for the world as a scientist than a superhero. That gives longtime Peter Parker love interest Mary Jane Watson a big role in Marvel’s Spider-Man.

When the action picks up, it’s hard not to draw parallels with the Batman: Arkham games.

In one early level, as Spidey tries to find out more information about Fisk’s criminal enterprises, Spidey heads to an art gallery where Fisk is showing a bunch of Japanese art pieces. Part of that level plays out Mary Jane’s story. Mary Jane is no brawler. Instead she sneaks about, gathering information and solving puzzles, adding variety and fleshing out the story’s background.

It’s not clear Mary Jane will factor into the overall story (and Insomniac wouldn’t reveal whether, say, Miles Morales might also pop up under the “partnership” heading). We do know there are more scenes where plays will see her perspective, though, so it seems Spidey and Mary Jane will solve some mysterious as a team.

Fighting like a bat — er, spider

When the action does pick up, it’s hard not to draw parallels between Marvel’s Spider-Man and Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games. Spidey faces a lot of Batman-like situations. Alone, surrounded by enemies, he must punch up a combo meter by avoiding damage, and use special moves to counter enemy abilities.

Our gameplay footage from the E3 2018 gameplay demo booth for Marvel's Spider-man. Riley Winn/Digital Trends

At first the combat is simple button-mashing until Peter’s spider-sense tells you to get out of the way of an incoming attack, but it becomes more complex as new moves are unlocked. We only nabbed a few new moves, but by the end of our demo, we were able to fling enemies at each other, automatically web baddies in the face when successfully dodging their attacks, and use swinging to boot baddies across streets.

It’s not a straight copy of the Batman series, either. What sets it apart is Spidey’s ability to improvise. Players can grab nearby objects like fire hydrants, car doors, or bags of cement with Spidey’s webs and throw them at fighters, or yank down shelves on baddies standing too close to them.

Grabbing new suits unlocks special powers you can use in combat, and you can mix-and-match powers to tailor your own playstyle.

Spider-Man’s iconic gadgets and wall-crawling talents can make for interesting combat puzzles. Taking down waves of enemies means thinking on your feet to take advantage of enemy weaknesses or Spidey’s surroundings. While the combat feels familiar at first, it does offers its own twist unique to its iconic hero.

Oppressive open world

While the story, traversal and combat in Spider-Man all impressed, its rendition of New York City fell flat.

You can find side-missions by activating several special radios to fill in your map and give you a sense of when random crimes are happening in their area. Then, you can swing in to stop a car theft, grab a group of burglars making an on-foot getaway, or interrupt a storefront holdup.

These bite-sized fights fit with Spider-Man’s image, but they get repetitive in a hurry. You can also hunt down Peter’s old backpacks, hidden in various locations, or take pictures of landmarks in classic collectible-hunting fashion. It’s enjoyable busy-work, but busy-work all the same.

Clearing out open world assignments has a practical purpose – you earn tokens that upgrade your gear or unlock new Spider-Suits, of which there are quite a few, all of them inspired by different Spider-Man comics. Grabbing new suits unlocks special powers you can use in combat, and you can mix-and-match powers to tailor your own playstyle.

Insomniac says New York will change with the story, offering new activities as the story progresses. That has some potential, especially with Insomniac’s system that lets you interact with the public, snapping selfies and slapping high-fives with random citizens. From what we know of Spider-Man stories in general, it seems like public opinion will likely shift, changing those interactions along with New York’s various activities. That could make the world feel less generic, but we’d have to play more to know.

Yet another game in the crowded ‘open world’ genre might get players’ spider-sense tingling, but Spider-Man certainly nails the feels of being, well, Spider-Man. And isn’t that the point?

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