Spider-Man has a spotty track record as a video game hero. He’s been in many, many games over the years, ranging from beat-em-ups and fighting games, to skateboarding games and Revenge of Shinobi. Most of have been middling, but fans will point you one Spider-Man game that stands out above all others — Activision’s 2004 open-world adaptation of Spider-Man 2. (Made by Black Ops 4 developer Treyarch). Part of the post-Grand Theft Auto III open-world boom, players were enamored with the ability to swing around New York. Independent of the game’s story, which had only tenuous ties to the movie on which it was based, the idea that you could just “be” Spider-Man caught many players’ attention.
The latest Spider-Man game looks to modernize that concept. Made by Rachet and Clank developer Insomniac, Sony’s new PS4 exclusive Spider-Man game — technically called “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” but who’s going to say that? — allows you to, once again, roam New York fighting villains of all shapes and sizes. Like that game, there’s a strong emphasis on making sure the game’s essential mechanics, from web-swinging and shooting, to beating up bad guys, not only feel good, but make you feel connected to the character. Though it achieves this by cribbing a fair number of design ideas from developer Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham franchise, Spider-Man does an impressive job of channeling frantic finesse we think about when we imagine Spidey in action.
Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man
In our 15-20 minute E3 2018 demo, we spent a fair amount of time exploring Spider-Man’s New York city, breaking up crimes, and dismantling criminal gangs. With a quick press of R3, you can always survey your surrounding and see icons showing you to static side-quests, or smaller activities that pop from time to time.
These side quests are basic. The one we tried asked us to dismantle an illegal arms ring operating out of a construction site, and effectively became a three-wave combat arena, complete with extra challenge objectives to keep things interesting for more advanced players.
Smaller, spontaneous crimes appeared frequently, showing up urgently with a red exclamation point for a waypoint. One of these, where a few muggers robbed a shop, was classic open-world game fodder. You swing in, beat up a few guys, and leave. The second, where we chased a stolen truck with an armed escort, was more complex. When you caught up with the truck or car, you had to move from the top to the sides to dodge bullets, while punching the robbers into submission.
Based on the story intensive trailer shown at Sony’s E3 2018 Media Showcase, we know that the basic premise of Spider-Man involves a bunch of Spider-Man’s enemies, including supervillains like Rhino, Scorpion, and the Vulture, breaking out of prison. It seems safe to assume that altercations with some of those supervillains (and maybe others) will be folded into objectives you’ll find in the open world, in addition to mandatory story missions.
The ins and outs of web-swinging
The most frequent mechanic you’ll use in Spider-Man, the one that tends to make or break any game about the web crawler, is web-swinging. Using your webs to get around, both as a means of long-distance traversal and quickly pursuing enemies, will undoubtedly consume most of your time in this game. It had better be fun.
Luckily, swinging from building to building feels natural and fluid, though a bit complicated. The basics of swinging are simple. Press and hold R2 to sustain a single web string. When you’re ready to fling yourself forward, let go, then press R2 and hold to swing again. There are lots of techniques and flourish that should allow you, as Peter, to keep swinging without missing a beat for an extremely long time. Move towards a building as you’re swinging, and you’ll run along the wall. Swing directly into a building, and you’ll start running up its side, then fling yourself in the air so you can make your next move. Press L2 and R2 while aiming at a point, and you’ll pull yourself over to that spot.
It’s not hard to get started, but it takes some time to move the way you’d expect from Peter Parker. We found it difficult to keep swings going for too long because we’d crash into a build and not recover properly. Precision, even with basic swinging, requires technique. Unlike many other Spider-Man games, each web swing connects to an actual point on a building or structure. We weren’t always clear when and where we were aiming each swing, leading to clumsy paths and slow chases.
We did improve our swinging game even within 15 minutes or so playing. With some solid tutorials and more time, we could be swinging like pro before long.
Fun fact: Batman taught Spider-Man everything he knows
Much of Spider-Man — especially the combat — is built on the bones of developer Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham franchise. Like the Arkham games or the recent Tolkien series, Middle Earth: Shadow of War, Spider-Man frequently fights large numbers of crooks and villainous goons who try to surround and overwhelm him. The directional, parry driven combat makes it easy to bounce around an arena of any shape or size, putting Spidey in clobbering distance anyone and everyone who might need it.
Spider-Man does an impressive job of channeling the frantic finesse we think of when imagining Spidey in action.
Spider-Man has three core moves in combat — an attack, a web pull that brings you in close to an enemy very fast, and a dodge, which you need to use when your spider-sense tingles. There’s also advanced maneuvers, including a “launcher” uppercut that sends enemies in the air, and a “suit power” that charges up when you deal or take damage. (In the demo, it shot webs blasts in every direction, but, based on the generic name, we imagine there are a few different options).
More importantly, every combat area seems to be littered with environmental prompts for you to combo into and use to wreak havoc. If you’re near a car, you can pull off a door or the trunk, and swing it around like a wrecking ball. Scaffolding can be pulled down, either to displace enemies with the high ground, or topple enemies below.
Often, these environmental factors are purely optional, but the game will make them mandatory in more complex fights, including against bosses. Our demo ended with a boss fight with the Shocker in a bank, where we had to hit the electro-shielded boss with a giant piece of debris from the building to make him vulnerable for attack. The boss featured three stages, across which his attacks varied, but the solution to all three “puzzles” is to wait until Shocker’s energy is drained, then fling the rubble, pull yourself over, and wail on him.
It’s derivative, but also a fun approach, and perhaps the best way to handle superhero combat so far. For better or worse, though, the similarities are not limited to those core mechanics. In the demo we played, we saw many of the enemy types established in the Arkham games including guy with riot shield, guy with assault rifle, and guy with stun baton.
Still, Spider-Man feels different from other action games — or at least pleasurable despite its similarities — because combat moves fast and flows more smoothly. It’s very satisfying to hop from enemy to enemy to enemy, smacking them around and making split-second adjustments in response to every goon who gets a chance to take a shot at you. It ultimately makes you feel like Spider-Man. And isn’t that the point?
Marvel’s Spider-Man swings onto PlayStation 4 September 9, 2018.