‘Marvel’s Spider-Man’ E3 2017 preview

'Marvel's Spider-Man' looks like a spectacular open-world take on comic-book action

With Marvel’s Spider-Man, developer Insomniac Games wants to make an open-world comic-book-movie video game of its very own.

While the story is co-written by Marvel writers, it is not tied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — though it definitely capitalizes on Spider-Man’s return to it. The goal is to create a new version of the world comic fans know and love — one with the same amount of spectacle and bombast found in the stories that inspired it.

Spider-Man, powered up

While it is a new version of Spider-Man, Insomniac does not plan to waste fans’ time. Marvel’s Spider-Man is not an origin story. In fact, it’s about as far from that as you can get. In this game, Peter Parker is 23 years old, and has been wearing the suit for eight years.

“He has a level of mastery as being Spider-Man,” said creative director Bryan Intihar. “Think of being an elite athlete in the prime of his career. That’s expressed through his combat, his traversal, as well as his tech and gadgets.”

In other words, Spider-Man can and is, in fact, expected to do more complex and exciting things than many fans might expect. Not only does he swing from building to building and dispatch groups of armed gunmen, he keeps cranes from crashing into buildings, chases dumpster-swinging helicopters, and dodges bullets with graceful backflips.

A whole new world

At E3 2017, we watched a live playthrough of an extended version of the sequence shown during Sony’s press conference at the event. In the mission, which takes place “early in the game,” Parker has delivered Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin, to the police, and now a superpowered mafia group called “the Demons” is taking his turf. Parker arrives on the scene, saves Fisk’s men from being brutally murdered, then squares off against the Demons’ leader, a lesser-known Spider-Man villain named “Mister Negative.”

“He has a level of mastery as being Spider-Man.”

Intihar did not explain much about the greater story and structure, beyond the fact that the game features an open world. However, he implied that the game would have a wholly original story that would feel fresh and original to fans. He specifically said using a large cast, which would include both classic and lesser-known characters, was one of the ways the game would distinguish itself from other Spider-Man stories.

“I think we’d be doing a disservice to people just to repeat the same story they’ve read or seen in a movie,” Intihar said. “We want to create a unique universe. A thing we said internally is that we want to respect traditions in the franchise, but we also want to mix things up.”

All action, all the time

As shown in the E3 showcase, Spider-Man has a diverse set of dynamic abilities that can be used to handle situations in different ways. For players who want to maximize their odds of success in combat by thinning out the herd, he can use a tripwire web bomb that can stick an enemy to a wall or, when planted on an enemy’s back, can knock two people together when triggered. He also has the ability to “perch” on girders and overhead beams, then capture enemies who walk below him, à la the Batman: Arkham series.

While the shortened version of the trailer implied that those abilities would be a substantial portion of the game, the demo we saw was much more combat-intensive. After taking out one group of enemies quietly, Spider-Man fought wave after wave of enemies head-on.  The combat focuses heavily on using contextual prompts, whether that’s “spider-sense” danger prompts to avoid enemies, or button prompts over objects that signal the ability to swing and throw barrels or giant steel girders.

Intihar reaffirmed that notion, explaining that the game focuses heavily on creating a varied and less restrictive, but ultimately action-heavy experience.

“We’re still trying to find that fine balance [between action and stealth],” Intihar said, “but being Spider-Man is more about fluidity and improvisation, both in the throws of combat and ‘pre-combat.’”

Some of these techniques, such as a Bayonetta-style slow-motion parry that triggers when you time your dodge just right, may require practice, but there are so many great-looking environmental and contextual attacks available at any given time that you would be hard-pressed to finish any section without doing something cool.

With great power …

Insomniac’s commitment to a very traditional “blockbuster” experience, however, has forced the game to draw upon long-standing (and possibly rote) game mechanics. Later in the demo, Spider-Man chases and dismantles a helicopter midair above Manhattan. The process of catching the chopper, taking it out, then preventing it from falling and killing the New Yorkers below, employs a fair number of quick-time events — button prompts used to make cinematics feel interactive. In the past, failing to land quick prompts often led to instant failure, which, in turn, inspired a whole lot of frustrated players.

Intihar confirmed that failing to hit some of the prompts in the demo would result in instant failure, but said that quick-time events would not make up a large portion of the game.

“We’re using some those events for some of the bigger spectacle moments,” he said, “but it’s just a fraction of the game.”

Marvel’s Spider-Man — or should we say “Insomniac and Marvel’s Spider-Man?” — has the potential to be amazing fun. If the writing, mechanics, and the all-important spectacle gel as well as it did in this demo, the game’s lack of a unique, critically inspired feature or mechanic will not hold it back from being an incredible experience.

Besides, we’ve already seen enough great comic-book movies, but there is definitely room for more great comic-book games.

Marvel’s Spider-Man will launch on PlayStation 4 in 2018.