There’s no easy way for me to say this, but then I’m not one for sugarcoating. Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man on the PS4 is….. gosh, I’d imagined the words would roll off my tongue a lot quicker. Spider-Man is absolutely………phenomenal. There’s just no way around it. Having just completed it, and post the nearly 20 hours I’ve already sunk into the game, I can say with a fair amount of confidence that it’s a blast to play to say the least. The game feels like a culmination of Insomniac’s strengths gathered from working on their previous, universally loved and critically acclaimed titles; the fluid, breathtakingly magical movement mechanics courtesy of the gorgeous Sunset Overdrive; their penchant for over-the-top yet insanely fun gadget and weapon roster coming straight out of the Ratchet and Clank series; their trademark quirky sense of humor and sharp writing permeating both these titles; excellent combat mechanics present in every game, including the cult favorite Resistance series; there’s a strong, unmistakable presence of each of these diverse aspects in Spider-Man, and that’s one of the greatest things about it. From third person linear action adventures, to intense first person shooters to now an open world game based on one of the most beloved Marvel superheroes, Insomniac has come a long way. And this, I’m sure, cannot be easy to hear for my Xbox brethren out there. Hence, the whole ‘my heart breaks to admit it’ drama from above. It kills me to know that there are a huge chunk of gamers out there not being able to experience this absolute *cough cough* marvel of a game.
Anywho, instead of trying to summarize all of my thoughts in a single blog entry, which I sincerely believe would be doing the game and my love for the character a huge disservice, especially when I can go on talking incessantly about it, I thought a better approach would be to dedicate each piece to one facet of the game and flesh it out in detail. I’ll talk about the swinging mechanics, the story, the open-world, side quests & collectibles and lastly the combat system in separate entries, giving me a chance to dive deep, something the friendly neighbourhood is unable to do in this game, weirdly enough (Spider-Man can’t swim in the game, it’s a whole thing, let’s circle back to it later, ok?). With me so far? Good. Let’s start with my absolute, hands-down favorite aspect of the game and the one thing that makes Spider-Man, well, Spider-Man. Other than his wit and an innate ability to tick J. Jonah Jameson off to no end. The web swinging.
While web slinging is what gives meaning to 50% of the character’s name, it is also hands down THE aspect to get right if a developer intends to deliver a *coughity cough* spectacular Spider-Man game. Additionally, traversal is a major chunk of any open world game and making sure it is not a chore is crucial in order to let players branch-off the main storyline whenever they wish and get back into it once they satisfy their completionist urges. Past Spider-Man games have got a lot of things right, sometimes together, sometimes in bits and pieces, but web slinging has always been a hit and a miss. Granted, a lot of the outings can chalk that up to technological limitations that held them back from truly realizing their vision of a Spider-Man game. The exception to this though is one among the first entries that come to anyone’s mind when you utter the words ‘a good Spider-Man game’; the Treyarch developed and Activision published Spider-Man 2 from 2004. I know I know, Activision’s eponymous title from 2000 was pretty solid too, but Spider-Man 2 felt like the first real attempt that would pave the way for THE open-world Spider-Man game we all wanted and deserved. It featured a fun if overly convoluted story, phenomenal traversal mechanics set in a playground as close to an open-world as we could’ve gotten at the time, excellent boss battles and some of the most memorable set pieces in a superhero video game (seriously though, how great was the Mysterio level with NYC broken down into floating landmasses?!). But post that, truly open world games were not the mainstay of the character’s console outings. Web of Shadows, Shattered Dimensions, Edge of Time, while all decent games in their own right, did not feature a fully accessible, free-roaming open-world and hence the web slinging never got a chance to stand out as a mechanic to highlight or drool over. Beenox’s The Amazing Spider-Man and its direct sequel came close, but a laundry list of execution shortcomings and technical glitches prevented them from ever getting close to the video-game hall of fame. That brings us to 2018.
What’s truly remarkable about Insomniac’s Spider-Man is the fine line it walks between being accessible to newcomers and instantly gratifying for veterans of the universe, which is noticeably true of its web swinging as well. The entire animation and fundamental action of shooting out web from the gadget on peter’s wrist, attaching it to a structure nearby, swinging forth, letting go at the peak of upward motion, producing a new line of thread and repeating the process endlessly is all mapped to a single button, the R2 trigger. With that at the foundation of the traversal system, Insomniac builds upon it in truly meaningful and surprisingly effective ways.
Press X at any time to do a basic web zip to propel yourself forward without losing altitude or speed; L2+R2 to latch onto any designated surface including but not limited to building ledges, street lamps, display boards, mobile towers, overhead water tanks and press X to boost launch into a high velocity jump; press and hold R2 anytime you are near a building to automatically wall run up or zip around corners, jump off the building and course correct your web slinging effortlessly; all of this while giving you uninhibited control over direction, momentum and angle. It’s incredibly satisfying, indescribably liberating and just plain badass. You can also press L2 at any time to slow down time and aim your web at a specific location to pull yourself to it, which harkens back to the Web Rush mode from The Amazing Spider-Man games, albeit executed in a much better manner. Pressing L3 while at considerable heights to transition into a nose dive, gaining furious speeds and launching into a swing just before you go splat on the streets is endlessly fun! Insomniac supplements traversal with specific actions you can complete to earn additional XP and bragging rights, such as wall-running, swinging at breakneck speeds and boost launching for a specific amount/number of times. All of these come together in beautiful, often majestic ways to let you pull off captivating aerial dance maneuvers full of jumps, dashes, twists, somersaults, swings and dives. Oh, did I mention you can launch into tricks while swinging?! What all of this basically means is that you can, in essence, pull off virtually any move you might have ever seen the web crawler dish out in any form of medium, be it comics, movies or even CG trailers of previous video games. Remember the iconic pose Tom Holland strikes handing on to the side of a building with the Empire State Building in the background for the poster of Homecoming? Yeah, you can do that, pretty effortlessly.
Further, to Insomniac’s credit, I rarely ever encountered situations where any of these interlocking pieces did not deliver the way I expected them to. You can practically always press L2+R2 and expect to land at the exact surface you planned to while at the peak of your swing; you can imagine the exact set of moves you’d need to execute to go from the ledge you are perching at to the top of the Avengers Tower, and chances are 9/10 times the whole sequence will pan out in that exact fashion down to the dot. Sure, it may not work perfectly 100% of the times, but even then, most of the times the game will always make you feel like it was because you mistimed a move or didn’t press the right button at the right time and not because the mechanics of it did not come together the way you expected them to. Camera angles, surprisingly, always maintain their sanity. Animations to denote speed and ferocity, like the screen zooming in on Spider-Man while blurring out the background when you dive or air lines surrounding all corners of the screen when you launch into a jump from a ledge, cue in at just the right time to make the traversal seem that much more of a sight to behold! It all just works, marvelously!
The best part about this seemingly simple traversal system is that it can be as complex and elaborate or as banal and mechanical as you want it to be. You can simply keep R2 pressed, go to the kitchen and brew a cup of coffee for yourself by the time Spidey gets to the mission marker, or you can string together zips, wall runs, web crawls, moonsaults and high-velocity swings to make the basic act of getting from Point A to B seem like an art form. There’s no greater compliment a developer can receive in this department than being told by players that they never once wanted or felt the need to use fast travel, which is no small feat to achieve. But that’s exactly what Insomniac has pulled off!
Hope you enjoyed this piece. In the next entry, we’ll take a deeper look at the combat system and break it down and obsess over tiny details the way J. Jonah Jameson would have wanted us to! Ciao!