In many ways, you could argue that Spider-Man is the most immediately gameifiable superhero in the popular imagination. Sure, Superman can fly and shoot searing lasers from his eyes, and Batman’s array of gadgets can make for a wild time, but there’s something so innately satisfying about Peter Parker’s frenetic web-slinging as a core mechanic – it positively begs for a great game to be built around it. And while previous efforts range from middling to just short of excellent, many hope that Insomniac Games’ upcoming take – dubbed “Marvel’s Spider-Man” – will finally give Spidey the rollicking crime-busting adventure that his larger-than-life mythos deserves. And while early impressions seem promising enough based on a half-hour sneak-peek of the game, the demo’s focus on flashy fisticuffs over all else left me wondering if Insomniac is truly playing to the game’s strengths.
Let’s start with the universally positive – gallivanting your way through an ersatz New York City has never felt better. Spidey swings his way from girder to streetlight with ease, plunging and rising with the pull of the right trigger, and you can easily modulate his speed with a variety of air dashes and zips that get you there that much quicker. No longer will he crawl ponderously up the side of buildings like in the early PlayStation days – instead, he’ll simply run up the side at a full sprint, with not a care for gravity. Slinging through the valley of skyscrapers with such grace and finesse that it’s a wonder that you’ll want to do anything else at all – even as the game subtly (and, eventually, not-so-subtly) pointed me in the direction of baddies to bust, I kept up my web-dance for as long as I could. It’s truly a testament to Insomniac’s incredible skill as a developer that they were able to make such an iconic aspect of the Spider-Man character feel so good, and it bodes well for the quality of the final game as a whole.
Eventually, however, I had to finally swoop down and give some crooks the business, and it was here that I felt the illusion begin to crack. While it can truly be said that we still live in the “Batman: Arkham” era of 3D combat, even 9 years after the original release of “Asylum – with its influence being felt in properties as varied as “Lord of the Rings: Mordor” series to even the recent “God of War” reboot – Insomniac’s twist the familiar system hews a little too closely to its inspiration for my liking. As with many action games of recent vintage, challenge comes not through quality of enemies, but their sheer quantity: individual mooks generally use only one or two varieties of heavy-telegraphed haymakers, and most can be dispatched by hammering on the attack button until they stop moving.
Like “Arkham” before it, the hardiness of these faceless goons is defined almost entirely by the weapons they wield. The gun-toting variety can easily waste Spidey in just a few fusillades, and defensive-minded foes use riot shields or batons to defend against your strikes. Each of these subtypes requires a unique method to slip past their gear – attacking then dodging allows Parker to slide beneath a shield, and webbing-up the arms of riflemen from afar stops their fire for a short interval – which essentially reduces combat to an elaborate plate-spinning routine as you try to Simon-Says your way through hordes of distinct bad guys. While Spidey’s acrobatic antics can prove charming enough – especially when seasoned with some striking gadgets, such as a web-mine that can hogtie two gangsters together with one explosion – the proportion of it came off as a bit excessive to me, taking up over two-thirds of the demo’s playtime.
Nothing about the simple combat of “Marvel’s Spider-Man” came off as subpar, or even off-kilter – other than perhaps a need for a clearer indicator for enemies packing heavy munitions like RPGs, since they decimate your health bar and seem to strike with little warning – but even still, concussing goons in head-to-head combat isn’t the real reason I want to play a Spider-Man game. More than once, I tried to sneak my way through some guards and found myself almost immediately detected by every goon in the Tri-State area after tying one to the floor with a supposedly-silent takedown. Perhaps I was just bungling things, as usual – the usual array of stealth mechanics weren’t tutorialized in the slightest in this demo – or maybe Insomniac’s take on the character is a little more in-your-face than I’ve come to expect. Either way, I wanted a little more diversity from the activities on offer. Here’s hoping that “Marvel’s Spider-Man” delivers that in spades when it swings its way to store shelves on September 7.