Ever since Steve Ditko and Stan Lee conjured up Spider-Man half a century ago, two things have remained constant: stories about the character should be fun, and they should be relatable. Insomniac’s “Spider-Man” fares far better in this regard than the many “Spidey” games that preceded it. Like the 2017 film “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the PS4 exclusive sticks to tradition much of the time while also reinventing one or two well-known characters along the way.
Comparisons to Rocksteady’s “Arkham” trilogy are inevitable, and in some respects, this is the same blockbuster action game we’ve been playing for the last 10 years. Anybody who’s beaten “Batman: Arkham City” or “Rise of the Tomb Raider” knows the territory. It’s a game built to support a linear narrative, with big set pieces, flashy cutscenes, and interactive “quick-time events,” plus optional side quests and hidden collectibles scattered throughout its sunny Manhattan. It is the apotheosis of that formula.
The game’s greatest triumph is its use of Spider-Man’s web-shooter abilities. Like Treyarch’s “Spider-Man 2” — the video-game adaptation of Sam Raimi’s 2004 movie — Insomniac’s “Spidey” gives players a vast open-world New York to inhabit, and great care has been taken to make sure this core aspect of the experience is as polished and refined as anyone could hope for. The ingenious control scheme hearkens back to a simpler era, putting an unbelievable amount of maneuverability and precision into just a few buttons and a thumbstick. It is, quite possibly, the most fluid and flawless traversal system seen in a game.
“Marvel’s Spider-Man” begins with Peter Parker (Yuri Lowenthal) awakening to an alert on his phone; the police are mobilizing to take down Wilson Fisk (Travis Willingham), the Kingpin of Crime, and Parker wants in on it. He stumbles out of bed, makes some toast as he’s pulling on his famed red-and-blue tights, and dives headlong out the window of his apartment, leaving an unpaid bill on the floor. The game immediately throws you into the role of the 23-year-old webhead, shooting synthetic spiderwebs from the devices on your wrists and hurtling from building to building as you make your way downtown to Fisk Tower.
What makes Peter Parker a compelling hero, in this and the game’s other stories, is the tension between doing what’s right for the greater good and doing what’s selfish. The impossibility of helping everyone in need at all times is at the heart of the character; he’s defined by the difficult choices, by his failures, and by his relationships — to his Aunt May (Nancy Linari), his boss, to his ex. In Insomniac’s story, Peter struggles with the question of how well two people can ever really know one another. What’s our responsibility, he wonders, when those we idolize turn out to be something monstrous? Thematically, the game’s got a lot in common with Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2,” and with Dan Slott’s “Superior Spider-Man” comic series, though it manages to forge an identity all its own.
The headlining villain, Martin Li, a.k.a Mister Negative (Stephen Oyoung), is a bit of a deep cut. First introduced in Slott’s “Brand New Day” comic storyline from 2008, Li’s a powerful being who possesses “negative energy” that corrupts whoever he touches. He can also grant some of his abilities to those corrupted; hence his gang of masked Demons, who harness Li’s energy to wield strange weapons and supernatural agility. But what’s most interesting about the character is how stark his duality is. In his everyday life, Li, a billionaire, runs charities and homeless shelters all over Manhattan, giving back to the city that raised him after he was orphaned at the age of seven. Like Peter, freak circumstances and tragedy shaped Li into someone new.
In the latest movie reinvention of Spider-Man, “Homecoming’s” biggest strength was its new take on Adrian Toomes, the Vulture. Insomniac’s “Spider-Man” does the same for Mary Jane Watson (Laura Bailey), Parker’s longtime on-again, off-again girlfriend. Here, MJ has abandoned the dream of acting and modeling in favor of her high-school affinity for investigative journalism. Whereas Peter works as a research assistant in a lab, MJ’s got a staff job writing for the Daily Bugle, and she plays a vital role in uncovering the story’s central mystery and its many twists and turns.
As a playable character, Mary Jane builds on the game’s superb implementation of stealth mechanics. Without superpowers or high-tech gadgetry, she mostly relies on a lot of quick thinking and cat and mouse. It’s a welcome change of pace from all the brawling. “Sometimes I feel like the whole history of the world is just boys playing dress up, getting into fights,” she says in her first interactive scene.
When the credits rolled (at the 27-hour mark), it was clear that “Marvel’s Spider-Man” is in some ways one of the finest open-world action games ever made, despite how often things proceeded in obvious, predictable ways. Spider-Man is a game that plays it safe — but the overarching rhythm of soaring through urban environments, thwarting crime, and taking on a host of iconic baddies is spectacular.
Clearing out enemy hideouts, completing side missions, and tracking down backpacks left strewn across the city expands the experience and rewards the player with new bits of discoverable narrative, along with tokens that can unlock new abilities, alternate suits, costume mods, and gadgets. These sorts of upgrades work together to create an enormous amount of complexity in both the combat loop and parkour system. After 35 hours or so, however, you’ll start to run out of things to do outside of basic “challenges” and gang encounters, which is a shame, given the amount of content in similar open-world titles. The story stumbles, too, when it goes out of its way to set the stage for the obligatory sequels and downloadable chapters, leaving less room for some of the game’s most pivotal moments to breathe.
Ultimately, “Marvel’s Spider-Man” feels like the first entry in an ambitious and promising new series. Making it all the more unfortunate it didn’t do more to subvert expectations, or to pay off some of the more exciting possibilities it seemed to be gesturing toward — and it will likely always exist in the shadow of “Batman: Arkham Asylum.” But its masterful web-swinging and its undeniable sense of joy make for an experience that’s more gratifying and eminently replayable than anything seen from a superhero game in years.