When Insomniac first showed that they had a Spider-Man game in development, back in 2016, they didn’t need to elaborate much beyond that; the idea of the beloved studio’s take on Marvel’s most popular character selling itself. Even fair-weather fans of the source material wondered if this could be the game where the web-slinger is finally done justice, accomplishing what earlier games had only attempted. Under that rather simplistic mission statement, it’s difficult to describe Marvel’s Spider-Man as anything but a success. Those looking for surprises, however, either narratively or via innovations to the open world formula, may find themselves wanting for more.
Set in a world where Peter Parker has already been in the superhero business for several years, you’re spared any expository filler for the sake of being thrust into action right away, tasked with taking down the Kingpin and his men. The ensuing half-hour or so introduces the various skills in our hero’s arsenal before making him the centerpiece of an extended combat sequence. Though influences appear from the expected sources, it‘s clear that a lot of time was spent crafting a fighting style for Spider-Man that is uniquely his own, focusing much more on agility and trickery than brute force. Because of this, the brawls are kinetic and typically short-lived, which is to the game’s advantage, since later challenges reveal just how repetitive it can be if drawn out for too long. Though there‘s a lot to unlock and discover later in the game, the fighting never ends up looking or feeling much different from in that intro chapter, mostly revolving around mashing the square button until the target stops getting up. It’s for this reason you may be encouraged to utilize the different gadgets or suit abilities, all of which really only serve to end the fights sooner.
It’s possible (and likely plausible) for one to finish the game without using the gadgets outside the few times they’re mandated, though you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experiment, as a vast majority of Spider-Man’s open-world to-do list involves punching things. The city of Manhattan itself is a blast to swing around in, finally surpassing the much-lauded Spider-Man 2 in terms of feel and practicality. Rarely, if ever, will you be compelled to use the fast travel ability, as getting to your destination is often itself a highlight. That journey will no doubt be full of things to stop and deal with on the way if you’re inclined, though the main story often presents a sense of urgency that feels antithetical to stopping and tackling icons on a map. Usually, you’ll only travel a few meters before seeing a crime requiring your intervention or a landmark that needs to be captured with your camera. The game makes these activities compulsory because they’re tied to your upgrade progression, and many of them come with a novel bit of fanboy appeal, but you’re still doing a lot of the same things you’ve done in other open worlds before, up to and including the part where you climb towers to reveal new areas on your map, a mechanic that felt overdone years ago.
Playing Spider-Man, it’s better to see the island as a backdrop for the narrative Insomniac wanted to tell, best enjoyed in those rare occasions the plot gives you time to breathe. The story itself does an admirable job juggling decades of comic book history while still being coherent. It’s for perhaps this reason it doesn’t offer much in the way of twists, more focused on establishing the status quo of this new universe. At its core, it’s a summer blockbuster – a briskly paced romp doing its best to fill you with wonder and heartache along the way. It mostly succeeds, especially during the moments where you’re just plain old Peter Parker, a character that previous games did their best to ignore. His relationships with Mary Jane and his Aunt May are, fittingly, more interesting than the boilerplate superhero tale that frames them. Often Peter will have to rush away from a tense situation to handle another catastrophe in the city, leaving you appropriately frustrated. Sometimes, you’ll even end up getting into trouble as Mary Jane herself, upsetting you for an entirely different reason.
In the same way Spider-Man’s open world feels dated, the (thankfully) infrequent stealth sections where you control Peter’s love interest are fresh out of 2004. These are always short, but there is typically only one path through them and the fail condition is instant if spotted. The game offers an extensive number of accessibility options that allow you to do things such as skip puzzles and QTEs, and it would have been nice to have the ability to do the same with these sequences, as it risks turning Mary Jane, a well acted and likeable character, into someone you dread seeing due to the very real possibility you may find yourself controlling her again. The last mission you’re asked to do so, late in the story, is the one occasion where it truly works, almost making the previous times worth it. Almost.
What doesn’t work at all, and what may be the most egregious part of Marvel’s Spider-Man exists in the margins of its main story; when the web-slinger is merrily cracking the skulls of drug-dealers before offering a hearty thumbs-up to the police. It plays this relationship entirely straight, presenting a black-white morality that even the comics themselves haven’t espoused since the Silver Age. As a caveat to the open-world structure, it portrays the NYPD as an untainted force for good, constantly out-manned and out-gunned by common street hooligans and always in need of intervention by the titular hero. Worse, the game does try to say something about militarization and abuse of authority, but only regarding the overbearing Sable Corporation. It falls on deaf ears when the boys in blue need Spider-Man to help beat up prisoners. What may simply be the result of poor compromise in the writer’s room comes off as a staggering lack of self-awareness that’s difficult to ignore in spite of any other carefree thrills the game may otherwise offer.
Despite a lot of these nagging flaws, Marvel’s Spider-Man is still a worthwhile celebration of a character that has long deserved a stand-out game. What Insomniac offer is, at worst, a solid first effort, one they clearly intend to build upon in the future. Unlike a lot of games in the AAA space, it’s a reasonable time investment, most of which will be spent doing something fun and exciting, so long as you don’t think too much about it. It’s unlikely to surprise players, and at times may even disappoint them, but despite that, it will still find a way to leave them wanting more.