While there’s been no shortage of games starring everyone’s favorite web-slinging spider-guy over the last decade and a half, very few have come close to matching the vertigo-inducing heights of 2002’s Spider-Man 2 — the first game to absolutely nail the sensation of swinging through an open-world New York setting.
As great as that game was, it was admittedly quite rough around the edges — understandable, given its status as a multiplatform movie tie-in.
Thankfully, in the trusted hands of Ratchet and Clank-developer Insomniac Games, Spider-Man has finally received a game that's as polished and cinematic as the beloved character deserves.
If you had any concerns about Insomniac's ability to tackle Spidey's graceful swinging, you can rest assured — the California-based developer has absolutely succeeded in recreating that glorious feeling of swooping between skyscrapers with reckless abandon.
Add to that the developer's previous experience in building sandbox environments that characters can effortlessly move through (Sunset Overdrive), as well as its proven success in devising incredibly clever tools and weapons (Resistance), and what you have is the perfect team to bring Spider-Man to life.
Web and flow
When we meet up with Peter Parker in Spider-Man, he’s no longer the green teenager we’ve come to expect from traditional portrayals of the character. Aside from holding down a real job as a scientist (you might be surprised by who his boss is), he also helps his dear Aunt May out with her duties working for a charitable organization run by Martin Li (if you've seen the game's trailers or follow the comics, you'll know Li by his villainous alter ego, Mister Negative).
Mary Jane Watson is still in the picture, though she and Peter are no longer together in the romantic sense. Thankfully, the pair are still great friends (albeit with some unresolved relationship issues) and you will see them work together throughout the game's 20-hour story campaign.
As you'd expect, MJ has also grown-up significantly, and is now working as an investigative reporter for the Daily Bugle — you'll even get to do your fair share of snooping as Miss Watson through a number of playable stealth and puzzle-based sequences.
Having proven his worth to the city of New York (well, to everyone other than Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson), Spider-Man now has a great relationship with the NYPD — particularly with police captain Yuri Watanabe, who regularly calls Spidey for help, leading to some particularly amusing banter where Peter affects a grizzled voice and refers to himself as "Spider-Cop" — much to Yuri's chagrin.
While Spidey has successfully placed most of his nemeses behind bars, it's not long before Mister Negative and his henchmen, the Inner Demons, initiate their plan to acquire a bioweapon known as Devil's Breath and use it on the city.
Now, Spider-Man must face his greatest challenge yet, and in doing so, will eventually come face to face with a number of familiar characters (without going into specifics about boss battles, you can expect to take on multiple villains simultaneously).
Ready for combat, man
The relationship between Yuri and Spidey makes itself clear right from the game’s opening mission, which sees ol’ web-head called in to infiltrate a building that’s been taken over by Wilson Fisk (a.k.a. Kingpin) and his gun-toting thugs. It’s here that we get our first taste of the game’s Arkham-inspired combat system.
Generally considered one of the weaker aspects of previous Spider-Man games, combat feels quite satisfying here, with the game expectedly using the character’s “spider sense” to help you counter and dodge attacks from the rear like Batman in his Arkham series of games, albeit in a more acrobatic fashion.
Keeping combos going will also build up a focus meter, which you can eventually use to pull off some flashy takedown moves or replenish your health bar. As you level up throughout the campaign, you'll also gain skill points which be used to acquire new fighting moves, swing mechanics and defensive abilities.
Using Spidey’s web-shooters, you can incapacitate goons and fling them into walls or at the ground (or even at other goons). You can also snatch items from your environment to smack enemies with, and as you unlock more abilities, you'll even be able to yank weapons right out of their hands.
Moving through the building in the opening level, it becomes clear that Batman's influence doesn't stop at Spider-Man's combat — as you make your way through several of the building's floors, you'll web shoot webs to reach higher levels, crawl through vents, use a "spider sense" view to spot enemies through walls and stealthily clear heavily guarded areas by snatching baddies from above.
Crucially, every one of these mechanics feels completely natural and appropriate to Spider-Man's abilities, so you probably won't spend too much time worrying about any similarities to Rocksteady Studios' winning Arkham formula.
So much to see and do
As you progress through the game and unlock new swing abilities, you'll be able zip around the island of Manhattan at a much faster clip — which isn’t to say that the game forces you to rush over to the next story objective, either.
In true sandbox fashion, you can approach Spider-Man’s cinematic story missions at your own pace, allowing you to complete different types of challenges in order to earn Tokens, which can be used to unlock and craft new suits, gadgets and upgrades.
For instance, stopping crimes as they happen will earn you Crime Tokens, finding old backpacks will earn you Backpack Tokens, clearing enemy bases will earn you Base Tokens, taking photos of landmarks will net you Landmark Tokens and so on.
All of these events and challenges can be located on your map of Manhattan Island, though you'll need to track down and hack a series of police station towers in order to reveal the whole thing.
There are roughly three in each district, and hacking them involves the especially easy (though somewhat satisfying) process of rotating the Dual Shock 4's thumbsticks until you've matched the tower's on-screen wavelength.
If you don't happen to complete every event and challenge on your map by the end of the game's story mode, you'll be able to return to the city and tackle them at your own leisure.
Along with these tasks, the map also offers several Side Missions, each of which is split into multiple sections and comes with a self-contained story that has you interacting with characters that aren't crucial to the plot of the campaign.
The fact that these missions are mostly inconsequential makes them a perfect way to extend your time in the game's world once the story mode has been capped off.
Go Go Gadget!
Each unlockable suit or gadget upgrade comes with its own Token criteria, so you'll always know which types of challenges to clear in order to nab your desired prize. Thankfully, it's not too hard to earn these tokens, though certain costumes and upgrades will only become available to you as you progress through the game.
The costumes also come with their own unique suit power. To name one example, the game’s signature white spider-sporting Advanced Suit temporarily grants the player unlimited focus, allowing Spidey to go on a takedown rampage.
Thankfully, each unlocked suit power can be applied to the other suits in your arsenal, so you won't be burdened with wearing a costume you don't like in order to use its accompanying power.
The aforementioned gadgets, which are mapped to a selection wheel that pops up when you hold L1, change the way Spidey's web attacks work — you start the game with with a standard Web Shooter, which will lob a series of web blasts at your chosen opponent until they're completely tied up and (temporarily) helpless.
In true Insomniac fashion, the other gadgets allow you to change up the game's combat in a number of delightful ways — Impact Webs will send enemies flying into the nearest wall, Spider-Drones will web up baddies for you, Trip Mines will snatch up enemies who cross their path, and that's just a few of the options that become available to you throughout the campaign.
Each gadget comes with a limited number of uses, and must be replenished by taking down enemies. Luckily, they can be upgraded, allowing for more uses and additional power.
Lookin' good, Spidey
Character models are richly detailed, something that's particularly evident during every close-up shot of Spider-Man in costume — each texture is so sharply realised, that you can practically feel the plasticky lines on his mask and the stitching that's (virtually) keeping it together.
Unmasked characters hold up well, too, with stellar facial animations, defined wrinkles and eyes that are expressive, if not especially lifelike. Barring the occasional doll-like glare that some characters will exhibit, the game's art style has a nice stylized appearance which manages to steer clear of the 'uncanny valley' effect.
The real star of the show, however, is the island of Manhattan, which looks absolutely glorious in Spider-Man. Skyscrapers offer an exceptional level of detail (crawl over a random window and you'll actually be able to see into the apartment or office behind the glass), and we never once experienced any pop-in while swinging all the way across the city.
Draw distance is also fantastic, providing a very realistic fading effect as the city's long streets trail off into the distance. We love how the city looks during the day and at night, though sunsets are where the game truly shines (stand up and take a bow, HDR).
When played on a PS4 Pro, Spider-Man is able to achieve a native resolution of 1440p at a rock-solid 30fps framerate, which is then upscaled to 4K. This impressive feat is possible thanks to dynamic resolution scaling that will raise or lower the level of detail depending on how frantic the action is.
Verdict: play it now
Having crafted what is easily the best Spider-Man video game to date, Insomniac Games has delivered an epic superhero blockbuster that also acts as an endearing love letter to the character and the world he inhabits.
The game's emotional roller-coaster of a story provides plenty of drama for longtime Spider-Man fans, and its richly-populated world offers countless things to do once the campaign has reached its conclusion.
Though Spider-Man leans heavily on gameplay mechanics established by another celebrated superhero franchise, they truly feel like they belong here — each one implemented with an unrivalled level of polish. If you're a fan of Spidey (or superheroes in general), you're bound to love Spider-Man.