In all the things you’d look forward to in a Spider-Man game, this one from Insomniac Games does almost nothing new. All the hallmark mechanics are drawn rather liberally from other blockbusters. From the combat to the swinging to the open world, it’s all familiar. But the irrepressible polish on it all is categorically stupendous.
And somehow, this level of remarkable sheen—an amount of refinement most studios can’t even dream of—is hardly the most impressive thing about the game. Instead, it is Peter Parker (Yuri Lowenthal) himself. His endlessly overflowing and warming heart is the standout of the game. He is the precisely the Peter Parker/Spider-Man I’d always envisioned in my head since first reading the comics, combining the slick confidence of Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man, the tender generosity of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, and the direly essential and innate tragedy of Tobey Maguire’s portrayal of both.
The story picks up in the eighth year of Spider-Man’s career, which means he’s already gone through many of the landmark moments of the character. Uncle Ben’s death, the introduction and defeat of several staple villains, and the careening love life between slinging webs and Mary Jane Watson (Laura Bailey). This gives a tremendous flexibility to where the narrative can go. If the MCU’s Homecoming explored how Peter’s compassion affected his own life, this dives so much deeper into how his empathy collides with those around him.
It speaks volumes towards Lowenthal’s performance, too, as he shoulders the responsibility of playing the entire spectrum of the character. From Peter chatting up the residents of Aunt May’s (Nancy Linari) homeless shelter to Spider-Man fighting to survive atop supervillain supermax prison The Raft before looping back in on itself with Spider-Man riding the subway and hanging out with the everyday New Yorker. And the entire breadth of it all feels, in a word, perfect.
And it all culminates—after a ripping romp through a litany of bad guys and twisting turns that shouldn’t be ruined—in one of the most remarkable and attuned endings that a Spider-Man story has ever told. Not the say the entire journey there is flawless (though many of the performances along the way are just as incredible as the destination such as Mark Rolston’s Norman Osborn and William Salyers’ Otto Octavius), but the thematic dovetail it arrives at is supremely impactful.
All of that, certainly, are things you haven’t heard as much about, which is why it seemed appropriate to open with it. But all the hyped bits are just as worthwhile. Easily the best Spider-Man game since Beenox’s Shattered Dimensions, which itself was just sort of…okay, it also features the best web swinging since the now legendary rollercoaster action of 2004’s Spider-Man 2. It does the thing the best video games do, which is make you feel like you’re doing what you want while the game is actually doing what it needs to do.
Come too close to the ground and you’ll actually hover ever so briefly so your web can attach to something. Close in on a building too harshly and the swing angle will unhinge from the visual depiction so you move in an arc more befitting your momentum. Dozens and dozens of these little touches—either corrective or complementary—add up to make for the most satisfying swinging this property has ever seen in video game form.
Part of it certainly has to do with the rendering of the open world, which in this case is what feels like a barely condensed and slightly fictionalized version of Manhattan and its myriad neighborhoods. A fantastic depth is added to the towering buildings as they seem to collapse in on you as you speed up through the streets before breaking the surface like a streaking dolphin in the ocean. (Digital Foundry has a great video on some of the rendering tricks used to make the world seem more real as you swing around.)
It does suffer, however, from one of the greatest explosions of open world vomit in recent memory. Worse than that, it metes them out alongside story progression, which means for every genre of icons you clear off the map, you’re greeted with an entirely new set after another indeterminate number of mainline missions. The objectives themselves vary from inconsequential collectible finding to rather interesting side story (the missing college students thing is weird but cool), which means they’re better than most open world designs, but it can still be an overwhelming deluge at times.
The rest of the game is shockingly similar to the Arkham series, namely the latest entry in Batman: Arkham Knight. The combat is very much that style of combat where you time attack button presses just as your punches and kicks land or you hit the counter button when your spidey senses tingle or you dodge under shielded enemies or you use gadgets to overcome weaponized foes. The difference is that with Spider-Man at the reins, there is a greater focus on acrobatics and range, which means you can more easily hop around and air juggle bad guys as you beat them up.
It reaches a stagnation point somewhat quickly, though, as you level up and unlock skills that more or less push you towards very specific combat styles. Namely, you want to stay in the air as much as possible, so you’re holding launching attacks much more often and dodging projectiles midair. Especially as the late-game enemies emerge, you’ll have to shelve your desire to go full pugilist and instead be much more deliberate about drawing out gun-toting bad guys and kiting attention. Once you get a grip, though, on how to play it out, you start to feel more like Spider-Man himself and actually play with your prey rather than simply surviving them.
There are also stealth sections that are pretty much the predator sections lifted directly from Arkham. You hide in the rafters and web baddies up as they pass under you, working your way from top to bottom with emphasized priority on snipers and meandering patrols. The great improvement this game makes, though, is that once you are spotted, it’s never a punishment. You just switch to the punching mode. And it’s harder to get spotted since now you can see explicitly if an enemy is safe to take down or not, but it is still very much That Style of stealth.
Between the two, though, you are given the opportunity to build your own way through. With a judicious combination of suit upgrades, skill point expenditures, and specialized suit powers, you can build out your ideal Spidey. If you want to go in and deal out massive damage, there are enhancements to help (my favorite is the Spider-Bro that electrifies everyone around you), or you can become nearly invisible to patrolling guards, or you can become completely immune to gunfire. It’s refreshing to encounter upgrades that are immediately and drastically meaningful.
There’s a lot to praise in Spider-Man, almost as much as there is to condemn in familiarity. But doing that would be glossing over the fact that it achieves a degree of refinement rarely seen in any entertainment or art medium. And more than that, you’d be ignoring all the things it does new, including exploring a new and heartbreaking yet encouraging facet of this character that we’ve known for decades. This game is a true gem, and it deserves to be played.
+ Visually stunning with a bomb-ass photo mode
+ Little touches all over the place that make even the most mundane action feel expansive
+ A story that is equal parts uplifting, incisive, and shattering
+ Swinging kicks so much ass
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Spider-Man
Release: September 7, 2018
Developer: Insomniac Games
Available Platforms: PlayStation 4