by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 29th April, 2019
Insomniac managed to finally give Spider-Man a game he deserves. It doesn't top the excellent Arkham City as the best superhero game ever but comes pretty close on a couple of occasions.
Superhero games. You would expect there would be lots of excellent titles in this subgenre but the reality is quite different.
Most of the games starring superheroes are either completely average or just plain bad. There are some cool titles and one series that can be considered a masterpiece - the Batman Arkham Trilogy of course - but the majority of superhero games are bland titles without any soul.
Maybe it's because of the fact that the coolest superheroes are owned by large companies that put profit in front of everything else, demanding video game equivalents of summer blockbusters - games with amazing visuals, some cool moments but the forgetful story and bad core gameplay.
Or maybe they simply don't want to let developers take their time and produce a title they really wanted, always trying to time game releases in line with their movie counterparts (many bad superhero games were following blockbuster movies).
Whatever's the case, Insomniac and Sony managed to avoid all those mistakes and come up with the best Spiderman game of all time, and one of the three best superhero games we've ever seen, ending up just below Arkham City and Arkham Asylum, two masterpieces that won't be topped for a long time.
Spider-Man for the PS4 starts strong from the first moment you get to control your favorite superhero arachnid. The game's first hour is a sort of showoff of all cool things the game offers.
First in the line is the phenomenal traversal mechanic that is so simple yet so cool. And while you travel to the first mission you can admire the hyper-detailed New-York city and its photorealistic buildings coupled with amazing lighting that together turn the metropolis alive, creating one of the best looking digital playgrounds in any game to date.
And once you arrive at Fisk's (Kingpin's) tower the game showcases its fast-paced and oh so fluid combat that won't get old even after you spend dozens of hours wandering Manhattan (but will probably get old near the end of the game).
And for the finale, the fight against the Kingpin, you get a taste of what future boss battles will look like - scripted set pieces that are fun to play and that offer just enough challenge to feel like your skill was put to the test but not pushed beyond its limits. Once you finish the first mission and put Fisk back into jail you are hooked and for the next 20-30 hours, you will enjoy the best Spider-Man game ever created.
Visuals are stunning, with the Manhattan shining like never before. Buildings are rendered in lush detail, most of them showing interiors which is a small but incredible proof just how much attention was given to even the tiniest details found in the game.
The city looks amazing no matter where you stand. Even when you look at the city from the highest tower it looks lavish in details. All famous buildings from the real-life New York are here with the addition of many places known from Marvel comics and movies. Many of those places are available as photo-shoot ops so you will get to see most of them in detail.
There is plenty of detail on the ground level, with the constant flow of traffic and pedestrians. While they aren't detailed as in GTA V or Watch Dogs 2 (understandable since you spend most of the time up in the air, among skyscrapers), they look good enough to be believable. People react to Spider-Man, ask to take selfies, praise and disparage him (not everyone thinks he's a hero) or simply cheer or boo at him.
And the whole world is embroiled in a lush lighting engine that paints the town in bright and saturated colors during sunny days, with the atmosphere taking a massive change when it rains. Nighttime also features its own unique tone, creating a diverse set of scenes where the game takes place in.
It all looks photorealistic while you swing from building to building and if you don't believe me, just unlock the cell-shaded classic comic books suit and start roaming through the city.
This discrepancy between the cartoony style of the suit and realistically rendered world puts a focus on the sheer quality of the visuals in the game. The visuals are especially impressive while you web-sling your way through downtown, looking at the sun and skyscrapers and detailed reflections coupled with next-gen vistas of the city.
Web-slinging is perfect and by far the best part of the game. The sheer joy of swinging and jumping from building to building is perfect in its simplicity and yet it offs skillful players ways to traverse from the Wall-Street to the Bronx without touching the ground.
Insomniac took the amazing traversal system seen in Spider-Man 2 from 2004 (the best Spider-Man game of all time until this one came out) and built upon it just enough for it to feel new but keeping all the best things about it - its simplicity and the way it makes players jump in joy while using it.
It's so simple - you use shoulder buttons to launch webs, X to jump and to shoot webs that keep you floating through the air, and that's about it. But once you start swinging through the city you won't want it to end.
It's so well done - the animation, the sense of speed and momentum, the sense of power while you jump and swing and swoop in inches above the concrete just to find yourself a hundred meters above the ground just seconds later - that it won't grow old, ever.
Even after the combat and side activities started to wear me down near the end of the game I had no problem with swinging from one end of the map to the other instead using fast travel because the traversing system in this game is the best I've ever had the chance of experiencing.
Better than the one seen in Arkham games, better than 300-feet jumps in Crackdown, better than fluid parkour of Assassin's Creed games, and definitely better than wall-running in Prototype, or janky levitation and flying from Infamous games.
The joy of movement in Spider-Man is unmatched by any other game, ever.
But if this game did only the web slinging right, it wouldn't be so praised by everyone, right? Spider-Man isn't a one trick pony and while other parts of the game aren't capable of topping the masterpiece, a work of art that is its traversal system, many of them are excellent. Combat, for example, is fast-paced and filled with acrobatic moves, much cooler looking than in Batman Arkham games, which it takes many cues from.
Spider-Man can kick and punch bad guys but he also can shoot webs at them, throw objects at them with webs, use any of the numerous gadgets to subdue them, use web swings to kick them out of the way and use the environment in his favor. The combat is varied and revolves around the combo meter and the ability tree along with many variations of bad guys who all demand a different approach during combat.
While things start simple you soon unlock new gadgets, new moves (like swing kicks or multiple instant KOs) that add complexity to fights but the truth is most of us will use simple moves because they are pretty effective and rely on special ones only during specific encounters. Further, while it masterfully emulates Batman Arkham fistfights, combat is Spider-Man falls short of the former's level of fluidity and also, it isn't as visceral.
You don't feel the same level of excitement as you did when beating Gotham's lowlife and your punches simply don't have the same weight. Fights can also become repetitive and tiring in the latter parts of the game or while playing DLC episodes because most set pieces become stuffed with enemies who all need too many punches to be taken down. Stealth, on the other hand, works much better than in Arkham games and it's a pure joy to take down one bad guy after another during certain missions and during specific stealth challenges.
There are plenty of gadgets to unlock, from better web slings to tiny spider-bots capable of zapping enemies, to web bombs and electric webs. Some are available from the start, others are unlocked after specific moments in the story and they all are cool to use and give combat another layer that makes it more fun and varied but ultimately can do little in preventing the combat from becoming repetitive during the end of the game.
Spidey has access to three different ability trees, each consisting out of different powers. Innovator tree unlocks original ways to defeat baddies along with some unique passive abilities, Defender tree is all about combat prowess and improving damage, and Webslinger is filled with various web-based abilities that make combat more attractive by introducing some pretty cool moves.
These cost experience points to unlock which are earned by completing main and side missions while unlocking gadgets ask for various tokens earned from completing different open world activities. Tokens are also needed for crafting new Spider-Man suits, which get unlocked by leveling or by completing specific achievements.
There are more than 30 suits and each comes with a special superpower (activated by pressing L3 and R3 at the same time) and many of those are pretty cool and effective. The great thing is that you can assign any suit power to any suit you have so that you don't have to wear some lousy suit just to be able to use its cool power, or vice-versa. Overall, Insomniac did great work with additional suits and they are definitely an excellent part of Spider-Man for the PS4.
Comic fans will get the chance of wearing their favorite suits while developers also thought about fans who only saw Spider-Man in movies, with a small but strong selection of suits seen in different flicks starring (or co-starring) Spider-Man.
There are lots of various challenges and open world activities dotting the map, accompanied by other tried and true elements shared with many other open world games.
You got your criminal bases filled with enemies where you can practice your fighting proves (and which become old after you finish a couple of them because there are simply too many enemy waves to make them enjoyable on the long run), there are side missions in the form of various challenges given to Spider-Man by a couple of characters known from comics, you can stop crimes that are happening all over the city or maybe collect backpacks and take photos of famous places across Manhattan. There are also research stations that offer various challenges and a side mission of catching pigeons scattered through the map.
These open world activities can be fun at the beginning but after you reach the final third of the game most of them become a chore that will be finished either by those who want to 100 percent the game or unlock every Spider-Man suit. The fact that you need to finish specific open world activities to unlock new suits and abilities - each activity gives different tokens used for unlocking abilities and gadgets and crafting new suits - isn't helping in making these any better.
Luckily the classic side missions given to Spider-Man by side characters are excellent and just a tad below the quality of story missions, which is great. Some branch out into new adventures, others unveil story bits that aren't touched in the main story, and most are designed as proper story missions that are a welcome addition to the already massive number of things to do in the game. The only bad thing I can say about side missions is that there aren't enough of those. It would be great if Insomniac gave us more proper side missions and less derivative open-world activities but oh well, at least the story is great.
Instead of telling the origin story for the hundredth time Insomniac instead went with a story that stars Peter Parker who has almost a decade of experience wearing Spider-Man suit. He's already faced most of his arch enemies, is known in New York and is the talk of the town. Mary Jane romance came and gone, with them now being good friends with occasional spark reminding them of old times.
And this works great because the game starts with a bang from the moment you get control over Spidey. You face Fisk during the first mission and from then on the story gets better and better. Many characters from comics and movies take their part in the game.
You have Mary Jane, Aunt May, Chief Yuri Watanabe (the main ally of Spider-Man in the game), Norman Osborn (just a New York mayor in this game), Silver Sable, Doctor Octavio (the current employer of Peter Parker), along with a plethora of villains such as Vulture, Scorpion, Rhino, Mr. Negative, Electro, Tombstone, Screwball, and others. J. Jonah Jameson is also here, with his anger-filled podcasts playing in the background while you traverse across the city.
Most main characters are well-written and memorable, and many of them show proper emotion in both animation and voice-over. And yes, voice-over is spot on and one of the best in the business. Almost every character sounds believable and alive, like a human and not some android who doesn't know emotions like in so many video games.
Voice actors did a stunning job at recreating famous characters and villains we all know everything about. And the story is great, depicting the struggle Peter has between being a masked crusader and at the same time trying to have a job and friends.
He frequently doesn't have time for himself, of his friends because of his "other job" and that superhero duality between his life as a regular human and a defender of the world is depicted in an excellent way, not too tacky but lifelike and in a surprisingly honest way without going into cringe alley.
The story also flows at a perfect pace. Different threads are unrolled one after another; you discover different plot points naturally and without the feel of them simply being thrown at the player. And the writing is superb, allowing the story to reach heights unreachable by most superhero movies and almost all superhero games.
But the great story wouldn't reach its full potential without well designed main missions and here game simply shines. I already talked about how cool and well-designed side missions are.
Well, main missions are even better and if open world activities followed the quality of main and side missions Spider-Man for the PS4 would be one of the best games of this generation. Missions are greatly varied. Some ask for a simple approach, just asking for the player to beat some bad guys. Others are filled with stealth.
Some ask for the player to take off the Spider-Man suit and be Peter Parker for a while, just talking with people, playing detective, or doing some mini-games. Sometimes you have to follow the signal, do a bit of hacking, or climb through a burning building with elevators falling towards you. During certain moments the game lets you play as other characters while they sneak their way and use special gadgets to take down enemies. And there are the inevitable boss battles that look and play great.
As I already mentioned, they are challenging, often consisting of multiple phases, each boss having their unique ways to beat them, and each battle playing differently. This is where Spider-Man blows Batman Arkham games out of the water, with boss battles being much better than in the famous trilogy. Really, main and most side mission in Spider-Man for the PS4 are superbly designed, with plenty of variations both between different missions and during a single mission and they play wonderfully.
They are the second best thing about the game and when you have the combination of a superb story and expertly designed missions the result simply has to be excellent.
Sadly, the three DLC episodes that followed the main release are nowhere as compelling as the main game. The first one is super short and almost without any story; it's just a few episodes where the Black Cat chats with Spidey, gets into some trouble with Spider-Man saving her. The second story is simply a chore to finish, filled with exhausting set pieces against powerful enemies that won't test your skill as much as it will test your patience.
And the finale is a tepid ending to the already unimpressive story arc. Overall, The City That Never Sleeps feels more like a tacked on an add-on to get some extra cash than a meaningful DLC pack that would expand the main story and bring adventures on par with the one experienced in the base game.
Overall, the PS4 Spider-Man is a fantastic game. It is filled with amazing moments, recreating some of the memorable scenes from comics and movies. The player really feels powerful playing as Spider-Man, slinging their way through the city, using powers while beating criminals, running and climbing walls with ease, or using gadgets to make fights more interesting.
Combat is very good but just short of reaching the level of the standard set by Batman Arkham games (I simply have to compare the two all the time because Insomniac clearly took combat from Arkham as a basis and edited it a bit to better suit Spider-Man, who is much more acrobatic than Caped Crusader).
World-building is amazing, filled with details, and perfect in its recreation of Manhattan. Visuals are stunning, some of the best regardless of the platform and animation of Spider-Man while he jumps, crawls, kicks, rolls, runs, and do all sorts of acrobatics is spot on and immensely detailed. In addition to its superb visuals and animations, the game shines when it comes to the story, mission design, and its traversing system. Those three are enough to push it to the stratosphere of action games. But this one isn't really a title worthy of calling it a masterpiece.
Open world activities are a slog and many will find them repetitive and exhausting after a while. Collectables are interesting to some extent but won't make anyone sans hardcore fans and achievement hunters to care about collecting them all. Combat is great but near the end, it becomes tiring and repetitive despite the fact players can choose between many different moves and gadgets.
And DLC content is underwhelming and more of a cash grab than a compelling addition to the main story. But despite these flaws, Spider-Man has tons of charm and is a great game. Web-slinging through the city will never get old (sometimes I fire the game up just to play urban Tarzan and chill a couple of minutes by swinging across the city and admiring its world), the story is one of the best featured in any AAA game in recent years, and main and side missions are complete negative of open world activities; they are interesting, well designed, extremely varied, and richly produced.
The game also pays huge respect to comic books and past movies by offering a plethora of alternate suits that will make many fans to scream in excitement, and the voice acting is the best in the business, on par with behemoths such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War. This is the best Spider-Man game ever and third best superhero title of all time and I cannot wait to see what Sony is preparing in the impending sequel.