'Spider-Man' PS4 Review: Insomniac Exclusive is a Marvel

9/10 (PS4)

You know a game is good when you find yourself playing it even when you're not. Marvel's Spider-Man, the Spider-Man PS4 exclusive from Insomniac, is one of those games. Case in point: I live in NYC, and while out this weekend saw a small park and thought "Ugh." Not "ugh, I don't like parks" but "ugh, those things kill my web-swinging momentum." I am not Spider-Man (unfortunately) but Marvel's Spider-Man made that feeling hard to turn off. The same can be said about the game, too.

Marvel's Spider-Man is a rock-solid adventure game. If you loved the comic book beat 'em up vibe of the Batman: Arkham games you'll swoon for Spidey. If you're a more casual action fan you're in good hands; Insomniac Games designed a thrilling gameplay loop that slides along a balanced difficulty scale anyone can enjoy. A strong Spider-Man story, set in its own universe so as not to be encumbered by copious lore, respects the audience enough to avoid retreading his well-worn origin. And those collectibles! I am not a completionist by nature but I chased every pigeon, found every backpack and perched atop every landmark Marvel's Spider-Man threw my way. Why? Because my favorite thing about Marvel's Spider-Man is also its most fundamental: web-slinging.

via Gfycat

Web-slinging starts simple. You hold R2, learn when to tap X and make good time between objectives. But once you start using L2+R2 to zip to targets and time a jump to point launch off of them, a kinetic ballet begins to take shape. You start to see three jumps ahead and eyeball paths for maximum air (with great heights come great hypermobility.) Divebombing builds crazy momentum, but you can also unlock the ability to do flips and moonsaults to gain bonus XP. Unfortunately, dizzying speed makes for poor accuracy, and many timed challenges that require quick stops in small areas can be marred by erratic camera angles and a lot of clunkiness. It's a small percentage of the time, but you notice when it happens because it absolutely kills your immersion.

Small quibbles aside, web-swinging is so much fun on it's own it becomes easy to chase waypoints. You can unlock some fast travel points fairly early, but it says a lot about the game that I rarely used them.

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Web-swinging acrobatic ass-kicking Peter Parker drama = FUN Sony

A typical gameplay session saw me web-swinging to gather nearby collectible tokens (Crime, Research, etc), stopping often to intercede in some level of street crime. I was especially impressed by how smoothly the game taught me to use special skills and abilities by way of these challenges. Earning a single crime token for stopping a heist isn't as satisfying as earning three because I webbed X number of enemies to the wall or achieved a combo of 30+ moves. Once you unlock the entire map, nearly partitioned into neighborhoods, it becomes easy to lose yourself in the pursuit of tokens to spend on gadget upgrades and special suits.

There have been a lot of looks for Spider-Man through the years, and Marvel's Spider-Man captures more than two dozen of them for you to wear in game. Each suit also unlocks a special power that is, thankfully, not bound to any suit. Want to have electric punches while wearing a vintage comics skin? No problem. The suits have continuity across loading screens and cutscenes too, and every now and then J. Jonah Jameson will call special attention to your suit during one of his anti-Spider-Man radio broadcasts. It's a small detail, but the kind of thing that moves the needle from 7s and 8s into 9s and 10s.

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The Scarlet Spider suit is just one of dozens of spectacular, amazing looks for Spider-Man. Sony

What drops the needle a point or so for me are the segments of the game where you don't play as Spider-Man, notably Mary Jane's little stealth adventures. They're perfectly average stealth gameplay sequences that fail to evolve in any meaningful way. One promising sequence involved her communicating with Spider-Man to take out some goons, but it was a one off. She's a great character, and her role in the story is as important as ever, but her gameplay breaks the action in a bad way. It's It's an absolute blast being Spider-Man, and Mary Jane-does-TLOU-Lite doesn't come close in terms of fun. If Insomniac intended to provide contrast here it succeeds to a fault; giving us something worse is not a great way to showcase something better.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers I've avoided sharing much about the story, but don't mistake that as criticism. The story is absolutely fantastic and produces moments of genuine drama you won't be expecting from a game that is so much fun. Unlike clubfooted Mary Jane segments, the somber notes in the story DO provide contrast to the action in a meaningful way. You're reminded, as in the comics, that for all his lighthearted quips Spider-Man still trafficks in life or death moments. Even more, his life as Peter Parker contains real drama too. The way both halves of his life weave together by the end is both powerful and satisfying. I came ready to forgive a dry story in the face of so much dynamic action, so perhaps that's why I'm so impressed with what Marvel's Spider-Man manages to pull off.

Once again, Sony has demonstrated why it is King of Console Exclusives. Marvel's Spider-Man is better than it has any right to be. The simple pick-up-and-play action game most of us wanted evolves into a complex and demanding drama few expected. Insomniac achieves this transition without being jarring or heavy-handed, either; the progression of skills, collectibles, objectives and story is neatly and expertly paced. I never felt rushed or overwhelmed. Instead, I learned how to be Spider-Man. And thanks to an immersive story, I felt like Spider-Man too. Not just his ups, but his downs. (A memorable text exchange with Mary Jane was highly relatable content). You won't want to put it down. And if you're ever in NYC, you won't like seeing parks, either.

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Spider-Man PS4 Is As Good As It Gets PlayerOne