Games Review: Spider-Man (PS4, 2018) wants to Be Greater, but falls just short

As a game, Insomniac’s Spider-Man is a bit like it’s hero. Spidey is good (but not great) at his job, and you forgive him his missteps because his heart’s in the right place. If you created a checklist of tropes and mechanics found in open world adventure games, Spider-Man would tick every box. It doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen in a hundred other open world games before, but you forgive it because you’re having such a good time.

Spider-Man is set several years into Peter Parker’s career as a vigilante superhero. He no longer works for the Bugle, he hasn’t spoken to Mary-Jane since their relationship ended a year ago and he’s been working on a bio-science passion project with Dr. Otto Octavius, building cybernetic limbs for the disabled. He’s trying to help Aunt May at F.E.A.S.T., an inner-city homeless shelter run by the magnanimous Martin Li. He’s still swinging around New York City as the amazing Spider-man, and he’s still failing to manage his time effectively.

When a mysterious new gang called the Demons starts sewing mayhem throughout the city not long after putting Wilson Fisk behind bars, Parker smells a rat. His spidey senses tell him a storm is coming but he can’t quite identify the source.

The strong script by Jon Paquette, Benjamin Arfmann and Kelsey Beachum, with regular Marvel writers Christos Gage and Dan Slott, keeps Spider-Man flying high when it might have otherwise felt a bit pedestrian. Parker, played by veteran voice actor Yuri Lowenthal, is a perfectly realised take on the character. The game captures his inability to prioritise, the way his unfailing moral compass gets him into trouble, the way his double life stresses him in ways that aren’t healthy for him or his relationships. It captures his impish spirit, bouncing through combat, hurling quips throughout. But above all, it captures his empathy. Spidey’s hallmark is that, for as bizarre as they can be, he actually cares about his rogue’s gallery. He wants them to get help, and when they’re cornered, scared and desperate, that’s when he feels for them the most. It’s a pitch perfect treatment of his character, and the game’s writing and performance staff should be very proud of themselves.

Every single character in the game gets similarly excellent narrative treatment, the thread running through each story being that our most formative moments spring from circumstances beyond our control. Mary Jane Watson is a determined journalist who repeatedly puts herself in harms way for the common good. Miles Morales is driven to the do the right thing, even when he feels like its never going to make a difference. Mister Negative is a sympathetic villain and, like Parker, wrestles with the demise of parents he loved. The game even got me care to about Norman Osborn, a character I’ve never given a shit about in my life. Remarkable writing and committed performances throughout.

Where the game struggles, at least in my opinion, all lies beyond the main quest (which is itself a linear mashup of Uncharted, Batman: Arkham and Assassin’s Creed). To be clear, there’s nothing technically wrong with the gameplay. Spider-Man plays very well, for the most part. It’s just that it feels so AAA. It isn’t prepared to take a single risk. Every mechanic is about as polished as humanly possible, every tool on its belt is tried-and-true.

It gets the web-slinging completely right, and this is still so much fun I was willing to eschew quick-traveling so I could keep doing it. However, it also doesn’t feel like web-slinging has changed much since Spider-man 2 on the Gamecube, a testament to how precisely Treyarch nailed it down. All of the side and collectible quests are your standard open-world genre collectathon, ranging from simple pick-ups to time trials. I do like that these side activities net the player specific tokens which are used to unlock gadgets and other Spider-man suits. It creates a mini economy with a real reward for putting in that extra work. But even with that system in place, I’ve still done all of this before. Collecting backpacks presented a good excuse to explore the city, but I got bored with the other tasks pretty quickly. I wanted something with some flavour, and for me none of these activities had it.

The unlocks themselves will be fairly familiar to those who’ve played open worlders like this before, but Spider-Man‘s use of its aforementioned token-earning system keeps things interesting. Spidey has access not just to the gadgets on his person, like webshooters, but also drones, bombs and gravity inverters designed to keep bad guys distracted. Once unlocked, these are all quite fun to use and very helpful in dicey combat situations. Further, each unlockable suit in the game comes with a specific power of its own — some make you hardier against bullets, others just provide more quips to enrage Spidey’s enemies. The good news is that these suit powers can be mixed and matched — don’t like the Spider-man 2099 suit, but like the power-up it grants? That’s cool. Attach it to the Scarlet Spider outfit and carry on. Each suit also comes with three slots for further stat buffs, letting the player create their own mini Spidey build and make the most of their preferred play style.

Combat was always going to draw comparisons to that other superhero game franchise, Batman: Arkham. Insomniac have been smart about how they’ve aped Arkham. They’ve kept the bits that worked — ziplining to high ground, predatory takedowns, combat streaks, two-button finishers — and replaced certain parts to feel more Spidey, like dodging instead of countering. One part of Arkham‘s combat I wish Insomniac had copied was the way it handles the camera in a fight. In Arkham, the camera is set at a distance that allows the player to really see the field around them. Batman is all about spacial awareness, always knowing where the next blow is coming from. As the fight goes on, the camera would actively turn, keeping the player aware of their surroundings.

Considering this is a game about a guy for whom spacial awareness is a literal superpower, it feels like Spider-Man should be doing this too, but it doesn’t. Instead, the camera stays on the one angle and relies on the player to move it about mid-fight. Because many of the fights had me splitting my attention between five or six incoming lines of fire, the camera regularly wound up in places that made it hard to see my foes. Lodged in Spidey’s lower back, pressed between him and the car behind, I got to hear poor Pete cop a few thrashings. There’s also no direct lock-on function for combat, which means it’s easy for web targeting to become a bit wonky in a fray.

Thankfully, Spider-man is not a brawler. Zipping out of combat to higher ground, getting a lay of the land and diving back in is a viable strategy and one I recommend. Again, I’m not saying the combat is bad — it isn’t. It’s actually very good and, when mastered, you feel like an especially springy whirlwind; a flurry of punches, webbing and gymnastics that are impossible to hit.

The game’s map of New York City is one of the most detailed ever created for a video game. Everything from iconic buildings and districts, to the familiar New York accents at ground level are recreated in minute detail. Take a look at Insomniac’s rendition of the Grand Central Station interior. It’s flawless. There are a few obvious spots throughout the city that have been left out, some presumably due to copyright issues, others out of respect, but 90% of the real New York is present and accounted for. It may surprise some players to know that, by setting itself on Manhattan Island specifically, the total explorable map area is rather smaller than most modern open world games. I actually think this works in Spider-Man‘s favour, and is the only real gamble the game makes — he’s your friendly neighbourhood Spider-man, he should be able to get from the Financial District to Harlem in only a few minutes. Insomniac have chosen a specific, smaller scale to at which to operate and I couldn’t be happier about that. It’s so nice to have an open world map that doesn’t take an hour to cross.

Finally, let’s talk about visuals. I mentioned earlier that Spider-Man is big on detail. Nowhere is that reflected more than in how the game looks. Running in 4K HDR on a PS4 Pro, there are few PS4 titles that look more beautiful. The lighting, particularly in the afternoon, is stunning. The way it bounces off buildings and casts black shadows is mesmerising from a vantage point high above the city. All of the main characters look wonderful on screen too. Spider-man himself is lanky, lithe and moves with a kind of practiced fluidity as he propels himself on a synthetic cobweb. His costume, with white spider branding, looks great and became my go-to suit for the whole game despite having an array of unlocked suits available. Characters in cutscenes are incredibly lifelike — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game render people’s nose pores in such intense detail before.

In the end, Spider-Man is an adventure that is lovingly made, genuinely fun, and beautiful to look at. But it’s also extremely safe. It takes as few risks as possible and, because it has so many corporate masters to serve — from Sony right through to Disney — it does everything it can to avoid rocking the boat. It’s good, but I want it to be better, and I think it can be. I look forward to Insomniac’s inevitable second bite at the Big Apple.

THREE AND A HALF STARS OUT OF FIVE

Highlights: Gorgeous visuals; Nice take on the unlock system; Excellent story and performances
Lowlights: Very safe; Garden variety side activities
Developer: Insomniac
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Available: Now

Review conducted with a standard edition download code provided by the publisher. Spider-Man is a PlayStation 4 exclusive.

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David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously worked as a freelance games journalist and critic, appearing on PC World Australia. He tweets at @RhunWords and plays the odd game at twitch.tv/RhunWords when the internet works.