From that trailblazing PS1 title, to Treyarch’s rightfully beloved and groundbreaking open-world Spider-Man 2 movie tie-in, to polished experiences like Shattered Dimensions and the underrated Web of Shadows, there have been some outstanding virtual web slinging adventures over the years. Yet in more recent times, the wall-crawler’s digital outings have ranged from ‘phoning it in’ to ‘insultingly awful’.
Now, from the wilderness, emerges Marvel’s Spider-Man, the much-hyped PlayStation 4 exclusive from Insomniac Games.
Does it salvage our hero’s reputation? I can wholeheartedly say that the answer is yes, and then some.
The open-world third person action adventure is the most complete, polished and downright fun video game version of Spider-Man yet. Making good on the promise of those early titles while almost erasing the bad memories of the terrible ones, the game captures the true essence of what it feels to be like the arachnid powered vigilante.
Its densely packed representation of New York feels like a living, breathing playground to use your traversal skills to the fullest, and the DNA of Insomniac’s critically acclaimed previous open world adventure Sunset Overdrive is felt throughout.
Swinging between skyscrapers and wall-running up the sheer surfaces of buildings is sublime, and the ability to zip to and launch yourself from targeted points in one fluid motion means that you can cover huge distances without ever putting your feet down on a horizontal surface.
The combat is just as accomplished. With some clear influences from Rocksteady’s superlative Arkham series of Batman games, melee encounters focus on rapid, responsive freeform attacks and dodges, as well as the use of some funky gadgets.
Wavy lines appearing around our hero’s head represent his Spidey Sense kicking off, warning you to press the Circle button to avoid an incoming blow or gunshot and opening up your enemy to a counterattack.
But while the Dark Knight fighting style was a slightly more measured and almost rhythmic affair, Spider-Man’s combat is frenetic and insanely acrobatic, perfectly reflecting the character’s almost improvisational and instinctive approach.
As for the gadgets, items like drones and webbing-based explosives can be selected on the fly, and are as fun as they are practical, helping to manage the waves of goons all piling on to take you down.
You’ll also unlock access to different types of suits taken from various iconic moments of Spider-Man history, each equipped with a unique power like an EMP blast or the ability to become temporarily bulletproof.
Suits can also be upgraded with craftable mods that offer perks like increased resistances to certain damage types or faster generation of Focus, an energy-of-sorts accumulated in combat that can be spent on performing powerful finishing moves or healing.
Mods and suit powers can be freely shuffled about into any costume, meaning you’re not stuck with one look just because you want to use a specific ability.
Spider-Man’s fantastic gameplay is bolstered by a surprisingly engaging narrative. Unencumbered by a film script or rehashed comic plot, Insomniac are free to tell an original story in their own universe – one that is to become official Marvel canon according to Polygon.
Kicking off eight years into Parker’s crimefighting career, we find him finally managing to land the villainous Kingpin in prison, only to have to deal with a gang called the Demons filling the power vacuum. The group’s masked goons report to a mysterious figure who may also be linked to the re-emergence of some of the webhead’s biggest foes.
Insomniac manage to steer clear of retreading old ground by shaking up Spider-Man’s usual status quo. For instance, J Jonah Jameson is no longer the editor of the Daily Bugle but instead has moved on to host a talk show.
Meanwhile, love interest Mary Jane has become a journalist for the paper while Peter has left his photography gig at the Bugle behind to focus on scientific endeavours.
I won’t go into further plot details here, as there are some unexpected story beats that deserve to be experienced without spoilers. But the cutscenes driving the narrative forward are surprisingly good, with some quality voice acting and impressively authentic facial animations. The game also frequently transitions seamlessly between gameplay and cutscene, making the whole thing feel utterly cohesive.
In between main story missions are a host of the usual side activities – collectables, random crimes to fight, standalone missions and the like – that for the most part are diverse enough to keep the fun factor ticking over.
One collectable type, for instance, takes the form of backpacks Spider-Man has previously stowed about the city, each one containing a unique memento accompanied by a brief bit of backstory that flesh out Parker’s past eight years.