The masses have never been more hungry for media involving those in figure-hugging lycra. Comics beget movies beget video games. While Insomniac Games’ open world brawler take on the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man is very clearly inspired by what we’ve seen on the silver screen lately, it’s not bowing to anything that’s come before; it’s a wholly fresh story that spends time appreciating the past rather than aping it. And, thankfully, it’s not an origin story – I think we all know how Peter Parker got his powers at this stage, right?
Instead of plying his trade as a photographer at The Daily Bugle newspaper , Peter Parker is working at a research lab, building prosthetic limbs for those in need and generally trying to better the world. This version of Parker, living out of his tiny studio flat that he’s probably paying over the odds for, has been fighting crime for close to 10 years. The location of New York City may be familiar and the cast already established – for the most part – but some masterful tweaks have been made. In a world where people can do extraordinary things, their motivations are believable and relationships true, and that’s down to a narrative that understands the source material, as well as fantastic, nuanced performances from every primary hero and villain. Special mention for the portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson as an Alex Jones-esque online radio host whose show plays at random points of the game, too – it’s outstanding. Some of the grunt fodder leaves a lot to be desired, but they’re just punching bags anyway.
Like a well-choreographed routine within the confines of the squared circle, Spider-Man’s battles are like a Randy Savage classic when going at full tilt. As is the case with all good superheroes, Spider-Man aims to merely incapacitate his enemies rather than brutally murder them, and he does that through his athletic, fast-paced attacks. There are a number of different ways to deal with a group of overeager thugs; a move list akin to a fighting game advises like a second in your corner. Well placed punches and kicks on the ground are your base, but when you add a crunching uppercut to the mix that launches your foe into the air, you open up a whole host of other possibilities: lasso them using your webs and drag them crashing back down to earth, forcing an uncomfortable landing on top of another hapless sap; leap into the air, fire an impactful shotgun-like blast of webs their direction, sticking them to an adjacent wall; electro-shock them before swinging them around your head, surely bringing up the contents of their stomach in the process once they’re offscreen. It’s a glorious display of rhythmic gymnastics that you only wish you could perform on the dance floor every Saturday night.
Every attack builds up your focus bar, which then allows you to finish off an adversary with an explosive, showstopping move, that only adds to the aggressive ballet happening before your eyes. On top of that, your array of web-based gadgets and hero costumes (with interchangeable special abilities) that you accrue over time encourage creativity. Your Spidey is customisable, and not in a way that ever overwhelms. Becoming the strongest webslinger out there is never a grind: there’s a natural progression that, most importantly, is an awful lot of fun. Almost every action you perform rewards XP that can then be dumped into your chosen skills – best of all being traversal.
There will be occasions, after you’ve unlocked fast travel points across NYC, where you’ll be tempted, for a brief moment, to magically journey thousands of metres to the next mission objective. That thirst for more cutscene soon subsides, though, as you decide swinging from building to building is the better option; it’s too satisfying to ever pass up the opportunity to hop along rooftops, run up walls, and hurl yourself off a skyscraper. It’s truly majestic. One skill you can acquire early on also allows you to perform tricks in the air, and sees you accumulating XP with every flip and contortion. The ease of these acrobatics, and just how cool it all is, would be enough of a draw to pendulum from office blocks, but the fact that you’re forever bettering your Spider-Man as well is a genius move from Insomniac.
Although, fluidly moving from location to location is reward in and of itself. At breakneck speeds, you glide overtop bumper-to-bumper traffic, hopping from lampposts with superhuman balance, only coming to a screeching halt to have a look at the concrete scenery. Momentum carries you everywhere, and the strength of Spider-Man’s New York is in how each structure is placed where it is to aid you in your trip across town: each high-rise something to dangle off, and every wall something to climb. There are moments of pause, too, where a stealthier approach is the better option.
Picking off baddies from the shadows and stringing them up with some webbing before moving onto the next unassuming henchman is terrific fun, and a welcome change from the moment-to-moment action – the Mary Jane sections, on the other hand, whilst a change,are a bit hit-and-miss. As an investigative reporter MJ infiltrates areas by skulking around distracted guards, averting their gaze with thrown sound lures. They’re fine, really, but are instafail and can be a bit grating at times. I mean, not as grating as the myriad scalable towers. Yep, towers.
Recently, it feels like open world games have moved past towers that uncover areas of the map, and bitty distractions. Spider-Man hasn’t. There are challenge rooms where you take on wave after wave of enemies; races where you fly through large hoops, potentially in homage to another superhero and his N64 classic; a game of spot the difference with Black Cat; a ridiculous amount of Peter Parker’s old backpacks to find; pigeons to nab; landmarks to snap with your camera; random crimes that need thwarting; pop-up research stations that involve you doing good deeds like clearing the air in polluted parts of the city; and the aforementioned towers. There’s a lot. Each activity awards you tokens that you use to purchase suits and gadgets – as well as upgrades for both – so there is reason for completing them; it’s just a shame that the majority feel rather tedious. The same can be said for the side missions which, apart from a select few, feel unnecessary in the overarching story. Still, though, what a story.
Despite that, zipping through the metropolis of New York City is utterly magnificent, and going toe-to-toe with brutes is brilliant. Taking an established character and crafting a compelling original story that honours what’s come before, Insomniac Games has created something that all True Believers are sure to love.
Developer: Insomniac Games
Available on: PlayStation 4
Release Date: September 7, 2018
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