Spider-Man is without a doubt the ultimate mascot for Marvel Comics. In his almost six-decade history, he has entered the upper pantheon of costumed heroes, reaching ranks reserved only for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman before him.
With this in mind, the Mighty Marvel House of Ideas has capitalized on this, plastering Peter Parker’s mug over every form of media invented in the last half-century. Three Spider-Men graced the big screen in 15 years, with animated series, anime and video games of varying quality to follow.
In terms of video games however, that quality quickly settled into mediocre outings for the webslinger, and fans reacted accordingly. It was not that fans were sick of Spidey — it was just that he wasn’t getting the credit they felt he deserved, in the same way Rocksteady Games defined Batman for a new generation of gamers in its smash-hit “Arkham” series. It seemed as if that chance would never come.
Until 2016, when the trailer for ‘Marvel’s Spider-Man’ was released at Electronic Entertainment Expo, an international games conference that showcases the best upcoming titles across all platforms. Imagine fans’ shock and subsequent giddiness when the trailer showed Spider-Man spinning through the streets of a gloriously realized New York City, twisting and contorting his body in ways as only a spider can.
But then came nervousness — the game developers at Insomniac Games have a history of developing only original projects like “Spyro” and “Ratchet & Clank,” and their latest offering, the 2014 hypercharged open-world adventure “Sunset Overdrive,” while critically lauded, was not quite the hit they hoped for.
This, coupled with a tenuous partnership between Sony, the current owners of Spider-Man’s rights, Marvel Entertainment and Insomniac did little to meet the high expectations of Spidey fans and led to one of the most anticipated games of the modern console era, if not of all time.
And now that it is here, it is safe to say this is one of the best games PlayStation has to offer.
“Marvel’s Spider-Man,” a PlayStation 4 exclusive, utilizes every aspect of modern video-gaming and pushes to its maximum potential, delivering an emotionally grounded, interesting story that evokes genuine moments of pathos from Peter Parker & Company, while still crafting gameplay mechanics that are endlessly fun and memorable — though not revolutionary. The combat and web-swinging especially steal the spotlight, along with a mammoth New York City that is filled with entertaining, if a little unsatisfying side missions.
Insomniac’s Spider-Man takes a unique track that is different from any other representation of the hero, as this version follows a 23-year-old Peter Parker, who has been fighting crime and spinning webs for eight years as he navigates his unlucky personal life. As Peter, you spend much of the game not just stopping bad guys, but attempting to reconnect with Mary Jane, now a Daily Bugle reporter — a Lois Lane type so good the D.C. Universe should be taking notes.
You also attempt to connect to Peter’s ex-girlfriend of six months, who works as a lab assistant for a character from Spidey’s rogue gallery that’s too good to spoil, while trying to scrape enough money together to find a permanent place to live that’s not his Aunt May’s couch.
In the game’s opening minutes, as you swing through the streets of an impeccably detailed New York City, you pass a delightful mixture of real-world Big Apple tourist spots and Marvel Cinematic Universe locales. It becomes clear that this is unlike any Spider-Man game you have ever played.
Then, after a thrilling opening sequence in which Spidey finally takes down crime lord Wilson Fisk, otherwise known as Kingpin, there’s a realization that this is a very different experience entirely — a welcome departure from regular superhero outings that equals, if not surpasses, most of the films in the Marvel canon, Webhead or no Webhead.
The combat system, while reminiscent of the “Arkham” series’ FreeFlow mechanics, have been refined, exchanging the Dark Knight’s muscular, bone-crunching counters for a system that enhances Spider-Man’s acrobatic flips and spins. Spidey dodges and swings through the air with ease and agility, though with plenty of opportunity to break jaws and crack wise while doing so.
Truly though, if there are any categories in “Marvel’s Spider-Man” that stand out above the rest, it’s the traversal system and the performances. Swinging through New York City is somehow both exhilarating and intuitive. This is Spider-Man by way of Evel Knievel, throwing himself into steep dives off skyscrapers only to shoot out a web a split second before flattening onto the street. As he flips through the air, quipping and performing jaw-dropping, daredevil tricks all the while, the controller might as well be a pair of web-shooters attached to your wrists. It is that good.
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the game, though, is the acting. As Peter Parker, Yuri Lowenthal shines, imbuing both Peter and Spider-Man with distinct, equally riveting personalities. He is hilarious, moving and believable at every turn. It is never a simple task to pick your favorite version of a superhero, but after playing through the nearly 20-hour campaign that rivals Naughty Dog’s “Uncharted” and “Last of Us” series in terms of narrative sophistication, it becomes even harder because Lowenthal is easily one of the best to ever play the role.
Supporting him are a terrific Laura Bailey as MJ and Nancy Linari as Aunt May, reimagined as a social worker at a charity run by philanthropist Martin Li, who moonlights as Mr. Negative, the crime boss of a ruthless gang called the Demons.
Countless Spider-Man villains make appearances throughout the game, and half the fun of playing is the joy you experience every time one of Spidey’s classic adversaries shows up to wreak havoc. The other missions in the game are insubstantial compared to the weight of the campaign and lead to some bouts of frustration, as there is a sense of missed opportunities as you swing around the city helping New Yorkers rescue their escaped pigeons, when it is clear you could be doing so much more.
The criticisms here, though, are slight. It cannot be understated that this is a triumph nearly all across the board, and, with a slew of downloadable content dropping in the next few months, as well as a tease of a sequel at the end credits, this is guaranteed to make many diehard Microsoft and PC fans want to jump ship and buy a PlayStation. This is one of the definitive achievements of modern gaming.