Ever since it was first announced, Marvel’s Spider-Man for the PS4 has looked like amazing. After so many years without a hit Spider-Man game, it looked like Insomniac Games might be the right developer to finally deliver on the promise of an open-world web-slinging adventure. Oh wow man, did they ever deliver! This game is legitimately everything we’ve been hoping for.
So let’s address most obvious question first: how’s the web-slinging? The short answer is it’s awesome!
Thwipping and swinging and flipping and zipping, etc. around Insomniac’s Manhattan feels great, even when compared to Spider-man 2 (PS2/Xbox/GC): the 2002 classic against which all other Spidey games are judged. Even though the controls have been simplified somewhat from that title—you generally use just one shoulder button to web-sling, as opposed to left and right shoulder buttons to mimic each of Spidey’s hands—the range of midair maneuvers you can perform has increased and the overall fluidity is greatly improved. You can still pull off totally unnecessary air tricks just like in Spider-Man 2, preserving that skateboarding-like sense of flow as you weave your way through the urban jungle.
Perhaps the coolest refinement of this game’s web-slinging is its sense of speed. Release the web line at the top of your upswing and your speed will stay roughly the same from one swing to the next. But release the line closer to the bottom of your swing and more of your momentum will go into forward acceleration, increasing your speed. Combine this kind of acceleration swinging with some zip-to-point/point launches and you can get Spidey moving extremely fast across the New York skyline.
Honestly, the web-slinging is so good that it basically justifying the game purchase on its own. That said, it is only one part of this expansive and insanely well-polished game.
Combat, as it turns out, is also surprisingly fun this time around. Whether taking on a gang of street thugs, or wave after wave of professional mercenaries, fighting is well-balanced dance of physical blows, web attacks, dodges, gadgets, finisher takedowns, and suit-powered super moves. By allowing you to rush in swinging or hang back and shoot webs, battle enemies on the ground or launch them into the air (for absurd airborne combos), or clear out a group with an area-attack suit power, the game offers plenty of flexibility in how you choose to approach a fight. Combat also offers enough challenge to be legitimately satisfying. Even with random street thugs, if they are well-armed, or if even just one guy is brute—a hulking bruiser-type enemy—the group will take some skill and/or ingenuity to take down.
One combat scenario I don’t like as much is the fights with Sable forces. While these fights are challenging and I feel extra motivated to clobber these particular enemies, they’re often more frustrating than fun. For example, the armor many Sable agents wear is immune to Spider-Man’s webs, rendering most of your gadgets useless, and greatly limiting your options in how to approach the conflict. Combine that with flying jetpack enemies who can spread fire and/or snare you in a plasma lasso, and you’re in for a tough fight.
While beating down of bunch of random enemies tends to be fun, boss fights, on the other hand, aren’t always as compelling. Maybe it’s because so much of the action tends to get relegated to quicktime events and cinematic cutscenes, but instead of the open-ended action of normal combat, the player gets shoehorned into performing super specific actions. Consequently, I found most of the boss fights to be pretty ho-hum; either a bit boring or tedious, or both. The final boss fight of the game was really spectacular though, an appropriately climatic battle packed with a well-earned emotional punch.
In addition to regular combat, Spider-Man PS4 includes stealth segments which I very much enjoyed. They definitely feel very similar to the Batman Arkham games, right down to silently snatching up foes or stomping down on them from above. But something about sneaking around with Spidey’s abilities feels especially satisfying. As it turns out, when you have spider powers and web traps, stealth gameplay like this is shockingly appropriate.
There are few times in the game where the player takes control of a character other than Peter Parker. These sequences are usually all sneaking, but without Spider-Man’s powers or arsenal of web gadgets. I could see some portion of the player base being upset that they have to spend any time playing as Mary Jane at all, but I honestly always enjoyed these parts immensely. Some of the appeal there probably comes from the fact that Mary Jane, like almost every other character in this game, is incredibly well-realized.
Another element that players might scoff at is the puzzle-solving segments, which come in a few different flavors. These puzzle bits are kind of the opposite of the high-octane action of web-slinging or Spidey’s acrobatic fisticuffs, but they do a great job of slowing down the intensity and giving the player a bit a breather. They are also completely skippable, so if you’re just not feeling it, you can jump to the next part. (You lazy piece of….)
To my complete surprise, the story and characterization in Spider-Man PS4 are probably its strongest attributes. The whole cast of Spider-Man characters are so compelling and fully fleshed out here, so real—both in their visual looks and emotional authenticity—that these just might be my favorite takes on them to date. (Coincidently, the other contender for “best version of Spider-Man ever” came out just a few months after this game, the animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.) This Peter Parker, this Mary Jane Watson, and this Otto Octavius (in particular), are so good, they feel like the new definitive versions of the characters. Peter and MJ’s relationship is especially well-written and relatable.
It’s too bad they kind of messed up JJ though. For some reason, J. Jonah Jameson, the brash Daily Bugle editor, is an Alex Jones-type rightwing conspiracy nut in this game. That’s not just patently uncool, it feels somewhat like a betrayal of the character. JJ is supposed to be stingy, demanding, and overly suspicious of Spider-Man, but he’s also supposed to be a progressive muckraker, a dyed in the wool print journalist. (Rumor has it that JJ was actually based on Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee himself.) So, in my opinion, even having him adopt the style of far-right talk radio personalities—merely as a gag—is in poor taste. It also don’t help that his radio broadcasts simply aren’t ever funny. Luckily this is just one misstep in an otherwise stellar cast of characters.
Speaking of things the game gets wrong—and I’m definitely not the first person to point this one out but—Spider-Man’s relation with the police department is uncomfortably close and collaborative. Early on in the game he even helps the cops set up surveillance towers for some straight-up Orwellian violations of privacy. This seems very much at odds with Peter Parker’s character. I mean, sure, I understand if a young man raised in a post-9/11 world might feel some affinity towards New York’s emergency services, and he does have at least one trusted friend working on the force. But it still seems weird that he would be so willing to expand law enforcement’s electronic surveillance capabilities when their policies (stop-and-frisk for example) are known to disproportionately target people of color. Since is when is Peter so oblivious?
Some players might point out that the surveillance tower thing is just a common trope in open-world games, a way to incentive you to unlock the world map incrementally. And yeah, I understand that. But it’s not the mechanic that I have a problem with, it’s the narrative impetus for the player’s actions. This part of story feels completely tone-deaf. Police brutality is a real thing that actual people continue to live through right now. And yet Peter not only helps them expand the police’s reach, he jokes about becoming “Spider-Cop”? Yeesh…not a good look.
Later on in the game, when the Sable soldiers appear—Blackwater-style mercenaries hired by the clearly villainous Norman Osborne to be his private army—and start imposing martial law in Manhattan, Spider-Man suddenly shows the appropriate level of revulsion. He accurately identifies the Sable agents as fascist foot soldiers and begins working against them to preserve the freedom of the citizens of New York. It’s a little mind-boggling that Peter could be so friendly with the NYPD, and then suddenly so opposed to Sable, when the similarities between the organizations outweigh their differences.
And while I’m on the topic of vaguely political things that bothered me in this game, here’s one more. After a prison riot and breakout, inmates escape into Manhattan and a new kind of event is unlocked: Prisoner Crimes. The audience is apparently just supposed to take it for granted that all of the escaped prisoners are definitely guilty of violent crimes and should be considered dangerous. But just like with the NYPD collaboration, the underlying premise here makes me uneasy.
Mass incarceration is huge problem in this country; we clearly shouldn’t have nearly as many people imprisoned as we currently do. So I find the idea of rounding up escaped convicts and throwing them back into a cell is utterly unappealing. At least in the case of these prisoners, the game goes well out of its way to show the escapees as a clear and imminent threat to the public. I mean, they do immediately acquire heavy weaponry and start taking over whole city blocks, all the while remaining easily identifiable in their orange jumpsuits. Ultimately though, it just feels out of touch to turn convicts into disposable game enemies when, in real life, our country has such an overwhelming and intractable problem with an unjust prison industrial complex. How about we don’t reinforce this particular stigma, huh?
Hey, you know what’s fun though? Alternate costumes! And this game has a ton of them. As a longtime Spidey fan, I was very pleased that the game starts you off wearing the classic—and let’s be honest, just plain perfect—Spider-Man suit we all know and love. After it gets damaged in combat, and Otto Octavius lends a hand mending it, you get the Advanced Suit, the white-accented costume made specifically for the game. And I have to say, maybe it’s just the athletic touches like the knuckle reinforcements or the running sneaker elements included in the boots, but I found myself always sticking with this default look, even as I unlocked one badass suit after another.
Pretty much every suit Insomniac included in this game looks incredible and is painstakingly faithful to the source material. Want to sport the current movie suit that Tom Holland has worn in the MCU films? It’s in there. Want to relive your Spider-Man 2 memories with the shiny webbed suit from Sam Rami’s trilogy? Yep, that’s in there too. Ben Riley’s Scarlet Spider? Check. Spider-Man 2099? Check. Spider-Man Noir? Check. The Iron Spider suit from Civil War? Well, do you mean “Civil War” the comic or the movie? Haha, just kidding—they’re both in there. (Although one of them is DLC.)
As soon as a suit is unlocked you can sport that look for basically the whole rest of the game, cutscenes and all, providing a nice level of customization. While I’ve used the Advance suit the most, the single best costume in the game has to be the Vintage suit. It’s essentially the classic Spider-Man suit, but cell-shaded to look like it just jumped off of the pages of a comic book. This style really stand out again the hyper realistic look of the rest of the game, which is a tad jarring. But it’s also just so damn cool that you won’t care.
With great super suits come great photographability, and this game overdelivers in that department as well. Pause the game at any time and you can switch over to Photo Mode. There you can move the camera around a snap pictures to your hearts content. There’s a selfie toggle too, so you can make Peter pose for the camera, even if he’s free falling or mid-thwip while web-slinging. Additionally, you can impose a variety of frames and stickers, potentially giving your in-game glamour shots a playful purikura vibe.
To wrap up, Marvel’s Spider-Man for PS4 is a triumph. Without a doubt, this is a super-powered adventure well worth playing, especially if you’re a fan of the wall crawler. Web-slinging throughout Manhattan has never felt better, the combat is appropriately fast and acrobatic while still managing to deliver a challenge, and the storytelling and characters presented here are second to none. If you’ve got a PS4 and even the slightest affinity for Spider-Man, you absolutely need to play this game.