One day, probably one not unlike this, peanut butter and chocolate were as separate as a good Spider-Man game and what we were given. The world couldn’t embrace both flavors at once without the arduous contortionist lifestyle. Lo and behold, the day came when peanut butter and chocolate conjoined to ascend into a favorite the world over and a lovely child tranquilizer. Bonus!
With that same odd benefit, Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4 is indeed a game considered far and wide as the coming out party for quality on every front. Batman has invited Spider-Man into the VIP section, at last. Superhero games finally have another mascot of bar-setters.
To be sure, the Arkham series must’ve been an inspiration for the entire approach to the game and your New York playground. The differences between Asylum and City highlight different areas of Batman’s mobility, servicing in the name of the character as opposed to just jamming action figures into a diorama. Spider-Man 2, which was the gold-standard swinger before this jacuzzi party came along, showcased Peter Parker’s ability to move through New York with fluidity, but that other side was missing.
Enter Spider-Man for the PlayStation 4 and the subtle side of the spider. We’ve seen plenty of attempts of pretty goods (and worse) that swept their forearm across the counter for story elements and Spider-verse enemies. The main problem with them was how many flavors just clashed or made lip-service to deeper story lines. Maximum Carnage worked because it followed one storyline. So did Spider-Man 2. That’s…about it.
Insomniac Games cleared the dance floor first, sweeping out established storylines and character tropes to give a fresh, energetic infusion to the lore. Peter is a slightly older, slightly more seasoned web-slinger that’s taken out a lot of baddies by this time. His relationships have come of age with Mary Jane, Mayor Osborn, and your contact at the police station. Putrid history has had time to curd between he and his murderers row, both sides having to upgrade multiple times to battle effectively at this point. New York City is still a dangerous place but now there’s a sense of accumulated history to fill out the foundation.
The actor behind Peter lends that energy I spoke of the most. His is a kinetic performance that reads his lines slightly faster to match the character’s go-go-go lifestyle. The contrast is wonderful, then, when he is slowed down by a touching scene with Aunt May or a hard-wall conversation with Mary Jane. His line delivery even changes as he’s swinging to accentuate his effort and frankly other-wordly focus. Some people can’t even stir coffee and text at once and this guy’s swinging, ducking, talking, and eating a pizza. Damn New Yorker.
Pretty much every character in Spider-Man hits the same bar of quality while retaining their own characteristics. Mary Jane has been remade into a journalist that’s unafraid of the job’s dangers, Aunt May is a warm-hearted community healer, and even the villains have hammered and cooled traits. You’ll not see two characters acting the same way nor could you imagine their lines coming from another’s mouth. Everyone’s lines are neatly drawn.
This benefits the story greatly and helps it rise further than the context should allow. Spider-Man does bring about some new angles on old faces, but the villainous cast as a whole just doesn’t have time to shine. The first two-and-a-half acts seem to be running with the story to a different, more focused conclucion until a left turn brings Peter against a much larger opponent. It…works, for the most part. What feels awkward is the pathway to the story they want to tell and how there was likely just too many bodies to cram into a single spotlight.
Without the DLC, the game’s story is entertaining and captivating as it forces Peter to spin more and more plates. Spider-man has always been a vulnerable hero that doesn’t rely too heavily on armor to save his butt, making him feel more like just a regular guy with abilities. That comes across throughout the experience as he tackles tasks large and small, always trying his hardest to squeeze in time for loved ones and strangers alike. He’s the friendliest neighborhood Spider-man we’ve likely ever seen.
While I like the number of side missions, Insomniac just didn’t throw the same weight behind them as they did the main ones. They’re not offensive but it’d also be a stretch to call them fun after the first sampling. Every crime, every traffic stop, every lost pigeon, every battle arena etc. all go the same way with only one of those side activities giving you a surprise at the end. Their slants weirdly slam against the pacing of the city itself as well because there’s always a sudden, terrible emergency about to happen that no one’s privy to.
In one string, there are some pods for scientific research on top of various buildings that one of Peter’s friends has asked him to look after. You go there, scan, and suddenly EMERGENCY! The challenges are relatively fine, usually just having you swing across an area to touch checkpoints, but there’s just an unusual lack of context for them. In Arkham City, you heard the scream of someone being killed by Zsasz or were approached by the Hatter’s minions to initiate something sideways happening inside the city. That’s just absent here until every generation of people since the birth of Christ is in danger thanks to one easily-noticeable problem.
Spider-Man does put Arkham to shame in the key aspect of movement. Never before has Spidey felt to malleable and reactive to the environment around him. Skimming between fire escapes and launching from bending flagpoles is a theme-park joy. I had to remind myself to take the subway to witness it because of how entracing swinging from skyscrapers feels. Especially with upgrades, no distance ever feels too far as Peter has so many tools available to keep his amazingly-realized sense of momentum at its peak.
Combat is a full plate. Again, you have a crapload of moves to take on a variety of opponents that may require some special attention (removing shields etc.). The variety of types is nice even if the enemies feel a little same-y after a while, and they keep you fluent in the entire repertoire Spider-Man has at his fingertips. Here again do the animations shine as his impossible flexibility and spider sense create an amazing visual experience for those watching. The speed is also insane for movements and counters, making entire mobs feel like an enemy or two early on.
As this is an attack-counter system, enemy balancing usually comes in one of two ways: tough or numerous. Insomniac actually did both as the fights themselves sometimes have upended pacing between, say, a troupe of rocket launchers backing up a big boy running at you. At times, it can feel like poetry in motion, attacking to punctuation as a typewriter would a fake driver’s license.
I do feel as though the large muscle dudes interrupt that flow continually through the game. Everyone else follows the same rules about attacking, pausing, and countering except for them. If you dodge a normal attacker, he has a recovery period that you’d expect of the larger guy throwing haymakers. Instead, the larger fists will keep on swinging, making Spider-Man either a knuckle sandwich recipient or a mouse when the kitchen light turns on. Their pacing just never quite felt in sync with the other enemies in a noticable and hurtful (to Spidey) way.
Upgrades take to Peter’s gadgets and abilities pretty well thanks to some intelligent design. The trees themselves are standard as hell but you’ll always feel like you’re making ground at the same pace as the adversaries. The various suits mostly come with various supers that can do everything from make you temporarily invulnerable to pasting the immediate vicinity with spider goop. I found myself treasuring them more for their visual flair as nothing really seemed to top Web Blossom as far as usefulness goes.
Speaking of useless-ass things, let’s talk about that Spider-Man DLC. You know who’s useless in all three acts? Spider-Man himself. Every 5 spider minutes, he’s tricked, conned, or otherwise lured into a death trap that he’s just so darn sure is going to turn for the best. All three acts – 5-8 hours of Peter Parker’s betrayal face – feel completely dampened by this one conceit. I wouldn’t mind if he was originally taken aback or if these people had ever once proven trustworthy before, but for the love of Venom, Peter must own 15 timeshares by now.
The story itself isn’t exactly sparkling either with additional fight arenas and enemies that don’t live up to the rest of the game. DLC is extra and side-mission-y, I get it, and I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem with the quality of everything never really reaching the baseline that the main game seems to set in its sleep.
The city that never sees any peace is beautiful with its chaotic symphony in Spider-Man. There’s no doubt the love of lifetimes poured into this single superhero package, finally bringing back an old hero in style. I have some gripes that hold it back from swinging out of this world but that doesn’t mean I regret a single moment of sliding, swinging Spider-Man…sails. I ran out of S words, leave me alone!