Have you ever wanted to swing and glide through New York City, scuttling up and down skyscrapers and stopping only to beat up bad guys? If you answered yes, then you’re going to want to get your hands on Insomniac’s new Spider-Man game on PS4. It captures the amazing feel of being a superhero with an entire city as your playground.
The gameplay is broken into two quite distinct styles. The main missions are often a cinematic and scripted experience. Stealth missions in particular are often ‘on rails’, but this serves to build tension at the right moments and deliver a more directed experience. In contrast, much of the game is spent in free roaming mode, where the player is free to explore the city, by swinging effortlessly from building to building.
The free roaming section shares some similarities with the Assassin’s Creed series. For example, missions in a particular area are unlocked by scaling a tall building and deciphering a signal tower by matching its radio frequency. Once a tower is unlocked, different varieties of missions will appear all over the map in that area, and can be completed at the player’s leisure.
You’ll likely want to spend a lot of time free roaming, both because it’s fun, and it’s actually quite relaxing once you get into the swing of it (I’m sorry!). The game does provide a fast travel option but I never found myself using it because it’s just more enjoyable to make your way to your destination in leaps and bounds. This area of the game really excels in capturing the larger than life feel of being Spider-Man!
There’s three levels of combat difficulty – Friendly, Amazing and Spectacular. I like a balanced experience so I went with Amazing. At this combat level, the enemies didn’t feel too challenging. If I stopped paying attention, I’d die quite fast, but as long as I was focused, I had enough tricks up my sleeve to dispense justice. The game introduces a few different enemy types and often sprinkles more than one type into each scenario, which forces you to pay attention and adjust your fighting style to suit your opponent (and not just spam the punch button, as I’m sometimes guilty of!).
You can upgrade your fighting prowess with various gadgets, suit upgrades and moves as you level up. I discovered early on that one particular suit upgrade, the Spider-Bro, is very overpowered and a bit game breaking. It’s a suit ability that unleashes a robot sidekick who electrifies enemies. Whip him out in a small time gang fight on a street corner and you’ll be surrounded by unconscious bodies before you can say “My spider sense is tingling!”. Like all suit abilities, he does have quite a long cooldown period which means the longer, wave based combat remains challenging but I still found myself intentionally not using him at times so I could have some fun beating up bad guys on my own.
The game cleverly assigns bonus challenges during all fights, even random street encounters, which encourages you to use different tools in your arsenal. I find that once I have a fighting style that’s working for me, I often forget to mix things up with newly unlocked moves, so I appreciated the reminder to try other styles.
Suit powers, healing and finishing moves all use focus, which accumulate as you assault enemies. The finishing moves switch to a cinematic camera angle as Spidey takes down an assailant with smooth finesse. I think it’s a shame that finishing moves use focus, as I’d sometimes find myself choosing not to do them so I could save enough focus for healing. When I would use them, it would put me right in that role of a slick superhero and make me feel so powerful, so it was hard resisting the urge to use them more often.
The boss fights are a bit repetitive, but they don’t overstay their welcome, usually lasting for 2-3 rounds with save points in between each round (thank you Insomniac!).
Stealth as Spider-Man is fun but also gets a little repetitive. There’s very limited options for attacking via stealth mode without exposing yourself, so it wears a bit thin when you’re zip webbing the fifth bad guy in a row. I eventually found a stealth balance, which was to sneak around the outside and take out all the snipers, and then leap into the middle and melee everyone else.
The boss fight and stealth elements of the combat are really sugar on a fantastically designed combat system, and in a game that is trying and succeeding to do a lot, so the minor shortfalls don’t take away much from the overall experience.
The main story is quite a standard, superhero, good versus evil narrative, but it does have a few twists and turns that will likely shock you and draw you into the narrative. The characters feel well written, believable for the genre and likeable.
There are times in the main plotline where you play civilians such as fan favourite Mary Jane. I found these parts of the game the most intense and gripping because, after playing the ultra agile and hyper powerful Spider-Man, the fragility I felt playing a normal person was palpable. The stealth sections had me holding my breath with tension, as there was no way of fighting my way out if I was caught. It was an inspired move by Insomniac to add these sections as it makes playing Spider-Man feel all the more special in comparison. When your ability to leap and fight returns, you feel the full freedom of your supernatural skills.
When you want to take a break from the main story, there are quite a few categories of side missions available that will take you all over the city. Some of the more interesting ones are taking photos of famous landmarks, collecting backpacks stuffed with various nostalgic items, and completing science missions, which usually involves swinging through foul smelling clouds of gas.
One nice touch that Insomniac added is to display a glowing column of coloured light from the mission location. As someone who has in the past spent far too much time trying to find the exact mission spots on a minimap with no z index, I really appreciated being able to spend less time hunting for objectives and more time playing the game.
It can be a challenge to integrate side missions into the world and the story but Spider-Man doesn’t get lazy with this. Back stories for why missions exist, although sometimes a bit far fetched, are always explained. Occasionally your actions in side missions will be mentioned on the Daily Bugle radio station, which makes you feel like you’re in a living, breathing world that you can influence.
In similar games, I’ve found side missions to be a bit of a chore. Something I have to complete to level up, or to feel a sense of achievement, but not inherently fun in themselves. I haven’t had this same feeling in Spider-Man. The main story is engaging but I often find myself reluctant to return to it because I’m having so much fun swinging around the city, catching pigeons or collecting gas. Insomniac have clearly put a lot of love into the side missions, in particular the science missions. Each of these feels unique and with a new gameplay challenge, not just the same mission with a ramped up difficulty.
Insomniac have delivered a fantastic superhero experience that doesn’t quickly wear thin. Both the main and side missions are engaging and fun, and I loved being able to switch from the cinematic experience, to the free roaming. The combat is varied and interesting, growing in potential complexity as you level up. The story is solid and will easily keep you hooked throughout the roughly 20 hours playtime. I think that both longtime Spider-Man fans, and anyone who enjoys the superhero genre and wants to try out being one, will love this game.
Marvel’s Spider-Man is available September 7th on PS4