Review: Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4)

An Amazing storyline with Spectacular moments, caught in a Web of uninspired combat.

** SPOILERS BELOW – SOME MINOR, NONE MAJOR – MOST REVOLVE AROUND ASPECTS THAT DEVELOP EARLY IN THE FIRST ACT AND SOME THAT HAVE BEEN SAID ELSEWHERE (CHARACTER RELATIONS/ORIGINS) – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED **

Growing up in the late 80’s and into the 90’s with comic books such as The Amazing Spider-Man, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man and so on, I knew being Peter Parker, as well as Spider-Man, was no easy feat. With Insomniac Games’ first foray into superhero games development, Marvel’s Spider-Man goes out of its way to reinforce the aforementioned notion, between its absolutely fantastic, memorable, and well written story, to its entertaining though relevant side missions. What the game taught me that the comics did not however, was how lackluster tackling¬† baddies could be.

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Superhero games throughout the years have dealt with flimsy storytelling and non-existent narratives (Silver Surfer), though occasionally the gameplay would be commendable (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). When the Arkham series of Batman titles were revealed however, this all changed. The story in those games, as well as the voice acting, would accentuate the experience to such a degree, that it felt like either a comic book tale, or a Hollywood blockbuster film dream come true. On top of that, the gameplay was fluid, and filled with augmentations here and there as time went on.

Marvel’s Spider-Man (MSM) takes what could arguably be Marvel’s franchise player, and gives him the that Super Bowl quality story that Marvel games have been lacking for many years.

As mentioned, I grew up reading Spider-Man comics, though I had stopped reading them about the time Onslaught killed the Marvel Universe or something to that nature, rebooting the entire lot of comics. I knew of the Ultimate universe, but my knowledge of said world was just understanding that it existed, and was its own stand alone universe. With MSM, there’s a few kinks thrown into what I grew up with and knew about, some that had me scratching my head, and some that were told so well, that it almost made me forget what I grew up knowing.

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The crux of the campaign bounces between and through four centerpieces – Wilson Fisk (the Kingpin), Norman Osborn, Martin Li (Mister Negative, someone I was first introduced to thanks to this game) and Dr. Otto Octavius (Dr. Octopus), with a few cameos thrown in for good measure. All four become intertwined in some fashion as the game unfolds, and players will definitely run the gamut of emotions when learning about each one of these centerpieces.

Two of these four figures, Norman Osborn and Otto Octavius, are two Spidey antagonists I grew up reading about (Kingpin would be featured more in the Punisher and Daredevil than the Spider-Man comics I read). While Norman Osborn became the Green Goblin and died after he had a hand at killing Peter Parker’s then-girlfriend Gwen Stacy years before I was born, Otto Octavius became Dr. Octopus, the leader of the Sinister Six, and one of Spidey’s most fearsome foes (who also “died” before I stopped reading comics, and then became a woman, then apparently was resurrected, but I digress). Insomniac takes these two staples of Spider-Man mythos, and turns them on their heads, as well as a few other pieces of Spider-Man lore, crafting a tale that breaks any established canon that I’ve known and loved. Most of these changes however, manage to freshen up the tired and true formula, and develop emotions and thoughts towards certain figures that were never present previously.

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Peter Parker left his job at the Daily Bugle to help Dr. Octavius with groundbreaking research. J. Jonah Jameson retired from his position at the Bugle and is now doing podcasts that, of course, still finds a way to attack Spider-Man on a daily basis. Mary Jane Watson went from being an actress in the comics and movies, to being a photojournalist with the Daily Bugle. Norman Osborn is — get this — mayor of New York City. Aunt May works at a shelter run by Martin Li. We even get introduced to Miles Morales, of whom I’ve known very little of, outside becoming Spider-Man in the Ultimate universe, and he is easily one of the most likeable figures in MSM, appearance brevity notwithstanding.

It’s Otto Octavius though, that stole the show for me. Insomniac developed a bond between him and Peter throughout most of the first two acts of the story that makes you genuinely like Otto, and even feel for him during some particularly pressing moments. Peter is there, though usually tardy, through the successes, and hardships that Otto faces. While I won’t go as far as to say there’s almost a father/son kinship, there’s a bond between them that rivals Peter and May in MSM, and it did nothing but compel me to bond with Otto. While the path does take an obvious destination, the route there has a profound meaning, and it actually feels a bit painful to see come to fruition. There’s a gamut of emotions, from the players first encounter to Otto, to the final moments of the game, and it all developed and unfolded so naturally and commendably. The final 10 minutes of MSM elicited emotions out of me that I’ve rarely experienced with a video game, and have no doubt left an indelible mark, thanks to the rollercoaster of emotions during the closing minutes, as well as mid and post credits.

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And this is MSM‘s biggest strength – a main storyline that’s fascinating to follow, conjures emotions that you wouldn’t expect a superhero video game to evoke, and keeps you completely invested in. It’s easily one of the top five video game storylines I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing unfold. I haven’t even go on about how this might be my single favorite Peter Parker/Spider-Man combo in any form of media outside of comics. Peter is the brilliant bookworm who is an asset to Otto, who looks up to him, all the while keeping the appropriate amount of snark during his time as Spider-Man, as well as juggling responsibilities and such. It takes the best of Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker, and the perfectly sarcastic wit of Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man, and combines them into what feels like the perfect Spi–

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….god dammit!

Nonetheless, Insomniac gives you plenty of reason to care for each character in MSM. Even the side missions, though to a lessened extent, have a charm and gives players reasons to be invested and see it through to the end. Some provide notable cameos as well, either in a side story or one of the many side activities, and unlike Batman Arkham City (this won’t be the last I mention an Arkham title), these cameos don’t feel like they were shoehorned in for the sake of expanding the number of antagonists.

When it comes to those side stories and such, there’s a lot of them to see and do in New York Ci–

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Err, maybe they just misplaced the Q train that should be on 93rd/94th st. and 2nd aven–

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….this isn’t New York City.

This will be a minor nitpick in the grand scheme, but one that New Yorkers both past a present will feel somewhat disappointed with. This is more New Faux City than New York City, with whole blocks and avenues mysteriously missing, traffic not always going the way it should, avenues completely out of order (how is York Avenue after Park Avenue, several blocks further west than it really is?). The block I grew up on is no where to be found, the area where my job is located is not present, the place in Central Park that I go to see the duckies doesn’t exist here.

For myself, the immersion was completely disrupted by how haphazardly Insomniac created New Faux City. On the other hand, anyone who has never been here, or has seldom spent time in this borough, won’t see any reason to be displeased, as there’s still a massive chunk of game world to traverse. While there have been games that did a much better job constructing New York City in regards to accuracy, none have ever been as gorgeous as MSM‘s NFC.

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Once I regained my equilibrium, I fell in love with this faker of a city and the life it had. Vehicular traffic moving through the city streets, large pockets of pedestrians strewn throughout each block, a myriad of sights to behold from street level or up above. The number of activities Spidey can partake in increases steadily throughout the first two acts. Some are rather entertaining (the Challenge missions, especially when they are all completed), while other are….odd, to say the least (chasing down pigeons). Each act changes the flow as well, to a degree that I refuse to spoil. While not faithful whatsoever to the city I’ve lived 90% of my entire life in, it’s still teeming with places to go, and brilliant artwork abound, whether it’s the graffiti or the game its self.

Speaking of looks, MSM is stunning. Character models and facial animations for the primary protagonists and antagonists are done with such quality. It might not be Yakuza or Uncharted caliber, but it does the game and the experience justice. Peter’s eyes didn’t fit his model well, but everyone else, from Martin Li, to Mary Jane Watson, looked the part. You can easily read emotions off their facial animations at any given time during any scene.

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The attention to detail throughout MSM is staggering. Between the most elementary portions, such as graffiti on rooftops, playgrounds, the way sidewalks are detail and so on, Insomniac went above and beyond to help give this NFC a distinct identity. Even one of the many interior locations have been crafted with such care and attention to detail. It helps drive the narrative forward, and further immerses players deep into MSM‘s world.

The vocal performance in MSM, hell the audio as a whole rivals most every Spider-Man movie that has been released, sans Homecoming. The cast deliver a performance that even the simpleton thugs and clueless officers sound fitting. The emotion given by key characters helps players further feel for them, or despise them even more so. The music peppered throughout the game fits the mood well, and feel a bit like something you’d hear from an MCU flick — definitely a box office smash composition. Hearing the music cue up when Spidey begins to swing through the city always put a smile on my face. I especially loved the J. Jonah Jameson podcast that would play between “missions”. It comes off as some wacked out and biased reporting that I’d hear from Fox News at any given moment, though this is a lot more humorous trying to hear Jameson pin anything and everything on Spidey than it is to hear anything from that channel.

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Where MSM will set off your spider senses is with the gameplay as a whole. The combat is very similar to the Arkham line of games, where melee attacks can be landed and chained from one adversary to another, with the dodges being Spidey’s “spider senses” helping you evade an attack. This system works overall with the nuances and gadgets that Spider-Man possesses. Where Arkham has the fluidity and style, MSM feels a bit lackluster. There are a plethora of Spidey gadgets that add a bit of spice and flair to the gameplay, such as the web bomb and impact web, but in the end not only does it all pale against the Arkham line, but as a standalone experience, it’s nothing spectacular. There’s little to no diversity in regular hand to hand attack animations, and a small handful of special attack variations, many of which lack that “oomph” and weight to the blows.

With 90% of the battles revolving around thugs with the same number of variations as Spidey’s attacks, things quickly dissolve into a repetitious treadmill of X amount of “faceless” thugs, into another set of “faceless” thugs emerging from the proverbial clown car. Not even unlocking new Spider-Man costumes (which 95% of them contain a timed “power” that can be used during battle, which admittedly can change how certain battles play out, to a degree) or upgrading web skills can offset the fact that it’s Arkham-lite combat in the end. While there are a modest number of encounters that either rely upon stealth movements and takedowns, or even outright require it, the deviation from the norm doesn’t completely mask the plain Jane face that is MSM‘s gameplay. In fact, it’s actually more fulfilling and gripping to try and rely upon stealth takedowns for each battle, and does add a lot more enjoyment to what I’d consider a bit of a mediocre gameplay setup.

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The odd thing about the gameplay though — I still found myself seeking out every fight I possibly could. I’ve been known to endure the most repetitious things for hours on end, and find some joy with it. As limited as things feel, it can still be invigorating taking down a dozen henchmen in nimble style, spinning away from machine gun blasts and turning around to web throw a rocket back at the masked men that fired them towards Spidey. Even if a majority of the blows lack that power behind them, and regardless of how limited the attack animations are, there’s still a sense of thrill and savagery when it comes to taking out a group of baddies. I just wish there was more diversity behind them.

Traversing New Faux City though, that’s as sublime as it gets. My first couple of hours, between discovering mislabeled streets and missing city blocks, I was swinging around the rooftops, launching myself forward and tumbling about through the concrete jungle, completely satisfied with how Spidey controlled. It never got tiresome, and every so often, even after I’ve beaten the game, I’ve come across some sensational sights that had me grinning from ear to ear. The parkour system helps further plant players feet into the shoes of Spider-Man, as holding R2 enables him to jump, toss, tumble and bounce about in a way that feels natural, and expected for such an agile hero.

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Then there are the “nerdy” aspects of MSM‘s gameplay, which is based off of Peter’s scientific studies at Dr. Otto Octavius’ lab. These are mini games that have players trying to connect voltage through a series of player laid conjunctions, being weary of how much voltage is needed and where exactly to connect everything. There’s also another one that has players trying to match the correct line pattern on the right side. These are fun little brain teasers that don’t feel like padding, or activities that feel out of place and boring. A couple of them had me thinking for a good couple of minutes until the obvious flashed in front of my eyes.

Every so often, players will take control of Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson, and even Miles Morales, as they tend to a number of activities. Most of Mary Jane’s gameplay revolves around stealth, and the incredibly small handful for Miles mirrors MJ. It breaks up the pace quite nicely, and other than one MJ portion in the middle of act 2, none of these segments overstay their welcome.

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In spite of the mostly uninspired combat engine, and despite so few boss battles until the third act (though the ones that do occur are brilliantly crafted), MSM‘s kept me engaged and entertained throughout its entirety, and then some. Having a storyline that’s so well written and acted is something you don’t often see in comic book related video games, outside the Arkham franchise of course. There’s potential to make this into a franchise, where maybe the focus of Spidey’s adventures can take a detour to his hometown of Queens, as there’s a sizeable amount of real estate there to work with as well, regardless of whether Insomniac wants to remove whole blocks and mix up avenues. The final act can easily be left open for a follow up, and I’d be devastated if Insomniac didn’t follow through with what could be a brilliant sequel.

The fact that I’m still head over heels in love with MSM and how I can look past the simplicity and lack of dynamics to the gameplay engine, says a lot on how the overall package turned out. I felt so invested throughout, that I got the platinum trophy for it, something that, at my age and as little time I have for these things, I’ll almost never contemplate these days. It’s a testament to how well Insomniac produce this experience.

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While the Arkham titles might have done this type of game infinitely better with regards to combat, MSM manages to match, and perhaps supersede Arkham in a number of other categories. The main story is easily the best I’ve seen a Marvel video game have, hell even one of the most memorable I’ve encountered overall, with voice acting performances that can rival the Arkham series. The final portion of the last act, the mid credits scene and post credits scene were more action packed and emotionally charged than any MCU film I’ve seen, and it’s the most significant reason to invest your time into play through it.

It took me over 40 hours to complete it (I did spend a decent portion of the time just swinging around, taking in the sights), but I can see myself spending some extra time just web swinging my way around the city, until the highly anticipated DLC’s become available. Even with such a stacked holiday release line up, Marvel’s Spider-Man is more than worth its asking price. Just know that the gameplay, while more than functional, is a bit mediocre, and far from groundbreaking, but doesn’t detract from the profound storyline Insomniac Games presents.

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Rating: 8.5

  • Developed: Insomniac Games
  • Published: Sony Interactive Entertainment
  • Release Date: September 7, 2018
  • Platforms: PlayStation 4
  • Genre: Action adventure
  • Players: 1
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