Early in Marvel’s Spider-Man for Sony PlayStation 4, the traditional Spider-Man suit gets totally trashed. Enter that flashy new White Spider costume we see in the game’s marketing. In a heavyhanded way, that suit stands for everything this game does for the character of Spider-Man and more: cool and unique, but also totally familiar.
The easiest way to describe Spider-Man for the Sony PlayStation 4 would be to say that Insomniac Games applied the wildly successful Batman Arkham game model to Spidey. But whereas the Arkham games were a tight trilogy contained to the world of the Dark Knight, Spider-Man’s New York City seemingly endeavors to build a new kind of cinematic universe. And this one has nothing to do with the MCU.
Spider-Man might not feel quite as polished or near-perfect as Arkham City, but tons of gamers will prefer this world with its brightly lit environments and Spidey’s delightful sense of humor. Batman has its edgy stories, but Spider-Man for PS4 serves as a welcome reminder that superhero video games can tell a compelling story that’s also incredibly fun.
So much of this game’s experiences will feel familiar to fans of the webslinger, doubly so if they’re also fans of the Batman Arkham games. The combat is fluid and reaction-oriented. The sneak mechanics involve stringing up the bad guys from the rafters. Virtually all of the side missions involve various kinds of collectibles.
But whereas Batman’s world is full of nothing but ridiculously swole characters, everyone in this version of New York City is totally wholesome and endearing. When Spider-Man deviates from Marvel canon, the story strikes us as even more interesting.
Light spoilers follow for Marvel’s Spider-Man on Sony PlayStation 4.
We’ve seen perhaps too many iterations of Spider-Man over the past 20 years between big-screen reboots and all manner of cartoons, with this being the fourth version of Peter Parker to really break into the mainstream. So it’s a stroke of brilliance that we pick up with Peter Parker eight years into his crimefighting career. He’s a veteran superhero, but he’s still very much so a millennial “kid” struggling to make rent. The last time we saw a Spider-Man anything even remotely close to this outside of comics and video games was more than 20 years ago with the ‘90s animated series.
Tom Holland’s overeager MCU Spider-Man has his suits and gadgets for the most part made for him by Tony Stark. He’s young and inexperienced, looking at the world with a sense of wonder. This is not that kind of Peter Parker, who at 23-years-old works full-time in a laboratory. He’s passionate about saving the world by developing new technology — but he’s still late for every appointment, engagement, and rent check.
I’m struck by an early scene in Spider-Man set in Peter’s small apartment. An overdue rent bill slides under the door. He sniffs a stinky Spider-Man suit and sort of shrugs it off. He has to wear something, right?
An entire string of side quests sends players hunting around the city for 55 backpacks that Peter abandoned during high school, having pinned them to some dark corner or rooftop so he could go and fight crime. These collectibles make for some of the game’s best world-building Easter eggs, but they also demonstrate that even though this version of Peter Parker is a bit more mature he still does not have his shit together.
So even with a veteran Spider-Man, the character still has so much room to grow in this universe. Several of his greatest villains haven’t emerged just yet, or they make their first appearance in this game. Various Easter eggs hint at the existence of other Marvel characters. Avengers Tower, the Sanctum Sanctorum, Alias Investigations, and the Wakandan Embassy all make you wonder how many other games could take place in this world.
Excellent voice acting all-around helps enhance Peter Parker’s charm in and out of the costume. Spider-Man’s story can get dramatic at times, but it never borders on too dour, even when Peter has his usual issues as a kid struggling to get by and as a solo superhero.
Even when a player might need to get from the Financial District to Harlem just to find a measly backpack, swinging through Manhattan has never felt so fun, especially when random crimes pop up en route and you get to really be a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.
This being well into his tenure as Spidey, there’s a lengthy amount of implied canonical backstory. MJ already knows about Peter’s double-life, and when the game starts, they’re not talking after a breakup that happened months ago. Similarly, Spider-Man already has a rapport with many of the city’s villains and citizens, including J. Jonah Jameson, who spends his days screaming over the radio about Spider-Man’s bad deeds. Spider-Man is also BFFs with Captain Yuri Watanabe of the NYPD. Their chatter over the radio and/or cell phone throughout the game is a total delight.
The major opening mission of Spider-Man has the webcrawler take down Wilson Fisk alongside the NYPD. The power vacuum created by the big guy’s absence leads to the rise of a new magical gang called the Demons, led by Mister Negative. Most of the game takes place over the days following Fisk’s arrest as this gang emerges. Spider-Man contends with the ensuing gang war between the two warring factions, and he has to deal with the occasional villain running amok. If players focus on just story missions, the game will take around 20 hours, but there’s a lot more for players to do.
The game’s story focuses just as much on Peter’s friends as it does him, and Spider-Man does some particularly interesting and unprecedented things with Miles Morales.
Without spoiling too much, Morales starts the game as a total Spider-Man fanboy, but where he goes in the story is totally respectful of his comic origins while also reinventing a refreshing new canon just for PS4. Will he one day fulfill his destiny as a second Spider-Man? This is the kind of fanboy question the game wants us to ask.
Another wonderful area in the game’s story is the total reinvention of Mary Jane Watson. The gorgeous model and actress has been replaced by a whipsmart investigative journalist. This version of MJ might feel like a radical departure from traditional canon, but she’s drawn as a much more interesting character. Even when Spidey saves her, she never comes across as a damsel in distress.
In this and other ways, Spider-Man endeavors to establish a totally new canon for Peter Parker’s world, one we can read apart from anything Marvel does at the box office. It tells a unique story that’ll surprise even diehard fans of the character while still being totally within the spirit of the character.
As a huge fan of the superhero, one that’s always wanted a game like this, I can say that there’s very little to complain about in Spider-Man. Even when the combat might inch towards repetitive, the missions and side quests offer up enough variability to keep everything interesting, especially as players unlock new gadgets and abilities. Completionists will delight in the many collectibles and side quests, but players that just want a story can opt to pursue that as well.
We’re so used to dark, serious, and often melodramatic gaming experiences. God of War is one of the best games of 2018, but it’s one that weighs heavily from all the gravitas and gore. There is no room for laughter or joy when Kratos rips an undead human in half from neck to loins. But in the bloodless world of Spider-Man, Insomniac has built a new cinematic universe for Marvel in video game form, one that could go in so many exciting directions in the future.
Will there be more Spider-Man games? We certainly hope so, but we might get something so much more in the near future.
Spider-Man swings onto PlayStation 4 on September 7, 2018.