Spider-Man feels like one of those series that’s never quite going to get it right — one that always passes the bar for greatness, swings effortlessly around the barrier for excellence, but stops short just a half inch of being 100 percent coherent.
Don’t get me wrong: Games reaching even that point are few and far between, and Insomniac Games’ take on Peter Parker should be applauded from every rooftop in the country for everything it does well. Not a single release since 2004’s “Spider-Man 2” has figured out that playing as the hero should actually be fun.
“Spider-Man 2” can be compared to an extreme sports game, where the movement combos and swinging mechanics are more interesting than the story missions. After starting up the newest “Spider-Man,” which released earlier this month, I decided to try the movement combos from “Spider-Man 2.” To my surprise, they worked just the same as the original — it was a dream come true that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
“Spider-Man” has some issues carving out its own identity amongst the many depictions of Spider-Man’s character. One of the title’s primary collectibles are backpacks that fill in the backstory of this game’s Peter Parker, which makes it somewhat puzzling that most of them also seem to serve as cheeky references to other versions of Spider-Man. Within this distinct universe, the backpacks imply that chunks of the Sam Raimi movies, Stan Lee comics, modern Ultimate comics and even previous Spider-Man games have happened. It leads to a backstory that feels like patchwork and pandering to say the least.
Insomniac is much better at innovating when they’re plotting the story itself. As much as the game’s side content wants to wallow in the past, its main storyline wants to look into the future. J. Jonah Jameson has left the Daily Bugle and now works as a crazed, Alex Jones-style podcaster. Peter and Aunt May are at a surprisingly sympathetic and realistic depiction of a homeless shelter. Mary Jane Watson is an independent and intrepid reporter.
However, the story does have some problems — like nearly every other big-budget game with this level of polish, there is a level of pacing compromise. For example, almost the entire first half of the game is spent introducing the game’s two main villains. In the end, the more interesting of the two — who was invented explicitly for this game — is dropped in favor of a rehashed Doctor Octopus.
With the exception of some quicktime events carried over from the other Spider-Man games, combat never fails to let down. With that in mind, there’s hardly a dull moment in fight sequences. The combat system reminds me of the classic Batman: Arkham mechanics, but it fits better here. Batman always felt a bit awkward jumping from enemy to enemy between punches, but Spider-Man is all about flowing, quick movement. Zipping between enemies who are dozens of yards away from one another every couple of seconds to keep a combo up feels very natural. The system may be Batman’s, but Spider-Man wears it best.
"Zipping between enemies who are dozens of yards away from one another every couple of seconds to keep a combo up feels very natural."
If anyone could accuse this game of stealing anything, it should be of stealing from “Spider-Man 2,” albeit stealing poorly. As janky as the combat and story were in “Spider-Man 2,” its web-swinging was handled deftly. You had to press one button to start swinging, another to control your speed while swinging, a third to release the swing and a fourth if you wanted to swing again. Now you just press one button to zip somewhere, another to boost, and you’re launched down a full city block. With a complex and modular system, getting anywhere in “Spider-Man 2” took skill — that’s why it made sense to have timed acrobatic challenges right from the start. I suspect that’s why similar challenges in the new game are not unlocked until much later.
I fear this review is becoming scattered. I’ve accused the game of stealing too much, not stealing enough, not stealing well enough, wallowing in its past, not living up to its past, etc. I prefer to evaluate a game on its own merits, and Insomniac’s “Spider-Man” has more than enough to recommend it. It is a good game. Arguably it’s even great. It’s clever, it’s fun and it’s definitely one of the best games to play on PS4.
Still, I can’t help but think it brings some of the comparisons on itself. Maybe there’s a lesson about artistic ambition in all of this. If your own universe sets itself up as the best example of everything anyone has ever liked about Spider-Man, then don’t be surprised when that universe falls a little flat.
Final Grade: A-
Marty Forbeck is the Daily Cardinal's video games columnist. To read more of his work, click here.